Grace Presbyterian Church
December 26, 2021, Christmas 1C
Lost in Jerusalem
The one account of Jesus’s young life to be found in the canonical gospels is a story that is at first glance remarkable for being rather ordinary on its surface. There’s nothing particularly miraculous or glamorous about it, from our perspective just two days after hearing the Nativity story on Christmas Eve. The context here is twelve years later by which time Mary and Joseph are parents of twelve-year-old Jesus and some younger children, who experience a horrifying moment: their oldest child is apparently lost in the big, frightening city of Jerusalem.
Luke tells us the family traveled to Jerusalem every year to observe the Feast of the Passover. This year was no different than the years before, evidently; the family gathered itself up and made its way to Jerusalem, in the company of relatives and other faithful acquaintances, for the Passover observance; they remained in Jerusalem for all the appropriate events of the festival, and when it was all over, they, along with their relatives and fellow travelers, made their way home. All very typical of a devout Jewish family of the time, this was.
Only after a day’s return journey towards Nazareth did the story take its unexpected turn. Maybe in our extremely cautious age, where parents can keep children on leashes or attach beepers to them or track them on their iPhones, this story is hard to believe, but a day into the journey home it became clear that Jesus wasn’t there. He was nowhere to be seen.
The sense of panic Mary and Joseph must have experienced is probably not hard for you to imagine. Emotions rise to a fever pitch, desperation sets in. And there’s no 911 to call, no Amber Alerts to issue; he’s just … gone. At last the only answer is for Mary and Joseph to retrace their steps to Jerusalem and try to find the boy.
Jerusalem is a large city, even at the time in which Mary and Joseph are searching. The frustration of wondering how this boy, normally such a good boy, could go off and do something so irresponsible was no doubt mixing with the sheer terror of desperately trying to find the boy before it was … too late. He’s not at the lodging. He’s not at the market. Where could that boy be???
Finally, after three days of searching, the parents arrive at the Temple. Sure, this was where no doubt the family had spent much of their time during the Passover, but why would Jesus come back here with the festival over? And yet that’s exactly where Jesus was. Lost in Jerusalem? Not exactly.
Seated among the teachers in the Temple, far removed from the celebrating crowds that had thronged there only a few days before, was the boy Jesus. Luke tells us he was listening to the teachers and asking them questions, and that those hearing him were extremely impressed, to say the least, by his questions, by his attentiveness, by his intelligence, by his insight.
Not surprisingly, though, the parents are not really in the mood to be regaled with stories of their son’s intelligence and perceptiveness. No, the first thing on their minds, perhaps first after OhthanktheLordhe’ssafe, is “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO US???” Luke describes the parents as “astonished,” or “astounded” – but not in a good way. Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. Now let’s put that in terms we can understand: Oh, Jesus, how could you put us through this? Your poor father and I have been searching all over Jerusalem for you, and you’ve just had us worried sick! What were you thinking, son? How could you just go off on your own like this? Don’t you know it’s not safe?
At this point it’s impossible to speculate what kind of response Jesus’s parents expected from him. Maybe Mary and Joseph themselves didn’t even know what to expect, or perhaps they expected no response at all, or maybe they didn’t care as long as he was quiet and did what he was told and took his scolding and didn’t sneak off again.
They most certainly did not expect the reply they got, though. That much is certain. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Why would you think I’d be anywhere else? The words must have cut like the sharpest of knives. How long had it been since Mary and Joseph thought back to those events of twelve years before, the strange angel apparitions and stars and shepherds? No matter what Mary and Joseph thought, Jesus wasn’t lost in Jerusalem; he was right where he needed to be.
For all the seeming disconnect between parents and child, in the end Jesus was obedient, Luke tells us; he went home with Mary and Joseph, his mother and his earthly father, and if there were any similar incidents in Jesus’s teenage years Luke does not tell us about them.
What we learn of Jesus in this account is disconcerting and disorienting for us. At the age of twelve, on the cusp of manhood in the Jewish tradition, Jesus has made his own declaration that, ultimately, he would be going into his Father’s business. Above all else, this twelve-year-old boy tells us, he is the Son of God; and this above all determines where he must be, what he must do, how he must live. Even as we’re told that Jesus grew up well and was well-regarded by those who knew him or met him, the overriding and unbreakable marker of his life was to be in favor with God, no matter how much his parents might not understand, or his brothers or sisters, or his fellow citizens of Nazareth.
The biblical scholar R. Alan Culpepper describes two ways of understanding obedience to God, saying:
Some define their religious practices with lists of things they may not do: “thou shalt not … “. Such lists set boundaries, but they do not define goals. A commitment to God that is born of the experience of God’s love and presence is expressed in grateful participation in God’s redemptive work. There are some things we have to do just because of who we are: “I must be about my Father’s business.”
In the end, that’s what we are given to learn from the youth Jesus. No matter how much others – even one’s own family – might misunderstand or resist, if we are truly to be about our Father’s business, there are things we must do, not because they are written down in a list of rules or held over our heads as threats or dangled before us to entice us towards some reward.
To be sure, there are plenty of “Christians” who live exactly that way and by that reasoning and are quite eager to enforce those strictures on others. Let us be clear on this one thing: folks who live as “enforcers for Christ” are the ones lost in Jerusalem. That’s not why we do what God calls us to do.
No, we do these things because being a child of God means we do these things – we love God’s children, we care for those poorer than we, we worship when we’d rather be sleeping in, and we teach our children what it means to be a child of God even at the risk of their taking it seriously. To borrow words from our confessional document, A Brief Statement of Faith, we pray without ceasing, we witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, we unmask idolatries in church and culture, we hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and we work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. And we do it because we must, because that’s what it means to be a child of God, and because that’s what it means to be going about our Father’s business.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #132, Good Christian Friends, Rejoice; #138, Who Would Think That What Was Needed; #136, Go, Tell It on the Mountain