“Searching for Jesus” / Luke 2:41-52 / 30 December 2018
Merry Christmas once again to you! This season of joy continues until Epiphany Day, next Sunday. May you find that the brightness, the togetherness, the healing power of Christmas lives on in you; that God continues to come to you in the flesh, in concrete and incarnated ways. Then, even after you take down the tree, and the strings of lights begin to look mawkish, and the decorations are all dusty, may you find the freshness of this season still very much alive in you: God is not far, but near. God is not up in heaven where we cannot reach, but around us, within us, somehow present in every living person and thing. In today’s reading, we find Joseph and Mary “searching for Jesus in great anxiety,” when they realize that he’s not in their entourage, journeying back to Galilee. And the young Jesus’ answer to them is perhaps the same one he would give to us, when we claim that we are searching for God, or for meaning, or for joy, or perhaps even for ourselves. He asks, “Why were you searching for me?” You knew exactly where I would be… And that is usually the case with us, isn’t it? Like Mary and Joseph, we just assume that Jesus is tagging along with our group, on board with our agenda, headed off to Galilee—or wherever—just like us. But if we actually thought about it a little, we would probably know where Jesus is. There’s little need to search for him. And you? Do you sometimes look around your life and wonder where Jesus is? That’s to say, is there too little joy, too little purpose, too little meaning that the word “Christ” represents? Perhaps it’s because you assumed he was on board with your agenda, and you traveled off without him. Ah, but joy to the world, and joy to you. If you think about it for just a minute, you’ll know right where to find him.
Much is made of this idea that we’ve got to find faith, find Jesus, find God, as if they were all hiding out behind the barn, trying to elude capture. And yet, Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” and, “No one comes to me except the Father draws them.” And you? Were you a wise spiritual seeker who journeyed far, trekking across desert and mountain, deep into subterranean caverns and up onto the highest pinnacles, all with the self-motivated goal of achieving spiritual enlightenment? Did you set out to discover the thing of value that could make your life whole? Or were you more like a shepherd, going about your daily business, when an unexpected angel broke the stillness of the night? Were you like an astrologer, with all your answers well intact, when a new star pierced the night skies and bid you up and follow? In other words, did you set out to find Jesus, or did he set out to find you?
I’m always a little discouraged by the way Hollywood depicts clergy: shallow, flat characters. The BBC does a much better job of portraying clergy as real human beings. On two separate occasions in two different BBC shows—namely The Vicar of Dibley and Grantchester—I’ve even seen clergy characters laboring over the biggest ordinary task in a minister’s life: preparing the weekly sermon. It takes at least ten hours to research a sermon, to write an outline, and to put it all into words. A colleague once told me about a pastor out in Ohio who never prepared her sermons. I don’t know why. Perhaps she was a restless soul who couldn’t make herself sit down at a desk. Maybe she was one of those who believed that the Spirit would tell her what to say at the last minute. (There are far too many of these at loose in the world.) Whatever the reason, she always showed up at church on Sunday mornings unprepared. And her lack of preparedness made her mean. She screamed, and slammed doors, and cried—unacceptable behaviors for a pastor.
One Sunday this minister came to church as ill-prepared as usual for her weekly task, but she got a last minute idea. It was Epiphany Sunday, which we’ll be celebrating next week—the day when we commemorate the arrival of the wise men. She decided that she would preach about the Magi searching for the infant Savior. But she would do it all in the form of the children’s sermon. That’s to say, she would extend the children’s sermon to fill the entire service. And so, she found a flashlight in the janitor’s closet, and for half an hour, she and the children raced around the sanctuary, looking for Jesus. Last I knew, this minister had gotten her real estate license and now pursues her quest outside the pulpit. But really? Even the great journey of discovery that the Magi undertook was in response to God’s call—a new and radiant star in the night sky. We make much of this notion of looking for God, or for truth, or for meaning, which means in the end that we get credit for our findings, for we weren’t we wise enough to go a-searching? But forever throughout the pages of Scripture, the holy restlessness that sets people off on their spiritual quests, the sacred dissatisfaction with their lives such as they were, was always by divine initiative. Abraham, Moses, all the prophets, Mother Mary, Jesus himself at the waters of the Jordan—all of them, all of them were following after something that came from outside of them, a new calling, a new star, a brighter light than they had known. Others among us have less dramatic spiritual lives, quiet lives, churchgoing lives where we could easily assume that Jesus is in our caravan. He’s somewhere back there in our convoy, headed our direction, completely on board with our agenda. But don’t forget: It’s he who calls us, not we who call him. And if we re-examine our lives and agendas only to find him absent, well, we will know exactly where to find him. He’s about his Father’s business—which may or may not be what we’re about—even at church.
Oh, but truly! Would you not just want to shake the child? Let’s be careful not to judge Mary and Joseph too harshly for leaving their child behind in Jerusalem when they traveled back to Galilee. Extended families, friends, and neighbors all had a hand in raising a child in ancient times. My guess is that they told him when to be ready to leave and then assumed that he’d be in the company of another adult in their pack, or maybe he’d travel with all the other kids. Helicopter parents they were not! But then to realize half way home that he was nowhere in their entourage! They scurried back to Jerusalem only to find him debating theology with the learned doctors of religion in the Temple! Oh, you’d want to take him by the shoulders and shake him. What had he been eating? Where was he sleeping? Was he brushing his teeth and combing his hair without his parents there to oversee it all? And then to get that smart-aleck reply when they tell him how worried they were: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house, about my Father’s business?” It’s a good thing I was not Joseph, for if I were, there’d have been no healings, no miraculous feedings, no wise teachings by the Sea of Galilee. If it had been me instead of Joseph, there would have been no Upper Room, no Calvary, no empty tomb…because Jesus would have been grounded until he died of old age. It’s a good thing, then, that God put a better man than me into that place and time. My agenda could have ruined everything for everyone. But we often get into trouble when we assume that Jesus is on board with our agenda. He’ll be in his Father’s house; he’ll be about his Father’s business. He’ll be attending to things of greater importance than the things that occupy our minds. We must never assume that Jesus is necessarily on our side. But nor is he hiding or hard to find.
Just as Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was traveling with them, we assume that he’s traveling with us, don’t we? Surely he must want the things we want in this world! The things we want are good; they’ve got to be the will of God. If we gave it a moment’s thought, we might realize that Jesus has a whole different set of guiding principles from ours. If we looked around a bit to see evidence of his presence, we might come to learn that our agenda is not always his. He’s at the border. He’s among the poor. He’s with the outcast and the forsaken. Jesus is in the hospitals, and the nursing homes, and the homeless shelters. He’s with the ones who do not presume his presence among them. He’s with the ones who do not take his presence for granted. I mean really, do you think those priests and Pharisees in the Temple really knew who they were dealing with when the kid Jesus showed up at their Adult Education class? He sought them out. And if we have ever felt his absence in ourselves or in our world, I’d venture a guess that we usually know where to find him. It’s just that we don’t always want to go to the places where he is. We don’t want to do the things we must do in order to travel in his company. Where is Jesus for you today? Isn’t that place…your calling? It’s your responsibility. It will be your burden; it will be your joy.
But we like to believe that Jesus is on our side, a member of our team. We would never say—but like to believe—that it is we who called him. People are always enlisting Jesus for their teams. As much as America talks about God shedding God’s grace on us, did you know that Russia does the same thing? With the collapse of Communism and the rebirth of the Orthodox Church in Russia, there’s a lot of talk among Russian populists of God’s special mission for Russia in the world, as the protectors of the purest, most ancient form of the Christian faith. Vladimir Putin himself publishes an annual calendar that shows him at church each January, lighting candles to commemorate Orthodox Christmas. Putin enlists Jesus for his team. Westboro Baptist Church names the name of Christ, though they ignore his teachings or mercy and grace entirely. Our enemies in both world wars prayed to the same God we did. They had chaplains in the trenches who made their prayerful appeals in the same name we did: the name of Jesus. It’s hard to believe that someone serving the Nazi cause could also believe he was serving the cause of Christ, isn’t it? But that’s how hard we work to make Jesus look like us. The Ku Klux Klan enlists Jesus for their team. It’s just that when we spend our time and energies engaged in certain thoughts or actions, we just assume that God, too, must be as caught up as we are in the urgency of it all. It’s like when my wife tells me that she’s lost her cell phone, and I say, “Uh-huh.” And ten minutes later, she’ll say, “Did you find it yet?” I have to admit that her lost cell phone was the furthest thing from my thoughts, and I did not spend the last ten minutes looking for it. But because it was a crucial issue to her, she assumed that it must be of ultimate importance to everyone…or at least her husband. That’s the way we are with God. We assume that because something preoccupies us, it must be God’s agenda, too.
And so, there are two mistaken-but-common notions about God’s presence in our lives. The humbler notion says, “God’s out there in the world, but hidden. I’ve got to get out there and find God.” The other mistaken notion says, “No, I’ve got God back there in my convoy. Jesus plays for my team.” But an honest heart will admit that God’s agenda is vastly beyond the small allegiances that we hold to the empires of this world with their broken and passing values. Jesus wears the uniform of no army; he waves the flag of no nation; he touts the ideologies of no politician; he blesses the guns of no warrior. Our hearts know where to find him, if they dare go there.
Decades ago, a young minister in the South found it hard to understand his uncle’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan. He used to ask the uncle, “What is there to hate about Jews, and Catholics, and black people?” The uncle never had a very good answer to the question, but he always insisted that the KKK was a Christian organization, and that its members were interested in enforcing divine law. Finally, the minister tried a different tactic with his uncle. He said, “Okay, if you’re a Christian organization, then you won’t mind if I come and say a prayer of invocation at the beginning of your next KKK rally.” The uncle was a leader in his local church. He thought for a minute. Then he shook his head and said, “Son, you know Jesus don’t put up with that KKK [sh*t].” His head could argue that the KKK was Christian, but his heart knew better. Our hearts will tell us where Jesus is, no flashlights and no guiding stars are required.
And so, in this world of broken beauty; this world of pleasure all mixed up in pain; in this world where we get sidetracked by all the things that seemed important at the time, but which leave us lost and aching; in this world where we know we’re going to get less than ten decades to do what we have to do, and so we want to do it all with passion and with joy; in a world like this…where is Jesus? For to follow him is life indeed. Where’s the urgency, the joy, the purpose, and the passion that we call Christ? Where’s Jesus in our world of turmoil and trouble? Jesus is in the place where you are called to give of yourself—and give till it hurts. (If there’s no real cost to you, then you better check again to see if Jesus is there.) Jesus is in the place where you surrender your own privileges so that another—perhaps even the undeserving—may have more. (If there is no self-surrender, then there is no Jesus.) Jesus is in the place where the news makes you choke back an unaccustomed tear. (If there’s not some emotional investment, then check again to make sure Jesus is present.) Jesus is in the place of wisdom and knowledge, the place where your mind is stretched past its current thoughts and prejudices. (If there’s no learning, then Jesus is probably not there.) Jesus is in the place of healing. (If your spirit is not being slowly touched and healed in that place, then I wonder if Jesus is truly there.) Jesus is in the place of community and sharing. Jesus is in the place where you surrender your own agenda and follow his.
Jesus’ presence is not showy. He usually calls little attention to himself. The crowds will often overlook him in search of someone flashier, someone more appealing. But here’s the most wonderful truth of all: You do not have to find him. He’s been calling out to you all along. On the street corners of your life, along your daily commute, in the duties and demands of your lot, in your relationships, in your inner life, your thoughts, your feelings, your memories. Yes, the place of self-giving, the place of self-surrender, the place of personal investment, the place of learning, the place of healing, that’s where Jesus is. Church! And I say this as one who meets God alone in the forest regularly! Church, when it’s doing its job, is the best place to find Jesus. Are we that kind of church—challenging, teaching, healing, sharing, sending? Jesus is here…in his Father’s house. Amen.