December 30, 2012
Growing Up and Letting Go
I’m not a parent, but I do work with kids. And whether it was as a lifeguard at Bible camp, a chaperone on a kindergarten field trip or a teacher on the playground with preschool students, I’ve gotten good at counting my kids. That is rule #1 when working with kids—know where they are at all times. There’s nothing worse than doing the routine headcount, expecting to find 23 kids, and coming up 1 short. Maybe you who are parents or grandparents, teachers, coaches or event chaperones can relate to that heart-wrenching fear that grips you when you turn your head for a second and lose a child you’re supposed to be keeping track of. That’s how our gospel story today begins. Jesus is 12 years old, and on the annual trip with his parents to Jerusalem for what was supposed to be a routine holiday trip. This was a trip they took every year, the text says, so Jesus knew the drill well. He was familiar with the route, familiar with the expectations, familiar with the people. And so by the time he’s 12 I can imagine him having the conversation with his parents about whether he had to stick close to them or whether he could wander a little bit with his friends. Can you hear it? “Come on, Mom, yes, I know not to talk to strangers. No, I won’t leave the temple without telling someone where I’m going. Yes, I’ll check with my friend’s parents before wandering into the marketplace with them. Yes, I’ll be home for supper by 7.” And Mary saying, “now, if we get separated, stay where you are. Don’t leave the designated area.” I can hear Jesus saying, “Mom, come on, I’m 12 years old…nothing is going to happen. Don’t be so paranoid.”
And so on the trip back from Jerusalem Mary momentarily can’t find Jesus, and is torn between being the paranoid parent and trusting her son to be responsible. In those days, these trips weren’t as simple as Mom, Dad, and Jesus in their SUV…it was whole communities travelling together. The scene I think of is the Minnesota State Fair, the O’Hare Airport in Chicago, or even walking through Downtown Disney. The women would be grouped up front, with the men grouped together in the back. The kids were scattered throughout the whole party. So perhaps when Mary can’t find Jesus, she assumes he’s with Joseph. And without cell phones, it’s not like she could just call him and be like, “Hey Joseph, is Jesus with you?” Similarly, when Jesus is not with Joseph, he assumes Mary knows where he is. So for the first day of the trip, no one thinks to worry. Jesus is a good kid. He knows the route. He knows the people. He’s done this trip before. As long as he checks in by supper, he should be fine. But then perhaps the group stops for the night, and Joseph and Mary work through the crowds to find each other, each thinking Jesus is with the other one. I can imagine how that conversation went: “is Jesus with you?” “No, I thought he was with you?” “he’s not with me.” “How can he not be with you?” “What do you mean? How could he not be with you? You’re his mother, you’re supposed to keep track of him!” “Me, he’s 12 years old, you’re his father, I thought you’d be taking this time to, you know, bond with your son.” And so perhaps the conversation would continue until one of them stopped the other and said, “look, this isn’t helping, let’s just see if the neighbors have seen him.” And so they go to their neighbors, their relatives, and Jesus’ friends’ parents to see if anyone has seen him.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever lost Jesus? A few days ago we were gathered around the manger, celebrating the birth of this new child. Whether you’ve been a Christian forever or met Jesus as an adult, I would venture to guess that we’ve each had our own version of hearing the proclamation that God became human and lives among us, and kneeling in awe at the mystery of this gift. Let’s call this the point at which Jesus is born in our lives. Not that Jesus wasn’t already there before we knew him, even as God was already in the world before the baby was born in Bethlehem. But let’s use the manger as the experience of God’s presence in our lives and hearts. And like Mary, as we meet Jesus, either as children or as an adult, we ponder these things in our hearts…not exactly sure what it means but convinced it’s important.
So there we are, in a relationship with Jesus. But then, in the midst of something—perhaps something routine, perhaps something out of the ordinary—we look around and realize we’re not exactly sure where Jesus is. But not to worry, we tell ourselves, he couldn’t have gone far. I love the scene from the movie Forrest Gump, where the character of Lieutenant Dan says to Forrest, “Forrest, have you found Jesus?” and Forrest replies, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be lookin’ for him.” I can picture Mary and Joseph going through the caravan of people, saying, “Have you seen Jesus?” and some of their family and friends saying, “no, I didn’t know he was missing.” But what do you do when you get to the end of the day and realize you’re no longer sure exactly where Jesus is anymore?
It took Mary and Joseph a full day to go through the whole caravan looking for Jesus before they realized he wasn’t there. So what do they do? They go back to where they had seen him last. If you’ve ever travelled with your family, perhaps this makes sense to you. My family would travel a lot when we were kids, and my mom would drill into our heads that if we ever got separated from the family, we were supposed to stay where we were. Because when they figured out we were missing they would retrace their steps and come back to where we were. That’s what Mary and Joseph did. They went back to Jerusalem, the last place they knew they’d seen Jesus. And this took them another full day. So now it’s been 3 days since they’d been in direct contact with Jesus. So they go back to the temple in Jerusalem and sure enough, there he is…sitting in the temple, hanging out with the adults, asking and answering questions and astounding them with his wisdom.
This is one of my favorite scenes in the story of Jesus, because it is the first time Jesus challenges people’s expectations. For us this scene may not be surprising because we expect Jesus to be in the temple, and it’s not unusual for 12-yr olds to show surprising ability to carry on a conversation with adults. But in his time, this was a huge shock. Jesus is 12…he’s not a teenager, he hasn’t gone through the official rites to be considered an adult. He hasn’t been confirmed yet. He doesn’t have his driver’s license. He can’t vote. The expectation is that he will be running around in the dirt with his friends. But what is he doing instead? Engaging in conversation with adults about God, the Law, the world, and how all those things fit together.
So how do Jesus’ parents respond? I can see Mary rushing up to Jesus, throwing her arms around his neck and saying, “Where have you been? We’ve been looking all over for you!” And I can see Joseph standing behind Mary, with his arms crossed, saying sternly, “Young man, we are going to talk about this when we get home. Do you know how much trouble you caused us?” The text says that Mary says, “Child, why have you treated us like this?”
Is this true for us? Whenever we get to that point where we turn around and think that Jesus has gone missing, we begin a frantic search for him. And at some point in our search we find Jesus in a place we didn’t expect, doing something we didn’t think Jesus would do. And what’s our response? How could you do this to us!?! How could you treat us like this?!? We blame Jesus for not being where we thought he should be, or doing what we thought he should be doing. Mary and Joseph had a particular image of who Jesus was, as their son for sure, and perhaps even as the Son of God they sort of knew he would be. Why was it so hard for Mary to see Jesus in the temple sitting with the adults? Had she forgotten the things the angels had told her about her child when he was born? Or did she have a particular opinion of childhood such that whatever Jesus was meant to be, he surely wasn’t old enough to grasp it and live into it yet?
Similarly, we have heard the messages about who Jesus is…and we may even believe these messages. We know Jesus is the Son of God. We know Jesus came to the world to bring people to God and to break down the things that separate people from God. We know that Jesus is not just our homeboy, our best friend, or our lover…he is the God of the Universe who created the earth, moon, stars, galaxies and crazy diversity of animals, plants and creatures. But when Jesus shows up in a place we aren’t expecting, doing something we didn’t expect Jesus to do, we are still shocked and confused. How could Jesus be there? How could Jesus be doing that? And so we attack Jesus with our expectations and we say, “how could you treat us like this?”…like Jesus has a responsibility to stick within the box we’ve created for him.
I went through this search for Jesus in college and for a few years afterwards. The safe little image I had of Jesus no longer worked for me, and I frantically tried to figure out where Jesus had gone. And at some point I had to wrestle with whether I was going to let Jesus be different than I had expected…whether I was going to let Jesus be among people I wouldn’t have thought, doing things and saying things I didn’t think he would do and say. I had to grow up in my relationship and expectations of Jesus, and I had to let go of being able to control and understand everything about him.
I love how Jesus responds to his parents. He doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t criticize their fear or anxiety. He simply says, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Instead of staying confined to Mary’s expectations of who he was supposed to be, Jesus reminded her who he really was. This is not easy for Mary to grasp. She loves Jesus. He’s her baby. She doesn’t want anything bad to happen to him. But in order for her to really appreciate who Jesus is, she has to allow him to do things that go beyond her expectation of him. She has to trust that when she can’t find him, he’s still doing the work of His Father. And ultimately, this is always where Jesus can be found—in His Father’s house…in and among those in whom God dwells. I can imagine later, when Jesus is watching the woman wipe perfume from his feet with her hair and her tears, and he hears people criticize him and say, “doesn’t he know what he’s doing to us?” He calmly says, “Don’t you know that I must be in relationship with those in whom my Father dwells?” I can imagine later, when Jesus is challenged by the same teachers of the Law his parents found him with when he was 12, he says, “why do you keep looking for me? Don’t you know I must be with those in whom my father dwells?” And I can imagine Mary, listening to the stories that circulate after his resurrection, smiling to herself through her tears and saying, “there you go again…still surprising me with where you show up.”
I think there’s a challenge and an invitation in this text for us. I think we have a tendency to want Jesus to stay a child in our relationship with him—we want to tell him what to do, where to go, and how to act. We want him to fit within our perceptions and expectations. And so this story challenges us to let Jesus grow up. Are you willing to let Jesus grow up? Are you willing to trust that there may be things about Jesus that you will never understand? Are you willing to trust that when you can’t exactly see him, he’s still where he’s supposed to be: in his father’s house—in those in whom his father dwells–doing the work of his father?
Secondly, I think there’s an invitation in this story to let Jesus surprise us with where he shows up in our world. In Jesus’ day, it was surprising to find a 12 yr. old sitting in the temple surrounded by adults. Today, perhaps it is as surprising when we find Jesus not just with children, but IN children, or not just with those who are poor and oppressed, but IN those who are poor and oppressed. Instead of always looking for Jesus where it makes sense, let Jesus surprise you by showing up in places that don’t make sense. Let Jesus surprise you when he shows up in the midst of suffering and grief. Let Jesus surprise you when he shows up in the wisdom of a 12-yr old, or even a 3-yr old. Let Jesus surprise you when he shows up where you would not expect him to be.
In this season of Christmas, and next week as we move into Epiphany, my prayer is that as we live into the mystery that we celebrated on Christmas Eve—the mystery of the Word made flesh and dwelling among us—that we will be surprised at what that looks like in our lives. Because the message of Christmas Eve remains true—God has taken on human form. God lives among us in the person of Jesus. Today, God lives among us through the Spirit of Christ in the people around us. And we will find God in surprising places if we are willing to let our expectations of God ‘grow up’ and surprise us.