NRSV LUKE 2:41-52
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.
45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
In another 48 hours we will be into a new year. We usually spend most of these first few days recollecting about the past year, planning what we are going to be doing the next year, and then before you know it we are into that popular refrain that goes: “Are we really one-quarter/one-half/three quarters done with this year?! Where did the time go?”
Probably where all time goes, in a hurry, much more of a hurry than we are comfortable with, especially as you get older. We are experts on doing all kinds of planning and then putting those plans on the shelf and letting the time go by. That’s not an accusation or a condemnation; it’s just the way it is. We all do it. We have all kinds of great plans, and then life happens and we are back to doing what is urgent at the expense of what is important.
In this congregation we would be well advised not to do that too much this year. This will be a special time for us, in that this is our 175th anniversary as a chartered congregation. It’s a time for us to take stock of who we are, where we have come from, and begin a serious look at where we are going. Rather than just drift on by, taking on Lent then Easter then Pentecost, then back to Advent and Christmas, this would be a great year for us as a congregation to stop, reflect and set some goals.
We always try to do that, as a church and as individuals. Some of us are better at it than others, but my guess is that all of us fall into the pattern of making great plans but then things happen and life takes another turn. Or we just stay stuck in where we are, doing the same old things the same old way. As noted church consultant Gil Rendle is fond of saying, “When you don’t know what to do, you will do what you have always done.”
Maybe we are just stuck in old patterns. Maybe we just don’t like change (in a way, who does?). But maybe it is because we just don’t know. We don’t know where to start with this whole planning thing – as a congregation, as human beings who know that “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.” We don’t know what the future will hold, any more than we did last year at this time, or any other December 30th. We just don’t know. The future is a puzzle to us. And sometimes, just like Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christmas Carol fame, it is the future that scares us most of all
It’s not telling you anything that you already know, but a part of that fear comes from how we are rapidly changing – as a church, as a society, as a culture. There are paradigm shifts everywhere; my wife has to deal with them in the medical field; those of you who are or have been teachers know all about that from your work or from what you have heard from your former colleagues. As a nation we are moving away from engagement with the world, and in many ways with each other. The gridlock in Washington that has resulted in the government shutdown is a reflection of where we are as a people. We talk to those with whom we agree, and we generally avoid those with whom we have disagreements.
It’s not that we are generally disagreeable. We just don’t know what’s coming. Everything is changing so fast it makes our heads spin. It’s one thing when we get the latest computer gadget and hand it over to our kids or grandkids to figure out, and maybe they will explain it to us. It’s another to look on a world that is now so much more different than the one many of us grew up in. Trying to get a handle on what is coming is difficult if not impossible, even for the most erudite in planning.
Our newest church officers are probably not enjoying all of this “woe is us” stuff coming from the preacher. After all they bring a batch of new energy – we hope – to our Session, along with new ideas, even if two of them have been in this rodeo before. But it’s true – the church has always been evolving; it just seems that in these days that evolution has taken on rapid speed, and in ways no one could have predicted.
But that is not all bad.
When all around is coming loose, it throws you more on to the arms of a loving God. Noted 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards – a Presbyterian, I might add – preached on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which he took the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and went with it, scaring the living daylights out of everyone. These days that kind of preaching just makes outsiders laugh and insiders think “That’s why people don’t come to church anymore.” These days when everything is all over the place we can do better than have a collective guilt trip. We need to become more sensitive and aware of God’s movement in our lives. More trusting that God has a handle on us and on this world God created. That all of this ‘what’s not nailed down is coming loose’ might yet be the movement of the Holy Spirit, getting us to lean on the divine everlasting arms a little bit more.
But first we have to let go of our certainty. We have to let go of our need to know exactly what is going on and why, and exactly how we are going to fix everything. Sure, there are things we can do, there are always events we need to plan for. But if we become our own god having to control everything without taking the time to sit still and listen to what the Creator might have in mind, we have lost our way, lost our God, lost our minds.
Sometimes, in other words, it is okay not to know. It is okay not to have all the answers – or maybe even any of the answers.
This story out of the second chapter of Luke fills in some of the blanks many of us have about Jesus’ childhood. But it doesn’t fill in too many. This is the only story we have of Jesus between birth and 30 in the Gospels. Yes, we do have other stories about Jesus turning nasty playmates into stone, and creating birds out of clay. But those were all written hundreds of years after Jesus was around. Luke was writing about 30 years after Jesus’ death, but he had heard enough about this event to put it into his Gospel.
It’s kind of a parental horror story; your family goes on a long trip – in this case, the annual journey to the holy city of Jerusalem for the Passover, the main religious festival. While there the kid gets separated from his parents, but they think he is with someone else, maybe it had happened before. But then they can’t find him for dinner, and all panic sets in.
They go back to the big city and for three days they are all over the place, looking for him. You might wonder why they didn’t start at the Temple and go from there, but that is where they find him, talking with the teachers, asking questions that demonstrate that this is no ordinary 12 year old. As any parent would – I know I sure would – they get on him about giving them a near coronary, searching everywhere for him, worrying about what was going on with him.
His answer to them – “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – is not one I would have gotten away with; nor is it one I would have accepted with very much grace from one of my kids. ‘Who do you think you are, the Son of God,’ I might have said to an answer like that. But Luke doesn’t give us their words. He just gives us their astonishment; their inability to understand.
It wasn’t that they would not get it. It was that they could not get it. It was beyond them. They did not understand. And as David Keck, former pastor of College Presbyterian Church at Hampden-Sydney who is now the chaplain at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida wrote:
“That Mary and Joseph don’t understand is significant for the church. Jesus’ opening words in each of the Gospels are disruptively startling not only for those not yet in the know, but also (if we are honest) for those of us who are already part of the Jesus saga. Perhaps Mary, to her credit, treasures the story because she does not yet understand. From Gabriel’s initial message through the shepherds tracking her down in Bethlehem, astounding events have been buffeting her world. Now she has a rebuke from her son to wrestle with. She’s honest enough to know she’s got some further thinking to do.
“When Christians and churches get comfortable with Jesus – when like his parents we presume to know where he should be and what he should be doing – Jesus rebukes us with what should have been obvious. He is not where we think he is supposed to be, rather he is doing the work of his heavenly Father. At such times, Jesus goes all the way back to what he said at the very beginning.
“Jesus turns, looks us in the eye, and asks us one more time, ‘What exactly, are you looking for?’”
Not a bad question to end 2018 and start 2019. What are you looking for? What are we looking for? What are these new officers, and all of our elders, looking for as they lead us into a new year? We are we looking for as we plan, dream, hope in the year to come? More programs? More things to do? More items we can check off our list of busyness to show that we actually accomplished something this year?
Or is it something deeper; a greater awareness of the presence of the Father in our lives. A greater sensitivity to the teachings of Jesus, and how we may live them out in lifting up the fallen, speaking out for the oppressed, giving hope to the despairing, and spending time with the little ones. A greater openness to the movement of God’s Spirit around us and within us; the Spirit who moves like the wind and refreshes us with new life. But a new life that may very well challenge us in that it demands that we let some things go so that we can be more open to a Spirit-filled new life.
We come to celebrate the call that these new officers have answered; the call of God to serve and be used as instruments of God’s grace and peace in this church and in this world. But the call is also for each and every one of us. The call to be open to the new life God has given to us. A new life that challenges us but also excites us with new possibilities and new ways to embrace others also made in God’s image.
What are you looking for? May God bless us all – new officers, old officers, new members, old members, staff – with eyes to see that new life that God has for us, and to follow the call Jesus has given to each of us. Even in these fast changing times. Amen.