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There were three, annual festivals held at the Temple in Jerusalem ever year which all Jewish men were required to attend. They were Pentecost, Tabernacles and Passover. Luke says Joseph and Mary both attended the Passover every year. It's always nice when families go to church together.
The distance that the holy family had to travel back and forth from Nazareth to Jerusalem was about 65 miles each way, which was a three or four day journey. Families would travel together in caravans. The children would play together along the way, the women would talk about their children and the men would talk about the Patriots, or something like that. There was also safety in numbers.
These festivals lasted a week. Luke says, "and when the feast was ended" Mary and Joseph and those that they came with headed home.
Unfortunately, Luke doesn't tell us how it happened that they went a whole day's journey before they realized that Jesus wasn't with them. Luke gets his information for his gospel by interviewing first hand participants. Most likely, he gets the details of this episode from Mary. He either never thought to ask her how such a thing could have happened, or decided to leave that part out as a courtesy to Mary.
But who can resist the temptation to imagine the exchange that must have taken place between Mary and Joseph? A the end of the day, May would have asked Joseph, "Have you seen Yeshua?" And Joseph would have said, "No, I though he was with you. You're his mother." And Mary might have replied, "I thought he was with the other children. Why weren't you keeping your eye on him? You're his father." To which Joseph would have replied in typical male fashion, "no, not technically."
It shouldn't be too hard for us to imagine how such a thing could happen. I vaguely remember one Sunday after worship finding a little girl downstairs after fellowship was over. Everyone had gone but there she was, left behind at the Temple. Her parents had come in separate cars and each thought she was with the other. Se was just sitting there as calm as could be, knowing that real soon there would be a distant scream and one of the other would show up for her in a panic.
We shouldn't be too hard on Joseph and Mary. We should be a lot harder on ourselves. On Christmas Eve, we heard the announcement from the prophet Isaiah, "To US a child is born, to US a Son is given." (Is.9:6). The child and Son whom Isaiah is pointing to is the child born to Mary – Jesus Christ our Savior. How often have we lost track of Jesus? How often have we been unsure of where He went and where we can find Him again?
We thought that Jesus would stick close by our side no matter what kind of sinful life we live. But then tragedy struck or our sin caught up with us and the bottom fell out of our life, and it suddenly dawned on us Jesus isn't there. The crisis acts like an alarm that alerts us to the fact that something is definitely wrong here.
Sometimes, it's nothing so dramatic as that. It's just that it's been a long time since we checked on Jesus. We've just been so busy, busy, busy with careers and children and activities and you name it. Maybe we rationalized that once things settled down a bit we'll catch up with Jesus again. But for now, we'll just not going to be able to check in with Him very often.
It can happen to the best of us. Take Job for example. Job was a "righteous man." But even Job, in the midst of his crisis cries out, "Oh, that I knew where to find him, that I might come to where he is seated." (Job 23:3).
I hope that by now you've sensed that there's just something wrong with the way we've been putting all of this. Really, Jesus is not the One who's lost, we are. It's not Jesus who's wandered off from us, it's we, who "like sheep have gone astray, each one to his own way."
And that of course turns everything upside down – or right side up really. Really, it's Jesus who agonizes as a loving Father over His children who have wandered off from His side. It's not that He didn't see what was going on the whole time, for He never takes His eye off of us. But He won't force us to remain in His Word and talk to Him daily in prayer. If, like the prodigal son, we insist on leaving the Father's house to be free from His presence and live "on our own," He won't stop us.
But don't kid yourself either. To separate yourself from Jesus Christ is synonymous with death. When the prodigal son returned to His Father's house, His father, who had never once taken His eye off of His child said, "This is my son was DEAD and is alive again; was lost and is found." (Luke 15:24).
The direction of the entire Old and New Testaments is that it is the Christ who searches for and finds those who are lost. He is the Good Shepherd who goes to look for the lost sheep, the woman who searches until the lost coin is found. "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:10).
I'm sure that nothing so theological as this was going through Joseph and Mary's mind while they were looking for Jesus. We can only imagine their distress. Luke says, "They began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances." Calmly at first, but with increasing nervousness as one by one, they all said they hadn't seen "Yeshua" since they left Jerusalem.
They had come a day's journey, their legs were probably tired and they were certainly hungry. But none of that even registered with them. They returned to Jerusalem. How long do you think it took them to cover that 'days journey' back to the city?
We can certainly relate to Joseph and Mary here too, whether you've ever lost a child or not. When God gives us a strong faith so that we firmly believe and how no doubts about Christ's presence with us, life is good. Life is good even in the midst of crisis, sorrow, suffering, or persecution, as long as we're sure that Jesus is by our side.
But when we loose this faith and are unsure of His presence with us, then we're filled with doubts and worries and fears. Again, this happens to the best of us. Luther experienced these terrible bouts where he felt as though he was separated from his Savior. He called them times of "disertionem gratia." The "desertion of grace." It's when the heart feels as if it has lost the grace of God and on matter when we look, we can't find it.
Job understood this 'disertionem gratia" too. Job says, "Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him." Job looks in every direction for some sign that God is present with him but can't find any.
But then Job says something very interesting. "But he knows the way that I take…" (Job 23:8-10a). And for Job, that's enough. It's always good to be able to say, "I've found Jesus." But as long as the object of our confidence is in that "I," it's a fragile and fleeting thing. It is so much more comforting and satisfying if we can say, "Jesus has found me and He knows the way that I take." Which is exactly what you can say by virtue of your baptism. Your baptism is your assurance that Jesus has found you and knows the way you take. He has attached His true and infallible Word to the water and placed His promise on you saying, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." "I will be with you always."
Joseph and Mary eventually locate Jesus in the Temple. We catch that very natural, human response from her. She's so relieved to have located Him and so angry with at the same time. "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress."
And Jesus responded, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" There is something very profound going on here.
Jesus astonished the Rabbis with his wisdom and understanding. For a 12 year old boy, He demonstrated an understanding of God's Word beyond their own. And I am sure that these professors of theology were highly impressed and a little confused as to how this young boy could possess such wisdom.
But now, in their hearing, Jesus makes a statement that they will one day crucify Him for. Mary referred to Joseph, her husband as, "your father." But Jesus corrected her and referred to God as His Father. When the 12 year old boy became a 33 year old man, He would make the same claim. And in his gospel, John writes, "This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God." (John 5:18). I wonder, how many of those who sought to kill him were among those who were astonished at His teaching 21 years earlier in the Temple?
It's not enough for Jesus that you think Him to be a wise and learned teacher. Every generation has its share of wise and learned men and women. But there is only One who can save you. What you must understand is that Jesus is so learned and wise because He is the only begotten Son of God, or as we confessed it earlier, "begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God…" (Nicene Creed).
This bright little boy who astonished everyone with His questions would astonish the whole world – not by His wisdom but by His foolishness. For the cross of Christ is utter foolishness according to the wisdom of the world. What are we to make of this child and man who claims that God is His Father but who cries from the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?" He is experiencing the "disertionem gratia" for all of us. It is only because the God forsook His only-begotten Son that we have the assurance that He will not forsake us.
Luke writes, "After three days, they found Him." What an emotional roller coaster Joseph and Mary had had taken. How ecstatic they must have been at finding Him.
Strangely, His mother Mary would ride this rollercoaster again. Mary and a small caravan of others would go to the tomb to anoint her Son's dead body. But when they arrived, they found that the stone had been rolled away but they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. She lost Him again. But the angel of the Lord told the women that they hadn't lost Him at all. They were simply looking for Him where He was not to be found. "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, He is risen." "After three days, they found him."
To think that our faith is so strong that we would never loose Jesus or feel the "disertionem gratia" is silliness. Even the best sailors can loose their bearings when a dense sets in. Only let Jesus' words to His mother be His words to us. "Did you not know I must be in my Father's house?" This is where Jesus may be located by us. He is here, in this place, doing His Father's business of saving you by washing your sins away in your baptism, declaring you totally forgiven by His Word, giving you the assurance of His presence with you by putting His body into your hands and His blood to your lips.
Let us treasure up all these things in our heart.