Luke 2:41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” 49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”[f] 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them. 51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.
To get us started on this week’s fill-in-the-blank sentence, I’ll go first: “I realized how much I was NOT in control when…” I was in the emergency room last year for a ruptured appendix, and two highly-trained and experienced surgeons, plus an advanced level surgical nurse practitioner, all told me that they were not recommending surgery, but wanted instead just to give me antibiotics. The infection had already been released into my system, and no surgery would get it all cleaned up, they said, plus there’d be an unhelpful and unnecessary surgical wound to complicate and extend my recovery.
Now, who am I to argue with probably 30 years of medical education among all three specialists combined, plus another probable 60 years of actual surgical room experience? Should I tell them, “No, I recommend that you cut me open,” how ridiculous is that? But just say the word, “appendix,” and that’s what always happens on TV, and in the movies: surgery, right?
That’s a time when it struck me that I was so definitely not in charge of a situation. Within a few days, I realized, good thing I was not in charge. The surgeons were right.
How about you?
Mary and Joseph would probably answer that question by saying, “We so knew we were not in control when we lost track of Jesus for four whole days!” If you have ever lost track of a child, your own or even just one in your charge momentarily, that’s a moment when you realized, chillingly, terrifyingly, that you are not in control. Not only not in control of your child, but hardly of yourself, for just trying to hold off the sheer panic. And guilt.
For Mary and Joseph, could their normal, human fear have been made all the worse because they knew they were entrusted with God’s only-begotten Son, the promised Messiah, the Savior of the world? And now they’ve lost him? Could this bring God’s entire plan of salvation to a crashing halt by just a moment of carelessness and a few assumptions? If so, would the loss of the whole world be their fault!
WHAT ABOUT JESUS? Doesn’t he bear some responsibility for this breakdown of communication? For his parents’ panic? Did anyone think that raising the sinless Son of God would be easy? How could he put Joseph and Mary through such a crisis and then act like it was no big thing? “Oh, didn’t you know…. I would be in my father’s house, that is, my heavenly Father’s house, as opposed to my earthly father’s one?”
It might help a bit to know that, in that day and age, 12 was tantamount to about 17 or 18 years of age today, your last days of being a minor. Or today we’d say, 18 is the new 13, your first year of adulthood, or close enough. Given the average span of life back then, 18 is when you needed to get your midlife crisis out of the way. The fact that neither Joseph nor Mary had Jesus in hand when they left Jerusalem tells us that he and they were already transitioning into his adult status.
That’s why our Jewish friends later developed the tradition of celebrating Bar Mitzvah for boys, and more recently, Bat Mitzvah for girls, at age 13. That’s the age at which Jewish tradition considers someone completely responsible for his own actions, and his own relationship with God and the community. It’s the age at which one can be called upon to lead prayers and read scriptures in the home and the assemblies, and participate in discussions and discernment with older adults. So, we could say that the young Jesus stayed back in the temple on the eve of his adulthood to better prepare for his responsibilities, to prepare, yes, for responsible adulthood, but also for his father’s business, his heavenly father’s business.
And that’s one of the very few glimpses we get into Jesus’ childhood, and the development of his sense of self and his mission as he grew up. The four Gospels in our Bible don’t tell us much about Jesus’ childhood between his return from exile in Egypt before this event, and after, except that “he grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Whenever children come up during communion for a blessing, I use those words to pray a blessing on their behalf.
Poke me and I’ll bleed the creeds that confess that the Christ is fully divine so that he could be our SAVIOR, and that Jesus was fully human, so that he might be OUR savior. Now, I don’t claim to understand entirely how God would enter the world as a babe who knew nothing more than what any other baby would know, who could do no more than what any other baby could do, who would be no less vulnerable to us and dependent on us than any other baby would be, grow up mostly unnoticed and unremarkable in his childhood, and still be the sinless Son of God and almighty Savior of the world. That’s quite a mystery, and a paradox, I know. And that’s the point, precisely. Jesus is Emmanuel, “God With Us.” He is not just a magic and light show projected from a safe distance away, in heaven.
So there was probably a decade of a fairly unremarkable childhood for Jesus, while Joseph and Mary probably wondered, from time to time, how is this normally developing child in this backwater little wide spot in the road called Nazareth going to be the king of Israel and the Messiah?
Then there suddenly comes this sign that his divine mission and identity are still on track. And it’s probably not the kind of sign Mom and Dad would have expected nor asked for. It comes when they are obviously not in control. And it comes in the form of a question: “Didn’t you know?”…Didn’t you know that I must be in my father’s house?” The revelation and the reminder that God is still at work, and still in charge, comes not with some stupendous, astounding miracle at the hands of a wonder-working pre-teen. It comes simply in an encounter with God’s Word, while hearing, learning, doing and discussing the Divine Word in the temple.
Isn’t that often how it happens? That we see evidence that God is in control precisely in those moments when we are most definitely not in control? That our relief, that God is in charge, comes on the heels of our grief, or our fear and distress, over our own lack of control? And with reflection on God’s Word? As though God is saying, “No, of course you don’t have this, but that’s okay, because I have you, and you’ve got me, just like I have always promised.”
And that leads me to the second fill-in-the-blank: “I got a sense for how God was in charge when….” I’ll tell you about one such time for me. It was just over a month ago, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 17, when I was hurriedly finishing up my packing for the trip to Burkina Faso and I knew that Don and Kelly and Micah Yoder were coming to get me for our trip to the airport, any minute. And I could not find the front door key that I was going to give to our neighbors, so they could check on our cats while Becky and I were out. Argg!
I knew I had just taken it off the key ring and set it down somewhere moments before. I’m looking frantically for it—and, Ding-dong!-there’s Don at the door! I let him in and explain that I’m almost ready, but that I’m looking for a key that I just misplaced. He was very gracious about waiting. So, I go into the bedroom for the third time, in a growing huff and panic, getting mad at myself for losing this one little thing at this most inconvenient time, and I look at the ledge of the dresser, where, no I have not left the key…. I am looking at the ledge right in front of that drawer….. the one where we keep our passports…..where my passport is….still.
I open that drawer, and yes, there’s my passport, still, which I would have forgotten and left in the drawer had I not been here looking for that stupid key instead! The passport which I probably would not have remembered until we were halfway to the airport up I 205 with its deadlocked creeping, crawling traffic stuck going nowhere in both directions, with our flight soon to go.
I caught my breath and something like a chill went up my spine: I had almost left for Africa without my passport! Was God somehow present and at work in my distraction and disorganization to bring me to this dresser drawer and so remind me to get it?
Now, to be absent-minded, forgetful, distracted and disorganized, I don’t usually need divine help. But it felt suddenly, strikingly, as if God were saying, “Son, I’ve got this even when you don’t,” or even, “I’ve got this precisely when you don’t, and because you don’t. This is my way of assuring you that you are supposed to be on this trip, not as a reward for having it all together, but as a gift, in spite of not having it all together. And I will bless you as I wish, not in spite of your weakness and incompleteness, but sometimes even through them.”
As for the key, by the way, after I sheepishly, gratefully pocketed my passport, I turned around, and there it was on top of a desk right behind me. Was God exercising some control during and through my lack of control? How often has that happened before?
How about you?
Another holiday season and more glittery, tinselly magazines at the grocery store check-out stand promising your most perfect Christmas or New Year’s party ever this year by just doing these 12 things, buying these six products, or trying out these ten recipes. If it’s of any help, they’ve never worked for me, either. We’re coming through the season with the highest expectations, the most perfectionism, and, ironically, the season with the most heartbreaks, headaches, breakdowns, breakups and crackups in families and relationships. Do any of those writers promising a perfect family holiday get-together have an Uncle Oscar with a drinking problem and a hair-trigger temper that leads to the same rambling, resentful political rant every year that monopolizes the dinner talk and offends everybody? Or that niece who always lets you know how offended and oppressed she is by everything you used to say without thinking, like, “Merry Christmas?” No matter how hard you try to control the schedule and steer the conversation?
If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution this year, other than mine, which is usually a resolution to make no resolutions, how about this one: whenever there’s no denying that “I am so not in charge,” instead of losing even more control to panic or resentment, wait and watch for evidence of God in charge instead? Instead of latching onto fear and resentment, “Let go and let God?” as our friends in AA say?
Especially for parents, like Joseph and Mary, even parents of adult children. Or, at least, they should be adults by now, after thirty-some years of life. Whatever their age, when do parents ever stop being like Joseph and Mary, wondering just where they are and how they are, looking from afar with care and concern, feeling some responsibility for them, their choices and their condition, even after all the ways and the time we spent teaching them to be responsible for themselves? But if we can’t “let go and let God,” do our desires and efforts for control hinder the work of their one and only Perfect and Everlasting Parent, God, in their lives?
This is not just for parents, though. Every change, age and stage of life comes to us, ready or not, just for sticking around long enough. Since we are not in charge of the world’s clocks nor calendars, mostly we are only in control of how we will prepare and respond to life’s ages, stages and changes.
Whenever we want most to question God about those changes, stages and struggles, stop, take a breath, and listen to Jesus questioning us, just like he questioned his panicky parents, beginning with, “Didn’t you know? Didn’t you know that I didn’t call you to understand everything, nor to be in charge or control of everyone and everything, but to trust that I am in charge, and will accomplish my purposes for you and the world? Didn’t you know that I did not promise to spare you every trial and tribulation, but to bear you and carry you through them, and use them for your growth, your good, your glory and mine in this world? Didn’t you know that the troubles and the struggles that I didn’t spare you from don’t even compare in number and scope to those troubles and struggles that I have protected and spared you from, that you couldn’t even know about? Didn’t you know that, as it says in Isaiah 43, ‘I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior?’”
“Didn’t you know,” I can hear Jesus asking, “that no temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind? And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear? But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it?” Didn’t you know that, as I told Paul in his affliction, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness?”
To which I might say, “I know that, Lord, at least from the top of my head down to the top of my neck. But knowing it down here, in my heart, well, sometimes it’s not there whenever I need it most. What will it take, Lord? More times of finding that I am not that much in charge, as we like to convince ourselves and others? And so find out that you are at work, and in charge? Just as you promised? And that what you can do through our weakness and need is always greater than what we can accomplish through our own power and control?
If that’s what you want to teach me, Lord, can I at least be in charge of scheduling such lessons, please?