Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 26:30 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we hear the story of the twelve-year old Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem while His parents journey on toward Nazareth, we can certainly sympathize with Mary and Joseph and their frantic search, their incomprehension at finding Him in the temple after three days. “Son, why did you do this to us? See, your father and I have been searching anxiously for you” (Luke 2:48). But in our sympathy for Jesus’ parents, we may be tempted to think of Jesus as just another twelve-year old who got caught up in what He was doing and forgot to tell His parents. But He is clearly not just another twelve-year old. What twelve-year old do you know who would spend three days talking to his pastor, asking him questions, and instructing him in the doctrine of the Lord? What I wouldn’t give to be among those teachers in the temple, listening to Jesus!
Three days Jesus is in the temple; no doubt praying and listening to His Father when He was not talking to the teachers. He is not wondering where His parents are, searching frantically all over Jerusalem for them. He does, however, do what we tell children to do: stay in one place. The difference is, Jesus is not lost. He knows exactly where He is; it is His parents who are lost in their confusion, overwhelmed not only by losing track of their Son, but by finding Him in the temple; there He is, probably not even bar-mitzvahed, telling the teachers of Israel about the Father He has known from eternity. No; whatever He is, He is not just another twelve-year old.
And after instructing Israel’s teachers, He instructs His parents: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that it is necessary for me to be in the things of my Father?” (Luke 2:49). Unlike in most English translations, Jesus does not say “the house of my Father,” although certainly the temple is included. But more than the temple: the things of my Father; whatsoever belongs to My Father. What is it that He is doing in the temple? Not debating idle matters of academic theology. He is among the things of His Father: the written Word that pointed to a coming Messiah; the Law and the Prophets, all of which, after His resurrection, He would interpret as concerning Himself; He said, “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
This Word, whose scrolls were in the earthly temple, was actually present and speaking there. And not only was that twelve-year old boy the living Word, but He was also the end of the temple’s sacrifices; because the One to whom the sacrifices pointed, whose forgiveness they foretold, was standing in the midst of the temple. That is why He would one day re-enter Jerusalem and weep for her. That is why He could cleanse the temple of its false use and restore it as a house of prayer. That is why He could teach in the temple as one with authority. And it is why He could say of the temple’s stones, which He no doubt came to love: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).
But everything that Jesus did in the temple those three days happened while His parents were somewhere else, searching for Him, thinking they had lost Him. How much are we, like His parents, uncomprehending; shocked and amazed to find Him where we should have known that He would be? I once read an article in Time magazine about how fewer and fewer people go to church on Christmas Day. They make Christmas Eve carols or programs part of their family tradition, but prefer to spend Christmas Day with family in their house, rather than celebrate the birth of Jesus in His.
Whatever the reason, Christ’s birth no longer brings as many people to the place where He has promised to be to forgive our sins. We substitute our families for the Holy Family in our search for some elusive Christmas spirit. And perhaps Jesus’ question to us is not “Why were you looking for me?” but “Why were you not looking for me?” Why did you not know that I must be among the things of My Father? And the things of His Father are no different today than they were when Jesus was a twelve-year old boy in Jerusalem: the Word of God—not dead letters, but letters animated by the Spirit of the living Christ who speaks them; the sacrifice of God—not bulls and goats, but the Lamb who was slain; and all of it freely given in this temple of God. Do we no longer need to hear the Word of forgiveness as often as possible? Do you feel an eagerness to be present where Christ is, among these things of His, because you know you have a need so deep that nothing else could satisfy it? Have you been searching everywhere but where He is? Do not be surprised; did you not know that He must be among the things of His Father?
But Mary was surprised. Verse 52 is the second time that Luke says of Mary that she gathered all these things together, and kept and treasured them in her heart. That must have been overwhelming for her. Already she had been visited by an angel, given birth as a virgin and become the mother of God according to the flesh, seen shepherds worship her infant Son, had an old stranger in the temple prophesy about Jesus and her, had eastern astrologers pay their respects, and now, twelve years later, her Son is astounding the teachers of Israel. I don’t think she forgot all of that, but ten years might have blurred a bit the sharp edges of those experiences. It must have been for her like swimming in deep water; it must have been something like repentance. Didn’t you know, mother? Because she should have known. The angel had already told her who He was: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:30-32).
And you and I should know, as well. Have we not been with Jesus many years? Have we not heard both the promises about what He came to do and seen the fulfillment of them in our own forgiveness? Someone once said, “Nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things” (George Macdonald, Minister’s Prayer Book, 248). In our deadening, our temptation is to spend less time, not only with the outsides of holy things, but with the holy things themselves. But we need more holiness invading our unholiness, not less. How easily I can slip into an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things, while refusing entrance to the holy things themselves! Repent also of your easy and flippant presence before the living God. How easily I can forget where the Lord has promised to be found, preferring excitement and entertainment over the mundane miracle of mercy. Repent also of your absence, physically, spiritually, or mentally, from among the holy things of the Father where the Son must be found.
Will you treasure up the words of Jesus in your heart, pondering what they might mean for your life? Or will you return to your home unchanged and unrepentant, and hence unforgiven? No, beloved, your searching ends here because your Lord is here. Among His things and the things of His Father is where you and I must be also. There is no life outside of His Font, and His Word, and His Altar. Return, beloved, return! He has always been here, instructing to be sure, but more than that, delivering forgiveness. Delivering forgiveness to you. If you do not return often, you miss the things that your Lord would give you. It is to you He speaks, gently: Did you not know that it is necessary for Me to be among the things of My Father? It is necessary for you as well. Coming here, week by week, to the temple of the Lord, you are being “built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).
But you can only be that if you are together around the things of the Father, “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19-21). And the more you hear Him, the more you feed on Him, the more the psalmist’s prayer will be yours, as it was the prayer of Jesus: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God…For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 85:1-2, 10).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/1/22