Sermon for December 30th, 2012
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ 49He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
Prepare the Way: Looking for Jesus
Rob Bell, a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, tells the story of a painting that is packed away among piles of boxes in his basement. It's a "Velvet Elvis" painting--bright oil paint on a black velvet canvas. Like Elvis, very popular in the sixties and seventies. He describes it as an exquisite painting, a masterpiece for its time and genre.
Bell goes on to imagine what it would be like if the artist, upon completing his velvet-Elvis masterpiece, had called together all the artists of the world, and announced that he had finally painted the "perfect picture," and there would no longer be any need for painters to continue their work, since the true essence of all that is art had been definitively captured for all time.
We can laugh, but we are often guilty of the same sort of arrogance in our religion. God may be absolute and unchanging, but our understanding of God changes and grows through the years and centuries--sometimes deepening, sometimes radically shifting course. The second we attempt to "freeze-dry" our theology, or put God into a nice, neat packaged box, we become as outdated as the set of 1985 World Book Encyclopedias in my mother's kitchen. Or a Velvet-Elvis forgotten in the basement.
Mary & Joseph
In our scripture reading today, Mary and Joseph have one of those frightening experiences where you look around and realize your child is missing. I say child, but at the age of 12, Jesus is really a borderline teenager in this story. Figures he'd wander off. Or...is it Mary and Joseph who wander off? To be fair, they are traveling with extended family, and it wouldn't be that far-fetched for them to assume their teenage son is running around with his cousins back at the tail end of the family caravan.
But there's something more to this story -- a metaphor, perhaps. Mary and Joseph are intelligent, responsible adults. They know exactly where they want to go, where they want to be. They know how to get themselves there. They've made their plans, their goals, and are on their way. Maybe they're even in a hurry. Sound familiar? Only they get halfway down the road, and realize something very important is missing. Where is Jesus?
Early Church & Reformation
Fast forward three hundred years, give or take a few. Christianity has gone from a small band of persecuted Jews, to the official religion of the Roman Empire. Only, which Christianity? There are conflicting teachings and teachers, conflicting gospels and practices. The Roman emperor Constantine calls together the leaders of the church, and two months later, they have produced the Nicene Creed--a succinct document that defines exactly what Christianity is or isn't. Unity. Problem solved once and for all. A masterpiece frozen in time...or a velvet elvis, perhaps?
Fast forward another thousand years. The whole "unity" thing seems to be working. The pope, speaking on behalf of God and the Roman Catholic church, is the sole indisputable voice on what is Christianity, and what is heresy. And things are good. The church is arguably the wealthiest and most powerful organization in Europe. Never mind the papal indulgences that allow the rich to buy their way into heaven. Never mind the violence and bloodshed of the Spanish Inquisition. The church knows who it is, knows where it's going, and knows how to get there all by itself. And then a young priest by the name of Martin Luther looks around himself, and asks a familiar question: Where is Jesus? In our spectacular progress, did we leave him somewhere way back down the road?
The Church Today
Martin Luther's questioning of authority sparked what we now call the reformation. It brought much needed change to the church, and most protestant churches today can trace their roots directly to Luther's influence. We've taken his questions and his methods to heart. In fact, sometimes, we've set them in stone, or at least into official, unquestionable doctrine. Why? Because we're right, and everyone else is wrong, of course. Anyone see a pattern here?
I think that today (or in any age, really) we live constantly in the dynamic tension between the Velvet Elvises and the Marys and Josephs. Sometimes we stand firm next to the perfect picture of our beliefs, only to discover that Jesus has moved on down the road. Sometimes we forge ahead with plans and ambitions of our own making, only to discover that we left Jesus somewhere back in town. I don't think it's so wrong to find yourself in either one of these places, as long as you're willing to stop and ask the question: "Where is Jesus?" And then, like Mary and Joseph, go find him. The ones I fear for are those who never notice that Jesus is gone, or who refuse to realize that their picture is just that--a lifeless, two-dimensional representation.
Where Jesus Is
So where is Jesus, then? Where can we find him? Mary and Joseph found him at the temple, studying the scriptures and discussing theology with the rabbis. And so, perhaps we are tempted to think we can find Jesus by studying the bible, or at church with our fellow Christians. I don't mean to malign or diminish these very important and necessary things. But there's something I can't fail to notice here. This is where we find a young, twelve year old Jesus: In the temple, preparing for ministry. Bible study and group discussions are great places for young Christians, new Christians, maybe even Christians in need of renewal. But what would it have been like if Jesus had stayed in the temple discussing scriptures with rabbis his entire life? He would have been just another pharisee. You rarely see the adult Jesus seek out the pharisees and religious leaders--they more often sought him out. You rarely see the adult Jesus studying scripture--you see him putting it to work. What would it be like if your son or daughter came home from college one day and told you, "Mom, Dad, I've decided I don't need a career. I think I'm just going to stay in college for the rest of my life. You can finance that, right?" In our churches today, we're great at "Christian Education" and discipleship. We've got "worship" and "fellowship" down to an art form, or a science--because those things are "all about us." We're way down the road now, and we're making great time. But what about those things that force us beyond ourselves...like Evangelism? What about Mission? What about Community Outreach? Wait a minute...something's missing. Someone's missing. Where is Jesus?
The more I search for Jesus, the more convinced I become that he is...right where he said he would be. In Matthew 25:37-40, Jesus says, "Then these righteous ones will reply, 'Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and invite you in? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.'"
In a couple of days it will be a new year. You can make all the resolutions you want. You can make a thousand plans, and set a thousand goals for yourself. You can run as fast as you can down that road toward your dreams and ambitions. But before you get too far...stop. Look around yourself and ask the same question that Mary and Joseph did all those years ago. Where is Jesus? Then go find him. You know where to look.