Brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus, who is the Christ. Amen.
It was just a couple of days ago that we gathered to worship Jesus, the new-born infant, lying in a manger in Bethlehem…. And today we find him, already on the verge of adolescence, hanging out in the Jerusalem Temple!
This story, by the way, isn’t told in any of the other Gospels. Only Luke gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ childhood – and this is the one and only glimpse we get. The next time we see Jesus is in 18 years when he begins his public ministry around the age of 30.
But for today, Jesus is twelve years old, and he and his parents have traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of the Passover. It’s a significant journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, requiring several days’ travel each way. As devout Jews, this is a pilgrimage Jesus’ family makes every year. But this year, when the week-long Festival has ended and everyone is headed back home, things go terribly awry.
After an entire day’s journey, Mary and Joseph suddenly realize Jesus isn’t with them, and he’s nowhere to be found! I will admit that years ago when I read this story, I was a little judgmental of Mary and Joseph. “How can you lose your child,” I thought. And let’s face it – this wasn’t just any child. This wasn’t just Mary and Joseph’s child. This was the Son of God, the Savior of the whole world! If there’s any child you shouldn’t lose, it’s Jesus!
And then – I had three boys of my own, and I decided to cut Mary and Joseph some slack… because I discovered that knowing where your child is at every moment of the day is not always as easy as it would seem – especially when that child is 12 years old and doesn’t want to hang out with Mom or Dad all the time.
In making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have been among an enormous crowd of people – extended family, distant relatives, friends and neighbors, entire villages! In this setting, it’s easy to imagine how Jesus’ parents would have assumed he was with them – walking with a bunch of cousins or friends – or perhaps Mary thought Jesus was with his father, and Joseph assumed he was with his mother. In any event, Jesus’ absence went unnoticed until the group was ready to make camp that first evening on their way home.
We can imagine the sheer panic that sets in for Mary and Joseph when they realize Jesus isn’t with them. They make their way back to Jerusalem – another full day’s journey, which must have felt like an eternity – and they begin searching for their boy. For three long, terrifying days, they look for Jesus. Time and time again, their search comes up empty. And then finally, on the third day, Mary and Joseph find their son. Jesus is in the Temple, of all places, sitting among the teachers, listening diligently, asking thoughtful questions, providing insightful answers. Jesus is demonstrating wisdom far beyond his 12 years. In fact, Luke says, “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” There is obviously something very remarkable about this boy.
Jesus seems completely oblivious to the angst he has caused his parents. But understandably, Mary lets him know, and in no uncertain terms: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!” We might expect Jesus to apologize for the nightmare he has just put his parents through. But he doesn’t apologize. In fact, he seems totally perplexed by his parents’ reaction. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Clearly, Mary and Joseph didn’t know, and now they don’t have a clue as to what Jesus is talking about! And yet, it doesn’t appear that they question him any further. Instead, Luke tells us that they went back to Nazareth and “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.” What exactly is she treasuring? It isn’t clear. But perhaps she is remembering the prophecies and promises made 12 years earlier and it is dawning on her that they are beginning to be fulfilled.
As I re-read this text, I found myself drawn back to Joseph, who doesn’t say a word in the story. I can’t help but wonder how he must have felt when he heard Jesus ask: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Did the words only confuse Joseph? Or did they also sting, at least, a little? My father’s house…? Joseph has been father to Jesus for 12 years – providing and caring for his son, bringing him up in the faith, protecting and loving Jesus since the moment he was born in that Bethlehem stable!
Jesus no doubt got Joseph’s attention with his rhetorical question. As one commentary I read pointed out, “See how very gently but very definitely Jesus takes the name father from Joseph and gives it to God. Ultimately, Jesus is God’s Son, engaged in his divine Father’s business. This relationship takes priority over Jesus’ relationship with his earthly parents.”
It’s also worth noting the way Jesus frames his question: He doesn’t say, “Didn’t you know that I might be in my Father’s house?” Or even, “…that I would be in my Father’s house?” Jesus says, “I must be in my Father’s house… It is necessary that I be about my Father’s business.”
Even as a 12-year-old boy, Jesus is coming to understand his unique identity and mission.
As Christians gathered all over the world on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we heard the beloved narrative of Jesus’ birth. And through it, Jesus’ identity and mission are revealed in the familiar words of the angel: “To you is born this day … a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t become Savior only after dying on the cross for the sins of the world; Jesus is already Savior from the day of his birth! When he begins his public ministry some 30 years later, Jesus enters the synagogue and reads a passage from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news
to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight
to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then Jesus declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled….”
And as Jesus continues to live out his mission on earth – to do the will of his Father – he brings salvation to those he encounters: the hungry are fed, the leper is made clean, the outcast is accepted, the sinner is forgiven, the dead are brought back to life. As New Testament scholar, Mark Allan Powell, points out: “In Luke’s story, Jesus saves people by liberating them from whatever it is that prevents their lives from being as God wishes their lives to be.”
We know that because of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ, we have been liberated from the power of sin and death. We no longer have to fear death because we know it’s only a passageway to eternal life with God. But we don’t have to wait until we die to know God’s saving power in our lives! We can know it here and now, and every day, as Jesus, our Savior meets us wherever we are and frees us from that which prevents our lives from being as God intends.
We might each ask ourselves: “What is preventing me from living the life God wants for me? What, in my life, is holding me captive?” Perhaps you’re living with deep regret over something you did – or didn’t do. Or maybe you can’t break free of the anger and resentment you feel toward someone who has hurt you. You might be struggling with addiction or experiencing the pain of a broken relationship. Maybe you’re weighed down by grief or loneliness, or gripped by the fear that seems to be permeating our world more than ever these days…
Brothers and sisters: Know that regardless of what may be holding you captive, Jesus, our Savior has come to set you free! He has come to set us all free through the gift of his forgiving grace and the power of his loving presence. And then, having freed us, Jesus calls each and every one of us to share in his mission of bringing light and life and healing to the world that God loves so very much.