Saturday, 25 March 2017

Sunday Sermon. Luke 2.41-52: Jesus goes missing on Mothers' Day

Luke 2.41-52


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. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him 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. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he 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. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

This is one of those Gospel stories we’ve all heard before: it’s a familiar text to most of us but I wonder if anyone knows what it is that’s unusual about it?

This is the only story of Jesus’ childhood recorded in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark and John don’t have it.

Our text not only tells us about the young Jesus, but also a lot about his parents. Earlier in the Gospel we learn that eight days after Jesus' birth he was circumcised and that as an infant he was presented in the Temple according to the religious custom and our text today begins by telling us that every year his parents would go from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.

So, what do we learn about them? That they were a couple who were very devout in keeping the Jewish Law. Even though there is nothing else written about the young Jesus in scriptures, we know that he grew up with parents who made it a habit of obeying the Law so we can be pretty confident that he would have grown up learning good habits from his parents.

So, we begin today with the party travelling on foot to Jerusalem, probably covering about 15 miles a day, so their journey would have taken four or five days in all. That’s not a trip to be undertaken lightly, particularly as Mary and Joseph were taking their young son with them for the first time. They travelled as a large party because such travel was dangerous and there was safety in numbers. This may be one of the reasons Mary and Joseph were so anxious: it wasn’t just about the possibility of a lost son and Joseph being made to look like an irresponsible father: having had to return to Jerusalem, the family were now several days behind the rest of their kin and trusted neighbours and so were potentially in very real danger.

There’s a little theological gem hidden here too because this incident mirrors the later idea that leaving family and friends to follow Jesus is a potentially costly activity.

Look, we’re doing theology!

And we continue to do theology when we consider the paradox in the passage that Jesus is presented as both son of Joseph and Son of God. Mary asks, "Child, why have you treated us in this way? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Jesus responds to his parents' concern with two questions: "Why were you searching for me?" "Did you not know that I must be in my father's house? These are the first words Jesus speaks in Luke and they are a real clue to what follows in Jesus’ ministry. Because of the amazement of the crowd focused on his answers to the religious leaders in the Temple, he is in effect teaching the teachers. We have to understand that back then biblical interpretation was a spectator sport. It was competitive exhibition. Those religious leaders wrestled with the text and verbally wrestled with each other. And Jesus was fully engaged in the process. He belonged there. Luke tells it like this: He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. And he wasn’t out of his depth, either. Twelve-year-old Jesus was no beginner when it came to interpreting the sacred words. Everyone who heard him was impressed by his understanding and his answers. He was holding his own.

And this is precisely the activity of Jesus that Luke emphasizes at the climax of his ministry before the passion narrative when Jesus again responds to the questions put him in the Temple precincts by Jewish leaders which Luke calls teaching in the Temple. It’s ironic that those who marvelled at his understanding as a child would be scandalized by his words and his teaching as an adult, by his interpretation of the very words of scripture that he’d read in their presence, threatened by the questions he continued to ask and threatened by the answers that he gave.  It was these same priests and Levites, the doctors, the scholars who’d been amazed by his wisdom as a child who’d whip up the crowd into a frenzy and demand that Jesus the man be crucified as a blasphemer.

Have any of you ever seen the film “Home Alone”? “Home Alone” and Jesus being left in the temple share the same basic plot.

In both stories, an extended family goes to a faraway place to celebrate a holiday. And because of a miscommunication, a boy is left behind. No one notices for a while, because everyone assumes he’s with other relatives. When they realize their son is not with them, his parents freak out and spend days frantically trying to get back to him. And when they find him, it turns out he’s taken care of himself just fine. In fact, he’s capable of holding his own with even the most wily of adults. The boy Kevin in “Home Alone” proves this by going head-to-head with two career burglars. Jesus proves it by going head-to-head with the Bible scholars in the temple.

Jesus was never lost. To his parents, he was missing. But he was never lost. He knew exactly where he was. And he knew why he was there. Jesus was right where he was supposed to be, doing just what his Father God put him here to do.

But Luke says that his parents didn’t understand.

From Luke’s perspective, if anyone was lost that day, it was Mary and Joseph. They didn’t know where Jesus was. They were confused. They didn’t know what was going on.

Sometimes who is lost and who is found is completely a matter of perspective.

Today’s gospel is a story about growing up but it is not Jesus’ growing up. It is about Mary and Joseph growing up. It is about you and me growing up. Growing up is not about how old we are. It is really about moving into deeper and more authentic relationships with God, our world, each other, and ourselves.

Jesus has put the Father at the centre of his world and asks Mary, Joseph and us to do the same.

But today is Mothering Sunday, so is there anything from today’s passage that we can learn from about Mary’s relationship with Jesus?

Well, we’ve already noted that Mary wasn’t above chiding Jesus when she felt he had crossed a line and I’m sure most of us are the people we are today because our own mothers, out of love, took us on one side and spelt one or two things out to us about our behaviour and attitude, especially when it was perceived to be disrespectful, selfish or thoughtless. Just think back for a moment. Can you recollect such an occasion in your own relationship with your mother? Try and think what the trigger was in your own behaviour and then think about your mother’s motives and concerns. Why did she tell you off then and why did she continue to do so as the circumstances demanded?

It’s easy isn’t it? Our mothers, like Mary in today’s Gospel passage, had our best interests at heart. It was about showing us what we’d done wrong and showing us a better way to behave or what better attitudes to hold. Why? To make us better, less selfish people; to instil in us life-skills that would help us to be better rounded and more independent people; more socially able adults who are better able to make good decisions and choices for our own welfare and the benefit of those around us.

But I think the main clue can be found in the concluding verses of today’s passage, “His mother treasured all of these things in her heart.” This is the second time in this Gospel that Luke uses this phrase and it says something about the nature of motherhood: our mothers remember everything!

Let’s be honest though: we didn’t always appreciate the reminiscences did we? My mother had this infinite capacity after one or two gins too many to regale us at family events with anecdotes from my childhood and teenage years but, embarrassing as those anecdotes were, they came from a deep pride and affection and I soon realised that not much had got past her. But as I got older I was able to see the funny side of her stories and to appreciate my own youthful foolishness and misunderstandings. It’s also worth remembering that if anyone tried to be critical or snide with me about those events she was the first one to leap to my defence – and she could be formidable when roused!

I think today’s passage also tells us something very special about that mother/child relationship: in the same way that Mary – and Joseph – had to adjust to their son’s developing maturity and his sense of self, so our mothers did too: our relationships with them as adults were very far removed from the ones we had with them when we were children. Just as Jesus helped his parents to change their views and attitudes and to see new perspectives, so it was with us as we also grew, matured, developed independence, distinct personalities and a sense of self, even if that wasn’t always easy for them: the balance in the relationship will have subtly shifted – maybe several times – as we got older and we can see this at work in today’s passage.

So, today we come not just to hear the Gospel, to pray, to take our communion  and worship but to celebrate our own Marys; to give thanks to God for them and to remember them with deep love and affection, for all their faults, understanding that we are who we are today because of them.

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