Scripture readings for today: 1 Sam. 2:18-20, 26 • Ps. 148 • Col. 3:12-17 • Luke 2:41-52
The Most Boring Story in the Gospels
Note to preacher: You may want to begin this sermon with an anecdote telling about a time you got lost as a child, or a time you thought you lost your child or grandchild. Share your sense of panic and relief.
It’s part of life—sometimes kids get lost. Seeing something glittery, or hearing a familiar song, they wander off. Maybe you got lost when you were a kid—it’s a terrible feeling when you realize you don’t know where you are; when surroundings and faces look strange to you. It’s like a scary dream. But when it’s one of your kids who is lost, the scary dream becomes a terrible nightmare. You run around like crazy, looking at all the kids of a certain size, but none have the familiar features. Not one looks back up at you and says, “Hey dad” or “Hey mom.”
Having my own kids, I don’t like to think about such a thing. I’ve often looked around frantically when I lost sight of them, but, thank God, I quickly found them. There was that huge shot of adrenaline thinking they were lost, but then came the joy and relief when I found them nearby. Then came my parental lecture: “Where have you been?” “What were you thinking?” And then words of forgiveness: “Come give me a big hug!”
There’s a similar story in Luke’s Gospel concerning Mary and Joseph and their young son Jesus. This is the only place the Bible gives information about Jesus’ childhood beyond his birth and flight into Egypt. Luke tells us that the young lad Jesus wandered off from his parents. Seems like a rather ordinary thing—everyday stuff. One commentator put it this way:
We begin Jesus’ childhood by the angels ripping open the sky announcing his birth, and we end it with someone saying his name over the PA system at a Walmart: “Could the parents of…..what did you say your name was, honey? Could the parents of Jesus of Nazareth come to the cosmetics counter please?”
In the midst of the excitement surrounding Jesus’ birth and his escape to Egypt, we have the odd story of Jesus getting lost at the mall—er, the temple. It’s as though there were some more exciting stories of Jesus laying around and this one fell into the wrong file. Given the seemingly unremarkable nature of this story, I’ve titled this sermon “The Most Boring Story in the Gospels.” Boring, of course, until you take a closer look and see it in the context of the whole story as told in the Gospels.
The story told in the Gospels, particularly in Luke, is a message about how all people, from every class, tribe and nation, have a moment at the manger. Think of the characters involved, starting with Elizabeth and Zechariah, then Mary and Joseph, then the Bethlehem innkeeper, the lowly shepherds, eventually the rich wise men from the East. The point is that Jesus came for everyone; his advent changes things for everybody.
Luke’s story of Jesus at the temple at age 12 is a bit of a palate-cleanser from the Christmas story (which has become rather sugary and familiar). It’s a common story—children wandering off, worried parents in a panic scurrying around to find them. Yet, it’s a unique story in the way it reveals who Jesus is, and what that means for us. Let me offer three points derived from the story: 1) Jesus at the threshold, 2) Jesus gets lost, and 3) Jesus in real life.
1. Jesus at the threshold
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. (Luke 2:41-42)
It was March or April in about AD 8. Given that it was the warm time of year, there would have been fresh flowers and singing birds—all the springtime imagery. By including such details, Luke is showing that Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews. Even more than that, because men were the only ones required to make the trip at Passover, Luke was showing Mary’s devotion in travelling with Joseph and taking along her son.
Travelling to Jerusalem from their home in Nazareth would be like travelling from a tiny country village in New Jersey to New York City. Jesus was a star-struck by what he found—Jerusalem. The temple, in particular, was the fountainhead of the identity of faithful Jews. Being in Jerusalem for the Passover Season was something to which all Jews looked forward.
As a 12-year-old, Jesus’ instruction in the Jewish faith would become even more intense. His parents would explain to Jesus why they went to the temple each year, and what the great story behind their people was all about. Age 12—the time in that culture of entering adulthood—was a time of learning and increased understanding, a threshold in life recognized pretty much the world over at that time. The body was going through puberty, the mind and emotions started changing drastically. It was on this threshold that Jesus was at the temple when he “should” have been with his parents.
2. Jesus gets lost
After the festival ended and Jesus’ parents began the trek home, unbeknownst to his parents, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Mistakenly thinking he was somewhere else in the travelling group, Joseph and Mary traveled on for a day.
It was a three-day journey back to Nazareth. The caravan in which they travelled would be like a group of minivans caravanning together in our day. It would not be strange for the parents to assume that their son was in another van with cousins. But when they pulled off the freeway to go to a Super Eight Motel, and went to find their teen and take him to the room for the night, the child was nowhere to be found! So they frantically went looking for him among the other relatives and friends in the caravan.
When Mary and Joseph did not locate Jesus in the caravan, they hurriedly returned to Jerusalem where, after three days, they found him in the temple. Think of it—three days!! Were we to lose our kids for three minutes, most of us would go into a cold sweat! We’d be looking in every doorway and back alley; the police station, all the hospitals, the arcades and fast-food restaurants.
A mother looking for her lost son is a common, yet highly evocative image. In literature, it’s called a “trope”—a certain action or situation that shows up in a lot of stories. This is the trope of human life, and in many ways the life of faith. Sometimes it’s like you can’t find God at all—no matter where you look. You even look in places that used to be familiar. God seemed to be present when I said this prayer or did this quiet time or went to this kind of church service, and then suddenly it seems my spiritual life is dry and dead and confusing. You’re looking in the doorways of those ideas or the back alleys of those old feelings, and you can’t find God. To mix metaphors, your frame doesn’t fit the picture anymore.
We can all think of study groups or accountability partnerships that seemed to “work” for us as Christians for a period of time, and then one day they didn’t seem to “work” anymore. We might initially panic, thinking God is lost or even worse, hiding. But the truth is much simpler, as we get older, although we’re thankful for the early study groups and the simple prayers that seemed to connect us with God, we grow in grace and knowledge and we find that godliness is a larger and more complex picture.
Though we may have “mastered” the habits of regular Bible study, something inside us is now saying, What’s next? What now? Okay, that part of the journey is complete, and I will walk in what I’ve learned, but there are new places to go, more to see. In such times you may be experiencing God calling you into serving others, participating in what he is doing. God may be calling you into a particular ministry—your part in his kingdom work. It may be that God is calling you into marriage and starting a family. Perhaps God is calling you into new relationships, new ways of being. Maybe he’s calling you into work that will be more fulfilling, even though more demanding.
Perhaps you find yourself now in one of those difficult in-between-times when God seems lost to you, when you have lost your bearings a bit. But then you seek after him like a mother looking for a lost child and you find him, and all is well, even if changed.
After three days they [Mary and Joseph] found Jesus in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. (Luke 2:46-48a)
We have to keep in mind that between Luke 2:40 and Luke 2:41, a decade has past—ten years since the visit of the wise men from the East and the blessing given Jesus by Simeon and Anna. Though we know nothing about those years, we assume that Jesus lived the life of a hard-working but well-loved Jewish kid growing up in Nazareth—a tiny blue-collar, back-water village. Maybe the memory of the miracles surrounding his birth were fading. Maybe Mary occasionally thought—”What actually happened?” Or Joseph thought—”Maybe that was all just a weird dream.” It wasn’t only the scribes and Pharisees who were amazed at Jesus’ answers, his parents were as well. There is Jesus, holding his own in the temple—a preteen holding court on the Senate floor, and everyone stops to listen!
Jesus’ parents would have been as shocked as anyone. Perhaps the memories came rushing back: the angels, the shepherds, the magi, the manger, the cold night they thought they might never survive. This is real; this is really happening!
I want to share a quote with you from CS Lewis, the great British Christian thinker. In the book Miracles, he writes this:
There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?
I’ve always loved that quote. Here we are just doing church, and suddenly Jesus shows up. Suddenly, it becomes clear again that we are dealing with a person—THE person, not a set of ideas, not a cultural structure, not a philosophical comfort blanket, not a mere concept.
These are the moments when we, like Mary and Joseph, walk into the temple to find Jesus doing what he’s always said he would do. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Luke 2:48b).
I love Mary’s wording. Even 2,000 years ago, in the Aramaic language, stressed-out parents use the phrasing we use: “Your father and I…” “Your father and I work too hard for you to… Your mother and I have been looking for you!”
“Why were you searching for me?” [Jesus] asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (Luke 2:49-50)
This is also translated, “I had to be about my father’s business.” In essence, Jesus is asking his parents, “Why are you surprised? You knew this was the deal. You knew I was going to be called to something different, that I wasn’t going to be just a kid from the old neighborhood.”
Jesus is at the age here, in that culture, and in most cultures throughout history, where he is proclaiming who he IS. He’s at that age where most of us start to develop an awareness that we are more than just a physical creature, that we have other levels of being. At that age, when Jewish males are given their bar-mitzvah, you start asking questions; you start to wonder.
Here Jesus’ personhood is coming out in more dimensions, and for him, his personhood is his God-hood as well. So we have this, the most “boring” and “everyday” of stories in the Gospels, becoming one of the most exciting—the moment that serves as a hinge between Jesus’ miraculous birth and his miraculous life.
I love that the story of Advent and Christmas funnels down to this. This week following Christmas Day is when many of us put the ornaments away and dispose of a badly shedding Christmas tree. The kids are playing with, breaking and getting bored of their new toys. “Real life” is back on: life that is straight up, sometimes boring, sometimes dramatic. Always exhausting old life is back in the house! That brings us to our third and final point:
3. Jesus in real life
After the shattering drama of the first two chapters, we come to the very real life of a tween on a family vacation. And that is what it comes down to again. We can have these great church services, these tearful moments and amazing singing, but what does that mean for us on Monday? Or better yet, what does Christmas mean for us in January? Maybe we had that time when we were very grateful, very aware, and spending some quality time with family and with what matters most—do we now go back to life as if nothing has happened?
Jesus, the same guy we met in those wonderful Christmas songs and those beautiful memories of Christmas gatherings and the intimacy with loved ones—it’s still here. Jesus is saying to us that things are different, that we are different. If our Christian life isn’t reflected in the way we treat the letter carrier, then we need to check ourselves. If our great spiritual depth isn’t shown in the way we relate to folks in daily life, in the good old friction of work and rest, intensity and boredom, then we should be questioning if we really are so “spiritually deep” after all.
Luke ends this section beautifully:
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:51)
This is said once before this—earlier in the chapter after the shepherds visited the manger. It was right in the middle of the drama and excitement of Jesus’ birth with statements made by visitors—both people and angels. Now, in this second instance, it’s in the midst of a very “real life” incident where Jesus gets separated from his parents. Still, Mary treasured all of this in her heart. She treasured the gifts of God, both the dramatic and the mundane. Can we do that? Can we see God and his gifts in our lives beyond Sunday morning? Can we see Jesus in the way we relate to our spouse after a long day or our kids when they drop all the popcorn on the floor?
So today, we looked at:
- Jesus at the threshold: Jesus declaring that his Father is first and foremost God.
- Jesus gets lost: There are times when God seems lost to us. This is part of the process, part of the journey. When he reveals himself again, let’s listen, let’s pay attention.
- Jesus in real life: Let’s not put Jesus away with the Christmas ornaments. He is in the rhythm of every day of the year.
The most “boring” story in the Gospels turns out to be one of the most exciting. Jesus is real and he wants you to enjoy the same relationship he has with Abba. Put Father first, listen and pay attention, get in the rhythm of making Jesus the center of your life.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- This week’s sermon tells the universal, relatable story of Jesus “getting lost” as a child. Can you share a personal story of getting lost or losing a child? The funnier the better, of course!
- Has Jesus ever seemed “lost” to you? Has there ever been a time when you grew spiritually or went through something, then looked around and couldn’t “find” Jesus? How did you find him again? How did he draw you back to himself?
- The sermon shared a quote from C.S. Lewis’s classic book Miracles: “There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion…suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” Have you had the experience of God making his presence suddenly known to you?—as Lewis puts it, of “a real footstep in the hall”?
- It can be difficult to go from the emotional warmth and feasting of Christmas back to “real life.” It can seem like Jesus getting “lost.” What lessons from this year’s Advent Season and Christmas Day can we take into our “real life” ahead? What has changed for us—how will this year be different from last year? How can we keep the message of the Incarnation (Jesus coming into “real life” with us) in the forefront of our minds?