A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
The First Sunday of Christmas, 30th December 2018
During this service Mya Scanlon was baptised.
Every day in Britain around 500 people are reported missing. 500 are reported missing every day.
A few are abducted by a disturbed parent. An confused old man, his mind long gone, simply walks away; teenagers, tired of chaos at home, flee for what they suppose will be a fresh start in our larger cities. A handful fake their death, and others are taken with criminal intent. A few soldiers go: missing in action. And, as for Lord Lucan, well we will probably now never know.
But one day many years ago Joseph turned to Mary and said, “Where is Jesus?” And that set in motion, not a tragedy, but a moment of understanding about the way in which God deals with the mind and imagination of kids.
Jesus was 12 years old when it happened, in the modern age a pivotal year for children, although we don’t really know the full meaning of the age 2000 years ago. What we can be certain of is that Jesus is leaving his childhood behind and becoming an adult. Time for bar mitzvah.
Ask a 12-year old child “What are you going to be when you grow up?” and what do you hear? A pop star, an astronaut, a football player or an athlete. One or two high-minded children want to be Prime Minister, but given the current state of politics, a twelve-year old might be the way ahead.
Whatever they say, we are likely to shrug it off with a smile.
But a few 12-year-olds are already thinking seriously about their future. Steve Jobs of Apple wrote about his early fascination with computers. “I was 13 years old,” he says in his end-of-life autobiography, “and already knew what I wanted to do.” And he did it.
What about you? Did you know at age 12 or 13 what you would do with your life? Jesus did.
After the festival, the text tells us, his parents headed for home, down a well-worn descending road into to the Jordan valley. But Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. That day this road was crowded with thousands of pilgrims heading home after the holiday. They were on their way to the Jordan Valley, or Galilee, or even further: Syria or Persia, perhaps. IT’s worth noting that it wasn’t likely to be a moment of parental carelessness: in Jesus’ day, it would have been assumed that Jesus was in the company of his fellow-villagers, traveling, talking, singing, eating, laughing.
Then the question: “Where is Jesus?”
All of a sudden, the joyful journey home becomes a frantic search for a young son.
Where is Jesus? Perhaps he 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 darted away when he got the chance. Bunking of school is perhaps a universal phenomenon.
Jesus was 12 and his motive appears to have been more honourable than playing truant. There was something going on in his soul, a curiosity for significant things. He had a calling from God that was, even at age 12, a powerful pull on his imagination.
So Joseph and Mary, a day’s walk back into Jerusalem, a search through the city. And then they find him in the temple, at church we would say, in the Vicar’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?
Sometimes they do!
What does this mean for Jesus? How much did he 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 somebody that captured his attention? Did he read something, pray something, feel something, remember something, that triggered in him a vision of his future?
The story doesn’t say, but it does say this: Mary pondered these things. Perhaps it was as much a mystery to her as to us.
I will tell you what she didn’t say. She didn’t say: “Jesus, you’re too clever to be a rabbi. You can’t make a living as a prophet. What about the family business with your dad?” That’s what too many parents today say to kids when they come home talking about a vocation. Some parents are so worried about success that their children’s desire to serve in some way that is valuable but not financially-rewarding is the last thing they want to see happen.
But Jesus didn’t have that problem. He had other problems, then and later, some chronicled in the gospel accounts. What he did have, though, was a spiritual compass that pointed away from farming and building and writing or trading.
I am not surprised that Jesus had a sense of his own destiny at the age of 12.
Did he know about baptism? I don’t think so.
Did he know about disciples? No evidence of that.
Did he know about transfiguration and triumphal entry and the trauma of crucifixion? No, just like young aspiring teachers do not know about stress and burnout, and young athletes do not know about steroids and stress fractures, and farmers don’t know about all that makes farming the risky work it is. I didn’t know about ordination and heresy and church growth theory when I first began to sense my direction in life. I was twenty-one. But I knew about Jesus and I felt a pull towards serving him deep within myself;
God speaks to the soul, at age 13 and at age 54 and at 79 and beyond. God stirs us to do something, go somewhere, serve somebody, preach news to people for whom it is good and glorious and God-sent.
What do you say if a twelve year old were to confide to you, “I want to be a priest”? There was a time when the clergy was held in high esteem. He – and in those days it was always a he – was one of the few educated persons in the community: the teacher, the doctor, the solicitor, the Vicar; these were the professions. I wonder if Mary and Joseph thought this way about Jesus. The rabbi, then and now, is a position of high honour in Judaism. It has retained more of its social clout than the Christian minister or priest. Did Mary and Joseph envision Jesus as one of the esteemed rabbis of Galilee, perhaps a leader of the party of the Pharisees, perhaps even making it all the way to the temple hierarchy, exercising influence over the political and cultural life of the Jewish people?
But times have changed for us. Other professions have surpassed the ordained minister: teacher, scientist, journalist, programmer, film director, professional athlete, entrepreneur. The ordained minister is more a missionary than she or he has been for many a century. She must fight public opinion as well as spiritual lethargy. Gospel work is not an easy life.
Mary and Joseph found Jesus at the centre of religious life in Jerusalem – in the temple. He was listening, the text says, and then it says: they were astounded at his answers. Jesus both listened and spoke. He was a genius. He was brilliant. Even on a human level, he was destined for greatness.
Can Jesus be a role model for young people seeking their way in the world? Can Jesus be an inspiration today for teenagers longing to hear the voice of God?
When we find young people, even 12-year-olds, who are intelligent, talented, are people of faith and want to make a difference in the world, can we say to them: “Perhaps God wants you to do do something like Jesus.” Perhaps God is calling you like he called and anointed Jesus: An interpreter of the word of God, a teller of stories, a rebuker of the political and religious establishment, a caregiver of souls, a healer of diseases, a leader of people, one who stands and delivers a word for our time, who calls us all to abandon lives of selfish gain, who issues to us a challenge to take up our cross and follow Jesus. And although that sounds like a priest’s role, in truth it is what all of us in our different ways are called to do, because at our baptism or confirmation, we promised to live and serve like Jesus.
Not everybody knows at age 10 or 12 or 14 where the road ahead will lead. Not even Jesus knew all that we know now about his life, about his death and resurrection. But he was one man who went on his own way, followed his own sense of direction, and marched to the beat of his own drummer. He was full of the Holy Spirit, they said then, and we say now.
So, should our children, our even you and I at our advanced ages, should we hear Jesus calling us to follow him, and should we be ready, as Isaiah did so many years ago, to turn to God and say, “Here am I; send me,” let us be ready to do it. As we approach the turning of another year, let that invitation of Jesus “follow me” be the question you, and I wrestle with in 2019 and let it be one that Mya hears as she grows and matures. And let us bless one another as we seek to respond to that invitation, praying for one another that as we hear the voice of God stirring in our souls, as perhaps Jesus did in the Temple, we might give our blessing to each other, that God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, will protect and prosper them and us as they put their trust in the man who stayed behind in Jerusalem to pursue the calling that God had placed upon his life.
Where is Jesus? Right where God wanted him to be, and I hope you are as well. Amen.