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December 30, 2018

Home Alone: Jerusalem

Passage: Luke 2:40-52
Service Type:

Often, introductions get skipped over, but hear that opening sentence again: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom…”  This is not just a montage of Jesus’s childhood. It says something about Jesus Christ: he has to grow up! The Bible says Jesus grew and became strong, became filled with wisdom. The Bible states that God took on human flesh in the person we call Jesus Christ, and it shows the young Jesus was not some baby Superman but a fully human, dependent infant. It’s common to call Jesus humble when we talk about him washing disciples’ feet or dying on the cross. Yet consider the humility God shows simply by becoming human. In the Incarnation, God is not too proud to wet himself as an infant. That is how powerfully God loves each of us. The All-Powerful Deity Who Was And Is To Come… arrives in the person of a weak—probably smelly—baby. This is one of the mysteries unique to Christianity: our God became human, took on a form that grows up over time like we do.

The plot of today’s passage begins as Jesus’s family goes to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. However, the author doesn’t care about the celebration itself: he skips straight to Jesus’s family heading home afterwards. Here’s the plot twist: young Jesus wanders off from his parents, who likely were not watching the little Messiah too closely. The text says Jesus was twelve, only one year before he would be considered a full adult, as with Jewish bar mitzvahs today. Given that and their extended family all around them, Mary and Joseph could assume Jesus was fine on his own. His wandering off thus makes him a more typical human, as it’s something most children do. I am sure many parents here can relate to Mary and Joseph’s situation. I distinctly recall an embarrassing moment in my own childhood where it seemed a great idea to play hide-and-seek at a theme park, only I never told my parents we were playing: I simply started hiding… until they frantically starting seeking me. Jesus is human too.

Jesus’s parents only realize what’s happened when he fails to come home at night: he might travel with his cousins, but young Jesus would never miss bedtime! One translation captures the next scene well: Jesus’s parents then “sought Him diligently, looking up and down for Him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances. And when they failed to find Him, they went back to Jerusalem, looking for Him up and down all the way.” I have to imagine the scene between them. Mary would say, “I thought Jesus was with you!” Joseph would reply, “You said he was with Cousin Frank’s camels!” Eventually one would lose his or her temper, “You lost the Messiah! How is it even possible to lose the Chosen One?!? Doesn’t the halo and heavenly chorus give him away?!?” And then the tense silence would resume… This is National Lampoon’s: Passover Vacation meets Home Alone 5: Lost in Jerusalem.

So, Joseph and Mary search the big city for three days… and finally they find Jesus. He’s at the Temple, the most holy place around, talking with the rabbis. Why does this matter? Remember what I said before: Jesus is twelve years old and will soon become an adult, which means that Jesus is around the age where he would be trained for his future career. Does he try to learn carpentry like his earthly father Joseph? No. He takes after his true Father, namely God the Father, and goes to the Temple: Jesus has begun to learn how to be a rabbi. Further, Jesus is not wasting these other rabbis’ time: they are chatting professionally. Young Jesus, in the middle of the Jerusalem Temple, impresses all the religious leaders as he talks to them.

This twelve-year-old Jesus, who teaches about God and who is, you know, actually God, he talks to the religious teachers. Though he still has much growing up left to do, I wonder if Jesus even then thought about his future visits to this Temple. As an adult, Jesus will preach his good news in this same spot. Here he will chase out those who used the Temple to exploit the poor. And the same kind of religious leaders who here welcome him at age twelve will condemn an adult Jesus to death. Jesus cared for the outcasts, the oppressed and the guilty—those who had personally suffered life’s evils—and we Christians believe that Jesus, the innocent God incarnate, eventually suffered condemnation and death so we would not have to. But here in Luke 2? We simply have a child on the verge of adulthood… in a place that will impact most of his adult life… teaching the teachers about the things of God, the things of that child’s Father.

Now in walk Mary and Joseph. They’ve been hauling their other babies all over for over three days, looking for this Jesus child of theirs who ran away. The holy couple does not see the situation the way the others do: all they see is that their son, who’s old enough to know better, has snuck off from the family caravan, made them drag his siblings all over the city and is now chatting with the most important people around as if it’s no big deal. Not knowing what’s going on, Mary and Joseph would probably think Jesus is embarrassing them: imagine your fifteen year old running away to instruct a Senator in foreign policy. You’d be mortified. This explains Mary’s response, which can be translated, “Child, why have You treated us like this? Here Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You, distressed and tormented.

Jesus’s response is the punch-line of this Bible passage. His parents tell Jesus that he has upset them, and Jesus replies, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that it is necessary that I be in my Father’s house?” I imagine when asked about his religious affiliation, Jesus would have to reply, “Well, I’m Jewish on my mother’s side, and on my Father’s side I’m the The One True God, He Who Was, Is and Will Be. It makes holiday shopping a nightmare.” In seriousness, Jesus’s reply to his parents is effectively: “Of course I’m at the Temple! I must be at my Father’s house!” Jesus is fully human, but in this we start see his full divinity as well, as he teaches the religious teachers, helping them to better understand God -to better understand him- while being surprised at his parents’ inability to see the mission for which he was born.

After Jesus’s rebuttal of his mother’s scolding, the story wraps up and the whole family heads home. This is another seemingly simple but surprisingly deep section. I kept asking myself throughout this passage: “Don’t they remember Christmas? The angels, shepherds and the gifts of the wise men? Don’t they remember any of it?” Well, Luke’s Gospel says that Mary and Joseph did not understand these events. God is at work, and they—we—don’t realize it. We instead misread God’s activity in human terms: clearly my friend forgave me because I’m amazing… not because God encouraged her to, I pushed through defeat because I’m so strong… not because Christ’s love sustained me. We fail to notice God at work. In contrast, there is a spiritual devotion in ultra-orthodox Judaism for appreciating God’s unexpected handiwork through quick rote prayers recited at every moment of the day. This practice’s followers believe so strongly in seeing God at work everywhere that their first prayer each day is to thank the Lord for the health to go to the bathroom. Now, I am not necessarily encouraging that particular devotion, but that level of fervor seems a noble ideal in seeing God even in the little moments of daily routines. Luke’s story of parents overlooking Christ’s ministry similarly challenges us to watch for God’s activity, lest we overlook its joys like Mary and Joseph here.

Any parents in the room chafing at my earlier portrayal of Mary and Joseph will enjoy this next part, verse 51: “Then Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” Jesus Christ is God incarnate yet so loves his parents and so embodies God’s law that he obeys parents who cannot comprehend him. Can you imagine that? The all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful Lord of creation submits to not-understanding, weak mortal parents… solely out of love. If Christ, who is God, submits to his mortal parents, shouldn’t we do the same for each other, even when we fight or grumble? Jesus, God, submits to human parents. And Mary treasures all these things in her heart. Luke’s gospel states that she and Joseph do not understand Jesus but also that Mary treasures all that he does anyways. The parents in the room likely understand this better than I, but this too should be our approach to God. We will not always understand what God is doing, but we can still treasure God’s actions in our hearts, knowing one day we will understand, even if that day is on the other side of eternity. Mary doesn’t understand Jesus but treasures him still.

And through this entire passage, Jesus keeps growing up. At age twelve, he’s wise enough to amaze the smartest of rabbis, yet Jesus continues to grow up, just like you and me. We should thus never be embarrassed about our changes, whether intellectual or physical, nor should we be ashamed by anything coming from growing older. Even though Jesus died young, the Bible here still shows that Christ shared our growing pains: aging is a part of being human. God did not consider it beneath him to become incarnate in a Jesus who had to grow, change and age. Here I see the Holy Bible challenging our American idolization of youth, as God incarnate chose to grow old, to struggle with the ups and downs that aging brought. Jesus wasn’t a muscled, eternally twenty-something hotshot: he grew up.

So to recap… 1) Jesus was human in every way we are, except for sin. Jesus was born weak and had to grow stronger. Jesus grew up. This is one of THE unique things of Christianity: our Creator was not too proud to become human. Compare that to Buddhism, which says those gods who reincarnate as humans undergo the most excruciating suffering possible transitioning from divine to mortal. Christianity, in contrast, says that the one true God called all his creation good and voluntarily became a human in Jesus Christ. Our religion inherently affirms the physical, the human. Our bodies—skinny, less skinny, black, white, or anything else—our bodies are all beautiful gifts of God, as is aging. Evil and disease are unnatural, sure, but aging and growth are natural, good things. Baby Jesus grew up; twelve year old Jesus grew up. The first lesson of today’s text is that growing old and being human are not bad things but natural blessings from God, who himself became human and aged in the person of Jesus.

2) Joseph and Mary were there for the entire Christmas event, but in the rush of searching for their little runaway, they forgot what Jesus was all about. Like the Jewish daily cycle of prayer to God in literally any kind of circumstance—including using the restroom—we Christians should try to see where God is unexpectedly at work. Mary and Joseph did not expect Jesus to teach at the Temple. Are there places in our lives where we have failed to notice God’s blessings unexpectedly at work? Even if we don’t understand yet, we can still imitate Jesus’s mother Mary and treasure such things in our hearts, trusting one day all will be clear.

3) And lastly, God loves without pride. C.S. Lewis put it well, “[God] is not proud...He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him… God has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.” The incarnation is the humbling yet voluntary and loving submission of the Creator of All Things, the Lord of Time, Space and Reality, the submission of God to frail, certainly blessed but seemingly typical human parents. God was willing to become a weak, needy baby on Christmas, a misunderstood youth at the Temple, a poor rabbi traversing ancient Palestine with misfit disciples, a suffering Messiah on a brutal, horrific cross and a resurrected, commissioning and finally triumphant Savior on Easter. God loves us. Therefore, he gladly puts aside divine majesty to become a runaway little boy. God loves us, and so we have young Jesus growing up and teaching the great teachers at the Jerusalem Temple… yet following his misunderstanding mom and dad home when they scold him. God loves us and will go through all forms of humility in order to have us. The love of God inspires the descriptor of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us… in our aging and changing, in our misunderstanding, in our routines, and forever. Amen.


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