(Luke 2: 41-52, Psalm 139: 1-10)
It happened a few years ago in the check-out line at the grocery store. The very nice lady was in the middle of scanning my stuff – I think it was a box of Cheez-its that had just gone by – when she suddenly stops and looks up. My eyes follow hers to see nothing more than fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. I look back at her; she has this quizzical expression on her face; she starts to say something then stops, as if she’s reconsidering; then she finally says, somewhat hesitantly: Did they just say, “Jesus, Aisle 4?”
I hadn’t noticed, but apparently, just a few moments before some voice had come over the speakers. You know, the one that relays information like “Checkout 10 is now open” or “Assistance needed in meats.” Apparently, according to my checkout lady, it had just said, “Jesus, Aisle 4.”
Now you got to understand that this is the kind of magical moment that ministers live for, right? An entry into a deeper conversation, practically gift-wrapped! So many possibilities I could’ve gone with here:
Yes ma’am, Jesus is on Aisle 4 – and he’s waiting for you.
He’s on Aisle 4 and Aisle 5 and Aisle 6 – Jesus is everywhere!
At least that’s the fun little conversation I imagined in my head. Instead, I think I say something cheesy like Oh, I thought I recognized that guy in produce! We laugh a little – emphasis on “little” – and then go back to the business at hand. A few moments later I’m carrying a bag full of groceries out to my car.
But on the ride home I cannot let it go. And I don’t exactly know why. It seems silly; obviously, she had heard wrong. No one’s going to say “Jesus, Aisle 4” over the loudspeaker. But even beyond that, what would be more ludicrous than Jesus himself, the savior of the world, strolling around the aisles of your local Harris Teeter? You know, picking up the apples to see if they’re fresh or checking the fat content on a bag of chips. It’s not that he couldn’t be there, of course – he is the son of God. It’s just that the mere idea of it is ridiculous.
Traffic is very traffic-y as I’m driving home from the grocery, so I have more time to think on this. I think about how we tend to compartmentalize Jesus in our lives, in our world. And doing that affects the choices we make and the way we live, does it not? We look for Jesus where we think he will be – and in so doing, we run the risk of missing him altogether.
And in that regard, we are not all that different from Jesus’ parents in our scripture today. The whole family had made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover. You can imagine the size of the crowd – it had to have been thousands upon thousands. A huge gathering. They stay there for all the festivities and then they head back home.
And at some point on the journey home, Jesus and his parents are separated. Thing is, Mary and Joseph finally realize this when they’re a whole day’s journey from the city. They had assumed, we read, that he was simply hanging out with other travelers, friends in their little entourage. They start checking around, though, and realize that Jesus is nowhere to be found. And it hits them, like a gut punch, that their son could be anywhere among the hundreds of thousands back in Jerusalem.
My parents tell a story of something that happened when I wasn’t quite three. It’s during the couple of months that we lived in a high-rise apartment in downtown Toronto; Dad is there on business. We had been out that day and had come home; we make our way to the elevator that will take us to our floor. When the elevator doors open, there’s this moment of confusion, people going in, people coming out; and in the craziness of it all, I actually step into the elevator while my parents stay out. Then the doors shut.
Now I don’t remember any of this, of course; but I imagine I’m standing there gazing at the nifty flashing buttons in front of me, assuming that the two pairs of legs on either side belong to my mom and dad. But that’s just a guess. So instead I get my father’s version, which is quite different. You can imagine, can you, how cold his blood went when, looking down, he sees that his son is not there. You can imagine the panic that ensued when he sees the closed elevator doors in front of him and puts two and two together. He runs around the corner to the stairwell and bolts up the stairs, wondering – as he’s doing this – how he’s going to find a two-and-a-half-year-old kid in a 20-story building. As it happens, on the very next floor my dad runs out the door and turns to corner to find me standing there, alongside some newfound friends who’d taken watch over me.
I have to think my parents, in those frantic moments leading up to our reunion, could’ve sympathized a little bit with what Mary and Joseph were going through. They had made the journey back to the city, one imagines, a lot faster than what it took them to leave. And then came the seemingly impossible task of finding their son, truly like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Now the Bible doesn’t say, but I can imagine the kinds of places they first started looking for a 12-year old kid. You can, can’t you? They check out the burger joints. No Jesus. They look in the video arcade. He’s not there. Excuse me, we’re looking for our son, he’s about this tall, dark eyes and hair, answers to the name “Jesus.” Please, have you seen him, we’re desperate!
This goes on, the Bible says, for three days. Three whole days, can you imagine? They look everywhere and can’t find even a trace. I figure they’d all but given up hope when they head to the temple – perhaps to pray, or even make grim arrangements. And there, in a corner of the great temple in Jerusalem, sits their son. Chatting it up with a group of rabbis, nonetheless. One imagines they rush over and give him the kind of hug my father gave me when he found me outside the elevator. Overwhelming relief soon turns to anger. You knew it was coming. Mary says in no uncertain terms, Jesus, why have you done this? We’ve been frantic for three days trying to find you! We’ve been sick with worry! Why?!
Jesus, however – and this is great! – Jesus is not phased in the least by the raging emotions of his parents. He doesn’t see what the big deal is. I love this! I love that teenage Jesus has the same clashes with his parents as any 12-year old! Jesus just shrugs it off and says, What’s the big deal? Didn’t you know I’d be here all along? He probably threw in an eye-roll for good measure.
See, in Jesus’ mind, he was right where he needed to be. Not the burger joints. Not the arcade. The temple. And that’s not at all where Mary and Joseph expected to find him – it was literally the last place they went. But that’s where he was.
God bless Luke for including this story! It’s the only story about Jesus as a kid in any of the gospels. All the others pretty much make the leap from an 8-day old infant to a 33-year old man, like some sort of biblical time warp. If we wonder what Jesus was like as a kid, this story is all we have to work from; and what it tells us is that he wasn’t all that different from any other pre-teen. Which is kind of refreshing, actually.
But there’s another reason why I tip my hat to Luke. And it has less to do with Jesus himself, and more to do with us. See, there may be no denying that Jesus is present in our lives – we profess him as Lord and Savior, we call out to him in prayer, we sing songs to his name, we try to follow his example as best we can.
But if we’re honest with ourselves – truly honest – Jesus is part of our lives only to an extent. We allow him in at the appropriate intervals; the times and places where it is more or less “acceptable” to include him. When talking about Jesus or singing about Jesus or following Jesus fits in.
But other times we’re hesitant to look for him all that much. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? He is there, of course, he is always there. We just censor ourselves, we use a different dialect; one that is safe lest we offend others or embarrass ourselves. Singing “How Great Thou Art” on Sunday morning feels perfectly natural, but you won’t find many people belting it out at the gas station, pumping gas – and if you do, you look away. Praying a prayer of confession in worship is not only okay, it is part of our Presbyterian order of worship. Sharing that same prayer in a business meeting, however, would feel totally out of place.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we do this? It’s like we’re trying to balance two lives: one a life where Jesus is ever-present in our thoughts and words and actions; and another where we tame our speech and behavior just enough so as not to give away whose we are.
And I wonder if all of this comes back to our assumptions about where we expect Jesus to be and where don’t expect him to be. And there lies the problem. Because it is not about us finding him, as much as about him finding us.
Twelve-year-old Jesus didn’t bat an eye when his parents came to him in hysterics. Why were you searching for me, he says. Is it possible that their reunion might’ve happened sooner had they worried less about where they would find Jesus and focused more on where he might find them?
So there we are at the grocery store buying groceries, and a message comes over the PA – Jesus, Aisle 4. And we think to ourselves, That’s crazy! Well, it probably is. We probably would not find him there. But it ispossible – in fact, it is a core tenet of our Reformed faith – that Jesus most certainly finds us there.
We have a name for this; we call it the “sovereignty of God.” It was the late Shirley Guthrie, Presbyterian theologian-extraordinaire and a former seminary professor of mine, who unpacked the sovereignty of God when he wrote this:
The Bible tells us two things about God. On one hand, God is infinite, almighty, omnipresent, omniscient, and beyond the greatest and highest we can imagine. On the other hand, God… draws us near in an intimate way, as a parent does a child. But we must not make a separation here, as if we were speaking of two different Gods. For God is far above us yet with us, distant yet near, mysterious yet familiar, powerful yet loving, loving yet powerful – all at the same time.
We find echoes of the sovereignty of God in our Psalm today:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
You hem me in, behind and before….
God is there when we are aware of God’s presence, and when we are not. God is there when we’re awake, and when we’re sleeping. God is there when we’re at church, and when we’re standing in the line at the grocery store. Every moment of every day of our lives, God is there – because “there” is where we are. Where we are is God finds us – not the other way around.
I always get a kick at the language that some followers of Jesus use to describe that moment when they make that definitive profession of faith – phrases like, “I found God” or “I chose Jesus.” It’s very anthropocentric, which is a fancy way of saying it makes it all about them – they took the first step, they made it happen. But the truth of it is that the only thing they ever really found was a God who had already found them. They didn’t find Jesus any more than a newborn baby finds their parents. The sovereignty of God tells us that Jesus finds us. The only thing we choose is how to respond to it.
I love the way Luke concludes his story, with Mary contemplating all of this – “treasuring these things in her heart” is how he puts it. What was it, we wonder, that she held close? Was it that she and her husband had finally found their son? Was it the deep love that a parent feels as they watch their child grow?
Or was it that Mary finally came to understand the truth of it all: that we are all connected to each other in this journey of life. And at some point along the way we encounter Jesus. We see him in our dreams and hear him in our prayers, we are moved by his presence. And eventually, we welcome him into our hearts. We live renewed lives and our faith grows each day. And as the sun begins to set on us, we look back at all that was there and recall with great joy how we found Jesus and how he was everything we expected him to be.
I think that’s when we hear the still small voice within us saying, My child, I have and will always be with you. But not because you looked for and chose me. No, because it is I who looked for and chose you.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition, 101, 104.
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