“Where Is Jesus?”
A sermon adaptation by Andrew Philip Long
from “Where Is Jesus?” by The Rev. Dr. Dwight Moody
December 27, 2015
Some statistics report that nearly 2,300 people are reported missing in America every day. Some are displaced by hurricanes and others are abducted by a distraught parent. An elderly man, his mind long gone, simply walks away, and teenagers, tired of abuse and chaos at home, they flee for what they suppose will be a fresh start. Some people fake their disappearance for financial reasons, and others are taken with criminal intent. When I was studying in New Jersey, a famous tourist attracting a few towns over from Princeton was the Lindbergh house, where one of the most famous missing person cases took place; Charles Lindbergh, Jr., went missing from his bed one night and though Bruno Hauptmann was tried and convicted for the crime, some still believe the case to be unsolved.
But one spring day many years ago Joseph turned to Mary and said, “Where is Jesus?” That set in motion not a tragedy but a teachable moment into the mystery of God’s dealing with the mind and imagination.
Jesus was 12 years old when it happened, a pivotal year for kids. No more childhood. Hello, adolescence! Time for bar mitzvah and confirmation classes, leaving behind elementary school, launching into middle school.
“What are you going to be when you grow up?,” you ask a twelve-year-old and what do you hear? A singer. I want to be a farmer. A pro-athlete. A teacher. I’ve asked some of the older children in our Wednesday tutoring program what they want to be when they grow up—these kids will ascend to middle school next year. One told me she wants to be a clothing designer and then President of the United States. Another told me that he wants to be a carpenter. Two of them have a plan to go into business together, and when I asked them what kind of business they want to start, they told me, ‘a zoo.’ I remember hearing that and laughing and shrugging it off, as many of us do, when a kid tells us about their dreams for the future.
There are some 12-year-old, though, who are already thinking about their future. Steve Jobs, for example, wrote about his early fascination with computers in the autobiography he wrote towards the end of his life. He says, “I was 13 years old and already knew what I wanted to do.” He did it, and the whole world is glad.
What about you? Did you know at age 12 or 14 what you would do with your life? Jesus did.
After the yearly Passover festival, the text tells us, Mary and Joseph headed home to Nazareth, down that well-worn road to the Jordan valley. They thought Jesus was in the crowd making the trip home. Jesus, however, stayed behind in Jerusalem.
Years later Jesus told a story that began this way, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves.” He told it that way because he was familiar with that road, that Roman road that headed east out of Jerusalem, crossed the Kieron Valley, went over the Mount of Olives, around the village of Bethany, and along the south side of a ravine. At the edge of that road is an aqueduct that, to this day, carries water from the hill country down into the Jordan Valley.
That day this road was crowded with thousands of pilgrims heading home after the holidays. They were on the their way to the Jordan Valley, to Galilee and Nazareth, or even further into Syrian and Persia. Friends and family, all of them Jews, traveling, talking, singing, eating, laughing.
For them, the Passover journey to Jerusalem was not a religious obligation as much as it was a delightful interruption from the rough and rugged routine of regular life. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts.” That is one of the songs they sang going up to and coming back form Jerusalem.
Then the question: “Where is Jesus?”. All of sudden, the joyful journey home becomes a frantic search for a missing person, a 12-year-old brimming with potential on the cusp of his bright future. Where is Jesus?
Mary and Joseph did not know. Maybe he had stayed in Jerusalem? Maybe he started the journey home but turned back? Maybe when he saw his parents packing up and heading out, he hid somewhere or snuck out or darted away when he got the chance.
I did that once on a family vacation to the beach. I was 5 or 6 and we had packed up for the day to head home. I was really fascinated with the beach and the water and waves and I was highly disappointed each day when it was time to go home. I’m not sure my intention was to scare my parents or cause panic, but when they had turned to start back towards the car, I dropped my little beach bag full of toys and ran back into the water. I don’t remember getting back into the water, but I do remember being dragged out by the seat of my pants. As many parents know, packing up from a day at the beach is rough: toys and chairs and coolers and umbrellas. With all the ‘stuff’ that our family of four required for a day at the beach, my parents did not notice that I was missing until they had walked all the way to the car through the hot sand. When they got to the car, and realized that their youngest was not with them, Dad dashed back through the hot sand and found me playing in the water. The beach patrol he had called eventually caught up to him, and though they were relieved that I had not drowned, Dad was none too pleased. Mom wasn’t either. I just liked the water.
Jesus was 12 and his motive for staying behind was more honorable and significant than mine. He had a deep stirring in his soul, a curiosity for significant things. Jesus had a calling from God that was, even at age 12, a powerful pull on his mind and imagination.
Joseph and Mary, after a day’s walk back into Jerusalem search through the city until they found him—in the temple, at church we would say, in Sunday School, in the pastor’s study in deep conversation with the ministers. Do 12-year-old kids ever display this kind of curiosity, this kind of intensity, this passion?
What does it mean for Jesus? How much did he really know? What did he sense in his soul? Did something happen on that trip to Jerusalem? Did he hear something he had not heard before? Did he meet someone that captured his attention? Did he read something, pray something, feel something, remember something, that triggered in him a vision of his future?
The gospel does not say, but it does say this: Mary pondered these things in heart, just as she had pondered the message of Gabriel and the visits from shepherds and Magi. She did not say anything; she just ponders in her heart.
In pondering the missing Jesus who was found in the temple, Mary did not say something like, “Jesus, you’re too smart to be a rabbi. You can’t make a living as a prophet. How about starting a construction business with you dad?” That’s what many kids hear when they tell us their dreams, isn't it? “You’re too smart to build furniture or houses.” “You won’t make any money as a teacher or educator.” “You won’t go anywhere with a degree in music.” I heard that last one a lot when I announced that I was going to music school. “Learn a trade.” “Make sure you have something to fall back on.” “Don’t quit your day job.” It is amazing what people will say when they think they know your dreams and future better than you do.
Jesus did not have this problem. He had other problems, then and later, some that are chronicled in the gospel accounts. What he did have, though, was a spiritual compass that pointed away from farming and building and writing and trading. He had a spiritual compass that turned him back towards Jerusalem where he would preach his first sermon and teach his first Bible study. Did he know about baptism? I don’t think so. Did he know about disciples? Probably not. Did he know about transfiguration and triumphal entry and the trauma of crucifixion? No, just like young teachers do not know or necessarily think about tenure and burnout when they begin. Just like young athletes do not know about steroids or stress fractures, and young farmers do not know about deductions and subsidies, Jesus didn’t know where his calling would take him. All he knew was that he was being called and he had this head-to-toe desire to answer.
I did not know a whole lot about being a pastor when I felt the spark in my soul being fanned into a flame almost a decade ago. I didn't know about ordination or heresy or organizational communication. I was twenty one. I was trying to finish music school and prove the nay-sayers wrong. But I knew about Jesus and I knew about this great big God of his who loved us so much that he took on flesh and lived with us. I felt that something was pulling me to tell others about this Jesus and this big God; I was ready to go where God led and I had no concern for where I would land. I landed here, literally, in Enid, and in this pulpit. Some days this pulpit feels like a rock on a hillside, and other days it feels like a microphone in a closet. Some days I go home and collapse in front of the TV, looking for anything and everything that is not related to the Church; other days I go home and can’t turn off how excited I am by the joy and love and peace that Jesus pours into our lives. What I have, that far outweighs any of the material signs of a good career or high pay, is contentment that what I am doing is what God wants me to do.
You see, God speaks to the soul, at age 12 or 22 or 92; God get into our minds and imaginations every day we are alive. God stirs us to do something, go anywhere, serve somebody, preach good news to people for who it is good and glorious and God-sent. This does not mean that everyone is supposed to be a preacher. It also does not mean that everyone is supposed to be a teacher or a doctor or an architect or a writer. It means that where God wants you to be, you will be, if you are willing to listen and follow, and there you will be most alive. God may take you into the temple or the church where you speak wisdom to those who are supposed to be wise. God may take you into the classroom where you help generation after generation grow and mature into the people God wants them to be. God may take you into the operating room or MRI booth where you take part in God’s healing of the body. God may take you into the fields, or across the world, or to the place you least expected or wanted to go. But if God takes you there, if you follow, God will give you what you need, and no paycheck or big house or ‘thing’ will come close to the feeling of joy and contentment you will have in being where God wants you to be. Nothing will come close to the feeling of life that you will have in doing what God wants you to do.
Today we are just a few days past Christmas. It is slightly strange that just three days ago we were greeting the baby Jesus and today we are talking about Jesus at age 12, but there is a deep point here. Just as Jesus did not stay a baby in the manger, and panicked his parents by going missing, we cannot stay by the cradle and adore him for long—we must get our legs underneath of us and move forward with the good news Christmas brings. Jesus grew up and followed the Spirit within him as it took him all over the Middle East. In each place he went, he reached out and healed the sick, ate meals with people who were usually never invited, and confidently challenged the status quo. In each place he went, he preached a gospel of peace and an ethic of loving God and loving your neighbors as yourself. In each place he went, he sowed seeds that would bloom and grow into the kingdom of God on earth. He took up his cross, died that we might live, and rose from the grave to free us from sin and death. Then he called you and me, through baptism, to do the same—to follow the Spirit within, to preach a gospel of peace, to love God and neighbor, to die and rise and help build God’s kingdom.
So, where is Jesus? He was, and will always be in the place God wants him to be. My hope and prayer today is that you are as well. Amen.