Sunday, February 5, 2017

My Father's House

Brothers and sisters, good morning again! I hope you had a lovely Candlemas. That's the story with which we left off last week: the account of the baby Jesus, forty days old, being presented in the temple at Jerusalem. We thought about the long years when Simeon waited and waited and waited to see the Messiah, as the Holy Spirit promised Simeon he would before he died. But “wait” didn't mean “no.” Simeon saw the Messiah, this child named Jesus. We heard how Simeon blessed the family, talked about Jesus revealing the inner secrets of our hearts, whether good or bad. But most of all, Jesus went public to reveal God's heart, which is our salvation.

And now Luke fast-forwards twelve years. Twelve years in which Joseph and Mary return to the little village of Nazareth in Galilee. During that time, Luke writes, “the child” – that's Jesus – “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). And as Luke fast-forwards through those years, he lands on Passover. Passover, the remembrance of how God, in the days of Moses, shielded his people through sacrifice from the tenth plague, the plague of the Angel of Death. Passover, the remembrance of that meal eaten ready to run. Passover, that reminder that Israel wasn't always free. But God set her free, with his mighty hand and outstretched arm. Passover reminded her of God's judgment and God's mercy.

Passover was no small deal. Happening every year in what we'd call March or April, it was one of the most important holidays of the Jewish faith, taken together with the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread. And it was one of the three pilgrimage feasts ordered in the Old Testament, the celebrations where Israel was called to meet the LORD at his dwelling-place – which became Jerusalem – with sacrifices and offerings (Deuteronomy 16:16). Taken literally, the Law's command sounds like every Jewish man has to make every pilgrimage. But the legal scholars by this time interpret it more loosely. There are three pilgrimage festivals during which the men and families of Israel go to Jerusalem, but any given Jewish family might go to one every few years, or maybe even once in a lifetime, for some.

When the rabbis mention Jews who make the Passover pilgrimage every year, they're talking about the most committed, the most devout, the most righteous, like sages and scholars. And that's why it's so important and telling that Luke insists that Joseph and Mary “went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover,” and that they stay for the whole seven days (Luke 2:41). Again, Luke is hammering home a powerful picture of this couple: they are the most Jewish Jews you'll find. They take God's word more seriously than anybody. They are full of longing for God. And they are raising this special child in that kind of atmosphere. I hope all of our families can be like that!

Imagine, for a moment, what this journey must have been like, in the year when Jesus was twelve (Luke 2:42). Joseph and Mary aren't walking alone. Luke tells us that it's a group trip from Nazareth, full of “relatives and acquaintances.” Mary's brothers, cousins, and maybe even her parents, are along. Maybe Joseph has a brother or two. And surely some of those folks are married with children of their own. And then there's anyone else in Nazareth who planned to go. Joseph and Mary are traveling with everybody from Nazareth making the pilgrimage. Safety in numbers, after all. It's about sixty-four miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem – maybe more, if they (like most Jews) crossed over into the Decapolis region to avoid Samaria. It took days to get there, days trekking from one village to the next, days to even catch a sight of Jerusalem.

But then they do. They see the golden gleam of the temple in the distance, and the city's lofty walls. They sing songs as they come closer and begin the ascent up toward Mount Zion. And then they reach the city. Oh, can you imagine just how crowded Jerusalem was? Even with most Jews making the trip infrequent, still, there are thousands and thousands of extra people in the city. This is the most crowded Jerusalem ever gets. This group from Nazareth books one of the hundreds of inns that thrive off the pilgrimage industry. Someone from the group goes and finds an animal vendor, buys a lamb for each family. And then the Passover begins. Joseph, Mary, their boy, and all the rest – they crowd into the massive courtyard that Herod built around the temple. They watch their lamb sacrificed to the Lord – the bitter stench of blood overcome by the fragrant aroma of roasting meat on the fire. That night, back at the inn, they gather around a table, eat the lamb and the matzo bread and the bitter herbs, and recall why that night is different from all other nights, for they were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God set them free.

They stay for a week. The seventh day of Passover is another holiday, remembering the Parting of the Sea. They eat another festival meal, they attend more prayer services – and then, the next day, it's time to go. They pack up anything they brought, and they join the crowds streaming away from Jerusalem, probably in all sorts of little clusters. The Nazareth crew has already talked about which village they'll stop at for the night, where they'll regroup. And after a day's walk, they get there. But when they regroup – all the siblings and cousins and friends – they realize that one child isn't accounted for. Jesus – he's not there at all.

Can you imagine what Joseph and Mary must have felt in that moment? The moment it dawned on them that they'd lost Jesus? Can you picture their panic? The shouts at family members: “We thought he was with you!” “No, we thought he was with you!” Can you imagine how, exhausted after a day of travel, their adrenaline gets pumping, and they have to race through the night, going back up to Jerusalem? I can't help but think Mary's relatives went with them – I mean, wouldn't you, if it were your nephew in a tightknit village like Nazareth?

And so for three days, they search Jerusalem, high and low. Even with the pilgrims gone, Jerusalem is no small town. Think of the population of Lancaster – but crammed into a smaller area. And for days, Joseph and Mary frantically search Jerusalem, wondering what happened to this boy. Did he get lost? Is he hurt? Did someone take him? I can't personally recall ever having had this kind of experience with a missing child, but to some extent, almost every parent does – maybe out of sight in a store for a minute, and the panic starts to rise. Think about what Joseph and Mary are going through (Luke 2:43-45).

And think, too, what else must be going through their minds. They only went to Jerusalem because of their love for God. The same God they're praying to, through tears and exhaustion and adrenaline, to show them where Jesus is now. The same God they're questioning with every breath. They went in obedience – but did it cost them their son? That's what they must be wondering. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't you be suddenly asking yourself how a couple as God-fearing as this could be the ones suffering this loss? Wouldn't you be asking God where he was, why he wasn't watching out for their child, why he wasn't miraculously bringing them back together, how he could allow this to happen?

I wonder: During the second day of the search, did Joseph feel a sense of deep regret that he took his family to the feast – that he didn't take a break, let this year slip by, stay home in Nazareth for a change? It's hard to see how he couldn't feel that pang of regret – not on the second day of a missing boy. All of us know, in one way or another, the sorts of thoughts Joseph and Mary were wrestling with in Jerusalem that day, as the minutes and hours ticked past, and they couldn't find the boy anywhere. In the heat of the moment, are we ever tempted to regret a lifestyle of serving God? Because, make no mistake: sometimes, all we can see is the cost. The cost of lost opportunities. The cost of lost relationships. In this case, the cost of (seemingly) lost people. “Count the cost,” we're told – but do we ever think that the cost might look like this?

Joseph and Mary are wondering if maybe it wouldn't have been better to stay home in Nazareth to begin with. And yet with hindsight, with the revelation of scripture, we know the answer is no. No, it's good that they went to Jerusalem. It's good that they celebrated the feast. It's good that they obeyed the Lord. And the same is true for us, even when the apparent cost seems so high. It's always good to go where God wants us and do what he asks of us – even if it means risking those we love on earth.

Well, for Joseph and Mary, the third day dawns. Consider this: Joseph and Mary are the first ones who taste the experience of the disciples some decades later, how they'll feel after the cross, when Jesus is missing from their company for three days. But three days was the limit for his absence from his disciples – he rose from the dead. And just so, on that return trip to Jerusalem, three days was the limit – they found him. And they found him at the temple. The way Luke describes it, we know where in the temple he probably was. He was in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, a room built at the corner of the courtyard, half-in and half-out. It's the room where the Great Sanhedrin would meet, all the great judges of Jerusalem.

And that's where Joseph and Mary find Jesus, “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” – and answering them, too (Luke 2:46). One of the highlights of making the pilgrimage, the rabbis used to say, was that you'd pass by the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and you'd glance in, and all the best and brightest scholars would be sitting there, teaching the Torah to their disciples; and as you'd glimpse them in their studies together, you'd maybe want to take up the discipline of Torah study yourself.

Well, Jesus had wandered in. A twelve-year-old boy with a Galilean accent, brought up in a little village in a handyman's family – and now there he is, in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, surrounded by the sages and scholars of Jerusalem, many of whom probably served on the Great Sanhedrin. Maybe Paul's mentor Gamaliel was in the room. Quite possibly, his grandfather Hillel, over a century old but still alive at the time, was there. So too, probably, was Shammai, the other great scholar of the Pharisees and vice-president of the Sanhedrin.

And they and their disciples talked with this boy. He listened to them. He asked them questions – good questions, tough questions. And as they invited him to sit among them, they asked him questions of their own, questions about the meaning of this or that passage in the Torah. And he answered them. Not with simple, child-like answers, either. With answers that blew them away. Luke says that those who heard him were flabbergasted, they were thunderstruck, they were beside themselves (Luke 2:47). A twelve-year-old boy was matching wits with the greatest and wisest scholars, the most experienced experts – who could this boy be?

Our passage this morning begins and ends by talking about how Jesus, the Wisdom of God made flesh, was in his humanity growing in wisdom and in the favor of God (Luke 2:40, 52). This child, understanding the word of God on par with the top experts, would only get better and better as he matured to adulthood. But already, even as a boy, not yet a man, he was already the truest teacher. And we have access to his mature wisdom all the time. It's right there in the New Testament, written on pages for us. We can hear his words in the Gospels. We can see, in the epistles, how he prodded his messengers like Paul to speak to this issue or that issue. We are not deprived of the flabbergasting, awe-inspiring wisdom of this Jesus.

But I wonder: Are we really confident that Jesus is wise? Do we actually believe Luke when he tells us about the wisdom of Jesus? Because if we really believe that, it's going to change how we live. We're going to look to Jesus. We're going to open ourselves up to amazement. And we're going to trust him to poke and prod us with the right questions when we think we have everything figured out, and to offer us solid answers when we realize we don't. Is that how we live? Do we join the crowds enraptured by his wisdom and understanding, his questions and answers for us? Or do we try to choose our own path through life based on our own wisdom, which looks an awful lot like what the Bible calls being a fool?

In any event, that's where Joseph and Mary find Jesus – in the midst of the teachers. And when they saw him, they were pretty surprised. That's hardly where they expected him to be. Were they a bit embarrassed, thinking Jesus was bothering all these dignified scholars – people to whom Joseph might, under other circumstances, scarcely have dared to say hello? Did Joseph and Mary try to apologize for him? Did they pause for a moment to listen to Jesus' back-and-forth with the scholars, or did some of the teachers explain to this poor Galilean couple what an amazing treasure they have? Or were Joseph and Mary just overcome with relief to have found the boy? Did Mary rush in and throw her arms around Jesus and sob tears of joy?

And like any mother, Mary scolds him. “Child, why have you treated us so?” The word Luke uses here for 'Child' – it stresses the idea that Jesus is dependent on Mary, that he relies on her, that he needs her. She goes on and says, “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress” (Luke 2:48). And she isn't wrong, not about the great distress. They looked all over Jerusalem to find the kid! Searched high and low! They were so, so worried! Doesn't Jesus understand how much he needs them? Doesn't Jesus understand that it's dangerous for him to be away from them? Doesn't Jesus understand where he belongs?

But when Jesus answers, it becomes obvious – obvious to us, at least, who know the whole story – that Mary's actually the one with some misconceptions here. Because Jesus answers her and says, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that it was necessary that I be in my Father's house?” (Luke 2:49). In other words, he's saying, if Mary and Joseph really understood who Jesus was, if they really grasped what Jesus is all about, if they really lived according to what God had revealed to them already, then they wouldn't have spent days scouring Jerusalem high and low. Why did they go around investigating the whole city, when the temple, with this Chamber of Hewn Stone and the scholars and their disciples, should have been the first place they looked? If they really knew Jesus, where else would he be?

This dialogue between Mary and Jesus – it sets up a big question. Who is Jesus' father? Where is his primary allegiance? What household does he belong to first and foremost? Mary assumes that Jesus' proper place is with Father Joseph – that Nazareth is home, and Jerusalem is a nice place to visit. But Jesus doesn't share that assumption. He knows that, while Joseph is his foster-father, he has a higher allegiance to Father God. He is first and foremost God's child, living in dependence on the Father, not Joseph's child, living in dependence on Mary. And so the question is: Where is it proper, where is it necessary, for God's Child to be?

See, in the 'natural' world, in a world “under the sun,” where Jesus' parents are Joseph and Mary, Nazareth just is where he belongs – forever. That's the natural home for a son of Joseph the carpenter. And that's what Mary is thinking about and talking about: Jesus' place is there with them. That's home. That's where he belongs. But Jesus is more than that. Anyone who calls God by the name “Father” is automatically beyond the assumptions of that kind of 'natural' world “under the sun.” Jesus has God for his Father. And if he has God for his Father, there's more to his life than what you'll find “under the sun.”

Jesus can go back to Nazareth. He can submit to Joseph and Mary – and he does, though they don't understand his point (Luke 2:50-52). But Nazareth is not 'home.' Nazareth is an extended detour. Nazareth is not, in fact, where he belongs. Joseph and Mary, the domestic village life, the craftsman's trade and the tools and the work, the fields and sunshine – those things can't keep him there. Because if he has God for his Father, then his real home is in his Father's house, and his real work is his Father's business. So even at age twelve, when Jesus goes back to Galilee, he's only visiting Nazareth. And as he himself says later, Joseph and Mary are not his primary household: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

If Mary had really understood Jesus – really knew him as the Son of God, really grasped that his true home and true devotion were elsewhere – then she would have understood. Because Jesus, as the Father's Son, belongs in God's house, the temple. He belongs with his true family, those whose attention is on studying and obeying the word of God. The place where he belongs, the place where it's necessary for him to be, is the place where God is worshipped and where the wisdom of his word is craved and honored. It's the Father's house – that's where it's proper and necessary for Jesus, the Son of God, to be.

And here's the point: If you're a Christian, you're adopted by God. You've received the Spirit of Sonship – you are included in Jesus' relationship with his Father (Romans 8:15). Jesus' Father has, by amazing grace, become your Father. We here are the sons and daughters of God. And so everything we just said about where Jesus belongs as the Father's Son – that all applies to us, too. Our proper place, our home, is not primarily in our individual family households. It's in our Father's house. It's in the fellowship where the word of God is truly studied and truly discussed, and where the God who truly spoke that word is truly worshipped.

No less than Jesus, this fellowship, this living temple, is where it is necessary for us to be. That's why the whole “churchless Christian” craze falls apart. If “churchless Christianity” were a possibility, we wouldn't have this story. But we do. And that means that the people around you are your family, and this is your home. This is your proper place. When we disperse today, returning to our various little Nazareths like Joseph and Mary and Jesus did, that's an extended detour – though hopefully, even as we go forth from the Father's house, we'll still go on the Father's business. But in the meantime, as we schedule our weeks and days, may we never forget in what house we belong. Thank God for our Father's house. Amen.

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