I know this is not a fair question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Had I asked you five minutes ago, to tell me the story of the birth of Jesus, my hunch is it would have gone something like this:
One day an angel appeared to a young girl and told her she with be the mother of God’s son, even though she was not yet married. Before her marriage, she and her fiancé travelled to the town where his family came from. Because there were so many people in town at the time, the only place available for them to stay was the stable at one of the local inns. It is there, she gave birth to her baby boy, whom they named Jesus. After the birth of the baby, some shepherds found them, and told them they had been instructed by some angels to look for the baby.
You get the picture.
The story of the birth of Jesus that is imprinted on our minds and in our hearts, is the story that Luke tells us. That’s the story of carols and hymns, stained glass windows, great works of art, and countless Christmas cards. That’s the story we think of when we think of Christmas. That’s the story we will hear in a few days’ time.
Joseph is one of those biblical characters who exists mostly in the shadows. He emerges just a handful of times, only to disappear once again, more or less for ever. Today in this account of finding the boy Jesus in the temple is the last time we see him in person. But what we have from this handful of references, is enough to weave together a portrait of a man who is good, and kind, loving, and compassionate. The thing is, he didn’t need to be, and no one would have thought any less of him.
Perhaps my favourite image of Joseph comes from the icon of the Nativity. There, away from the action, sits Joseph, with his head in in hands. Probably wondering what on earth was he going to do. Having sat this way more times than I can count, I have great sympathy with Joseph. Standing before him are two men, perhaps shepherds, obviously addressing him. Iconographic tradition calls this scene, Troubled Joseph. Matthew’s gospel tells us what is troubling him.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Had he done so, no one would have blamed him. No doubt, having heard the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph was scandalized, appalled, embarrassed, worried about his good name. He was perfectly within his rights to wash his hands of the whole sordid mess. And no one would have blamed him.
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Luke 2:41-52
When I was in sixth grade, I got to take the second major journey of my young life. By major I mean, pack a bag and get on an airplane which is very exciting for a young boy. The first trip was the summer before my first-grade year to the strange and mysterious land of Ohio where my Mom’s cousin lived. When we had crested the clouds, I asked my mom if we were in heaven, a question that she remembered fondly her whole life. The second trip was even more exotic! California. My father was the assistant band director of a successful high school band program that had been invited to perform in the 1984 Rose Parade in Pasadena. I was halfway through my sixth-grade year and since the parade was on New Year’s Day and the trip fell on winter break, my parents thought it would be a great experience if I could go. Mom stayed behind as Dad took me to California with his students and colleagues. Naturally, one of the most anticipated parts of the trip for me was the day we spent at Disneyland, the original park conceived in the imagination of animation and fantasy pioneer, Walt Disney. It was here that my father had one of the scariest experiences of his life.
All of the high school band kids were to be in groups of five while in the theme park and had a midday check-in with chaperones at a specific location. To give me a little freedom and perhaps my father a break, I was assigned to a group of high school kids. They all wanted to go on Space Mountain. However, having never been on a roller coaster before, I was afraid and did not want to ride. So, I turned around and went to wait at the exit. It was at that point I got separated from my group and began to wander around the park on my own. As I remember it, I did not panic because it was not long before I found another group from our school to hang out with. When my original group checked in at their assigned time and location, I was not with them and they had no idea where I was. My new group had already had their check-in time. So, I was never truly accounted for. My father was beside himself with worry. There was no telling what evil lurking about this park would be looking for a susceptible youngster to harm. Would my father be able to find me or would I be the newest face on a milk carton that was iconic of that era. Eventually, I was found by my father and spent the remaining couple of hours allotted in the park with him. By the grace of God, we got back to our home in Appalachia, all present and accounted for and the trip went down in our memories as one of most amazing experiences of our lives.
This morning’s gospel reminds me a little of my father’s telling of that experience. Mary, Joseph, and their son had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival with a group of people whom they were familiar. When the festival was over, they all began their journey back to Nazareth. Mary and Joseph thought Jesus was with others designated as chaperones in the caravan. When they stopped after a day’s journey and realized their son was not where he was supposed to be, panic set in. They headed back to Jerusalem on their own wondering if they would be able to find Jesus and worried about what evil was lurking about the city looking for a susceptible youngster to harm. Can you imagine the panic, desperation, and fear they must have felt? The gospel writer of Luke says that after three days of searching, they found Jesus. Where did they find him? Not in a Jerusalem back-alley, having fallen prey to people of questionable repute, but none other than in the Temple among teachers. For the Passover season it was the custom for the Sanhedrin to meet in public in the Temple court to discuss, in the presence of all who would listen, religious and theological questions. ‘Hearing and asking questions’ is the regular Jewish phrase for a student learning from his teachers.[i] Jesus was twelve years old and would have been at the cusp of adulthood in Jewish culture. Perhaps this is why Mary and Joseph undertook this momentous pilgrimage with Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover. It is likely that this was a part of the customary rite of passage for a boy in Judaism. Was Jesus like the typical twelve-year old boy, hearing only half of what was said to him, ignoring or missing instructions, lost in wonder in the big city? Or do we get a glimpse of a newly recognized young adult, taking the reins of responsibility for his life, breaking free of the bonds of familial ties and recognizing the first fruits of his vocational call?
The exchange between Jesus and his parents in the Temple points to the fact that the answer to both questions is ‘yes.’ Mary admonishes her son, probably feeling the intense mixture of relief and anger, the output of love and concern for her first-born. ‘Why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been scared to death!’ In my imagination, this scolding interrupts the discussions, inviting curiosity among those in the Temple. The gospel writer states that all who heard Jesus were amazed both at his questions as well as his understanding and answers. This young lad was prodigious in a way that none of his elders had experienced in another his age. When his humble parents burst in on the scene exasperated by all that was taking place, I imagine you could hear a pin drop as those gathered observed with curiosity not people of means and high education, but rather a modest carpenter and his wife from a town most notable for being on ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ You may recall that scene from the gospel of John when Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel replies incredulously, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[ii]
I do not imagine Jesus’ answer to Mary and Joseph disrespectful or as flippant as we may read into it. Certainly, in our youth we have all experienced a scolding with our retort in questionable tone, “….but Mom?!” However, I can see the wheels of revelation and self-discovery in Jesus’ mind as he is coming into full acceptance as to the identity of his ‘real’ father. We all know that children can be brutal in their honesty and at times take on the opinions they have heard their parents discuss. Jesus may have already experienced the taunts of friends who have caught wind that this small family had developed out of the bounds of traditional marriage. Jesus very well was coming into the knowledge that Mary was indeed his mother, but Joseph…? Joseph may have been his ‘dad,’ but he was not his father. Jesus response to his Mother’s question was direct and honest. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In a sense Jesus is saying, “Mom, I’m okay. I have come home. Why did you not look for me here first?” Luke says that his parents (and perhaps all that were ease-dropping on this exchange) did not understand what he was saying.
I find this curious since from the very beginning, Mary and Joseph knew perhaps more than anyone who their child was. Countless dreams and angel visitations had occurred telling them what was to happen, who this child was and was to become, giving counsel as to how best to protect this precious boy who was to be the target of the powerful. While they had every right to be concerned for their son, we behold them at a pivot and transition in their lives. Jesus was coming into the knowledge of his identity;[iii] Mary and Joseph were learning twelve years after the birth of this special boy, that his miraculous conception had not been a mere dream. The star of Bethlehem that had guided so many to witness the birth of Jesus, was now guiding Jesus himself into full revelation of his vocation and identity, one step at a time until he would be ready to initiate his public ministry.
So, what does this all mean for us today? Well I imagine that we could pray with this scripture in at least two ways. First, we could pray about our own search for Jesus. In a world that is unpredictable, unsafe, and seems filled with evil looking to exploit and harm the most vulnerable, we could wonder where in the world is Jesus in all this? While we may have many wonderful experiences in our life, I would say we all recognize that goodness is not static. We know there is suffering, malice, hate, greed, fear, and evil lurking about. Sometimes we feel like we experience this more acutely than others leaving us with questions as to why. Many of us are following the proverbial star of Bethlehem, searching for Jesus frantically, with the hopes of familial comfort, love, safety, and nurture that comes with being in community and with the one who knows us so intimately. It is no mistake that Jesus can be found here not only in the faces of those who sit next to us, but in a piece of bread put into our hands and a sip of wine from a shared chalice; Jesus body and blood nourishing and sustaining us back to health and wholeness.
We could also pray with this scene from Luke imagining Jesus searching desperately for us. You are the apple of God’s eye. You are his beloved, created by God, for the love of God, for relationship with God. In our temptation to be in control, we separated ourselves from God, becoming susceptible to evil lurking about, (and in the words of 1 Peter) seeking someone to devour.[iv] In this place, this beautiful church, you can be assured that you have come home and have been found by God in Jesus. As you come forward in a few moments and lift your hands to receive the gift of bread and wine, you can be assured that you have found your true identity and to whom you belong. In this place we can know that we are among family and in the midst of an uncertain world, claim that we have been found and marked safe. This is good news.
[i] Barclay, William. The Gospel of Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Print.
[ii] John 1:43-46
[iii] Wright, Tom. Luke for Everyone. London: SPCK, 2001. Print
[iv] 1 Peter 5:8
We frequently remember Mary for saying “yes” to God’s invitation.Joseph also said “yes”though none of his words are recorded in scripture. His life is his word. Joseph’s actions speak loudly.
Joseph was a righteous man. Quiet Joseph resolved to do the right thing, to dismiss Mary quietly, to save her from disgrace.Then God told Joseph to do something different, to take Mary as his wife and name their child Jesus.Joseph listened and followed.