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In the right place

Read Luke 2:41-52

St Luke, who it is generally agreed was probably the actual writer of this gospel, was both a doctor and historian. It's clear right from the opening words of the Gospel that a lot of care and detailed attention had been given to presenting his reader with as detailed an account of the life and purpose of Jesus as he could manage. In chapter one (and reading in a modern translation) he states emphatically

"Most honourable Theophilus..."

Luke had plenty of opportunity to obtain good reliable source material. For two years he was Paul's companion in imprisonment in Caesarea, and as a companion of Paul he must have had easy access to many influential figures in the early church.

He was also the only New Testament writer who was not a Jew.

When looking at any of the Gospels it's useful to have at the back of your mind a little bit of knowledge about the writer. It's rather like reading an old letter in a museum. If it's by say, an author that you know and love, or a politician who was very much in the public eye when the letter was originally penned, then that background knowledge can help us to read between the lines. We're better able to understand about the writer and his or her attitude towards those for whom the letter was intended.

If the letter is from someone we know nothing about, then it's a cold piece of history, which is difficult to relate to.

As someone brought up in the Anglican tradition, I have to say that there is some justification in saying that non-conformists have missed out on some of the symbolism of the Protestant and Catholic tradition. Next time you venture inside a cathedral or large parish church, look at the stained glass windows and see if there are panels dedicated to the gospel writers (many have one). To each writer you will probably find attached a symbol.

Although these do vary, one of the commonest layouts is this

The symbol of Mark is a man. The gospel is straightforward and simply told - a report of Jesus' life

The symbol of Matthew is a lion. Matthew was a Jew writing for Jews, and he saw in Jesus the Messiah, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the one whom all the prophets had predicted

The emblem of John is the eagle. The eagle can fly higher than most birds. Tradition has it that of all the creatures on earth only the eagle can look straight into the sun. John's is the theological gospel, it's train of thoughts rather higher than the others.

The symbol of Luke is the calf. The calf is the animal for sacrifice; and Luke saw in Jesus the sacrifice for the entire world. In Luke all prejudices and barriers are broken down, because Jesus is for Jew and gentile, saint and sinner alike. He is the saviour of the world. It's a gospel full of warmth, centring on Jesus' mercy and forgiveness. Luke doesn't quote lots of Old Testament passages as Matthew does, in order to relate the life of Jesus in a way that might appeal to Jews, but presents his message simply, for people very much like ourselves to understand.

So how does this little bit of knowledge about Luke help us to understand why he tells us about this episode in Jesus' life, which none of the other three gospel writers include?

On first reading it seems rather like one of those nightmare occurrences which all parents fear. One minute you know exactly where your children are, the next they're gone - wandered off somewhere, or lagged behind and got lost

41Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. When Jesus was twelve years old, they attended the festival as usual. After the celebration was over, they started home to Nazareth, but Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t miss him at first, because they assumed he was with friends among the other travellers. But when he didn’t show up that evening, they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they couldn’t find him, they went back to Jerusalem to search for him there.Three days later they finally discovered him.

Three days, it took them. Can you imagine the distress that they must have suffered. Today there would have been extended Police searches, house to house enquiries, TV appeals for witnesses to come forward……… and the ever present fear of all the horrible things that could have happened to a much loved son.

How could they have lost track of Jesus for this length of time?

Well, apparently the women in a caravan started out much earlier than the men, for they travelled more slowly. Men and women wouldn't meet up until the evening camp was reached. This was Jesus' first Passover. Can we imagine perhaps Mary thinking he was with Joseph, and Joseph thinking he was with Mary, or both of them thinking he was walking with friends and the awful reality not sinking in until nightfall when they met at camp.

So they hurry back to Jerusalem and eventually find the young boy calmly listening and chatting to the religious leaders and teachers in the Temple Court. Cue some rather sharp words and a lot of emotional relief

46 Three days later they finally discovered him. He was in the Temple, sitting among the religious teachers, discussing deep questions with them. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. His parents didn’t know what to think. "Son!" his mother said to him. "Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere."

This is good human-interest stuff, but it still doesn't answer the question of why Luke decided to use the story. After all, if anything it shows Jesus up to be somewhat un-loving, putting his mum and dad through all that anguish.

It's in the next line that we get to the answer. This is what Luke wants to get across to his reader, one of the key verses in the whole of the life of Jesus as we have it in the gospels

"Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.""But why did you need to search?" he asked. "You should have known that I would be in my Father’s house." But they didn’t understand what he meant.

Do we?

Do you see how Jesus takes the word "father" as used by Mary of Joseph, and gives it to God?

We don't know when Jesus started to realise his true identity.

We can assume that it wasn't as a baby in a manger or at his mother's breast, but as he got older he surely must have sensed something. Maybe it was at this moment, this symbolic moment as a Jew when at the age of twelve he would be acknowledged as a man, a son of the law and had to take the obligations of the law upon himself, that the pieces started falling into place. Maybe it was here, in the temple, hearing the teachers and asking questions of them that he sensed that this was where he was meant to be at that moment in time. That his sense of priority had even to override his love for parents at this time, because this was a defining moment in Jesus' life.

There is no sense here that Jesus was being rebellious, because we read just a verse or two later that:

Then he returned to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them; and his mother stored all these things in her heart. So Jesus grew both in height and in wisdom, and he was loved by God and by all who knew him.

Matthew if he'd been using this passage would have been at pains to link it to Old Testament prophecy, and show how Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy. Luke's not like that. Here he seems to have gathered a quite believable account of a week in the life of Jesus the child becoming (at least in the eyes of the Jews) Jesus the man. It's a week that would have been remembered well by Jesus' parents and friends, all those involved in the hunt to find the lost boy.

It's more than possible in an age where the oral tradition was so strong, that this episode was still doing the rounds when Luke was so painstakingly collecting his history, and Luke realized just how defining a moment it was.

Luke is the only Gospel writer to provide much by way of history of Jesus' birth and infancy, linking it to a time and place, as if to emphasis to the reader the humanity of his Saviour. Now he includes a passage that at least gives us a hint of Jesus the child and teenager. He leaves us wondering if it actually was as he was seated in the Temple - in his Father's House, as he called it - that Jesus started to understand who he was and his true purpose. His parents knew he was special, but it's obvious from Mary's reply that she had failed to comprehend Jesus' true nature - as indeed did the disciples until he approached Jerusalem for the last time.

Nowhere else other than in some apocryphal books is this period in Jesus' life touched, which is perhaps rather surprising. Perhaps Luke was aware of this gap and sought out what oral history there was, so that he could present his reader with a more complete biography.

As I've hinted before, there's one particular phrase in our reading that deserves a little deeper thought

"But why did you need to search?" he asked. "You should have known that I would be in my Father’s house."

Doing what God wants us to do, being where God wants us to be, staying close to him - are these important things in our lives?

To Jesus these things were of higher priority even than family, and that wasn't Jesus being disrespectful or disobedient, just Jesus doing what he knew he had to do, being where he knew he ought to be at that particular moment in time.

Doing what God wants us to do, being where God wants us to be. Have you ever thought about these things with respect to your own life? Have you ever looked at your situation and thought"'There's something not right, it's time to move on!" or conversely "This is where I'm meant to be." Or maybe had this niggling voice in your head saying "I'm calling you to do something for me, are you listening?"

Of course, what's right for you and I may well be totally different, because God did not create us as robots but as individuals, and individuals with strengths and weaknesses. We need to prayerfully seek out answers to these questions in our own minds.

Are we in the place that God wants us to be? And I don't just mean the four walls of a 19th Century Chapel. Are we spiritually at the place God would have us be, or have we stopped walking with Him and decided to take a break, do our own thing for a while?

These questions of course can also be asked collectively of a congregation.

The Church as a whole, needs to look at where its priorities lie. It needs to address the same questions, needs to ask of itself "Are we doing what God wants us to do at this moment in time?" and "Are we in the place that God wants us to be spiritually?"

Are we individually and collectively people that God can use?

The Church in this country is very much at a critical point in its history. No longer can it rest on its laurels spiritually and hope that all will come good in the end. If we look further than our own national boundaries we find that in many parts of the world the Christian Church is a growing, vibrant fellowship of believers. Churches are bulging at the seams. Even in a country such as China, still heavily regulated by the state, the Church is enjoying a period of unprecedented growth. Yet here our denominations talk of too few ministers, too many buildings, dwindling congregations and a steady decline.

Jesus gives us by his own example part of the answer. It is to sort out where our priorities should lie, for if we don't then how can we begin to understand our own mission and ministry in this town?

How can we become effective as a part of the body of Christ in this place, and how can we start to grow into the fellowship that God our heavenly father would have us grow into?

Are we going to remain forever the young child in the temple, or grow into the adult who knows full well who he is and what he must do?

Jesus knew where his priorities lay. Despite his love for his parents he knew he had to stay in the temple for those three days, to draw close to God and begin to understand something of the task which he would face some 18 years or so in the future. He had to maintain his focus despite all the distractions of life, and his focus was clearly on his heavenly Father.

This was, of course, something that his parents would now have to come to terms with as well.

Luke paints a picture of Jesus coming to terms with who he was, and the picture he paints is one that we can relate to just as easily as the first readers of his gospel, because it's all about relationships and conflicts.

Sometimes decisions such as these that are prayerfully made can cause distress in the short term, but then Jesus never promised an easy or comfortable ride for those who follow him. But what would have happened if Jesus had never made that decision, hadn't responded to that feeling - that here he was at home in his Father's house, and here he must stay for a while because here was where he was meant to be at that precious moment in time.

What if he'd just got up and walked out?



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