Left Behind: The Boy Jesus in the Temple

Preacher: James Armstrong

Scripture: Luke 2:41-52

Thousands of people were on the move all across Jerusalem, jostling one another as they filled the narrow streets of the city. The mood was not unfriendly, but everyone was focused on the serious business of getting through the jam of people and getting out of town as quickly as possible. The week-long festival of Passover was over and it was time to go home. Mary, Joseph and their family were part of the crowd. They were not traveling by themselves, but were headed toward Nazareth together with a group made up of extended family, friends and acquaintances.

It may have been that the women and children, who traveled slower than the men, set out first. The men would have followed later on, catching up with their families at the end of the day’s journey. We can imagine, therefore, that Mary and Joseph each assumed that their eldest son, twelve-year-old Jesus, was walking with the other. Jesus was still a child and so might be expected to stay close to Mary, but he was old enough to perhaps prefer walking with Joseph and the other men. After all, he was just a year shy of the age of thirteen, when Jewish boys officially became men. All this may have been why no one noticed that Jesus was not in the Galilee-bound crowd. He had been left behind. Unaware, Mary and Joseph jostled their way out of Jerusalem and set out on the road for Nazareth, confident that Jesus was traveling with the group, even though neither one of them had actually seen him that day.

Imagine the shock they experienced when they arrived at the night’s resting place and set up camp. Imagine the panic. Jesus was not with Mary. Jesus was not with Joseph. They checked with relatives and friends – they checked with everyone – but Jesus was nowhere to be found, and furthermore no one had seen him in the traveling group. Where was Jesus? What had happened to him? Any parent can imagine the horrible sinking feeling and the terror felt by Mary and Joseph as they came to realize that their son had been missing the entire day.

Imagine the leaden spirit of the parents as they retraced their steps to Jerusalem, asking at each stopping place, at each wide place in the road, if anyone had seen their son and hoping desperately for a positive response. Imagine the daunting task of looking for the boy in a city the size of Jerusalem, with its tens of thousands of residents.

Finally, after three days of fruitless searching, Mary and Joseph came to the Temple and made their way up to the outer courts of the religious complex. It was here that the experts in the law and scripture taught their students. And here was where they found Jesus.

Jesus, when they found him, “was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” He was not teaching the teachers, as is sometimes said or implied about this passage. He was being a good student – listening and asking questions. Perhaps, though, he was being more than just a good student. “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” He was the best student these teachers in the Temple had ever seen. Picture a Young Sheldon of ancient Jewish law.

His parents were astonished, too. What was this poor carpenter’s son doing discussing the law and the prophets with the finest religious minds in the land?

Let me pause here in the narrative to make a few observations about this story. Perhaps most important, it is the only story about the child Jesus in scripture. Except for this story in Luke 2, Jesus’ childhood is skipped over entirely by the Gospel writers. From this fact, I think we can properly conclude that Jesus’ boyhood was largely unremarkable. Of course, there are legends about Jesus’ childhood, none of which made it into the Bible. In these legendary stories, Jesus performs miracles, for example, bringing clay birds to life, lengthening a board that he had cut too short and raising a neighbor child from the dead. In fact, in these miracle stories, Jesus sometimes comes across as a rather obnoxious little boy. Contrast that with what we find here: Jesus sitting in the Temple, interacting with the teachers of the law. Ours is a sober story, a fitting example of how God as a human child would have behaved.

Sober the story may be, as we contemplate the conversation among religious scholars in the cool shadows of the Temple courtyard, but it is not without drama, as we discover right now, when Mary and Joseph make their way into the scene.

Imagine the turmoil in the parents’ spirits as they finally come upon their lost son: fear, anxiety and frustration giving way to relief, joy and, yes, even anger. My wife Beverly tells the story of a time when she was about six years old. She decided without making any prior arrangements to get off the school bus before her stop in order to go to a friend’s house to play. Lottie, her anxious mother, called around until she found out where she was, and then came after her armed with a fly swatter. Walking back home, every step Beverly took was accompanied by the thwack of that fly swatter on her bottom. Yes, the joy of discovery is sometimes tempered by something like anger.

Mary interrupts the lofty conversation between Jesus and the teachers, and tries to put the boy back in his place as her twelve-year-old son. You can hear the tension and the rebuke in her words. “Child,” she says, “why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Jesus’ response is the crux of today’s passage. It shows that he is not going to easily be put back in his place. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

But they, Mary and Joseph, did not understand what he said to them. This is the crucial moment, these are the crucial words, but Mary and Joseph did not understand. They had heard the testimony of the angel Gabriel, the angel in Joseph’s dream, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, the Bethlehem shepherds, the Wise Men, and Simeon and Anna in the Temple. In spite of the testimony of all these witnesses, they still did not comprehend who Jesus was. Maybe we can’t fault them too much. You know the same kind of thing happens with us as well. Sometimes we’re in the middle of a critical situation and we really don’t know what’s going on, in spite of – and sometimes because of – all the evidence we have at our disposal. With the benefit of hindsight, however, and knowing the story of Jesus’ life, I think we have some understanding of what Jesus was trying to tell his parents.

First of all, Jesus is simply saying, I’m growing up. I’m no longer the little child you’ve been used to. That’s always hard for parents to hear, but it happens to us all. Children grow up.

More importantly, Jesus is saying, I’m beginning to understand who I am and the role I have to play. At this point, the twelve-year-old may not have understood everything that was to come, but he was certainly moving in that direction, and that’s why he was found in the Temple. He needed to be there, where his knowledge and ideas could be encouraged, challenged and strengthened.

When he told his parents, “Do you not know that I must be in my Father’s house,” Jesus was explaining that he was responding to an imperative, a command that he be there. And under the circumstances, the command can only have come from God.

Finally, Jesus was showing that he understood his special relationship to God, that he was God’s Son. For when Mary said, “Your father and I have been searching for you…,” Jesus responded, “I must be in my Father’s house.” By this time Jesus knew that he had a father who was not Joseph, and that father was God. And his Father’s house, the Temple, was his true home. It was where he could be closest to those who spent their lives trying to understand God, God’s ways and God’s truth.

I entitled this sermon “Left Behind” because I think several people were left behind in this story. First off, there was Jesus, unintentionally left behind in Jerusalem by his preoccupied parents. Then there were the parents themselves. Were they left behind? I think they were. Look at their failure to understand their son Jesus. They didn’t comprehend his spiritual development well enough to know that the Temple was where he had to be. Yes, Jesus’ parents had surely been left behind by their son, whose spirit was already setting out on the road to Calvary.

Do we find ourselves left behind spiritually, as well? I think we do. What happens is we lose track of our Christian priorities and in doing so, we lose track of Jesus. We forget what really matters, we run out of time to do what’s important, and other concerns preoccupy us. And in this way, we get left behind. Now, these other things that are pressing in on us are not necessarily bad things. Mary and Joseph’s priorities were not bad. They were caught up in the busy-ness of getting their family safely on the road back to Nazareth and weren’t paying enough attention to Jesus, both physically and spiritually. Our daily priorities are things like working, getting the kids ready to go out, shopping for food, doing homework. None of these is bad, but they aren’t the Christian priorities that we need to organize our lives around. I think we should take some time this morning to think about and renew these priorities.

One of the ways I am reminded to refresh and renew my spiritual priorities is by participating in United Methodist baptismal services. There, after the baptism proper, we in the congregation are given the opportunity to renew our covenant with God and with one another: “faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service, that in everything God may be glorified through Christ Jesus.” Friends, these are four of the most important priorities for us as Christians: prayers, presence (and that means presence here in body of Christ), gifts and service to others. Do we treat them as such? Or do we forget amid the press of other business, and let them fall by the wayside. We need to align our priorities with God’s priorities for us, or, like Mary and Joseph, we will be left behind.

I want to add two more priorities to our list today.

We mustn’t forget about Christian learning. It is no accident that when Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the Temple, he was sitting at the feet of the great teachers of his day, learning about God. And if learning was important to Jesus, it surely is important to us. Just as Jesus needed to learn about God, so, too, do we need to learn about God and all that God has for us. Do you read your Bible daily, engage with the weekly sermon and participate in Bible Study here at church? These are the kinds of things we must do if we want to be students of the ways of God.

Finally, there is evangelism, sharing with others the good news about Jesus. There are many ways to do this, including inviting people to come to this church. Don’t neglect the Great Commission in your Christian life. You may not be able to go into all the world with the message of Jesus, but you can certainly go next door. Jesus is waiting for us to get with the program and to clear out the undergrowth that holds us back – all that we are involved in that isn’t in the service of Christ’s kingdom. If we do not do this, we will be left behind.

We need to adopt Jesus’ priorities and make them our own. You know, here in the final week of the old year we’re in the middle of the season of New Year’s resolutions. May I suggest that you include one or more of these spiritual priorities with your other resolutions for the new year. Today, I’ve mentioned prayers, presence, gifts, service, learning and evangelism. These are all means by which we serve God, further God’s work on earth and, to put it plainly, keep up with Jesus. Which of these do you need to work on?

What happened to Jesus after the encounter in the Temple? He went home to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and was obedient to them. And he grew. Luke tells us that Jesus grew in four ways: in wisdom, in years, in divine favor and in human favor. The good news is that each child of God – each of us – grows in exactly the same way.

Jesus doesn’t want anyone to be left behind; his hand is stretched out to each of us, but we must reach out ourselves if we are to grasp our Lord’s outstretched hand. And in order to hold firmly to that hand we must, among other things, pray, be present, give, serve, learn and tell others about Jesus. May our Lord give us the assistance we need to do these things, so that in everything we do God may be glorified. Amen.

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