A slight disclaimer: What follows is the basic text (minus the occasional digressions) of a sermon that I preached at Comox United Church, Comox, B.C. on December 26, 2021. It is not an essay. It is written to be spoken and in a manner that reflects my preaching style, which I suspect might be described as “informal.” Nor does it have the full assortment of citations, acknowledgements, and footnotes normally (and quite reasonably) expected in a more formal work. Please forgive the grammatical peculiarities!
What a difference a day makes. When we were last together on Friday night Jesus was just about to be born and now, here we are, on Sunday morning, and in Scripture 12 years have somehow passed. Yes, it’s safe to say that this first Sunday of Christmas has some peculiarities to it. I admit that I do have some fondness for this Sunday because it always feels rather more relaxed than the ones immediately preceding it, Advent, of course, building dramatic tension until we reach the events around Jesus’ birth. But today the observance of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day has passed and we’re halfway through the season of Christmas. Christmas is, after all, 12 days long in the Church (though for some of us, it does seem like we’ve been half-heartedly celebrating it for a couple of months!).
Anyway, this Sunday has a kind of laid-back feel to me, but then there are some peculiarities, as I said. Last year on this Sunday our Gospel reading was about the still-baby-Jesus being taken to the Temple for purification, which is where he and his family encounter the prophets Simeon and Anna. That’s a most uplifting passage—a good one for the post-Christmas day Sunday. On the other hand, the year before—and again next year following our 3-year cycle of readings—it was, and will be, that chilling story about the massacre of the babies in Bethlehem, and the flight of the Holy Family to safety in Egypt. Just a bit jarring to the post-Christmas day glow. And for this year? We’re about losing Jesus, though that might not be too far off the thematic path for us as we dig our way out of the holly and the ivy and whatever it is we do with turkey leftovers 6 days on. But it’s not merely the subject matter—it’s that chronological jump, as well. Not that this can be avoided: there’s just not a whole lot in the Bible about Jesus’ childhood. Yes, we learn elsewhere that Jesus was circumcised, and that he was taken to the Temple for the traditional purification rite and that his family retreats to Egypt because of the threat to life and limb posed by a paranoid King Herod, but really, the sum total of all we find in the Bible about Jesus’ childhood is our reading from Luke this morning. It’s just 11 verses and by now he’s 12 years old (babyhood is far behind him), and on the verge of cultural adulthood.
Being that our childhood can shape our lives so powerfully, it would be rather illuminating to hear what Jesus’ growing years were like. I’d like to know more but there’s just not much for us. There are some other stories in some later non-Biblical writings that could have some truth to them, though it’s wise to be a bit wary because the character of the Jesus we meet in those accounts is sometimes seemingly at odds with the character of the Jesus we meet in the 4 Gospels, which, to my mind, anyway, makes their reliability a bit suspect. It’s probably safe to think that Jesus had what would be a normal upbringing for a child in Galilee. His parents seem to be quite devout, and so it makes some sense that he underwent the normal religious education for people who took their faith seriously and he probably did whatever it was that normal kids did in that time and place. But as I said, these verses we heard are really all we’ve got in the Bible that tell us anything about Jesus’ childhood, which I should add, would officially end the following year, when he turned 13 and presumably had his bar mitzvah, the coming-of-age ceremony. It’s worth remembering that the phenomenon we call the “teenage years” is a novel concept, maybe just 150 years or so old in Canada. Prior to that you were child and then you were an adult—a young one, agreed—but in most places, in most times and cultures, you didn’t have this protracted nether-world of being “neither fish nor fowl” developmentally, not a child, but also not an adult. You were one or you were the other. On the other hand, the process of maturation does require that we move through certain stages of development. In this story we heard today, Jesus is still officially a child, but he does seem to be revealing some of that independence that comes with moving into adulthood.
This type of story isn’t an uncommon one, at least in my experience and in my capacity as a negligent parent, anyway. I mean, haven’t you ever lost your, or someone else’s kids? Come on, adults! Own up! My guess is that most of us have done it, usually by accident, of course. Usually. Mostly. I remember being in The Bay in Nanaimo with my son, Conall, when he was about 4 years old. I was wandering around the store with him and then, suddenly he was gone. I remember trying to remain calm as I initially looked for him and then there was the rising panic as the minutes (no, really, the seconds, I suppose) passed. I remember getting on the floor looking for him at ground level because he wasn’t tall enough to be seen over the clothes racks. Visions of kidnapping, slavery, inhuman medical experiments by abducting aliens, and a lonely death assailed me as I pretended to be calm. To borrow Mary’s words, I searched for him “with great anxiety.” Eventually he wandered into view, unharmed—and from what I could see—unconcerned and I remember being furious with him for my lapse in parental supervision. It’s a scary thing to misplace a child in any time and place. It’s possibly even worse today in the age of helicopter parenting.
Of course, when I was growing up (okay, here we go!) for some reason my parents seemed to be less concerned about the surely no-less dangerous world we lived in. I was 7 years old and living in Kelowna (not much bigger than my town, Qualicum Beach, is today) and I remember my Mum packing me a lunch and sending me off to the beach with my friends for the day. The beach. I was 7, friends! I don’t think any of us could really swim (I surely couldn’t) and there were no lifeguards at most of the beaches along the lake front. Mum didn’t even know for certain which of those beaches I was going to!
But what could possibly go wrong? The answer was nothing. Oh, there was that one little near-drowning-thing that happened to me, but other than that, it all worked out pretty well.
A few years ago I got talking with someone I met at a mutual friend’s birthday party and we got to regaling one another with stories of our youth, one of those “You think you had it bad … let me tell you about the time .… !” conversations you sometimes get into.
And listen: he won the prize. He told me about being in his early teens and how he was on a softball team that had the chance to play at a tournament in the South Okanagan but being that they didn’t have the resources to get the team all the way to Penticton, the coach got the whole team—are you ready for this?—to hitchhike there … from Vancouver Island! I kid thee not. Not that the coach wasn’t safety conscious. No, he got them to hitchhike in pairs because you can’t be too careful, can you? Things seemed a bit different, years ago, despite many of the same dangers existing.
While most families would likely only be able to logistically make one (travel was a really big commitment to make in New Testament times), those three-times-a-year pilgrimages to Jerusalem would be important features of the cycle of religious life in Mary and Joseph’s time. The faithful would travel to the capitol for the Feast of Tabernacles, and for the celebration of Pentecost, and—as we heard in our Bible reading for this morning—for the observance of Passover. The rule at the time was that it was men who were required to do the trip and so the fact that Mary was there for this yearly journey—we’re told they went every year—suggests a deep devotion of the family. These were the people who didn’t just do Christmas and Easter—no, they were those seriously religious kinds of people who’d be there on the first Sunday after Christmas. Fanatics! And don’t forget that this was a significant trek for someone living in Nazareth—three days travel, and so you’d usually go in a good-sized group for security. There was none of this last minute, “Oh, why don’t we go do Christmas Eve service at Comox United?” kind of thing. You planned this well ahead because it was a major undertaking. The family make the trip to Jerusalem and after the Passover celebration they head back home, and about a day out of Jerusalem Mary and Joseph look around and they realize that Jesus isn’t with them. That’s not just embarrassing, this is panic stations. How did this happen?
Weirdly, I think I get it. They’re traveling with a crowd of people (many of them relatives and good friends) and Jesus, well, he’s a good kid and responsible and come on, man! he’s 12—nearly an adult! One of the really powerful things that my former congregation participated in was taking young people to do some work in Mexico, and while we were away, we were counting constantly. We worked in teams of 15 and so you just get the magic number of 15 or 30 or 45 or 60 and we’d know we’re okay. It wasn’t about faces—it was the number of bodies. In part, we counted because we often don’t all know each other well before we left, and so faces and personalities are less ingrained in us, hence we’d just count. Then again, traveling with a large number of people who know each other well can create the same problem You’re seeing familiar faces and somehow familiarity makes it easier to miss people. That’s the underlying issue in the now-classic film, “Home Alone.” “I’m sure he’s here.”
So, yeah, I can easily see how they lost Jesus, and then—in horror and surely with some burden of guilt—they went charging back to what suddenly seemed like an especially dangerous Jerusalem. These were country people, and they knew that Jerusalem, while, yes, being the place that housed The Temple, was also a big city and you all know what big cities are like! You folks from Royston probably experience something similar to this when you risk a trip here to Comox, or even worse, to that debauched Gomorrah-by-the-Sea, Courtenay. Joseph and Mary leave the safety of their crowd of traveling companions and race back and begin searching and by this time Jesus has been out of sight for 3 days (3 days. Hmmm, that number will come up again, won’t it?). Then they find him in the Temple. He’s sitting with the priests and the scholars having a theological conversation, and it’s clear to everyone that this child, this not-quite-a-man is something special. You can just hear the conversation amongst the religious elite after his puzzled, but relieved parents have retrieved him and are once again heading back to Nazareth. “You know Mordechai, he’s got something, that kid—can’t quite put my finger on it—but he’s got something. He came at things differently … but I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear about him again.”
There’s a lot going on in this story—its theologically rich and it’s a preacher’s dream. But it’s also the 1st Sunday after Christmas and, as noted earlier, today has got a certain “relaxed” feeling to it. I mean many of us are still recovering from the frantic nature of the holiday, still doing the laundry after the kids have left, figuring out how long to leave the tree up. And here we’re batting cleanup on the Christmas carols, so, we’re keeping things simple today. In that spirit, let me just leave you with a question, a modest one.
Have you ever lost Jesus? I mean it: have you ever misplaced Jesus? It’s sure easy enough to do. I struggle with losing him with startling regularity. We’re together, I’m focused on him, and things are good and then some time passes, and I get focused on some important or pressing matter and I look around (I stop to do the head count) and he’s not there. It’s the constant danger in any church committee, Council, or General Meeting: losing Jesus. And it’s not that I meant to lose him, but things got a little frantic or complicated, or there was something that really demanded my attention and instead of keeping my eye on him, instead of following him, I left without him, I wandered off and he was suddenly out of sight! Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’m always in danger of misplacing him. To follow the One who repeatedly asks his disciples to “Follow me,” requires keeping an eye on him. Experience suggests to me that assuming that I actually know where he’s going is a bit foolish (he’s surprising!), so I need to keep close, keep my eyes open for him, keep looking to him and for him. This surely happens with denominations, too … losing Jesus. Check to see which is really more influential: ideology or politics, or rules or ethics, or if it’s the upside-down world of the Kingdom in which Jesus is Sovereign because he’ll pretty much always call into question politics and ideology … eventually. He’s easy to misplace, especially when rules or ethics becomes a shorthand for following. It happens to local churches, too. We get busy (and often with really good and important stuff) and we get focused on some concern, some anxiety (a difficult decision, or money—finances are a regular one in congregations).
And, of course, there are the times of change. It’s better than 4 years ago now that my former congregation were looking for a church consultant to help with some of the transition work that the congregation would be needing as I’d put an official retirement date on the calendar. The church Board were interviewing a consultant from Ontario through the magic of Skype and the Board Chair asked (with a bit of a wink, but still as a real question) if he had any concerns about Jesus, because he had a prominent role in local church life. The consultant offered a most robust laugh and agreed that indeed he did have a certain soft spot for Jesus, and so I think we got off on the right foot. As I think about it now, the Board Chair was doing a kind of “head count.” But having been around congregations in transition before, my sense is that it’s an easy slip to try and move on without him.
It’s surprisingly easy to lose Jesus. You ever do that? Leave him behind? Misplace Jesus?
So, one last time until next year … Merry Christmas. Amen.