Home Alone: Found in Jerusalem

Goose Pond UMC
December 30, 2018

Merry Christmas!

In the liturgical calendar, Christmas is not just a day, it’s a season — a season which starts on December 25 and lasts for 12 days. That’s where the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” comes from.

Of course, in our culture, we tend to start celebrating Christmas early. During the season of Advent, when we’re supposed to be looking forward to Jesus’ coming, we get ahead of ourselves, and celebrate as if Christmas were already here. And of course, for commercial reasons, the people who want to sell us things start pushing the start of the Christmas season earlier, and earlier, and earlier.

It becomes kind of overwhelming — and then, once December 25 has come and gone, we’re over Christmas, and already looking forward to the schedule of New Year’s Day bowl games.

But right now, on the liturgical calendar, it’s still Christmas. We are still celebrating the coming of Jesus.

This morning, our lectionary passage is not about the baby Jesus; it’s really the only glimpse we have of Jesus as a child.

Heinrich Hoffman, Jesus in the Temple, 1881

Luke 2:41–52 (CEB)

Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were shocked.
His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”
Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” But they didn’t understand what he said to them.
Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.

In modern Jewish culture, a child of a certain age becomes responsible for following the laws of Moses. They are considered an adult in terms of religious requirements, in terms of their own spiritual destiny, even if they’re still a child in other aspects of life. It’s the age of accountability. That age is 13 for boys or 12 for girls.

You may have heard the term “bar mitzvah” on movies or TV shows; it’s often celebrated with a party, and presents, but the term bar mitzvah doesn’t actually refer to the party; the child reaches the age of bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah, the term for girls) whether or not there’s a party, just as you have a birthday and become a year older whether you choose to celebrate your birthday or not. The terms “bar mitzvah” and “bat mitzvah” mean “son of the law” and “daughter of the law.”

Jesus, at the time of today’s scripture, is 12 years old, and the commentator William Barclay seems to indicate that in Jesus’ day, a boy was considered bar mitzvah at 12 instead of at 13. So Jesus is an adult in the eyes of Jewish law.
At the same time, Jesus is apparently becoming aware of his true nature. 
The family had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover.

The laws of Moses required any adult male Jew who lived within 15 miles of Jerusalem to attend the Passover. But every good Jew would want to do so, at least once in their lifetime and preferably as often as possible.

Nazareth is 65 miles away from Jerusalem as the crow flies, but 90 highway miles away. I wasn’t able to find a mileage for the most likely route that would have been traveled between the two cities back in Jesus’ day. I’m assuming it was somewhere between the two — something between 65 and 90 miles on foot (or riding an animal). Perhaps it was even farther than 90 miles, if there were obstacles that weren’t easily traveled on foot.
Joseph and Mary were not required to make the trip, but they made it anyway, not just this year, but, as Luke tells us, every year. Last week, we saw them travel to Bethlehem because the Roman government required it. But this week, they travel to Jerusalem because they love God, they love their people, and they want to celebrate God’s grace and remember God’s miraculous salvation.

Passover, of course, is the celebration of the night when all of the first-born children of Egypt were killed, convincing Pharaoh to allow the Hebrew slaves to leave. The people of Israel were told to mark their door frames with the blood of a sacrificial lamb, and death passed over, or avoided, the homes that were marked that way.

That miracle was celebrated, and is still celebrated, each year with a special meal called the seder. Even today, devout Jews throughout the world dream of celebrating the feast in Israel, and the Passover meal usually ends with a toast: “Next year, in Jerusalem!”

So Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem, with their son, for the first time since their son has reached the legal age of religious manhood.

We aren’t told anything about what happened while they were in Jerusalem. As far as we can assume, it was a normal, uneventful Passover — but perhaps a meaningful one for Jesus, who was seeing his faith through new eyes.
And when the family returned home, they left Jesus in Jerusalem without realizing it.

Many of you, over the holiday season, may have watched the comedy “Home Alone.” Two large families, together, are loading up on Christmas Eve for a big trip to Paris, and in the chaos of loading up the van, somehow a neighbor kid who’s not going on the trip gets tapped on the head and counted in the head count, while the youngest child — a boy named Kevin — is up in the attic, still asleep, and the family leaves for the airport without him.

On the plane, the adults are sitting in first class while the kids are back in coach, so no one realizes that little Kevin is not with them until the plane is already in the air and over the Atlantic. It’s easy to make fun of the parents for leaving on an airplane trip without one of their children, but the fact of the matter is, that sort of thing can happen, even with good, conscientious parents.

In the case of our Bible passage, something very similar happens. In Jesus’ day, in a caravan like this, the women would travel together, and they would start much earlier each day than the men — the theory being that the women traveled more slowly, for whatever reason, and so the men would catch up to them as the day wore on.

It’s likely that Joseph just assumed Jesus, his little boy, was traveling with Mary. Mary assumed that Jesus, who was now a man in the eyes of the law, was traveling with his father and the other men.

It took them a full day to realize he wasn’t with the caravan, and they immediately turned around and headed back to Jerusalem. It says that “after three days they found him” — I’m not sure that counts the time it took them to go back, or if it meant they actually spent three days in the big city looking for him.

In any case, by the time they found him they must have been at wit’s end, and at the pont of despair. They must have feared the worst, and imagined the worst.

But Jesus was just fine. He was at the temple, sitting among the teachers. It doesn’t specify this in the Bible, but he was presumably sitting among the Sanhedrin — a group of 71 rabbis who functioned as a court for matters of religion and interpretation of the scriptures and the laws of Moses. There was a lesser Sanhedrin in each city, made up of 23 rabbis, and then there was the Great Sanhedrin, sort of a supreme court, that met in Jerusalem.

If the name “Sanhedrin” rings a bell, it’s because it was the Sanhedrin that tried the adult Jesus, in the middle of the night, 21 years after today’s story. But there was probably a significant turnover in that 21-year period, so this was the Sanhedrin, but it wasn’t the exact same people who would find Jesus guilty two decades later. On our own U.S. Supreme Court, six of the nine current justices — two thirds of the court — were not there 21 years ago. And life expectancy was much shorter in Jesus’ day than in our day.

The Great Sanhedrin, according to the commentator William Barclay, had a custom of meeting in public, in the temple courts, during the Passover season, in order to discuss religious and theological questions in public, for the edification of the people.

The Bible said that 12-year-old Jesus was both listening to the rabbis and asking them questions. They must have been asking him questions as well, because the Bible tells us that they were impressed by the boy’s answers.
What, specifically, were they talking about? Wouldn’t you love to know? What was Jesus asking them? What were they asking Jesus? What was it he said that impressed them so much?

It’s always frustrating, of course, that Bible stories are so short on detail. You have to remember that papyrus was a precious resource in the days when the scriptures were first written down.

Today, it’s easy for us to ramble on when we write something. In this morning’s Shelbyville Times-Gazette, I have a huge story — really, much too long of a story — with tips and tricks for people who got an Instant Pot for Christmas. Moby Dick, one of the great American novels, has page after page after page of information about whales that has nothing to do with the actual story. In this age of self-publishing, anybody can write, and try to sell, their own book. Today, people can write and write to their heart’s content.

But in the days of the Bible, you had to be a little more direct. And that’s why so many Bible stories include just the details that the writer thought we needed, and nothing more. However curious we may be, the actual content of Jesus’ discussion with the rabbis isn’t important to the story, and so it was left out.

We know Jesus was talking about things that seemed way beyond grade level for the 12-year-old son of a tradesman. That’s the type of thing that tends to make parents quite proud. But that probably didn’t matter much to Mary and Joseph in the moment when they found him. You can imagine their mixture of relief, love and anger. Those of you who are parents can probably imagine it better than I can describe it.

It’s interesting that it’s his mother who is quoted as scolding him.

“Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”

Jesus’ answer really sounds like something that an advanced 12-year-old might say to his parents. And yet, in his case, he’s right!

Jesus says, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?”

My father’s house.

Joseph is one of the unsung heroes of Jesus’ story. Even when he thought that Mary had been unfaithful to him, he wanted to break things off quietly, compassionately. But then the angel explained to him the truth of Jesus’ parentage. Joseph knew that this boy, whom the world think to be his son, was not his biological son. And yet, Joseph, from everything we know, loved and raised Jesus as his own.

I can imagine that Joseph’s heart broke, just a little bit, at hearing Jesus say, out loud, in public, the words “my father,” knowing that from this point forward, it didn’t mean Joseph. 
The Bible says that Mary and Joseph didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to say to them. Once the crisis was over, once they’d gotten all of the fear and anger out of their systems, I imagine that Mary and Joseph started to think a little bit, and talk between themselves, about what Jesus had meant. He had to be in his father’s house. He had to be immersed in preparation for his work, his ministry. Even at the age of 12, he was a man in the eyes of the law, responsible for knowing that law, obeying that law, and — eventually — fulfilling that law.

What does it mean for us to be in the house of God our father? It means listening, and asking questions, and answering questions. It means learning more about God’s word, and about what God expects from us.

One of this week’s other lectionary passages is about the prophet Samuel. Samuel, unlike Jesus, spent his whole childhood in the temple. A woman named Hannah was barren, and asked God to heal her, and when God did heal her, she gave her first-born son, Samuel, to be raised by a priest, in the temple, as part of a religious order called the Nazirites.

1 Samuel 2:18–20, 26 (CEB)

Now Samuel was serving the Lord. He was a young boy, clothed in a linen priestly vest. His mother would make a small robe for him and take it to him every year when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife: “May the Lord replace the child of this woman that you gave back to the Lord.” Then they would return home.

Meanwhile, the boy Samuel kept growing up and was more and more liked by both the Lord and the people.

The boy Samuel spent all of his childhood and youth in God’s house, learning from his mentor, the priest Eli. But living in God’s house can also mean acting on God’s commandments.

Jesus had begun his journey of learning to be in his father’s house, but he also knew that his immediate responsibility was to go back home with his earthly parents and be obedient to them.

It’s very important for us to read and study and think about the scriptures. It’s important for us to spend time in prayer, and it’s important for us to gather together here on Sunday mornings, to worship and fellowship and learn.

But what we believe, or know, or understand about the scriptures is of little value if it doesn’t affect how we live our lives. Jesus wanted to learn from these great rabbis about God’s word and God’s law and God’s plan, but he also knew that God wanted him to return to Nazareth and to be in obedience to Mary and Joseph.

Jesus had this remarkable Passover experience, talking to the priests in the temple, but he was not raised in the temple the way that Samuel had been. The whole point of Jesus’ life, as we talked about last week in the Christmas story, is that he is fully human as well as fully divine. So it’s appropriate that he should live most of his life as a normal human. He did not begin his public ministry until age 30. He learned a trade from his father, and carried it on until it was time for him to begin his ministry.

By the way, last week we talked about the translation of the Greek word kataluma as either “inn” or “guestroom.” There’s another interesting translation issue when we talk about Joseph’s profession. The Greek word tektōn was translated for many years as “carpenter,” but some scholars say it actually had a broader meaning, and that a better translation would be “craftsman.” And some of those scholars believe it’s more likely that Joseph and Jesus were stonemasons. Jesus certainly talked more about stones and masonry than he ever talked about wood, and there was more need for masonry than carpentry in Judaea of that day and age.

But whether it was wood or stone, Jesus worked with his hands. He broke a sweat. He served others in practical ways, by using skill and effort.

The great 16th Century theologian Martin Luther, who started the reformation and created the Protestant movement, had this to say about honest work: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

Jesus had a destiny — a mission. And that’s what the gospel story is all about. We know that his destiny is to preach, and teach, and heal — and then to sacrifice himself for the sins of the world. But before that destiny, he had a childhood, and then some years of adulthood. I am sure that, during that time, he lived a life that served God, that he was kind and loving to those around him, and that he did his business with honesty and integrity. Our passage this morning tells us that “Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.” That’s very similar to what we’re told about Samuel as he grew up in the temple.

Jesus was both fully human and fully divine in those years, just as in his years of ministry.

The 12-year-old Jesus told his parents he needed to be in his father’s house. And he did. And we, too, need to be in God’s house. But we also need to be in our workshops, and in our offices, and in our communities, living lives that glorify God.