Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 30, 2018
Luke 2:41-52 Commentary
The movie Home Alone could probably have worked as slapstick comedy no matter what time of the year the story was set in. But as it stands, the story takes place at Christmastime when a frantic family jets off to Paris for Christmas only to discover too late that they had left their youngest child behind. Thus Home Alone has become a Christmas movie and so is on various cable channels with some frequency during December every year now.
The movie’s plot strains credulity: how can a family leave a house, ride all the way to the airport, board a plane, and only THEN, midway over the Atlantic Ocean, realize a child has gone missing? “How in the world could something like this ever happen?” you want to ask. Seems far-fetched but you have to believe it for the film to work.
Of course, if I asked my incredulous question in the presence of Joseph and Mary, you sense that they’d soon start looking down at their feet and shifting their weight side to side in discomfiture. They did, after all, take off from Jerusalem one day without their boy. Worse, they took off without God’s boy.
Does it get any worse than to be entrusted with the only beloved Son of God and then you lose him? That’s just got to be somebody’s textbook definition of a “bad day.”
But bracket the fact that Jesus was the Son of God: he was Mary and Joseph’s son first and foremost in their minds and as any parent reading this knows, there is no panic like the panic that rises like a gorge in your throat when a child goes missing. The narrative at the end of Luke 2 tells us that Mary and Joseph just assumed their son Jesus was hanging out with the other kids somewhere in the pack of folks making the return trip from Jerusalem to Nazareth and they kept on assuming it across an entire day’s worth of walking. Didn’t see him at breakfast, but he must be around. Lunch? Well, no, they didn’t see him, but he must be grabbing a tuna sandwich with the other boys. Finally after dinner (still don’t see him but . . .) it got dark and all the children returned to the safety of their mothers and fathers to settle down for the night. At long last it dawns on Mary and Joseph: he’s not there! And upon a little checking with some cousins and the other kids, no one had, as a matter of fact, seen him all day.
It’s a curiosity of Luke’s gospel to see how the sprawling two opening chapters of Luke end. After all, these two very long chapters featured no fewer than three angel visitations, miraculous pronouncements, lyric songs, and above all the birth of the Savior of the world. Yet as it all comes in for a conclusion, we have a story as mundane, as utterly earthly and simple as they come: lost child. Panicked parents. A frantic search. The whole thing started with angels and it ends . . . paging for a lost child on the P.A. system at Walmart??
It takes them three whole days to locate him—it took one day just to get back to Jerusalem (they probably had to wait until first light the next day to head back) but that still meant there were two whole days of panic, 48 hours of further anxiety. It must have about done Mary in. Fifteen minutes of this kind of panic is enough to make the average parent feel dizzy and lightheaded and on the verge of mental and physical collapse. Even five minutes of this can feel like a lifetime.
Someone recently noted that when people lose things, they often say, “I finally found it and, of course, it was in the last place I looked!” But that’s silly: of course it was in the “last” place you looked because once you found it, you stopped looking! But behind that phrase there is a certain truth: the longer you look for something, the more unlikely are the locations you check. If you lose your car keys, you check coat pockets first, then countertops, then drawers, then the car itself, then you look under the sofa cushions. If by some chance you ultimately locate the keys in the freezer, you might remember how in the world it was you accidentally stuck them in there but the freezer surely was not among the most likely of spots to check.
So also in Luke 2: Mary and Joseph spend 48 hours before finally tumbling to the idea that just maybe they should check the Temple. “I can’t imagine he’d be there” they must have said to each other, “but we we’re running out of likely places so let’s check.” For his part Jesus is merely confused. The Temple was the first place they should have looked as it turns out. Jesus was not exactly “home alone” but he was “home” at the Temple. His parents don’t understand, however. They are too flush with a combination of intense relief and a little abiding post-traumatic stress to be able to suss it all out just then.
Who knows what Mary and Joseph had been thinking or why they actually managed to lose God’s only Son for a time. In its own quirky way, however, this conclusion to Luke 2 provides us with a nice window onto the very human, very earthy, very mundane nature of the gospel. The same chapter in Luke that began with angels singing in the sky concludes with an utterly homely little story about parental error, deep panic, great relief yet with all of it played out on a very ordinary stage.
The Lectionary assigns this story for the Sunday after Christmas (and in 2018 there is only this one Sunday after Christmas since Epiphany will itself be a Sunday). It fits well then. After all the tinsel and the glitter, all the hyperventilating of the media (and even of the church sometimes) to make this season so “special,” we need to come back down to earth and watch God’s drama of salvation unfold quietly and steadily. We come back down to earth because that is what God’s Son did, too: he came down to earth in order to redeem that same earth and all the lives we lead here.
So let’s hear it for Luke yet again for preserving for us an utterly mundane incident that itself encapsulates the Gospel so very nicely.
Some while back I was delighted to have a commentator point something out that I had never before seen in this text. Notice that in Luke 2:51, having been found by his parents and scolded by them to boot, suddenly it is Jesus who is in the lead. In verses 41 and 42, when this story began, we are told that they all went up to Jerusalem from Nazareth. But in verse 51 the subject of the verb becomes he, as in Jesus. He went down to Nazareth and his parents are said to accompany him. Jesus the child leads the way out of Jerusalem. This may indeed have been Luke’s subtle way to set up the next portion of his gospel in which Jesus’ active ministry will take center stage.
Luke 2:51 is the second time Luke tells us that Mary treasured things up in her heart. The first time was after the shepherds popped in to see the infant Jesus. But now this second time follows a troubling and frightening incident. It seems that Mary at least discovered that when it came to her son Jesus, there would be plenty of opportunity to treasure up both wonderful things and perplexingly troubling things. We sometimes forget this in the Christmas season and in its aftermath. We view tragedy, illness, or bad news that comes during December as an unwelcome Advent guest.
If we, blessedly enough, can get by without any real sadness within our own family circle during December, then we shut out and bracket for a few days the tragedies we hear from others. But if we are forced to deal with a tragedy in the holidays, we conclude that Christmas is maybe ruined forever for us. If from now on Christmas Eve will remind us of that night when grandpa had a stroke, then we have the uneasy feeling that this unfitting event will keep us from ever really observing Christmas the only way we think it should be celebrated: namely, with a busy joy that must not stop for or include sorrow.
But Mary’s wrinkled forehead as she pours ever-more ponderings into her heart points us a different direction. It was the incongruity of it all, the cross-currents and contradictions, that motivated Mary to do her pondering. That’s why you get the feeling that the woman who gathered up those disparate events and pondered them in her heart would not find pain and sadness at variance with “the holiday spirit.” Mary had no other way to ponder what we call Christmas other than to recall hurtful memories.
Throughout her son’s life, Mary tried to make sense out of it all. How well she succeeded we don’t know, though it seems a lot of confusion remained for Mary. But at least she recognized that the birth of the one whom the angels had called Savior and Lord had something, and just maybe had everything, to do with the world’s jagged edges. We don’t know what, if any, conclusions she drew. But a few decades later, when she wept over her baby boy as he writhed on a Roman cross, she most certainly continued her confused pondering. This son of hers just never had an easy road–not when his life began and certainly not when it ended.
“What could it all mean?” Mary’s heart screamed. We do well to ask the same question—to ask it and then trust God’s Spirit to help us answer it.
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