Rev. Sarah Buteux

January 3, 2016

Luke 2:41-52

Reading from the first Sunday after Christmas

on the second Sunday after Christmas, Year C

 

“Better the Jesus You Don’t Know…”

 

It was early on in my relationship with Andrew and I wanted to make a good impression upon his parents. They had very graciously and rather suddenly accepted two foreign exchange students into their home – a girl from Brazil and a boy from Germany, no more than 16, 17 years old – and they had no idea what to do with them.

 

My semester had not yet started, so to the great relief of my not-yet-officially but destined-to-be in-laws, I offered to take the teens into Boston for the day. We hopped on the commuter rail, visited the aquarium, and then walked around downtown ending up in one of my favorite places, Quincy Market.

 

How many of you have been to Quincy Market? For those of you who haven’t been there, Quincy Market is a lovely outdoor mall full of shops and food that encircles Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall.

 

It’s one of those places where it is very easy to lose track of someone because of the crowds, but virtually impossible to get lost because of the layout. So what did I do? I suggested that we split up at one end and meet within the hour at the other.

 

I’m sure, given our Bible story for today, that you can see where this is going. But what can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

Well, roughly 55 minutes later, the girl from Brazil was sitting with me on a bench waiting for the German boy to show up. Roughly an hour and a half later, the girl from Brazil and I were starting to worry. Roughly 2 hours later she was muttering “stupid boy,” under her breath while I was describing what the boy looked like to a police officer. An hour after that she was muttering “stupid boy,” while I was working a pay phone – remember those? – calling collect – remember that? – to tell Andrew’s parents, who – please remember – I had been trying to impress, that I had lost their German exchange student somewhere in downtown Boston.

 

Now, I have briefly lost sight of my own children, and that horrible empty sinking feeling is not one I would wish on my worst enemy – am I right? – but the feeling one has when one has lost someone else’s child is really not much better.

 

So I can only imagine how sick and empty and horrible Mary and Joseph would have felt a day’s ride outside of Jerusalem when it turned out that their little boy, who they assumed was somewhere right behind them, was nowhere to be found. I mean they had not just lost their son, they had lost God’s son, and somehow I imagine that made the whole situation feel infinitely worse.

 

I can still remember how hard I prayed that day in Quincy Market for the German boy’s safe return. But Mary and Joseph? What recourse would they have had?

 

When you lose God’s son, who do you pray to then?

 

***

 

It’s interesting to me that this is our only glimpse into Jesus’ childhood. Last week he was just a baby. Next week he’ll be a grown man waiting in line to be baptized by John. So it’s worth asking: why this story?

 

Of all the stories that could have been told about the young boy Jesus, why is this the only one that makes it into scripture? It certainly doesn’t paint Mary or Joseph in the best light. I imagine this was not their finest parenting hour, though in all fairness, I can totally see how this could happen.

 

I mean, when you think about it, Jesus was probably a really good kid, right? Even apart from the whole Son of God thing, he was the oldest and had most likely been helping out and taking on more responsibility as each new baby entered the family.

 

I imagine him as the classic parentified child: the kid you could trust to run to the corner store for milk, the one who always hung up his cloak when he came through the door, the one who didn’t leave his sandals in the middle of the kitchen, who actually remembered to turn out the lights, close the fridge, and shut the door.

 

I imagine he was the sort of kid who suggested that maybe he could do the dishes tonight so mom could put her feet up – which as far as I’m concerned would have established his divinity right then and there.

 

Mary and Joseph probably found themselves leaning on Jesus more and more as he grew older, sharing things with him you’d normally keep from a child, because there was just something about him that made them feel safe enough to bare their souls.

 

So when it came to getting the whole family home after the holiday, something tells me that they simply weren’t worried about Jesus. Now James, they probably needed to keep an eye on James, but Jesus?

 

If Jesus wasn’t front and center minding his own little brothers and sisters on the day they all left Jerusalem, I have no doubt his parents assumed it was because he was somewhere near the back of the caravan minding someone else’s.

 

I think they lost sight of Jesus precisely because they thought they knew him – knew what he was about, knew where he would be.

 

And that’s the whole point of the sermon so I’m going to say it again: I think they lost sight of Jesus precisely because they thought they knew him, and I think Luke includes this story because we as followers of Jesus, are apt to do the same.

 

If this story teaches us anything, it is that the very people closest to Jesus, the ones who thought they knew him the best, didn’t really know him at all.

 

It’s actually quite fascinating to read back over the story with a close eye for all the places where Mary and Joseph are wrong, surprised, or confused by their son. In this tiny little vignette Jesus stays behind but they do not know it. They assume he’s with the group, but he’s not. They start to look for him but cannot find him. They return to Jerusalem – a whole days journey – and search for 2 more days before they finally locate Jesus. They are astonished to find him in the temple. Mary asks, “why?,” why would you treat us this way? We’ve been “searching for you in great anxiety,” she says. Jesus, cool as a cucumber, thinks it’s obvious that he’d be exactly where he’s been, and yet neither of his parents understand.

 

That’s eight references to misunderstanding in as many verses followed by that beautiful phrase about how Mary, “treasured all these things in her heart.”

 

Don’t you just love that phrase?

 

Have we heard it before? Yes. When? On the night when Jesus was born.

 

This is the second time we hear of Mary treasuring all these things in her heart and I know it sounds sweet to the ear, but that word, “treasured,” is a very complex word. There’s actually nothing sentimental about it, which is good because honestly there would be something very off-putting about a story filled with this much angst wrapping up so neatly.

 

That word “treasured” is better translated as “perplexed,” “troubled” even. “Pondered,” would be the most literal translation, but even that word in English isn’t quite strong enough. I think “attempted to fathom” over and over actually comes the closest to catching Luke’s meaning here, as if Mary was reaching deeper and deeper into a mystery whose edges were continually receding just beyond her grasp.

[1]

It’s not an easy word to translate, and yet this slippery little word is a gift because it lets us in on a little secret if you will: the secret that Mary, the very mother of Jesus, never knew quite what to make of the boy.

 

She experienced all of these things – from angels announcing his conception to magi bringing gifts at his birth to her son astonishing the learned in the temple to the man Jesus would one day become – and according to Luke, she puzzled over it all.

 

This word “treasured” implies that she would turn these events over in her heart, weigh them, reflect upon them – the good, the bad, and the downright unbelievable – and wonder in those quiet moments, what it all might mean.

 

Church, I think that the truth revealed to us here in this little story is that Mary, when she is at her very best, when she is paying the most attention, when she is at her most faithful, is in all honesty more confused and confounded by Jesus than anything else.

 

And that is ok. In fact, I think that is the good news for today. Because when Mary is at her very best, when she is paying the most attention, when she is at her most faithful, she may have no idea what to make of Jesus, but she still makes room for him anyway.

 

She makes room for him in her womb.

She makes room for him in her life.

She makes room for him in her heart.

She makes room for Jesus to be Jesus in the world whether she understands him or not, and that my friends, is what faith looks like.

 

It’s when Mary assumes that she knows Jesus- as in this story- that she loses him. It’s when she thinks she knows what’s best for him, like when she goes out with his siblings to lay claim to him – remember that story? – that he turns away. Your family is outside waiting to take you home Jesus, they said. “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asked then. Not my family outside, “but those who hear the will of God and do it.” [2] That had to be awkward.

But by contrast, when Mary lets go and lets Jesus be Jesus, as she does toward the very end of this story, as she does at the wedding in Cana, as she does at the foot of the cross, she finds herself in the presence not of the Jesus she expected, but of the Jesus who is. She finds Jesus in all his glory; a Jesus more real, wise, and powerful than anyone she ever could have imagined.

And, I daresay, we do too.

Dear ones, it is very easy to think that we know Jesus, whether we believe in Jesus as the son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, etc. etc. or in Jesus as just a highly enlightened sage who lived and died in Palestine 2000 years ago.

 

If you’re sitting here this morning you’ve probably given the matter some thought and come to a conclusion that satisfies you in some way.

 

But I find that if you scratch the surface of anyone’s understanding of Jesus, from the most devout to the most skeptical, things get muddy rather fast. Because you see there is something undeniably fascinating about Jesus, even for the skeptics, and something undeniably slippery about Jesus for even the most orthodox.

 

Jesus is as much as riddle as a revelation. He teaches in parables, he answers with questions, he upends our expectations and subverts our values. He uses the most ordinary things – things like bread and wine – to reveal the most extraordinary truths – that you are loved beyond measure…that you are precious beyond price.

 

Jesus defies our desire to understand him, and for good reason. The truth is that a little unknowing is good for the soul. It keeps us open and makes us humble. It leaves us wanting more. All of which are essential ingredients in a real relationship. We simply aren’t at our best when we fathom things in their entirety.

 

Think of some of the things you got for Christmas? Anyone here get a puzzle? A puzzle is fun while it lasts, but once it’s solved it goes back in the box, right? The mystery you’ve read… goes up on the shelf. Anyone get an adult coloring book for Christmas. You might pin up the finished product, but once the picture is complete, for all intents and purposes you’re done with it.

 

Well I’m here to tell you this morning that Jesus is bigger than all that. If you think you know him, you’ve lost him. If you think you have him figured out, I’m fairly certain he has slipped away. The real Jesus will always surprise you.

He simply can’t be boxed or shelved or pinned down anymore than he can ever be fully understood, but if Mary teaches us anything, she teaches us that we can treasure him all the more for that…

Ponder anew

What the Almighty can do,

Who with His love doth befriend thee

 

He can still be followed, even if you have no idea where he might lead.

 

And, most important of all, he can still be loved.

 

***

It was a full three hours and 45 minutes after we were supposed to meet, that the German boy returned. He had gotten turned around somehow, wandered out of the market and down a street and figured he’d take the T back to Quincy market to find us. Unfortunately, the train he hopped on took him out to the suburb of Quincy instead. By the grace of God he took the train back into Boston, retraced our steps, and somehow found his way back to us.

 

I barely knew that boy, but when he appeared I wrapped my arms around him and he wrapped his arms around me and we held on to each other as tightly as any mother has ever held her long lost son. The Brazilian girl felt it too. She wrapped her arms around us both, saying softly and tenderly, “Stupid boy. Stupid boy.”

I didn’t know him, but I loved him. His absence and all I didn’t know about his experience had created a huge space in my heart, a space only he could fill.

Perhaps what we don’t know about Jesus can create such a space within us; a space for the real Jesus to grow. Amen. [3]

[1] From the “Latin “ponderare”. Spiritual writers point out that it is not so much a “weighing up” as allowing matters not fully understood to reside in one’s depths where they can be treasured and quietly reflected on as is appropriate. When a boat or ship was entering shallow water, a “pondus” or weight on a line was used to get an idea of how close the bottom of the sea was. We have a saying, “to get to the bottom of it”, meaning to probe and be able to see what currently is not obvious. Mary has, since the earliest of times, been held by Christians as the one who pondered, who was prepared to obey God without full knowledge or understanding, yet would quietly reflect and grow in understanding as God permitted. She is therefore seen as a model of prayer.” http://www.meditationforchristians.com/sec3yrb62003.htm

 

[2] Luke 8:19-21

[3] Many thanks to Scott Barton who inspired this sermon with the poem below that can be found here

Questions About This Odd Text

I have many questions about this odd text

Where the soon-to-be teenager’s parents were vexed

By the child who went off and then worried them sick,

And they scratched their heads, saying, “What makes this boy tick?”

Oh, why did they travel e’en just for a day,

While they thought with the neighbors he’d be on their way?

And I wonder just where for three days did he stay?

Did he sleep? Did he eat? Did he ever once play?

And why such obedience back at the house?

Was he loud, in high spirits, or quiet as a mouse?

Most of all, I ask why in God’s favor he grew?

And then how in God’s name was this something Luke knew?

Like Mary, I treasure these things in my heart,

While the text, in another way, Mystery imparts.

Scott L. Barton