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It Takes a Family

The incident of Joseph and Mary losing 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem tells us much—and encourages us—about how God uses normal, fallible, human families.


Our Scripture reading comes from Luke 2:4650. Hear the Word of God:

After three days Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." Jesus said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

How could good parents lose Jesus?

They didn't find their missing son for three days. In a big city occupied by a conquering army careless of life, they couldn't find him. Imagine your feelings if one of your children was missing for three 12 concern, the anxiety, the fear, the uncertainty, the questions, the anxious searching. Even today, especially today, in our culture of violence and guns, we experience terror when a child is missing.

Some years ago when a serial killer, known as the Hillside Strangler, was attacking and killing young women in our La Cañada neighborhood, our teenage daughter did not come home at the time we expected her. She was supposed to in the evening, and the people came to pick her up, but she was not there hours after the time she was supposed to be. At first, we weren't too bothered. But as the hours stretched on, John and I became upset, and I became frantic. After hours of searching, the police said, "We're doing everything we can do. You just need to go somewhere." The hidden message was, quit bothering us and let us do our job.

John and I went home to wait. Just minutes after we got there, she showed up. She was babysitting for another couple, and they came home hours later than they told her they would. What a relief! We were so glad to see her. But guess what we did next? Just what many parents do when they are concerned about or afraid for their children. Once the relief sets in, you have a very different conversation: "Where were you? Why didn't you call us? Why didn't you let us know? We were worried sick. How could you be so thoughtless?" Love sometimes comes out as complaint. And to the teenager or the , that might not feel like love at all, only like criticism or attack.

The birth stories of Jesus come to a climax in this passage of the Gospel of Luke when the growing boy is on the threshold of adulthood. In Jewish culture, at 12 years of age you were still a child, but at 13 you were an adult. Unlike today, they did not have a prolonged period of adolescence that begins around the age of 11 and ends around 35. In Jewish culture a boy at 12, an adult at 13.

Passover was one of three sacred festivals for which Jewish men were required to go to Jerusalem every year. Women could go to the festivals in Jerusalem, but were not required to go. And yet, our text tells us Mary and Joseph went every year and took Jesus with them. They were serious about their faith and religious practice. Every year they joined the crowds of pilgrims going up for the sacred festival. Jesus learned by heart the Psalms, the songs of worship the pilgrims sang as they went to the holy city of Zion, the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus was immersed in the great stories of the Bible and particularly in the festival of Passover. Passover recounts God's redeeming deliverance of his people through the shed blood of the unblemished Passover lamb on the frames of the door, and the deliverance of the people of God from bondage in Egypt. As the eldest son, every year Jesus would have asked the traditional Passover question: "What does this festival, what does this meal, mean?" He would have heard Joseph's answer: "We remember God's redemption, how God delivered our ancestors out of slavery and brought them into freedom. We celebrate the mighty power of God." Mary and Joseph nourished their son not only physically but spiritually. They taught him their faith. They knew this was their responsibility, and they did it.

We parents and grandparents and friends and members of a Christian community take a pledge every time we baptize a child in this community of faith to help parents to raise children in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord. We all, as singles or parents, as a congregation, have a serious and wonderful responsibility to teach our faith to our children, so they may grow and flourish in all the ways of life, including the things of God.

How could responsible parents have lost their child for three days? They came together in a large caravan and made the journey on foot with people from their town. The crowds grew as they got closer to Jerusalem, and as they headed for home, the boy could have easily been with his relatives or with other people they knew and trusted to look out for him. So they went a whole day's journey, 20 to 25 miles on foot, before they gathered to eat the evening meal. (There were no fast food places on the way home.) They came together in the evening for the meal, and they discovered their eldest boy was missing.

After they searched the camp and didn't find him, it took another full day's 25 on foot. And the third day, they found him. It may have taken them awhile to find him because, perhaps, they were not looking in the right place. They probably did not expect to find their 12 boy in the temple, the most sacred space in all Israel. They didn't expect to find this in a home where days were spent in manual labor, not scholarly only in the temple, but sitting among the scholars, the greatest teachers in all of Israel. And here is their boy, sitting on the ground in the middle of the teachers, not just listening, but asking and answering questions about the Law, the Torah. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and answers.

Even Jesus perplexed his parents

To get a glimpse of what might have been going on inside Mary and Joseph we need to deal with the "halo effect." The halo effect comes from all those pictures painted of the holy family we have seen through the centuries. They always appear bathed in luminous light with halos around their heads. The effect of the halo for us is that we forget Jesus was the unique, special, anointed Son of G was also fully human and born and raised in a family that was completely human. Every day Jesus lived in the dynamics of ordinary family life, and his family may have, like so many of our families, experienced some complicated dynamics. To use contemporary language, this was a blended family. Following the conclusion of this account, Joseph disappears from the narrative, and it is possible that soon after this incident, Joseph died. Tradition says Joseph was quite a bit older than Mary, and it may be possible that Mary was left to raise this son and the other brothers and sisters as a single parent mother.

This is a human family, and Mary and Joseph are human parents who have lost their child. And now they have found him, and they are relieved. They are surprised. Maybe as they hear what people are saying, there is even a little swelling of pride. And yet, Mary is a very human mother of a very perplexing son.

In one way or another all children are perplexing to their parents, and I think it is fair to say that in one way or another all parents can be perplexing to their children. The first words from Mary after her astonishment begin, "Child" I think she's rubbing it in a bit here, since Jesus is a boy on the edge of "Child, why have you treated us like this? Why have you done this to us?"

And a few problems may have been in Mary's thinking. For instance, Jesus wasn't acting his age. He acted older than they thought he should be acting. He didn't seem to know his proper place was not here in a sacred space with spiritual teachers, but home, safely home, with them. Perhaps she thought he didn't show proper respect on the part of one so young. He didn't just listen [to the teachers]. He presumed to question and even, apparently, to answer questions. Mary's questions to Jesus, "Why have you treated us like this? Why have you done this to us?" imply she thinks his motivation or actions were deliberately to hurt or embarrass his parents.

How unusual. Thoughtless, she thought, to make them anxious, give them concern, embarrass them with this unexpected behavior. Jesus, on the other hand, fully human, didn't see it the same way his parents saw it. Jesus says to them, "Why were you searching for me? Isn't it obvious where I should be and what I should be doing?" And why would they take this so personally? It wasn't about them. It was about the growing sense he had of his special, unique relationship with the Father. He was nourishing and growing in his relationship with God. He did what was obvious to him he should be more about the Father in the Father's house. At the age of 12, Jesus is aware of his relationship with God, aware of his special mission, and his need to be prepared for it.

Luke brings his Gospel accounts of the Christmas stories to their conclusion and shows, indeed, that Jesus is the Son of God. He thus confirms the angel's announcement to Mary in Luke 1:32 and 35 where the announcement says, "He [Jesus] will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The child to be born will be holy. He will be called the Son of God."

Hearing Jesus answer his mother, you can almost hear the words of a young person's classic complaint: "Why don't you trust me?" I believe all parents and adults who work with young people should be greatly encouraged by this story. I know I am. Here are the best parents in the whole history of the world, picked out specially by God to raise the S best they don't understand their child. In today's jargon, they fail to communicate. Granted, Jesus was an unusual child, unique in all of history. But he was a human child. And if they had trouble communicating and understanding each other, we should not be discouraged at our own impasses and attempts to communicate.

Family life prepares children for God's purposes

It is important and helpful to realize that family was the nurturing context within which Jesus was prepared for his life's work and mission. Family life was the primary place where Jesus was shaped for adulthood with character, values, and faith. His growth did not happen by some extraordinary set of things, but by daily faith and work, by the worship and community practiced and experienced by his parents and siblings in their home.

Families do not have to be picture perfect to be used of God. God's grace and God's salvation are available to parents and to children, to teenagers and to single adults. God's love can enter every home, every apartment, every dorm room and help every one of us to grow up spiritually, following Jesus into maturity when we welcome him. The Christmas Child became the Redeemer of the whole world, and he was nourished within the family. Even if we are suffering as participants in broken or dysfunctional families, we can receive the mercy, the grace, the strength of God each day, because the Child who grew in wisdom and maturity became our Savior and helps us to grow in wisdom and maturity.

Family life is in danger of being relegated to a low priority in our society, sometimes even in the church. In seeking to care for people of all ages and stages we forget the singular significance of families, all kinds of , blended, single parent, , functional and dysfunctional. Whatever our personal situation, we need to appreciate and to pray for and to help the families inside and outside of the church. Family life today is hard. The pressures of work and busyness can crowd out the habits of family spiritual worship, sharing the Bible, praying together.

But families are not adjunctive; they are not to other things in life. Families are foundational. They are the primary human units to grow human beings into whatever they ill or, by God's grace, for good. Families are not something to be fit in to the bits and pieces of time left over from making a living. Work is necessary to sustain our families, but it must never take the place of family life itself. Our jobs, our companies, our institutions, even nations, come and go. Only people are destined for eternity. And we can with God's help support the families in our midst and the families we have contact with and the families we are part of with our prayer and our friendship, our love and our care.

God came down at Christmas into a family. May God enter each of our lives and the lives of our families even today through Jesus Christ.


Roberta Hestenes has been senior pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church since 1996. She is former president of Eastern College and has authored six books, including Women and the Ministries of Christ.


(c) Roberta Hestenes

Preaching Today Tape #207


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Sermon Outline:


Jesus' words to his parents: "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

I. How could good parents lose Jesus?

II. Even Jesus perplexed his parents.

III. Family life prepares children for God's purposes.


God came down into a family. May he enter our families through Christ as well.