Based on Luke 2:41-52.
Word made flesh, life of the world, in your incarnation you embraced our poverty: by your Spirit may we share in your riches. Amen.
In August while on a Cub Scout overnight that I was leading, Noah and one of his friends ran ahead on our hike. We had come to Bear Island, accessible only by boat, in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee. We had trekked over to see the Island post office and were heading back. The two boys wanted to see who could beat the other in a footrace and off they went. “Stop at the first trail crossing,” we shouted after them and sent one of the other boys to make sure they got the message. He came back and said he tried. The bigger group hit that intersection, but the boys weren’t there. So we broke in two to go down the different paths, each leading to the Narrows where the trails merge again because the Island becomes so thin, expecting that one of us would run into them. We didn’t. I then realized that I was holding Noah’s GPS unit because the boys had talked about swimming off the dock at the Post Office. He had dutifully marked the cabin on it.
Some of us circled back on another trail to see if they had gotten completely turned around and headed back to the Post Office, and the rest forged on toward the chapel on the Island. An hour had passed by that time, and I began to get a bit more panicked. Luckily the island wasn’t that big, but there was a youth camp on the end opposite the post office and there were loads of poorly marked trails. I got a message from the group that went to the chapel; the boys weren’t there. However, some residents outside throwing horseshoes had seen the boys run by. Those of us in the smaller group turned around again now certain they hadn’t come that way. By the time we made it back to the chapel, the others had made it back to the cottage, and the boys weren’t there either.
It had been nearly 2 hours or so at that point, and while plenty of sunlight remained, there just weren’t a lot of landmarks for the boys to find. We ran into other hikers and asked them to call if they came across the boys, showing them a photo we took earlier in the day. We began shouting their names more frequently, and blowing the whistles on our backpacks. The dad whose cabin we stayed at left the bigger group and headed back out on the trails into the woods. He was the one who found them, off the marked trail, walking together. I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved in my life.
Jesus is twelve now in our story, navigating the transition from boy to man. He’s traveled with Mary and Joseph up to Jerusalem for the week long Passover. After worshipping together in the temple and feasting with friends and loved ones, they begin the trek home. The group is fairly large so they don’t worry when he’s not right beside them. But when they arrive at their campsite that evening, and he’s no where to be found, they panic. They retrace their steps, calling his name, looking hard for him.
I do not want to imagine the thoughts that went through their heads over those three days. I’m sure they checked every nook and cranny thoroughly both on the road and back in Jerusalem. I know they were worried sick. And then they found him in the now empty temple; with the festival over plenty of seats could be found. Jesus sat amongst the teachers, the ones who loved the Torah and longed to know it better so they could learn more about God. Even though he was just 12, he asked deep questions and answered some too.
When his parents came running in, I’m certain they wanted both to hug that boy and smack him upside the head. “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Mary asks incredulously. “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!” Jesus is nonplussed. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they don’t understand what he’s talking about, according to Luke. Jesus then picks up his things, says goodbye to the rabbis and heads back home with his parents and, Luke adds for good measure, was obedient to them.
What can this story teach us about the incarnation? It’s only a couple of days since we read about the singing angels coming to the shepherds and of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. What does this incident of the missing Jesus show us?
Well, for one, it shows the deep humanity of God. I suspect this little tidbit didn’t make it into Mary and Joseph’s yearly holiday letter. “Well we had quite a scare in the Spring when Jesus went missing for three days.” Every parent has those times when they feel like they fail at parenting, and losing track of a child ranks high on that list. Additionally Jesus himself shows a bit of that tween edge, “Really, mom and dad? Didn’t you know I’d be at the temple? C’mon, think!”
The images we have of the holy family approach domestic perfection. Jesus the model boy always doing the right thing. Mary and Joseph always smiling on. Yet this episode, when unpacked, looks an awful lot like every family I know. Deep love and care, and occasional bouts of anxiety and frustration with the hard but natural boundary pushing as children test the waters of adulthood and parents half-wanting to keep them young forever. It’s not perfect at all. And if this happened once, you can bet it happened in other ways too. Jesus wasn’t devious, of course, but he was coming into his own vocation, his calling by God to spread the good news. His parents don’t completely understand it, but they can’t stop time’s marching on and Jesus growing in wisdom and divine and human favor. Mary’s baby is growing up.
As theologian, William Danaher, puts it, “That the incarnation took shape in the life of the holy family gives hope for families of all kinds and conditions on this day. The model of living that the holy family offers is not … that of a family perfectly ordered and without division and differences. Rather it is of a family that lives into the messy moments with the confidence that God in Christ Jesus has entered and redeems them from within.” And that is wonderfully good news this Christmastide. We do not need to be perfect—we cannot be perfect. God brings about redemption in all the moments of our lives, both the joy-filled ones and the anxiety producing episodes. In each of them Jesus breaks in sharing his love and reminding us that this is the very reason he came in the flesh in the first place: to bring about the glorious beauty of his kingdom in every aspect of our lives. May it be so in your lives this Christmas. Amen.