Searching for Jesus
Our baby boy is growing up so fast! It feels like he was just born, and now here he is, 12 years old, already a precocious tween trying to assert his independence! This passage from the gospel of Luke is the one story of Jesus that we have in the Bible in between his birth and the beginning of his ministry at the age of 30. Jesus is 12, and we’re told that he is with his parents on their annual journey into Jerusalem for the Passover festival; after they leave with their caravan to head home, they discover Jesus isn’t with them, so they return to Jerusalem and after a three-day search they find him in the Temple, chatting with the scholars.
Often the first thing that people notice in this text is that it took Mary and Joseph a full day to notice that Jesus was missing. To modern ears this sounds absolutely reprehensible and downright irresponsible; what happened to the noble and courageous parents we heard about last week in the Christmas story? Well, it’s important to remember that this was a different world they were living in than the one we know now, where parents have 24-hour knowledge of their kids’ coming and going, and communication is as fast as a text message. There was no “helicopter parenting” in that time.
No, this was a world where extended families lived together in a close-knit web of interdependence and mutual trust. It really did take a village to raise a child, and the caravan of which they were a part would have been made up of many, many people, many of them probably related to Jesus in some way. As hard as it is for us to imagine, it would not be unreasonable at all for Mary and Joseph to set out from Jerusalem with the expectation that their son was with other relatives somewhere else in the group. Besides, 12 years old then was not the same thing as 12 years old now. In fact, at the age of 12 at that time, and as the oldest son, Jesus would have been of an age when boys were almost considered to be men.
But Mary says to him, “child, why have you treated us this way?” indicating that in her mother’s eyes he is still her little boy; and finding that he was missing, and the thought of him being on his own in the city of Jerusalem with all of the people, many of them corrupt; and the though of him having to find his way back to Nazareth through Samaria where Jews were hated – all of which would have been extremely dangerous, even for a full-grown man – must have caused Mary and Joseph tremendous anxiety.
I’m sure any parent can relate to how they must have felt when they realized their son was not with the caravan as he should have been, and not knowing what had happened to him. A good friend of mine told me the story of how she once lost her then 2-year-old daughter in Venice for an agonizing 2 hours. Her daughter is now 17, so it all turned out well, but for my friend it was the most distressing experience of her life, and she admits that in her moment of utter fear and dismay, as she wept she began praying to Mother Mary, despite not being Roman Catholic. In her moment of desperation, it seemed the most natural thing that gentle Mary would be able to relate to a mother’s fear; that Mary would understand.
The breadth of experiences Mary must have had while raising Jesus would probably put any mother’s nerves to the test; this was probably just one of many. But once Mary overcame her initial emotion at finding Jesus and wondering why he had done this to them – and you can hear the mother-guilt in her voice when she asks him: “Why have you treated us like this?” – the Bible tells us that “she treasured these things in her heart.” The words echo back to the manger scene, when the shepherds arrived and told her what the angel had revealed to them; there too, we’re told that Mary was amazed, and that she treasured their words and pondered them in her heart. With 12 years in between these two events, we can only imagine how many amazing events and astonishing words Mary had treasured in her heart about her special boy.
With these two amazing events we know about – the angel & shepherds’ words to Mary and the 12-year old boy in the temple – and with the who-knows-how-many other wondrous scenes Mary and Joseph witnessed and treasured in their hearts over the course of twelve years, we can’t help but wonder too why she was worried about Jesus; why she still didn’t seem to be grasping the reality of who her son was; why she didn’t understand what Jesus said to her. The angel Gabriel told her; the shepherds and magi told her; Simeon and Anna told her when Mary and Joseph presented him at the temple…and all that was just in the first 8 days of his life! So when they run into the temple and find their 12-year-old son there, Jesus says, “why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” And we wonder, “yes, why didn’t you know already?”
I wonder if she just felt a greater sense of responsibility to not lose him; kind of like when your best friend asks you to look after her puppy for a week. It’s terrible to lose your own pet, but to lose a friends’ makes you feel that much worse. Maybe that’s how Mary felt about raising God’s son.
Despite all of this, though, I think we can forgive Mary and Joseph for not “getting it,” for not grasping the magnitude of what was happening with their son. This was no ordinary 12-year-old boy! And as we continue to read through the gospel stories about Jesus’ life, “not getting it” is a recurring theme among the people who walked with him in flesh and bone, even his closest friends and family. Those of us reading through the gospel of Mark in the Tuesday and Wednesday Bible Study groups are getting a constant reminder of how the people in Jesus’ life, including his own disciples, just could not understand what he was doing or what his life and mission were about. They thought they knew, but then the things he was saying and doing ran contrary to their expectations, despite having been prophesied in the Old Testament.
As Christians, we have access to over 2000 years’ worth of Christian witness about who Jesus is, and yet today many are still anxiously searching, trying to figure out who He is in our own lives. I think Jesus could ask us the same question he asked his parents: “why were you searching for me? Did you not know where you would find me?”
In a culture that places such a high value on economics, consumerism and technology, as well as financial, professional and personal success, we’ve kind of gone on with our lives the way Mary and Joseph did, leaving Jesus behind. So many people now give very little thought to faith, God, spirituality and especially Jesus, and have been so distracted that they haven’t even noticed he’s missing. As a result, ours is one of the most affluent yet spiritually hungry generations in history. But Jesus is right where he always has been; He is still who he said He was.
And yet people in our generation have a deep spiritual hunger, but seek to satisfy that hunger in so many ways outside of God: through career and financial success, the acquisition of material goods, sexual relationships, or even hobbies and cultural activities; but with no grounding in a faith tradition and no relationship with God, it’s hard to know what the meaning is in all those things; and so nothing truly satisfies that hunger and we keep searching for something else, something new and exciting, something that promises to give our lives meaning.
The spirituality section in the bookstore has hundreds of different books, all promising to give your life meaning and happiness; but only one of those books has stood the true test of time. New Age spiritualities and other world religions are on the rise as people try to understand the meaning of life and the universe, and these beliefs seem novel and exotic to us. And people treat religions like a spiritual buffet, picking a little bit from here and from there, whatever looks good, and leaving the things that don’t seem appealing.
A religious buffet is actually quite convenient, because we can fashion ourselves a God who conforms to our image; we can make Him to be who we think he ought to be, rather than us accepting Him for who He says He is, or having to change anything about our beliefs and assumptions. But a God conformed to our image is a domesticated god, and is certainly not going to satisfy our spiritual hunger. And the more we search for the God who will give our lives meaning, the more we miss the one who is right where He has always been.
Some of the aspects of traditional Christianity that leave a bad taste in our post-modern mouths, for example, the things we find hard to understand are things like sin and our need for forgiveness – we want a God who will tell us that we’re perfect just the way we are. And the cross…we definitely don’t like this messy business about the cross; why does that have to be a part of it all? It’s such a downer. The problem is, we know our lives aren’t perfect just the way we are, and it is often in the most uncomfortable and surprising places where we actually find Jesus! We find him in a smelly manger, not a palace fit for a King. We find him with the sinners and lepers; we find him on the cross. This is what he came for. If we want a feel-good religion with no sin, then there is no need for forgiveness or redemption; no need for the cross; no need for Jesus to even be born. All the aspects of our faith that offer hope and comfort are suddenly superfluous.
But this scripture passage shows us that we also find Him in the Temple, with the teachers, in discussions about doctrine and scripture. Do we find Jesus in the church, which is what most of us would naturally consider to be the “My Father’s House” that Jesus was referring to? In fact, he was referring to the Temple, because at that time people understood that to be the place where God actually resided. Today, though, is church the only place we consider to be “My Father’s House?” Is it the only place where we might find God? Of course not – we experience the presence of God in many places. If God is living in our hearts then we can experience Him wherever we go.
But what about the church? Probably all of us come because we do experience God here. But we’re all also very aware that a lot of people no longer come to church, that the church is not a part of their spiritual lives or their search for meaning. And there are studies that have shown that millennials who leave the church do so because, in fact, they don’t experience God there. I think there can be many reasons for that, but one that has been discovered in studies is that the traditions that many of us who grew up in the church consider sacred and meaningful seem dead and irrelevant to those who didn’t grow up with them, especially if those traditions are done out of habit – as in, “that’s just how we do things here” – without understanding the origins and deeper meaning of the traditions, or if the traditions are disconnected from deep, authentic and loving relationships.
Carey Nieuwhof, a pastor who has written extensively on the relationship between millennials and the church, says that among the things adults under 40 look for when checking out a church are things like the character of the leaders; integrity and a deep sense of mission; they look for churches that nurture deeper relationships through small group meetings and fellowship. They don’t feel like they have found Jesus in a church if the lives of the people who go to that church look nothing like Jesus’ life.
I agree with all that, but I would also argue that, while people can certainly experience the presence of Jesus in other places, the church – even an imperfect church - is an essential part of a Christian’s relationship with Jesus, and without being engaged in the life of a church community, we will never come close to understanding who Jesus is. The church is a place where people will find Jesus in two ways: through the teaching and exploration of biblical doctrine and spiritual disciplines, without which we’ll have just a nice idea of Jesus that we’ve made up in our head or taken from the media’s portrait of Jesus; and the other way is through the nurturing of loving, authentic relationships where people can be themselves – warts and all, as they say – and know that they are still loved and valued.
That’s the kind of close, honest relationship that Jesus had with all those who knew Him, including his parents. He would not hide himself from them, nor would he try to do anything to upset them, which is why he asks: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know where I would be?” He reminds them that they know him – he is still the boy the angel told them about; they know who he is.
God had never kept his true identity a secret from them. The stories of his birth and infancy that we hear so often show us that God included Mary and Joseph, telling them exactly what His plan was for Jesus, and always giving them the opportunity to trust and accept Him or turn away in fear, because it was not an easy task he was calling them to. God didn’t hide anything from them, and Jesus was not hiding from them in Jerusalem. He was out in the open, in the most public place in all of Jerusalem. It was the most natural place for Jesus to be, in the temple. The temple was where God lived, and that was where Jesus was to be found.
Jesus does not hide from us; he has told us where we might find Him. Jesus shows us exactly who He is - when we read the scriptures, when we read and meditate on the stories of His life, when we listen to His words and read about his acts of compassion and faithfulness; when we read the testimonies of those who knew him when He walked the earth. He tells us exactly who He is, and He is clear that following Him is not an easy path. The choice is ours: we can find him right where he said he’d be, or we can keep searching, keep trying to make Him be who we want Him to be. But following him, finding Him where He is, comes with the promise of eternal life, which cannot be found anywhere else.
Where do we find Him and how can we know Him? 2000 years of Christian witness shows us that He speaks to us when we pray, He guides us when we seek Him in the Scriptures, and He revives our spirits in worship. Jesus does not hide himself from us, nor is He absent. He wants us to quit searching, and come to where He is to be found: in scripture, in prayer, and in the community of other disciples.
Furthermore, Jesus himself is the answer to all the things we are searching for. If you’re looking for love and affirmation, Jesus loves you enough to die for you – you’re worth that much to Him. And He is always with you so that you are never alone and never have to feel lonely. If you’re looking for understanding, Jesus has known you since before you were born, and understands all of the trials and emotions of human living that you may be experiencing. If you’re looking for the meaning of your life, Jesus guides you according to His purpose for your life into the place where you will find your deepest meaning and fulfillment.
Jesus wants to be known by us, which is why he came into the world as a baby and grew into a man. Just when we think we know him, or when we start to take him for granted in our lives – as Mary and Joseph did - then he does something that we weren’t expecting, demonstrating anew the greatness of his love and wisdom, just as He did with Mary and Joseph, and we can treasure those experiences in our hearts.
N.T. Wright says this about Jesus: “Finding him, of course, will normally involve a surprise. Jesus didn’t do what Mary and Joseph…were expecting. It will be like that for us too. Every time we relax and think we’ve really understood him, he will be up ahead, or perhaps staying behind while we go on without thinking. Discipleship always involves the unexpected.”
It’s true. I was surprised by a new understanding of who Jesus is about four years ago when I learned the practice of “Listening Prayer,” which I will be teaching in May in the “Hearing God” course.
I had been looking for Jesus in textbooks and classrooms. I was making it so complicated for myself! You can get to know a lot about Jesus by reading books, but you can’t know Jesus through textbooks any more than you can know me by reading my bio on the church website. The only way you’ll know me and I’ll know you is if we sit down and have a coffee and talk together.
It’s the same thing with Jesus: after so much searching, we finally know Him by having a relationship with Him, through scripture, prayer and worship. And that’s when he asks us, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” He’s right there waiting for us. Amen.