Like any literary or super hero, Jesus needs an origin story.
That’s the point of this section in Luke’s gospel: it offers the briefest glimpse of Jesus as a kid. After he was a baby in a manger, but BEFORE he drew crowds on a hillside; before he preached to the masses; before the signs and wonders and healings, Jesus was just a boy. In trouble with his parents.
They would have been traveling in a group. Not just Jesus and his parents, but extended family, friends, neighbors… They were all on a days-long journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, where they would all celebrate Passover in the city. At some point, Jesus ran up ahead with his friends–or maybe dawdled behind with a squirrelly pack of cousins– and the grownups would have thought nothing of it. We’re all together. We’re fine. We’re on vacation.
But at some point, his absence was noticed. Maybe it was dinnertime, and all the friends and squirrelly cousins (including the weird one named John) were accounted for, but where in the world was Jesus? He never misses a meal! Mary must have declared. This is serious.
And so, a search party was formed. As an hour turned into two hours– which turned into overnight, which turned into day 2, and then day 3– we can only imagine the terror mounting in these parents, out of their mind with worry. Of course, as anyone who’s ever lost sight of their child will testify, three minutes can easily feel like three days. Maybe it was, in reality, only a fraction of that time. But one way or another, eventually, they found him.
The boy called Jesus was in the temple. He was seated at the feet of the great leaders of his faith; he was listening with rapt attention, asking questions, hungry for all that they knew. He was so engrossed in their stories of God’s work among the people that he scarcely noticed hours, and then days passing. He gave not one thought to his frantic parents.
When they found him at last, it says “they were astonished.” But his response is not apologetic, begging for mercy and to not be grounded for the rest of his life. His response was simple: I assumed you knew where I was. Where else would I possibly be?
I can’t help but feel Mary and Joseph’s pain. Not just because I’m a parent, and can imagine the terror of misplacing your kid for a few days… But also because, like many of us, they went looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. And he was right there all along.
He was right there, “in my father’s house,” as he put it… and they went looking over hill and dale; ready to roam the entire earth if they had to, to bring their boy home again. But he was right there the whole time.
Of course, outside the immediate context of this story… I wonder if the rest of us have the opposite problem. We go looking for Jesus in a holy temple, but really… he’s out there. Everywhere.
It is the 6th day of Christmas–and unless you’ve got “6 geese-a-laying” wrapped up and ready to give your true love today, most of us are just making plans to go home and start bringing down the lights; putting away the ornaments; finish off the cookies before we GIVE UP SUGAR, FOR REAL THIS TIME in some noble New Years gesture of purity. But have we been changed at all? Have our eyes been opened to the love of God made flesh?
Are we ready to be astonished?
We don’t always know where and when the in-breaking will happen. And maybe we have to get over some of our own expectations and assumptions about what it will look like when it does.
At St. Peter’s Episcopal church in Detroit, the neighborhood soup kitchen serves up to 200 meals a day, five days a week. Most of the volunteers are members of St Peter’s, or the nearby Catholic church. But on Christmas eve this year, relief pitchers showed up. A group of 16 Muslims came to prepare and serve the meal, so that their Christian neighbors could spend the day with family, and in worship.
I think many who call themselves Christian would be surprised by this story. Maybe not Christians in this room, but still… There are those among our number who would never be prepared to witness the light of Christ, reflected in someone who wears a head covering.
That’s their loss. But meanwhile, what’s our baggage?
Point is, we’ve all got some. We’ve all got our expectations about who will and who won’t be found in a “church;” and we’ve all got our assumptions about where God will and will not show up. But by now, we should expect those assumptions to be unsettled. We should expect to be surprised. The miracle of Christmas means the love of God is made incarnate in ways and places we were never expecting. Nothing is as it was.
Some who hear this story of the volunteer workers might thrill at the evangelism moment it implies (hey, we managed to get the Muslims to church, now we can tell them all about Jesus and convert them!) But the moment itself is already a testament to the power of God’s love made visible, in the flesh. Neighbors helping neighbors; an interfaith community, showing up to partner in serving others. How much more miracle do we really need? That is the very Kingdom of God.
That is the universal nature of this transforming miracle. The love that has entered the world is not just for a select few. It’s not just for those who happen to show up at a certain time and place, or practice a particular set of beliefs, or possess a particular skin color. Nobody owns the copyright on this narrative. And knowing this love has come down for everyone, and to anyone, means that we have to be prepared to recognize it when it comes to us– even if it comes through one we’re least expecting.
St John the Evangelist is a church in San Diego, one of a growing number of Catholic communities with a mission to be inclusive of LGBT members. In that spirit, they hired Antonio Bianco, a gay man with seminary training, as a pastoral associate. Over the next year, even as its LGBT ministry grew and thrived, Bianco and the church received threats of violence; there was vandalism, and attempted arson, and all manner of ugliness… until Bianco eventually resigned. But still–come Sunday, that church sees dozens of its new gay members show up for worship, because of the ministry that he established there.
The good news is– you can’t anticipate or control who shows up in church. Any more than you can anticipate or control where God will move next.
“Why were you looking for me out there?” Jesus asks. “Of course I was right here. Where else would I be?”
I’m preaching to the choir today. We know God can show up in a Muslim volunteer worker, or a gay minister. But we’ve all got our baggage. Where’s the last place you would expect to encounter the light of Christ, newly born to the world? Chances are–that’s where it’s coming for you.
We’ve all got our expectations and assumptions. About many things, including who ‘belongs’ and who doesn’t. Sometimes, we may still be surprised to find certain people in church. Heck, maybe we are still surprised to find our own selves here some days. But if we learned anything from Christmas, it’s that God can still surprise us.
As you head into the new year, I want you to rethink the idea of a resolution. Forget giving up sugar or carbs. Forget the mission to finally, once and for all, clean out the junk drawer. Let go of your expectations about a perfectly ordered life and living space. Instead, resolve this one thing: be astonished. Go into this new year resolved to be unsettled. Let God surprise you. Resolve that you will be ready to encounter the holy, wherever it might show up.
Yes, it has been a strange and complicated and kind of dark year, all things considered. But the world is wide– and God is not done. Be resolved to be astonished. To witness the surprising wonder of love incarnate. We have to get it out of our heads that any miraculous truth should be relegated to certain buildings, timeframes, or areas of our life. With all that you have, go looking for it in the places you’d least expect.
Luke gives us an origin story so that when we want to find Jesus, we’ll know where find him. Or rather, so that we can be utterly astonished when he just turns up– precisely where we weren’t looking.
“Of course I’m here,” he says again. “Where else would I be?”
Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child, rag-wrapped laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said:
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth be born in THIS place.” -Leslie Leyland Fields