I cannot read the gospel lesson this morning without recalling the time we lost our son – well, the first time anyway. While you might have heard this one before, I have to tell the story again. He was our second child, the one I call the reality check kid who helped us realize that we were not expert parents after all, coming along after a very compliant older daughter. We were living in rural Kansas at the time, and had made our pilgrimage, not to a house of worship, but to the mall in the big city of Wichita, to do our Christmas shopping. We had decided to see a movie at the theatre inside the mall as long as we were there. Now our son, a very active child of about 4 or 5, decided to run to the front of the theatre as soon as the movie was finished. We immediately followed him, yet somehow he managed to slip out the back instead without us seeing him. As you can imagine, we were absolutely frantic when we could not locate him. We went out into the lobby, which was extremely crowded, and began to panic as he was nowhere to be seen. In the midst of our desperation came the voice of our daughter, a few years older than her brother, who mentioned to us that there was a video arcade just opposite the theatre entrance, and maybe he might be there. We decided to check it out and lo and behold, there was our son, standing in the middle of the arcade and mesmerized by the flashing lights of the games, as if it was the most natural thing to do. I remember being torn by the urge to shake the daylights out of him for scaring us so while wanting to hug him and never let him go, so glad we were to find him. I think I settled for a hug and a lecture.
I can’t help but wonder if Mary and Joseph felt the same way on that trip back from the Passover festival in Jerusalem. The family, including “tweenager Jesus” had gone to the big city of Jerusalem for the annual celebration, and when it was over, departed along with several other families back to their hometown. I am assuming it was a fairly large group, with families mingling and conversing as they walked back to Nazareth; the men talking shop, the women gossiping together and the kids hanging out with their friends. It was likely that some were walking quickly ahead, and others were lagging behind, as often happens when large groups move together. But when they stopped for the night, Jesus did not check in with parents. Word begins to circulate among the group, and it dawns on everyone that they don’t remember seeing Jesus at all that day. In fact, he is nowhere in the caravan. I can only imagine the panic in the parents’ hearts as they realize that he is no place to be found. It was the scriptural version of every parents’ nightmare of leaving a child behind at a potty stop on vacation or a biblical version of “Home Alone”.
So as one is apt to do when losing an item of value, they retraced their steps, and took the route back to Jerusalem. And finally, after three days of panicked searching, they found him in the temple, engaged in a lively discussion with the teachers of the synagogue. I would imagine Mary felt the same way I did when I found my son – torn between the impulse to punish him while at the same time being filled with relief and love. I’m not sure which impulse I would have acted on first.
Upon locating him, Mary asks, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” I first found myself wondering how Mary really said it. But then even more importantly, I began to wonder why Mary and Joseph were looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. Why didn’t they go to the temple first? Why did it take them three days to figure out that Jesus might be there, when he so nonchalantly reminded them must be in his Father’s house and about his Father’s business as if there was no other place for him to be?
Maybe it was because things been so blessedly ordinary for so long – for a dozen years, there had been no angels, no shepherds, no scriptural prophesies – I wonder if the mystery surrounding their son’s birth had begun to fade like a dream? Maybe Mary and Joseph were aware of what their son would do and become but figured that was years away. Perhaps Jesus hadn’t shown any signs of theological curiosity and so his parents couldn’t imagine him hanging out in the temple. Or just maybe Mary and Joseph simply failed to see that their baby was growing up.
I wonder if like Mary and Joseph, we cannot or do not want to see that our Jesus is growing up. That Jesus is growing beyond our childhood experience, beyond our simple childhood faith. That Jesus is growing beyond our expectations. Arriving in the temple, Mary saw only her child. She couldn’t or wouldn’t see that Jesus had grown. Eager to be a good mother, always pondering the events that led up to and followed Jesus’ birth, maybe Mary wasn’t ready to “lend” her Jesus to God. Perhaps she just wanted to keep her firstborn close to her. Maybe she simply wanted to delay the symbolic sword that Simeon announced would pierce her own heart as it took the life of her son.
Looking upon the boy Jesus and yet seeing her baby, Mary asks, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” These same questions may face us this week after Christmas, as peace and goodwill fade and Christmas leaves so many of us still wanting, still feeling empty. With Mary, we ask “Why have you treated us like this?” We ask it of ourselves; we ask it of our families. We ask the church and/ we well might ask God, when we face sorrow or disappointment, when our expectations are shattered. We ask it when Christmas becomes a season of depression or loss instead of a continued celebration.
And Jesus answers, “Why were you searching all over for me?” Now, we know where Jesus has gone. He’s about his Father’s business. But maybe we aren’t ready to let go of our expectations and give our Jesus to God. Maybe we are not ready to accept that Jesus did not come to fulfill our expectations. We come to realize that he is not to be found in sentiment for the way things used to be. Jesus is about the future. Jesus was born/ and lived/ and died/ and rose in order to be about God’s business of putting an end to our searching by making plain the way to God, even if that means shattering our expectations.
In the Temple, we notice that Mary expects Jesus to behave a certain way and Jesus expects his mother to know why he isn’t. The problem is that Jesus and his parents have two different understandings of who Jesus’ Father is. Mary tells Jesus that she and his father have been searching anxiously. The message is plain to any child who stays out all night and upon returning home is greeted with a parent’s frantic, “Do you know how worried I was?” But Jesus responds that he’s been in his Father’s house all along, about his Father’s business. Again, I have to wonder just how Jesus said it. Was he surprised or scolding?
Regardless of Jesus’ tone, the tension between Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, Son of God, is heightened. Ultimately, Jesus returns to Nazareth and is obedient to his parents. But it is clear that his priorities have changed. Jesus’ primary concern is no longer the will of his parents, but the will of God and the mission that God’s will entails.
The good news for us in this week after Christmas is that, like Mary and Joseph, our search has ended. Jesus shows us the way to God. The scary part, perhaps, is that our search likely will not end where we expect. Mary and Joseph searched three days for Jesus, and on the third day found him alive and well. But they didn’t find him in the expected places – not in the safe confines of his extended family or the familiar company of the pilgrims’ caravan. After three days, Mary and Joseph found Jesus alive and well in the Temple at Jerusalem among the teachers of the law, the very company where it all will end as Jesus is tried, convicted, and handed over to be killed.
Mary and Joseph find Jesus alive and well after three days in a place they didn’t expect. This sounds like Easter. Yes, I think Luke hints at the resurrection here. Jesus, dead and buried, is raised on the third day, and there is a new temple, Christ’s resurrected body. Our searching too, will come to an end in new life, meaningful life; the life God intends, but perhaps not the life we expect.
But that’s Easter. For now Jesus returns to Nazareth. He disappears back into the fabric of his hometown. For perhaps two more decades Jesus is in an out-of-the way place, far removed from the centers of religion and politics, in the company of ordinary people, just like us. Here Jesus continues to grow “in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” The good news is that this description of Jesus is the description of every child of God, no matter what our age. We all will grow as we respond to God’s love. In Christ we can expect nothing else – nor do we need to. May you go from here to grow in your walk as a child of God. Amen.