Readings: I Samuel 2:18-20, 26, Luke 2:41-52, True Christianity 89 (see below)
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As a mother, I have to tell you, this text is really hard to read! First, there is the anxiety of losing your child. All parents, or anyone looking after a young child, have experienced their hearts in their throat at some point, when they realize that the child is not where they expected them to be. Then, can you imagine having to search for three days! I’d be an utter wreck.
And then, additionally, there is the sass that Jesus delivers! The kind of sass only a pre-teen can accomplish. “Why were you searching for me?” WHY? YOU KNOW WHY? IT’S BEEN THREE DAYS! Seriously, I’m about to burst into flames right here on the pulpit. I need to take a deep breath!
As much as I would rather not explore it though, this text is an extremely rich one. It is the only account in the gospels of an event in between the infancy and the adult ministry of Jesus. In biographies of famous figures of that day, stories of a precocious childhood were common. In particular, the Emperor Augustus was known to have eulogized his grandmother to great effect at the age of twelve (1). So already, the gospel writer is telegraphing Jesus’ superiority to the emperor.
We also begin the story with Jesus’ whole family going to Jerusalem for Passover. All male Israelites were required to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, and some other religious festivals, once a year. The journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem would probably have taken four or five days by foot. Clearly, Mary and Joseph are observant and diligent Jews, and Jesus’ facility with the Torah in the temple anchors him firmly in the Jewish tradition.
Such pilgrimages from country to city would have taken place in groups for the sake of safety, and we can probably surmise, in the form of extended families. We also might surmise a more communal parenting style than we are familiar with today, arising from a pastoral village setting, so it is not entirely unbelievable that Mary and Joseph might have thought Jesus was just hanging out with his cousins. Children can be extremely reluctant to come home when they are having a good time with their friends!
But we can also imagine the panic felt by Mary and Joseph when they realized Jesus was missing, how quickly they must have tried to travel back, how confused and frantic they must have felt while retracing their steps. We don’t know if they spent three whole days searching in Jerusalem, or if the three days includes the travel back to the city, but clearly they didn’t go straight to the temple. The text tells us they were astonished to find Jesus there. Probably they went first to the family they had been staying with, then perhaps to friends, then probably the marketplace, or some other place where children might hang out. Why did they not think to check the temple sooner? To Jesus, it seemed obvious that they were searching the wrong places for him. But it wasn’t obvious to Mary and Joseph. Why not? Even with all they had seen and heard, even as they knew their son was special, they didn’t assume that he would be in God’s house, attentive to God’s business.
In similar ways, we too might look for fulfillment, and meaning in places that do not necessarily serve us. What are the lyrics to that famous song? “Looking for love in all the wrong places”? In our day to day lives, we are driven by the human desire to feel safe, content, fulfilled, and engaged. We look toward many different things to satiate those desires. We look to various kinds of entertainment to engage our minds, sports teams or other groups to satisfy our tribal instincts, social media to feed our desire for connection, food to satisfy our desire for safety and sufficiency. We look to money for material comfort and upward mobility, to power for worthiness, to-do lists and technology for control, and many many other individual variations of these things.
These are just some examples of ways that we try to inject meaning into our lives, ways to make us feel okay, ways to make us feel settled, safe, included and worthy. And what do these efforts lead to? *Do* they lead us to feel we have meaningful lives? *Do* we feel safe, settled, included and worthy on their account? Sometimes we do, in the short term. But just as often we just feel restless, empty, not quite there yet, stressed. Studies have shown that human beings are not actually very good at predicting what will make us happy and fulfilled over time(2).
Martin Luther King Jr, in a speech during the Montgomery bus boycott entitled, “The Birth of a New Age(3)” spoke of the kind of leaders we need to propel our society forward, to midwife our society into a form that he called “the beloved community.” He said: “We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity.”
One thing I find interesting in this quote is that it implies a recognition that human beings must love something, must find meaning somewhere. So, the question becomes *what* are we in love with? What is driving us? What is the soul of our work? Where are we finding meaning? In money or justice? In publicity or the common good?
Because, the problem is not so much looking in the wrong places, as if God can be found only in one place, in the temple or in church, as if some parts of this world are inherently good and others are not. The problem is loving our various distractions for themselves instead of how they can be infilled with God. Things like money and publicity are in actuality neutral; how we use them and why determines how present God will be in them. For example: I recently gave money to a GoFundMe campaign for a friend of a friend who was experiencing some challenges (I’m sure many of you have done similarly for other causes). This involved both money and publicity as referenced in the King quote above. However, money that contributes to the the well-being of others when they need it the most is, of course, filled with God’s love and usefulness. Likewise the publicity, the social media platform that allowed me to know about this person. For all of the flaws inherent in social media, (and there are many!) in that moment and for that purpose, it was Godly and heavenly. What an honor, a miracle really, to be able to help someone so materially and easily, with just a keystroke. We also know this: that various entertainments can have a usefulness that is as simple and rest and rejuvenation, and as complex as introducing us to new perspectives and ideas we can reflect upon. Likewise food; as much as it can be abused it is a conduit for care and love, for bringing people together, for presence and gratitude. Even power, something that the gospel teaches us to be incredibly suspicious of, when used to help others can be a good thing, when used properly it can birth us all into a better world.
We know from the Christmas story that God can and does enter into this world in ways that we might not expect. That God can and does enter into this world through forms that we might dismiss or disparage. We recall from our Swedenborg reading, that this is in fact, part of the divine design. All in the universe, including us, have been created so that they can welcome the divine, can be prepared to be infilled with the Lord. When space is made, when all that is self-serving is cleared out, then God enters as if coming in to God’s own dwelling. This is what we prayed for in our Christmas Eve prayer from Sister Joyce Rupp, that *we* might all be God’s Bethlehem in the here and now.
And this is our choice: We can love all those things that distract us from God as things in and of themselves, and they *will* fulfill their purpose, they *will* distract us. But when we see that God has created all things to be a vessel for partnership, then these things can be transformed. It is not about looking in the wrong places per se, because God can be, and is, in all those places that Mary and Joseph looked in first. God is in the marketplace, the playground, the library, the shopping mall, the office. Instead, it is about recognizing divine interconnectedness as the blueprint of the world.
Jesus was in the temple bringing our attention to this divine interconnectedness. “Didn’t you know that I had to be in *my Father’s* house?” he said. In the Greek, there isn’t actually a noun at the end of this sentence, and translators will fill in the gaps with “my Father’s house”, or “about my Father’s business.” But really, the most literal translation “to be in that which is my Father’s.” It is more that Jesus was saying: Didn’t you know that I had to inhabit my divine inheritance? Didn’t you know that I had to be present to my relationship to Spirit? Didn’t you know that I had to be present to the divine order that calls us to partnership, that calls us to depth and connection? Jesus is calling us to see that loving God first, and loving the things God loves, infills and enlivens everything else, due to God’s living relationship with us and the world. It is when our allegiance is given to the distracting thing, then we will be lost and continually searching. When, for example, we love money for sake of having more and not for the good it can do, when we love publicity for the sake of self-gratification and not for purpose of connection and enlightenment, that is when we will have trouble finding God, because we have closed down our capacity for partnership.
So, we return to the question: What are we in love with? For what we love will affect what we are able to discover. Mary and Joseph were clearly loving Jesus as their son, their boy, and so they looked for him in places where a twelve-year-old boy might be. Could we not imagine that Mary and Joseph hurried past the temple without looking inside, in a rush to retrace their steps. Jesus, however, with a burgeoning knowledge of his connection to the divine, was growing beyond their expectation, just as our Lord calls us to grow beyond our own expectation of where God should be, to see opportunities for partnership, for God’s indwelling, everywhere.
I Samuel 2:18-20, 26
18 But Samuel was ministering before the LORD—a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. 20 Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the LORD give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the LORD.” Then they would go home.
26 And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with people.
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?” 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.
True Christianity 89
In the process of taking on a human manifestation, God followed his own divine design. …in the act of creating, God introduced his design into the universe as a whole and into each and every thing in it. Therefore in the universe and in all its parts God's omnipotence follows and works according to the laws of his own design….
Now, because God came down, and because he is the design, there was no other way for him to become an actual human being than to be conceived, to be carried in the womb, to be born, to be brought up, and to acquire more and more knowledge so as to become intelligent and wise. Therefore in his human manifestation he was an infant like any infant, a child like any child, and so on with just one difference: he completed the process more quickly, more fully, and more perfectly than the rest of us do.
…The Lord's life followed this path because the divine design is for people to prepare themselves to accept God; and as they prepare themselves, God enters them as if he were coming into his own dwelling and his own home…
It is a law of the divine design that the closer and closer we come to God, which is something we have to do as if we were completely on our own, the closer and closer God comes to us. When we meet, God forms a partnership with us.