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A family is traveling for the holidays. (1) They are preparing for the return trip to Nazareth after spending Passover in Jerusalem. The entourage is complicated, and the mother who, of course, is in charge of details, checks and rechecks the parcels, the animals, the children, counting noses and checking her list. One of the children, Jesus, has not actually been seen, but of course he is here somewhere - he is the good one, the one who can always be counted on to be responsive and obedient and - most important, to be where he is supposed to be, when he is supposed to be there. Time is passing, everything else is accounted for, and the father, who, of course, is in charge of timeliness, is eager to get out of Jerusalem before the traffic, so they set off.
But the mother continues to be plagued with a question that gnaws at her. "Do we have everything?" They reach the city limits of Jerusalem and head out into the desert. "I know we have forgotten something," Mary says. They stop for lunch beside an olive grove. "What could it be?" She ponders: "All of the children are here, of course." And she checks her list once more. But then, when they stop for the night, she realizes that the unthinkable in fact is happening, and with terror and remorse she screams. "JESUS!!!"
An aside here about scripture. From your earliest days in Sunday School you learned that the Word of God is "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword..." (2) And one of the ways we know it is LIVING is that it changes meaning for us as WE change. It speaks to us in new ways in new circumstances. This story is a prime example.
When I was a lad, my identification in this account was with Jesus - Jesus, the sharp young boy; Jesus, the over-achieving first child of the family; Jesus, the devout student of the faith for whom Temple tasks came as a priority over even family concerns. It all fed right into my normal adolescent rebellion (and I loved it) - Jesus is twelve and tells his parents to let him do his own thing (Yes!). Jesus finds respect and affection outside the family circle: with the elders, with the leaders of the Jewish religion, not just in Nazareth, but in Jerusalem, the Temple itself. I identified there as well.
But now, I have grown up. My vantage point has changed. Now I read this story, not in identification with Jesus, the adolescent wizard in the law, but rather with Mary and Joseph, the distraught parents who search frantically for their son, who are desperate to know where he is, and who, upon finding him, are more angry than understanding. In other words, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, when I was a child I read this text like a child, and now that I am a father, I read it like a dad.
Just a few days ago, we retold the story of Jesus' birth. The shepherds arrived. The angels sang. But the shepherds go away a mere twenty verses into chapter two of the Gospel of Luke. In the thirty-two verses that remain, Luke gives us a brief snapshot of Jesus' naming at eight days and then a mini-narrative about Jesus' presentation at the temple when he was four weeks old. But then suddenly the gospel video is put on fast forward, and the "baby" is twelve years old, going to Jerusalem once more with his family. What happened between four weeks and twelve years? We do not know.
There is a lot we do not know about Jesus' life. We do not know if Jesus had colic or diaper rash, if he walked on time or got his teeth on schedule. We know nothing of his first words or how old he was when he learned to read and write. We do not know if he liked spinach or remembered to brush his teeth without being told. There is a lot we do not know about Jesus' life, because it was not Luke's intention to write a biography. Luke's purpose is not to give us a graphic description of Jesus' childhood, but rather to tell us that, even in childhood, Jesus was the Christ. This story is told not to provide information about human events but to allow Luke to add another literary stone to his gospel mosaic which proclaimed to the early church - and still proclaims to us today - that Jesus Christ was Lord - is Lord - and always will be Lord, Messiah, the Christ, Immanuel, God in our very midst. "For unto us a child is born...a son is given..."
Given first to Mary and Joseph, of course. And here we see them both struggling with the downside of being central characters in the Christmas pageant. They are having to deal with the consequences of being the ones chosen to parent the Christ, to pioneer for us all the problem of living with a personal God. You would think, after all that happened earlier in the story, that Mary and Joseph would not be surprised by much of anything. But, in fact, Mary and Joseph are surprised. It is as though none of that earlier stuff - the shepherds, the angels, the wise men - had ever happened. To them, Jesus is not much different from the other boys growing up in Nazareth. And they panic.
Most parents reach a panic point much earlier, usually right after arriving home from the hospital when, surrounded by gifts and instruction booklets, they look at their screaming infant, throw up their hands in terror, and say, "Now what?" For, as most of us who have been through it realize, having the baby is just the beginning. What really counts is the next twenty or thirty years. In a similar way, the real question of Christmas is not, "How are we going to celebrate the birth?" but rather, "How are we going to live with Immanuel...God with us?"
As you scholars know, for the first several hundred years of church history, the church did not have any special celebrations to commemorate the birth of Jesus at all. We noted the feast day of the Annunciation on March 25th each year, and it was only by adding nine months to that that we came up with a December 25th date for Jesus' birth. The arrival itself was not that big a deal - only two of the four gospels even bother to mention it. Could there be a message in that for us? Perhaps it is this - dealing with a newly-arrived infant is easy: just a few ooh's and ahh's and an occasional coo-chee-coo, that is all. But as time goes on, there is so much more. In this case, after the decorations are put away and the tinsel of Christmas is behind us, we are faced with the real question with which the church has wrestled since the beginning: what do we do now that we have proclaimed that God is living in our very midst? Now what? It is not easy.
Look again at how Mary handles it. Her son is missing. They are a day's journey from Jerusalem and turn back and search the capitol for him. After three days, they find him, sitting among the elders in the Temple with not a care in the world. Mary explodes. She does not understand. She does not understand why he did not go back to Nazareth with the family. She does not understand why he returned to the Temple. She does not understand why he did not at least tell them his plans. She does not understand why he seems so bright, so wise, so full of understanding beyond his years, but at the same time, oblivious to the concerns of his parents. And she lets him have it. "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety."
She is a distraught woman, a terrified mom whose twelve-year-old son has been missing for several days. Moreover, Mary is a distraught Jewish mother whose son has learned well that one of the commandments is, "Honor your father and your mother," and she has no explanation for this behavior. And she explodes, in anger, just as you or I might do. "Why have you done this? Why did you do this to me? Your father and I are worried about you." Mary has totally lost it. She is hysterical, and she wants an explanation, NOW.
Jesus replies, calmly, coolly, on a completely different level, without even a lame excuse about meaning to tell them or forgetting to let them know. "Why were you searching for me?" he asks. "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" ("Don't you understand? Come on, Mom, surely you have not forgotten all those prophecies and angel choirs.")
For Jesus, it is a matter of priority. To be more specific, it is a matter of vocation.
But, says Luke, Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph, humble folk of Nazareth, pious Jews, good people of their day, "did not understand what he said to them." They are good people. They have tried hard. But the Son of God is in their midst, living in their very home, and they just do not understand.
Perhaps this is why Christmas has become such a huge celebration in the church in our day. It is easy to listen to angel choirs. When it comes right down to it, despite the acknowledged pain of the mother, it is not that difficult to give birth, even in less than ideal conditions with shepherds and exotic foreigners trooping in to see the baby. Bringing the Son of God to life is simple. But that is just the beginning. It gets tougher as the days and years go on.
And that is probably why Luke put this story at the end of his introductory two chapters. For he writes not to share the details of a family crisis or to show us how Mary and Joseph handle the conflicts of life with a precocious pre-adolescent. Rather, he writes to share with the church, believers from the earliest times right down to the present, the notion that understanding Jesus is not easy. Not for Mary and Joseph. Not for anyone. Several times during his ministry, Jesus predicts that he will be rejected, betrayed, and given over to die. Over and over he tries to get his disciples to understand. But they never understand.
And neither do we. We prefer the glitz and the glitter, the ooh's and the ahh's, of Christmas, and would just as soon avoid the hard questions of these Sundays after, the questions with which we would rather not deal. What do we do now that we have proclaimed, "Unto us a child is born...a son is given"...God is living with us?
What do we do as we see him spending so much of his time with hookers, thieves, lepers, outcasts, those on the margins of society instead of with good religious folk, the people like you and me? What do we do with a Messiah who is so intensely political (remember this "king of the Jews" designation that got Herod to murdering Bethlehem's baby boys, (3) and later all this "kingdom" talk while walking around in the middle of someone else's kingdom that eventually got Jesus killed) when we who follow along at a distance would prefer to keep politics and religion separate? What do we, who live in a society that teaches that the one who dies with the most toys wins, do with all Jesus' talk about the problems inherent with money and possessions? Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas. Now what?
Somewhere or other I read of a sign a merchant placed in his store window at this season of the year: "Put the X back in Xmas." I do not know whether he was a cynic or a theologian. I prefer the latter to the former because the message then becomes, "In the midst of all the happiness and joy surrounding the blessed birth, with all the tinsel and trappings, remember that this is only the beginning of the story; remember the "X," remember the "cross."
When we leave Mary and Joseph at the end of chapter two, we parents sympathize with their adventure that has sounded like an early script for "Home Alone." They do not understand everything, but, to their credit, they hang in. They ponder. They do not comprehend what their son is doing, but they do not give up. They do not know what to expect, but they do know that whatever happens, it will be the Father's business that their son is about. And, we are told, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. He hangs in too. It is the first of many gracious acts of hanging in with people who do not have a clue, who simply do not understand. The rest of the Gospel of Luke is full of these stories. The history of the church is full of these stories. And when we sit around and talk honestly about it, we find that we are full of these stories too. "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given..." Okee dokee. Now what?
Well, for starters, we shout it out, that's what. Have you ever come across a family into which a new baby has come who kept quiet about it? Of course not. This news is for sharing. Then let US tell the world: "Unto us a child is born" - Jesus Christ - and he is living with us now (no, we do not always understand him, but we keep on hanging in, as best we can, because we WILL get better at it). He is HERE, hanging in with us, and, World, we would love to have you hanging with us as well. "Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is HERE."
1. Some of this message is inspired and informed by Bobbi Wells Hargleroad, First United Church of Oak Park, Oak Park, IL, "Living with the Incarnation," Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1994, pp. 25-28
2. Hebrews 4:12
3. Matthew 2:16-18