Looking for Jesus
December 29, 2013
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.
Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.
It happens the instant a child is born, adopted, or otherwise enters a family: whoever is taking care of that little person develops radar. Whatever you’re doing, if you’re parenting a little one, two questions always operate in the background: (1) “Where is my baby?” and (2) “Is my baby OK?”
Once these questions take hold of you, I don’t think they ever really fall silent, however old your children become. But when you actually have a say about where your munchkin is, those two questions always echo loud and clear.
Still, no matter how vigilant we are during those early years, sometimes the radar fails. Sometimes you lose track of a kid. Sometimes you turn around after two seconds…and they’re just not there. Sometimes you (I) fall prey to the “I thought you had him” syndrome. Sometimes they’re not really lost—they’re hovering just beyond your peripheral vision. (I hate that!)
However it happens, if you’ve ever lost your child, you know how it feels. It’s terrifying. Every dire thing you can think of pops into your head. A future without your baby becomes suddenly very real.
So I can totally relate to Mary and Joseph, and how they must have felt when, after twenty-four hours of traveling—on foot, with a donkey in tow—they realized that their son was missing from their travel party.
It gives me the horrors just to think about it. I mean, you go to Jerusalem for Passover, just like you do every year, packing your kids and your food and your supplies and your clothes and everything else onto the donkey, and you get there, and you make your offerings and you worship, and you spend time with your family, and you pack up and you head out, and everything’s great. Phew! Another good holiday, in the bag.
And then, BAM. “Where’s the kid? Where’s my firstborn? Where. Is. Jesus?”
“I thought you had him.”
Back to Jerusalem—another day’s journey. Much panic. Much aggravation. Very stressful. Where could Jesus be?
And then you find him. In the temple, among the teachers—people you trust—safe and sound, listening and asking questions and engaging and doing all the amazing things that a precocious, well-mannered, thoughtful, almost-adult teenage boy should be doing.
Except that you’ve been searching for him for three days.
And here’s the best part of the story (which, by the way, is the only one like it in all four gospels—it’s the only childhood story we have of Jesus)—the best part is, Jesus pretty much responds with an aggrieved “What?”
Luke tells us, “When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’”
Which, in the language of the gospel, is pretty much equivalent to the teenage Jesus snarling at his parents for butting into his business.
I want to know how Mary and Joseph really asked the question. Because I know I would have been relieved to find my child, safe and sound, after those horrible nights of worry—and I would have been not only astonished, but also mightily peeved, at his response. “Why was I looking for you? Because I’m your parent, and you were gone!”
But Jesus, adolescent attitude aside, raises a good point here. Luke is telling us this odd teenage-Jesus story for a reason. Why did Mary and Joseph look for Jesus in all the wrong places? Why did it take them three days to figure out that Jesus had to be in the temple—his Father’s house—and going about his Father’s business?
Had Mary and Joseph forgotten? It seems strange that they would have, the way Luke writes his gospel—this story’s only in the second chapter. But still, it’s been twelve years since the hard trip to Bethlehem, thirteen years since the angel came to Mary and asked her if she would mother the Savior. It’s been thirteen years since Joseph has been made to understand that God meant for this to happen, that Joseph had a part to play too. It’s pretty clear from other gospel accounts that Jesus has brothers and sisters by now. He’s the firstborn, but still, he’s the eldest of a gaggle of kids.
So were things just so ordinary for so long—no more adoring shepherds, no more angels, no more ancient prophesies—that the mystery of Jesus’ birth had started to fade, just like a dream? Or maybe Mary and Joseph knew who their son would become, maybe they imagined what he might do—but they figured that was years away, that he would surely be an adult by then. Maybe Jesus didn’t seem that interested in religious observance or in studying the scriptures, so it didn’t occur to his parents that he would be hanging out in the temple—after all, Jerusalem was, even then, a large city, with lots to see and do. Maybe Mary and Joseph just didn’t see that their baby was growing up. Where did their baby go?
And it’s not just where they find him—suddenly Jesus is talking about his “Father,” with a capital F, and he’s not referring to Joseph. “I must be in my Father’s house,” he says—the temple in Jerusalem, not the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Even this early in Luke, Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem, the city where he will teach, and heal, and die, and rise again after three days’ time.
Two worlds collide in this moment. In one world, life goes on as it always has. Mary and Joseph find their child, take him back to Nazareth, and finish raising him to adulthood. He is, as Luke tells us, “obedient to them.” He loves his parents, and he honors them. For the time being, he disappears from history, merges once again with the daily rhythms of his hometown. For about eighteen more years, Jesus hangs out not with teachers and politicians and Roman officials, but with ordinary people. In this world, Jesus seems to be just like us—he is, as one hymn puts it, “our childhood’s pattern; day by day, like us, he grew.”1
In the other world this story hints at, Jesus the Messiah is preparing himself for the work that his divine Father has sent him to do. He knows where he must be and the business he is supposed to be about: saving the broken world.
But still Mary and Joseph face the question: where did their baby go? The Jesus they find in the temple, among the teachers, is not the Jesus they thought they’d brought with them upon leaving Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph leave the city once again, this time with Jesus in tow, but somehow, maybe, still looking for the son they’d lost three days before. A new, different Jesus, one they can’t quite fashion in their own image, goes with them.
We have trouble keeping up with Jesus too. Here we are, the first Sunday after the 25th, four days after Christmas, and the baby Jesus we last saw lying in a manger has grown to near-puberty, twelve years old, standing on the threshold of manhood. Time flies.
According to our Christian year, God has entered the world. Jesus the Christ—God with Us, our Savior—has been born into our midst. We’ve put a lot of effort—lots of time and money and energy—into celebrating the fact that God is among us, a sweet little baby, all innocence, in the manger. The world has changed. Christ is born!
But after all the Advent buildup (which really starts at Halloween now, at least as far as the shopping season goes), maybe we feel that as soon as we start to look for Jesus, he slips through our fingers. Suddenly it’s almost New Year’s Eve, and the signs are everywhere that for a lot of people, Christmas is a done deal. Most of the sales are even over in the stores. We’ve been anticipating Christ’s coming for four weeks, we celebrated his arrival, and now we just want to see him and hold him—or have him hold us—but he’s not in our traveling party.2 Where did our baby Jesus go? Just like Mary and Joseph, we ask God, “Where are you? Why have you treated us like this? We’ve been looking for you!”
Like Mary and Joseph, we can’t see—or choose not to notice—that our Jesus is growing up even as we, spiritually speaking, grow up. Our Jesus is transforming, changing into someone we didn’t expect.
“But Jesus,” says Satterlee, “didn’t come to fulfill our expectations.” He doesn’t come to us, not really, in sentiment for the way things used to be or the way we wish things could be. Jesus is about the future. Jesus was born and lived and died and rose 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.
Here’s the good news for us in this week after Christmas: just like Mary and Joseph, our search for Jesus is done. We’ve been looking for him, and here he is, in his Father’s house, doing his Father’s holy work, showing us the path to God.
And here’s the scary news (it’s still good news, though): our search doesn’t end where we thought it would. Mary and Joseph searched three wretched days for Jesus, and on the third day found him happy and healthy. But they didn’t find him where they thought he’d be; instead, they found him ensconced in the Temple at Jerusalem among the teachers, “the very place” where, as Satterlee points out, “it all will all end as Jesus is tried, convicted, and handed over” for death. Mary and Joseph go looking for Jesus and find him, after three days, in a place they would never have expected.
This should sound to you suspiciously like Easter. Remember? The dead and buried Jesus rises. Then there is a new temple, destroyed as Jesus promised and also, as he promised, rebuilt in three days: Christ’s resurrected body. Luke is offering us a hint here: when we look for Jesus, really look, we will find him. But the catch, the glorious catch, is that what we find is not what we expected. Our searching ends in new life, in startling beauty, in the life God intends, but it’s definitely not the life we would have aimed for, left to our own devices.
One of my favorite gospel passages is John chapter 21. In that chapter, Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ face to face in the garden outside his tomb. Like his parents, Mary Magdalene went looking for Jesus, though all she thought she wanted to do was anoint his dead and broken body. She found him—but like his parents, like us, she also discovered what she could never have expected: the risen Lord. Then—called by name, having stared the divine in the face, knowing even as she herself was fully known—she found herself running from that garden, her skirts flapping around her ankles, to tell the good news of the resurrection to the apostles.
I close this morning with a poem by George Appleton about that moment:
O Christ, my Lord, again and again
I have said with Mary Magdalene,
“They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.”
I have been desolate and alone.
And you have found me, again and again, and I know
That what has died is not you, my Lord,
But only my idea of you.
The image which I have made to preserve
What I have found, and to be my security.
I shall make another image, O Lord,
Better than the last.
That too must go, and all successive images,
Until I come to the blessed vision of yourself,
O Christ, my Lord.
1 “Once in Royal David’s City” Return to reference.
2 Thanks to Russell Rathbun for the germ of this thought. Return to reference.
Rev. Leah Grace Goodwin