12/30/18 – Separation & Reunion


December 30, 2018
1st Sunday after Christmas Day
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26;  Colossians 3:12-17;  Luke 2:40-52
Elder Alan Willadsen


Randhurst was a two-story indoor mall in suburban Chicago not unlike Peoria’s Northwoods Mall.  When it opened in 1962, it was the largest enclosed air-conditioned space in the United States.  The summer I was four, we headed for Randhurst, seeking relief from the heat and looking for something to do with a family in from out of town.  Mom, Dad, my infant brother Tom, Gramps, Dorothy, and I were there.  The adults set a time and place to meet then went their own ways.  Mom saw me following Gramps.

Gramps had been in his own world and didn’t know I was with him, so we got separated.  At the appointed hour, the family gathered . . . without four-year-old me.  The family split up, going in opposite directions, searching the mall for me.  They found me standing beside a policeman who was talking with another officer or a mall shopper.

When asked where I’d been and why I was standing there, I repeated the command I’d been taught:  if you’re ever lost, find a policeman.  I’d found a policeman, just like my parents told me to.  I didn’t tell him I was lost, because I’d also been taught not to interrupt an adult conversation.

This passage from Luke should have provided some comfort to my family, helping them realize we were not the first clan to experience inadvertent parent-child separation.  Planning for parents and children to become separated, one from the other is part of the normal process of children growing to adulthood (as Carole and I are experiencing with Ben, Sam, and Hannah) but inadvertent separation is not.

The idea of separation, introduced here, occurs in a community context and is one Luke returns to later.  In chapter 15 we have three parables of loss:  a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find one lost one, a woman who tears her house apart to find a lost coin and a father who welcomes home his lost son (the prodigal).

When have we felt separated from our family?  Like Mom, Dad, Gramps, and Dorothy, like Mary and Joseph, remember to search out those from whom you are separated.  Such separation may be especially keen during the holidays and may require us to forgive as freely as we have been forgiven.  When have we felt separated from God?  Remember:  God loves us and will seek us when we feel separated or cut off from God.

It is in this passage we have Jesus’s first attributed work and the only surviving story of his life between birth and ministry.  He is almost, but not quite, an adult under Jewish tradition.  He dutifully accompanies his parents on their annual trip to Jerusalem, a trip required under the laws of Moses (see Exodus 23:17 and Deuteronomy 16:16).  Such a journey, from Nazareth, would have been made with a whole group of traveling companions.  It shows Joseph and Mary to be observant Jews, members of a faith community, and dedicated parents, training up their child in the way he should go.[1]

Later in this service, we will profess our faith using words from the Brief Statement of Faith.  We will affirm our belief Jesus is “fully human and fully God.”  While the Gospel of John focuses on Jesus’s divine nature, Luke emphasizes Jesus’s humanity, which is probably not a surprise, given Luke was a physician.  How better to portray the human side of a person than see what they were like as a twelve-year-old when they are not yet adult, no longer child.

Why did Jesus “stay behind in Jerusalem?”  Was he absent-minded and lost track of his parents?  Could it be as a twelve-year-old he did not want to be seen with Joseph and Mary?  Was he anticipating adulthood the next year and asserting his independence?  Did something distract him as his clan headed home?  Was he rebelling against his earthly parents who did not understand him?  Like most twelve-year-olds, he didn’t seem concerned about his parents.  He knew he was safe.

Jesus believed he was safe in the temple, among the masters, the teachers, the scribes, and the Pharisees.  How long would that safety last?  Remember, it would be these same temple leaders, marveling at this young person’s wisdom, who would later seek to destroy Jesus for his teachings.  Yet Jesus “eagerly and intelligently seeks to learn more from the rabbis or teachers in the Temple.”[2] “During Passover, the Jewish religious leaders would come out to the terrace (courts) of the temple, sit in a circle on the floor, and discuss matters of the law, Jewish theology, and worship.  Guests could become a part of that discussion—if they could hold their own.”[3]

Whenever I think of this text, I think of Jesus teaching at the temple.  The text does not say that.  It says he was learning—listening and asking questions.  How can this be?  Doesn’t the Son of God know and understand everything?  As someone who is fully human, like us, he could always learn.  The opening and ending verses of this passage affirm Jesus as capable of growth.

On the other hand, perhaps the questions he asked these learned men were the sort he used later, in his parables.  Remember, at the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was the neighbor of the man who fell among the robbers?”  [Luke 10:36] Later, he taught with the questions “What is the Kingdom of God like, and to what shall I liken it?”  [Luke 13:18] It is through such questions Jesus poses to his disciples—and to us—that he teaches us to discern the will of God.  In similar ways, Jesus teaches us, by asking such questions and then inviting us to ask questions of love, justice, and compassion.  We ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?”  [Matthew 25:37-39]

Luke tells us Mary and Joseph were “astonished” when they found Jesus.  The word used here is different from the word “amazed” used to describe the teachers’ reaction—even though we might consider them synonyms.  The word describing Mary and Joseph has more of a sense of being beside oneself—out of one’s wits—insane—which, in my mind, more accurately describes a parent’s reaction at being separated from a child than seeing their lost child is safe.

What tone of voice did Mary use?  Was she angry?  Relieved?  “Child, why did you do this to us?  See, your father and I have been looking for you, in distress.”  [REPEAT, using different inflections] Joseph, referred to by Mary as Jesus’s father is characteristically silent.  Frankly, I think Mary may be overreacting here.  Three days?  One day toward Nazareth (when they weren’t even aware of his absence), one day back to Jerusalem, found on day three.  And still, Mary is certainly relieved to have found her son.

Jesus implies it had been an extensive search and his parents were making too big a deal of their separation.  He didn’t understand his parents’ concern [typical twelve-year-old (or 18 or 21 or 23-year-old)].  What we have here is a failure to communicate.  Jesus knew where he was and couldn’t understand their distress or anxiety.  Joseph and Mary “did not understand what he had said to them,” nor did they understand what Jesus meant by being in his Father’s house.  The exchange seems like a typical parent-child communication gap.  After all, what parent understands their teen?

David Keck chaplain at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida said, “When Christians and churches get comfortable with Jesus—when like his parents we presume to know where he should be and what he should be doing—Jesus rebukes us with what should have been obvious. He is not where we think he is supposed to be, rather he is doing the work of his heavenly Father. At such times, Jesus goes all the way back to what he said at the very beginning.  Jesus turns, looks us in the eye, and asks us one more time, What, exactly, are you looking for?[4]

This story resolves favorably, as the family returns home and Jesus conforms.  The fully human Jesus remained in their charge and obeyed his earthly parents, consistent with the commandments and behaving as one responsible for his own actions—one ready to be an adult in the Jewish tradition.  Mary’s reaction, treasuring these things in her heart, is the same reaction she had when the shepherds appeared in the birth stable.  What would it take?  When would she understand?  What will it take for us to understand who Jesus is and to seek Him?

Luke tells us about Jesus’s advancement.  I alluded to this earlier when discussing how he was capable of learning.  The final verse in this passage gives us an idea of how well-rounded Jesus is.  He “advanced in wisdom and stature, and in the favor of God and men.”  Wisdom and stature suggest mental and physical advancement—internal, comfort with who he was.  The favor of God and men suggest spiritual and social progress—external, relating well to others.

In this story, we read of Jesus’s humanity, how to learn from him, and what being separated from him can be like.  It seems to me feeling separated from God is a feeling that people have had throughout the ages, so our experience is not all that new and we are not alone.  The author of Ecclesiastes wrote:

“Only that shall happen
Which has happened,
Only that occur
Which has occurred;
There is nothing new
Beneath the sun!” (JPS 1:9)

As soon as they realized Jesus was not with them, his parents realized they were heading in the wrong direction and turned around.  What a wonderful model for us!  On this day, the fifth day of Christmas, when many have already taken down their decorations, have we lost sight of Jesus?  Turn around—return to where you last encountered him—as did his parents.  Where will you find him?

Amen and Amen.


© Elder Alan Willadsen, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org   |   309.673.8501

[1] Proverbs 22:6 / [2] WSB, note, p. 106 / [3] Jeremiah Study Bible, note to Luke 2:46.  p. 1387 / [4] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/december-30-christmas-1c-luke-241-52