Text: Luke 2:40-52 W 2nd Sunday after Christmas
In the name of him in whom we have redemption through his blood and the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace, dear friends in Christ: I’m willing to bet that just about everyone who’s ever been responsible for a child knows what Mary and Joseph must have gone through when, on their return trip from Jerusalem, they realized that their son, Jesus, was not with them. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare: the sudden awareness that your child is missing. It happens all the time in shopping malls and department stores. A typical case goes something like this: mom is busily going through the clothing racks keeping half an eye on her little tyke who is standing dutifully by. She turns her back for what seems to be just a second, and poof! The child’s gone. And it strikes immediately: this feeling of pure terror that deepens and expands with every second that the child remains out of sight. Mercifully, in most cases there’s swift resolution. It turns out the child has just wandered around a corner, or has decided to play a game of hide and seek among the clothing displays. Other times, unfortunately, the separation is longer: maybe the child, bored to tears with clothes shopping (something I can relate to), has gone in search of that vastly more interesting toy or pet store they noticed earlier. So the search widens and more people get involved. Store clerks are stationed by all the exits. They call security. And for however long it takes to find the kid, the whole time they’re apart mom’s anxieties are growing. Every conceivable “what if” scenario flashes through her mind, getting darker and more frightful by the minute. And when at last the reunion takes place and the little one is safely back in mother’s arms, there’s first an incredible sense of relief that washes over her, which is always followed by the dire warning: “Don’t – you – ever – do – that – to me - again!”
Does any of that sound familiar? Whatever the details of your own lost child story are, the feeling of panic is exactly the same. And for that reason most of us know only too well what Jesus’ parents suffered for those three days that he was lost to them. I suspect that for them, though, maybe it was worse. I mean, they didn’t just lose their son; they lost Israel’s promised Messiah. They had been entrusted with the sacred task of raising the Christ. How do you explain to the Lord Almighty that you lost his Son?
Maybe you’re wondering how it could have happened that Mary and Joseph could have traveled a whole day away from Jerusalem without noticing Jesus’ absence. It probably wasn’t that difficult. We’re told that they had come to the holy city from their hometown of Nazareth in order to celebrate the Passover. It was a journey of some sixty miles or more, and probably would have taken them three or four days to cover the ground. It was something they did every year – and so did most of their neighbors and friends. So you’ve got to imagine a fairly large group traveling together for security, say a dozen or more families. And it would have been a fairly tight knit group – people that lived, worked, and played together – and watched out for each other, and for one another’s kids. And Mary and Joseph would have been primarily occupied with their younger children. We know that besides Jesus they had four boys and at least two girls, some of whom would have been quite young (if indeed when this story takes place they’d all even been born yet). And with all those little ones about, it wouldn’t have been unusual at all for a twelve year old boy to want to hang out and travel with kids his own age, nor would it have been unusual for Mary and Joseph to grant Jesus that much independence. After all, he had always proven himself to be a responsible kid. And he was by now on what was in that culture considered to be the cusp of adulthood. So, when, after the Passover celebrations had come to end, the whole group broke camp at Jerusalem and started traveling down the steep road toward Jericho, it was only natural for his parents to assume that Jesus was with them somewhere in their long caravan.
It probably wasn’t until they’d set up camp and sat down for their evening meal that they realized there might be a problem. You can almost hear their conversation: “I wonder where Jesus is. It isn’t like him to be gone at supper time.” “He has been making himself pretty scarce today; but I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. He’s probably over with your brother and his family messing around with his cousins. I’ll go fetch him in a bit.” But later when Joseph starts asking around with the people Jesus is most likely to be with, he keeps getting the same answer: “Jesus? No. We haven’t seen him all day.” And right about then is when that gnawing fear would have begun to eat at him. Within an hour or so, having enlisted the help of the other men in the group, he would have been certain. Jesus was not with them and no one had seen him since yesterday. I would sure hate to have been in his shoes. But at that moment both Mary and Joseph could have had only one thing on their minds: we’ve got to find Jesus.
It’s worth mentioning that this would have been a very special trip to Jerusalem for Jesus. I’m sure that he always liked these annual visits to this city so full of history and sacred significance for God’s people. It was from Jerusalem that his ancestors David and Solomon had ruled in the glory days of the kingdom. And here too stood the Temple of the Lord where the priests performed the daily rituals so full of meaning as they offered sacrifices for the sins of the people. Jews and proselytes to the faith from every nation under the sun came here to worship, which would have given the city a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. So altogether the sights, the sounds, the foreign visitors who came for the feasts and festivals of the city – like the Passover, which Jesus and his family always celebrated here – all of it together would have made Jerusalem a whole lot more exciting and interesting than the sleepy little hamlet of Nazareth where he spent most of his time. Any Jewish boy or girl would have looked forward to the yearly pilgrimage to the city – it would have been like a trip to Disneyland. But what made this particular visit to so significant for Jesus is that it would be first time he’d be permitted to go beyond the gate that separated the court of the Jewish women from that of the men. Prior to this he would have had to stay with his mother, Mary, and his younger siblings on the outer court while Joseph alone went further to act as priest on behalf of his family. But now, having attained the lofty age of twelve and official standing in the community as a man, Jesus would be able to accompany his father and assist him in bringing the Passover lamb to the priests for sacrifice. It was the same lamb upon which their family would later feast as they retold the story of how the Lord rescued his people from slavery by the blood of lambs and the death of Egypt’s firstborn. As a matter of fact, it’s likely that Jesus would have helped hold the lamb still while it was slain. And that’s interesting, because apart from the ones made for him while he was still an infant, it would be first sacrifice to the Lord he actually witnessed – which is pretty profound when you think about it: here’s God’s Firstborn who is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world for the first time seeing with his own eyes what his most important life’s work will be: to die a bloody death for sinners at the hands of the priests.
But a lot more than sacrifices happened on this court that had, up until now, been off limits to Jesus. You see, it was on the various porches and colonnades of the court of Jewish men that the scholars and teachers of Holy Scripture did their teaching and held their discussions and debates. It was like an open seminary campus where anyone – any Jewish man, that is – could sit and listen to the great theologians of the day as they held forth on every biblical subject imaginable. It was a veritable smorgasbord of scholarly discussion of God’s Word. Now, not much of that would have been going on during the Passover celebrations themselves. The sheer volume of sacrifices to accommodate the thousands of visitors to the city would have made it impossible. Besides, they were high holy days that the great rabbis and teachers would have been off celebrating with their families.
Ah, but now that the feast days were passed, it would have meant a return to normal business. The teaching and discussion would have resumed. And with this in mind, it’s not hard to imagine what happened. Rising early on the day the leaders of the group of pilgrims from Nazareth had decided to depart (likely without Jesus being aware of it), Jesus was drawn back to the Temple. It would have been irresistible for him to finally have an opportunity to hear God’s Word read and expounded upon by Israel’s greatest teachers. Sure, he would have grown up hearing the Scriptures read and taught at the synagogue at Nazareth; but by comparison that was elementary school. This, for better or for worse, was the cutting edge of religious thought. He had to hear what was being taught and debated.
And at this point it might be necessary to pause to clear up a common misconception. It’s tempting to think, “Wait a minute. Jesus is both true God and true man. He is God’s Word made a human being. Why in the world does he have to hear anything about the Scripture? He is the content of the Scripture. He’s what it’s all about. Surely he knows it already.” No. Not true. And it’s important that we understand this. While it’s true that Jesus is God and man, it’s also true that during his earthly life he truly lived only as a man. He did not utilize his divine powers or attributes for his own advantage. In fact we see two strong indications of this in this morning’s text. In the first verse it says that Jesus grew and was filled with wisdom. The form of the verb is passive meaning that he was being filled with wisdom from some outside source. We see it again in the last verse where it says Jesus increased in wisdom. God is already all wise. He can’t be said to increase in wisdom. That Jesus increased in wisdom tells us that he’s not tapping into that infinite reservoir of divine understanding but truly limiting himself live as one of us. He has to live that way in order to be our substitute. He has to live and die by faith in God’s Word just like we do. The only difference is that he does it without sin.
What that means, though, is that everything he knows about himself being the Christ of God and what his earthly mission will be, he learns from God’s Word. He doesn’t just automatically know it. He must learn it from the source: the Holy Scripture. And again, the difference is that his human mind is not darkened or obstructed by sin. So when he hears the Word of God, he understands perfectly its true intent. He gets it. This is what the renowned teachers and their upper level grad students find so fascinating. And again, you can picture the scene: the young Jesus stands at the edge of a crowd, listening to some famous rabbi spout forth. Everyone is hanging on the teacher’s words as he comes to some remarkably incorrect conclusion. Some are nodding their heads in agreement. Others aren’t quite convinced; but they haven’t got a decent argument to refute what they’ve heard. Then comes a little voice from the back, very respectfully, “Excuse me, sir; but have you considered the passage of Scripture that says …” and suddenly the faulty conclusion reached by the rabbi topples like a house of cards. Everyone is astonished.
Before long the word spreads. “Hey, you’ve got to come see this. There’s a kid over on Solomon’s porch – some kind of prodigy – who’s asking some really tough questions. He has a fascinating way of tying together biblical ideas and passages.” Soon a crowd gathers around him. He sits among the teachers and there’s a real exchange going on. It’s not that he knows it all; but he is able to separate the wheat from the chaff as together they delve deeper into the divine mysteries revealed in the sacred Scriptures. Of course, Jesus himself is the sum and substance of the divine mysteries. So what I’d have you see is that the whole time Mary and Joseph were desperately trying to find Jesus, Jesus was in the process of finding and discovering himself in the Word of God.
But then, he knew where to look. Assuming that it took the better part of a day for his parents to make the return trip to Jerusalem, they still required more than a full day to find him. They must have searched the city high and low asking themselves, “Where would a twelve year old boy be?” With all the interesting things going on in the big city, what with all its markets, shops, craftsmen, artisans, and entertainers, he could be in a thousand different places. The last place they probably thought to look was among the Bible scholars at the Temple.
It must have been Joseph who actually found him and brought out him to his much relieved mother. And, like I said before, after that wave of relief came the inevitable chastisement: “Why did you do this to us? We searched everywhere. We were out of our minds with worry about you.”
What follows are the first recorded words of our Savior: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in these [things] of my Father?” He doesn’t actually say, “my Father’s house” as the text we heard states it. What he says is that he had to be in these things of his Father. Not the Temple building per se, but in the reading, the meditation upon, and the discussion of God’s Holy Word, and also the sacrifices and other Temple rituals. That’s where Jesus is found. The sense of it is, “You should have known where to find me. I had to be here in these things.”
And that, my friends, is the lesson for us. We’ve just completed our annual Christmas observances in which we celebrated and pondered once again the mystery of the Word becoming flesh, and now we’ve begun a brand new calendar year. With the high holy days over and our return to our regular pattern of life, it’s natural for us to simply assume that Jesus is with us. Where exactly, we can’t say with any certainty; but we know he’s got to be in our lives someplace—maybe hanging around here in the wider circle of our family, friends, and greater church family. Certainly that’s what the many so called “Christmas and Easter Christians” out there think. They show up for their annual dose and duty; but they’re missing him – or most of him anyway – and they don’t even realize it. And the danger is that we in many ways we can be exactly like them by seeing our relationship with Jesus in just some kind of vague, intangible, fuzzy sort of way; like when we say, “Yes, sure, I have Jesus in my life” without really being able to pin it down and say precisely what that means. If that’s the case, we’re losing him too. And let me tell you, as frightful as it is for a parent to lose a child, it’s a far more terrifying thing for a Christian to lose the Savior.
So here it is: if Jesus who is sinless found it necessary to find himself in the things of his Father, and so grow in wisdom and grace; how much more vital is it that we who are sinful to continue to seek and find him in the places he said that he must be: namely the reading, meditation upon, and discussion of his Holy Word, and the ritual by which he gives us to see with our own eyes and feast upon the sacrifice he made for us of his own body and blood. If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, I can’t think of a better one. Let’s make it then. And may our gracious God and Father give us the will and means to keep it, that like our Savior we too may grow in divine wisdom and in favor with God and men. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!