Pastor Bitter

Text: Luke 2:41-52

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Christmas is over.  The gifts have been opened, and for many of us, relatives have gone home.  Now you can pack up the tree and lights and decorations and you won’t be called a Grinch.  For students, Christmas vacation is already half finished.  Many people will go back to work tomorrow already.  Sure, the New Year’s celebration is still coming, but that doesn’t seem like too much after Christmas. 

Sad?  Relieved?  Indifferent?  Some people suffer from post-Christmas depression, others look forward to getting back into the regular routine.  No matter what your preference is, while the Christmas decorations come down and the appearance of normal life returns, the truth of what happened at Christmas is something that needs to be with us every day of the year.  It’s not just a matter of hearing the Christmas story once a year as part of “what we do in the winter.”  We believe the Christmas story, we believe in the Savior we see in the manger, and that has an impact on even the most ordinary of days. 

Ordinary Lives

Today’s gospel lesson shows us why it’s such a wonderful thing to have the events of Christmas on our minds year round.  Luke takes us back to a unique account in the Bible.  We catch a rare glimpse of Mary and Joseph and Jesus in their ordinary, normal lives. 

12 years had passed since that magnificent Christmas evening.  The angels in the sky, the excitement, the visit from the rich rulers from the east, the terrifying flight to Egypt to escape Herod – all these things were but distant memories. 

Jesus’ dynamic ministry and miracles were still 18 years in the future.  Things were normal.  Joseph worked in his carpenter shop, and taught the tricks of the trade to his son Jesus.  Hard work, 6 days a week.  Honoring the Sabbath on the 7th day.  Mary and Joseph made their pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Passover.  The routine went on and on, day after day, week after week, year after year, until one spring day when Jesus was 12. 

Luke picks up the story there: 41 Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. 43 After the Feast 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.  (Luke 2:41-45 – NIV84)

It’s easy to wonder how Mary and Joseph could have been so careless in assuming their son was with their fellow travelers, but that isn’t really fair.  Luke says that this pilgrimage for the Passover was a yearly event, and in a less mobile society than today, it was probably a pilgrimage with people from the same families every year.  Once they were old enough to go, the children walked together on the road, worshipped together in Jerusalem, perhaps even slept in their own tent at night, as siblings and friends and cousins often do.  Mary and Joseph couldn’t think of any other place their obedient son would be other than with his relatives and friends!  And yet, he was nowhere to be found. 

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.”  (Luke 2:46-47 – NIV84)

Worry had become fear as they remember the complete reliability of their son in past years and wondered what might have happened to him.  It seems that it didn’t occur to them to look at the temple, at least not right away, because that’s probably not the place where a 12 year old boy would run off to.  Considering Mary and Joseph’s reaction when they found him, you almost have to wonder if those events of that first Christmas 12 long years ago had faded a little bit, and in the routine of day to day life, perhaps they had forgotten just how special and extraordinary their son really was, and when he didn’t behave in the way they expected him to, they were frustrated if not outright angry. 

We might find ourselves laughing a bit at the folly of Mary and Joseph upset with the Son of God, but is their reaction really any different than the way we handle things when God allows something to happen that breaks the routine in our lives?  What do we say all too often if an illness strikes a child or a loved one out of nowhere?  When we see the forces of evil at work in the world, and apparently increasing?  When Christmas passes and it seems like nothing has really changed after what is supposed to be such a significant event and the loneliness, the sickness, the temptations – they all are still there, seemingly just as they were before? 

Like Mary and Joseph, we forget who we are talking to and we say: God, why have you treated us like this?  Why don’t you do things the way we expect you to?  We get so focused on our own routine and our own plans that we push Jesus back into the little box we call religion, and we find ourselves growing frustrated with him when he doesn’t submit to our plans for our lives – forgetting entirely what he showed us at Christmas: that everything he does is done with us in mind!  God would have been entirely justified in leaving us to ourselves to die, but in his mercy he doesn’t.  He sent his Son to be our Savior, and everything he does is related to that critical mission! 

Extraordinary Child

A closer look at this one incident from Jesus’ childhood reminds us that is the case here too.  Think about it: a normal boy would probably have left his parents to explore a new town or to have an adventure.  Jesus went to the temple, which was essentially the same as going to school – to study with the Rabbis.  Why?  His desire to learn God’s Word and truth wasn’t hampered or distracted by sin.  And so he progressed rapidly and all who saw him in the temple recognized the advanced insight and understanding he had of how the prophecies, the laws, and all the events recorded in the Old Testament fit together. 

Surely this kind of study had been going on in Nazareth too, but in Jerusalem young Jesus had access to the best the brightest of the teachers of the law.  Perhaps the years that had passed since the night sky blazed with angel glory had caused the significance of who Jesus was to fade for Mary and Joseph, just as perhaps at times for us it appears to be a faded and dusty historic story that has little impact today.  But none of those appearances change what Jesus was doing at the temple. 

Jesus said to them: 49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 – NIV84).  Translated literally: It was necessary – for me to take care of my father’s business.  For thousands of years, God’s plans had been carried out through the activities that happened at the temple, symbolized in the festivals, offerings, and prayers, but now it was necessary for God’s plan to be completed – and even the most brilliant of religious minds would not have fully understood how that would go.  And so Jesus said, “it is necessary.” 

Luke records Jesus using that same phrase a number of times throughout his account of Jesus’ life, and Jesus is usually talking about doing something somewhat unexpected, but critical to God’s salvation plan.  For example, the carpenter’s son says it is necessary for me “to preach” (Luke 4:43), it is necessary for me “to suffer” (9:22), it is necessary for me to “be handed over, crucified and rise from the dead” (22:37, 24:26), it is necessary for me to fulfill prophecy (24:44). 

Jesus had an obligation to his father in heaven that went beyond his family life with Mary and Joseph.  And even though it didn’t quite fit into Mary and Joseph’s plans for their lives, that obligation to his Father in heaven could not have been more important.  He was going to complete the plan of salvation God had started before the creation of the world. 

And even here in his childhood we see the Son of God, humbled so far as to be obedient to sinful human parents, bound by the demands of God’s laws, and facing the same trials, struggles, and temptations that we face, both as children and as adults, but never making a mistake.  Luke writes that after these events, “he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them…and Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”  (Luke 2:51, 52b – NIV84).  Here we see Jesus, already well on the way to completing the perfect life that would end with his brutal death at the cross to pay for sin – for you and for me. 

Mary and Joseph didn’t fully understand everything that was going on with their son.  They knew he was the Savior, but what form that salvation would take was not something they were able to figure out until they saw it with their own eyes.  But Mary and Joseph still believed the Christmas story. 

Luke says, “his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51b – NIV84).  Mary knew that her son was an extraordinary child, but she didn’t understand what all these things meant.  Nevertheless, she accepted them, because she believed the Christmas story and trusted that Jesus doing the Father’s business in her life was a good thing. 

This is the same attitude we ought to have.  Often, there are things in our lives that we can’t understand.  But like Mary, we acknowledge that the Father’s business is a master plan, so infinitely complex and far-reaching that we can’t even begin to understand how it all fits together.  And also like Mary, we believe that Jesus is doing his Father’s business, and we believe that the Father’s business will only result in good. 

That’s why as Christians, we can handle the unexpected twists and turns our lives might take – because they happen only under the guidance of our Savior.  That’s why as Christians, the post-Christmas let down doesn’t have to bother us, because even when the decorations and family and friends are gone, our Savior is still at work, carrying out his Father’s business. 

We don’t have to dread facing ordinary life in the coming weeks, the cold and dark days of January and February, and whatever they might contain.  We know that the exceptional child we see at Christmas is still doing what is necessary – for us.  We believe in the Christmas story!  Amen.