Scripture: Luke 2:41-51
It was a beautiful Spring Saturday in 2014. At this time Connor was four and was enjoying the weather playing outside. It was my job to keep an eye on him while also doing some Spring Cleaning. In doing so, I left the backyard to take something or another to the front yard, and when I came back he was gone. I had just been in the exterior garage and the door was open, so I checked that. He was not there. Assuming he had went inside, I went to check and did not see him. Abigail confirmed he was not inside. At this point I started to get a little panicked. I went back outside and checked the alley, no there. My heart really began to race. I ran around the block calling his name. True panic was setting in and I began to jump to all of the worst case scenarios. We lived in a parsonage that was right next to the church. It was Saturday, and no events were happening so it should have been locked up. However, completely out of options I check inside the church and that is where I found him. It turns out that in the time I had went to the front yard, his Sunday school teacher had walked to the back kitchen door, Connor saw her and followed her in. All told he was missing for less than three minutes, but those were some of the scariest moments of my life. I tell this story, because I can in some small measure begin to appreciate how Mary and Joseph must have felt. However, my experience only barely compares to the one in this morning scripture. My child was missing for three minutes not three days and I did not have to search an entire city to find him.
On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but after that event the bible skips ahead. In all four gospels we only get two or three stories of Jesus before he is a full grown man. There is a story just after Jesus is born and presented at the temple. Some point when Jesus is a toddler, the Magi visit him in the gospel of Matthew and then we get this story of the age of twelve. The bible is quick to celebrate baby Jesus but then moves on to Jesus the rabbi. On the flipside, a strong and pervasive cultural Christmas message is this idea of keeping the spirit of Christmas year round. This message is repeated in various ways in a variety of Christmas specials but perhaps none state it so clearly as the Sesame Street Christmas special which ends with a song where Big Bird and friends sing, “the goodness of loving; the gladness of living these are Christmas too; So, keep Christmas with you all through the year.”
While the goodness of loving and gladness in life are important, I would argue they are not the true spirit of Christmas. The true spirit of Christmas is the incarnation, it is the reality that God is with us, and is a light shining into the darkness. The bible does not dwell much on Jesus as a child but this story we do have I think points exactly how we can keep Christmas with us all through the year.
The story in this morning’s scripture can cause us to have some questions. I think the first and biggest one is how did Mary and Joseph lose Jesus for a whole day? I do think the context can help fill in the details. This event happened at the end of the Passover festival. Passover was and is to this day a big deal in Jewish worship, and it is likely that many of the towns and villages of Galilee emptied out as those who were able made the journey to Jerusalem for the festival. If everyone is going to the same place by the same way, it makes a lot of sense to travel together. There is safety in numbers, there is immediate help if needed, and resources can be pooled and shared. It is likely that every year Mary, Joseph, and Jesus made the same trip, with the same people. They were not journeying with strangers, they were traveling with a large caravan of family, friends, and close acquaintances. Given that, it begins to make more sense how they lost track of Jesus. They were with people they felt safe with, and they had made this journey for several years. They were probably used to a young Jesus running to be with friends as they walked the journey. There had probably been other years where they made the journey and from the time they started in the morning, to the time they made camp, never saw Jesus as he was somewhere else within the group. I can imagine that first night, probably somewhere around Jericho, when everything began to settle and Jesus did not come and find Mary and Joseph. I can imagine how the initial uneasiness, turned into panic, which blossomed into full hysteria as they began to imagine the worst case scenarios.
The other head scratching thing about this story, is how Jesus spent three days without parents in the temple courts. After all, that is the same amount of time that Kevin Mcallister is Home Alone and apparently everyone is cool with Jesus hanging out in the temple courts. Again, in the context this begins to make a bit more sense. First, Jerusalem still would have had excess people. Passover was the biggest of the three annual Jewish celebrations, and it is likely that those who had to travel far may have planned a longer stay in the city. Second, the temple courts was the “third place” of the city. It was the place people congregated and went to. There were always traveling rabbis, teachers of the law, and other people present to engage with, learn from, or debate with. Given all of that activity, a single boy would not have garnered that much attention initially. It was not even that odd for a twelve year old boy to engage with the teachers of the law. The book of Jewish tradition, the Talmud, records oral traditions that date back to before the first century. One of the things it contains is the “age of majority”, at what age a boy is to fully engage in Jewish religious life. The Talmud sets the age of majority at 13, but does state if a child is ready before then, they should be included before then. At twelve, the teachers of the law would have seen Jesus as a boy moving into the age of majority. Jesus was at an age where he was supposed to begin carrying and engaging fully with the Jewish religious practices, and likely the Jewish religious teachers were thrilled when the young Jesus first showed so much interest. That initial impression likely developed into absolute awe as Jesus began to show how much he knew and understood.
The response that Jesus gives to Mary and Joseph when they finally find him point us to how we find the Christmas Spirit year round. Jesus said to them, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Jesus was compelled to be where God was. The Jewish belief at the time is the temple was a sacred location. Inside the temple there was the “holy of holies”. This physical place was understood to be the single spot on earth where the presence of God was greatest. It was the understanding of the time that it was only in the temple that one could truly encounter the actual presence of God. From the first century Jewish perspective, Jesus was saying that he would naturally be as close to God as possible, that he would be where God was going to be.
Today from our modern, Christian perspective, we believe that the presence of God is more than just in the temple. We believe that because of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God is with us. We believe that we can encounter God anywhere in the world, but in the gospels we can find at least two specific instances of where we can encounter Christ. First, Jesus said “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am among them.” When followers of Christ gather together, we can and we should encounter the divine. If we take Jesus at his word, then that means whenever we gather together it should be possible to experience and know the grace, love, and peace that can only come from God. We often refer to the sanctuary as “God’s house”, and that is because we build our buildings dedicated to God and as a place to gather to worship and encounter God. However, it is not the building that brings God’s presence here. God is here in this place because whenever two or more gathered in his name, then God is with us. We keep the Spirit of Christmas year round when we regularly seek to encounter God and the most reliable way to do that is when we gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ in our Father’s house.
However, gathering with other believers to worship is not the only way we can encounter God. If we could only encounter God inside church walls, then that would not be much different than the temple system. Jesus also made it clear that we encounter him outside our buildings because Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.” We encounter God when we go to where God is. The bible is consistent from book to book that God is where the people need God the most. We find God among the lost, the hurting, the marginalized, and those in need of hope. When we leave our sanctuary and go out into the world to serve those most in need then we encounter God. When we give of our time and resources to serve those who have the least then we work side by side with our Creator. When we have compassion and mercy on those that others past judgement upon, then God is with us. When we serve in love and in the name of Christ then we do find the Spirit of Christmas is with us year round.
Over the next week our holiday celebrations will wind down, decorations will be put back into boxes, and we will settle back into normal routines for a new year. May we not stop celebrating and marveling over the true reason for Christmas, the incarnational truth that God is with us. May we continue to seek this true Spirit of Christmas by committing to worshipping God in fellowship with one another and may we celebrate that God is with us by living our faith out and serving the people God cares for. For it is only in doing these things that we keep Christmas with us throughout the year.