‘Where is Johnny?’…. ‘I don’t know. Wasn’t he with you?

The Text: Luke 2:41-52

I’m wondering whether some of us can call to mind those arguments and panic stations that ensue when parents realise their child is missing. The pattern between husband and wife in this example usually goes something like this: ‘Where is Johnny?’….  ‘I don’t know. Wasn’t he with you? … No! He was supposed to be with you! You were supposed to keep an eye on him…. Well actually I did, and then I when I didn’t see him I just assumed Johnny went over to you…… Well he didn’t, and it is entirely your fault’….etc. etc. 

Sound familiar to anyone? It is panic stations when a child is lost. So often, blame kicks in even before a strategy is developed to try and solve the problem. Now I’m not sure what dialogue Mary and Joseph were having once they discovered that Jesus was not where he was supposed to be after an exhausting day of travel from Jerusalem, but the whole thing is not quite as simple as we might assume. Mary and Joseph had good reason to assume Jesus was coming home with them, so it is not as simple as thinking that Mary and Joseph were way too laid back or irresponsible parents.

But before we get to the part of Jesus being found some background is helpful. Firstly, our Gospel writer Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph and thousands of other Jews went to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover year after year after year. It was a set piece, the same routine. In those days people travelled together in groups and there was no such thing as two parents doing all the child rearing and formation by themselves. Whole communities were involved and so it was normal for children to hang out with lots of adults and other children.

And so, every year Jesus would have travelled as part of his community without seeing much of his parents along the way. The only time one could do a head count was the evening meal at the end of the day where everyone came together and camped for the night. This was the moment that Mary and Joseph knew something was wrong. He wasn’t with the relatives and family, and he wasn’t even with acquaintances and friends.

After a day’s journey imagine how you would feel having to travel back with all that worry about a missing child! And keep in mind the psychological profile of Mary and Joseph. Remember that they would have good reason to be anxious and extra concerned because of their early trauma of fleeing to Egypt. They know they have a son whom Herod tried very hard to get rid of. Perhaps Mary and Joseph think that Jesus might have been finally abducted or even killed.  

And so, the time it takes to find Jesus is three days in total. One day’s travel, another day travelling back and then another day looking for him in Jerusalem. Now it is interesting that Mary and Joseph didn’t try the Temple first since this pilgrimage for Passover was a very special one for Jesus. He had turned twelve.

This was the time he was officially an adult in Jewish eyes. This meant that during the pilgrimage Jesus would be required to attend classes in the Temple with the teachers of the law. This was a sort of youth development program and a way for the young men to become well versed in the Torah and to debate and discuss its content.

So, in verse 47 Jesus’ parents stumble upon a session in the temple courts and they witness the teachers of the Law being completely knocked out of line, and flabbergasted by Jesus’ answers and his understanding. Jesus and the teachers were clearly having a lot of extra time together. In the original language it describes Jesus as being remarkably able to ‘put all the pieces together’, to ‘connect all the dots’ in the Scriptures. And so, when Mary and Joseph see all this, the original language expresses their reaction as an image of a ‘mouth gaping open in surprise’. However, this astonishment is short lived, because the blame game kicks in very quick: ‘Son why have you treated us like this?’ they say to Jesus. For them Jesus has not only caused hassle, and worry, but in front of the teachers of the law they are likely embarrassed that Jesus has disrespected them by not telling them where he was.

But then comes Jesus’ reply, and this is the turning point of his life. It is the first time Jesus speaks in Luke’s Gospel; and he, like always, answers a question with a question. ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?  His calm response silences that voice of an anxious and confused parent. His reply completely perplexes them, and they can’t answer him. They can’t even connect the dots together and make sense of it all.

Jesus the young adult has arrived. Jesus also now reveals another key parental relationship: That is Jesus’ relationship with his heavenly Father. Jesus’ time in the temple marks the beginning of a new chapter of his mission and ministry, but despite his time in Jerusalem, Jesus submits to his parents and goes home with them.

Things will never be the same again for Mary and Joseph, and Luke tells us that Mary is still doing her internal processing as she stores up all these events in her heart. Stop and think for a moment of how hard it must be for her to try and make sense of who Jesus really is. How hard it must have been for them to try and let go of their son as Jesus followed his Heavenly Father’s call? They wanted him to come home like he always did, but this time he didn’t come with them. He signalled to his parents that things would become different from then on.

Jesus’ transition from his earthly family is something we can identify with in our own families. Many of us have transitioned from our original family into a new world of marriage with another person. That can be difficult for parents to adjust to. Similarly, it can be hard for us to let our friends and family members transition into their calling with the Lord too. It is especially very hard for sons or daughters from a non-Christian family who then become Christians. Parents can become very hostile and even disown their children because of this change. Christian parents aren’t immune from this attachment problem either. Some struggle greatly that their dear son doesn’t wish to be a lawyer or doctor and get a secure job, but instead wants to be a pastor or a missionary overseas. Even though there is joy in one sense, there is also an odd sense of loss, and parental expectations compromised. 

This sense of expectation being compromised is something that Mary in particular would suffer as she would eventually see Jesus, the Messiah of the whole world being put to death for our sins. This is a calling no parent would ever wish for their child, but Mary had to come to terms with the fact that Jesus was God’s Son and she and Joseph had that privilege of being able to care and nurture him in his early years. They were a key part of his formation, and soon they would have to let him go into his ministry.

Jesus was safe and sound in God’s house, and all those who are baptised are baptised into the Christ, the Lord’s house, his temple. This is not a physical building, but the spiritual house of God that we all are part of. So let us not dwell in worry and anxiety over our children and our dear friends but commit them to the Lord’s care. We pray for many of the people we love to be able to follow God’s call on their life; not always expecting that they will follow us in our walk, but that we pray that they will dwell in Christ Jesus the place of true care and comfort. May all of you who are grieving over prodigal sons and daughters whom we might think are lost, keep on engaging in prayer for them so that one day they might be found safe in Christ’s arms. For we truly have a wonderful saviour who goes out to seek his children and bring them home.

Amen.