Sermon Text: Luke 2:41-52
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Like most pastors, by noon on Sundays I am not at my most clear-headed. Because I’m emotionally spent after I preach. I have a hard time focusing. The greeting line after the service, for example, is the worst time to talk to me about some urgent church matter or to remind me of some upcoming event that you want me to remember. I say this, not so you’ll feel sorry for me, but as a way of apologizing for or justifying or at least explaining the following incident that happened several years ago.
You see, nearly every Sunday for fifteen years of pastoral ministry my family and I have gone out to eat at a Mexican restaurant after church. And on this particular Sunday, my family was going to get a head start, and I was going to meet them there. At least that’s what I thought. When I showed up at the restaurant, Lisa, Elisa, and Townshend greeted me and asked, “Where’s Ian?” Because it turns out that Ian was supposed to be coming to the restaurant with me… Lisa told me after church to wait for him. But, believe it or not, I don’t always pay strict attention to what my wife says, especially after church on Sunday. So Ian, who was young at the time, was ten minutes away from us—ten anxious minutes—because I left him at church.
Well, in a way this gives you at least a small inkling of what happened to Mary and Joseph in today’s scripture. It’s hard for us modern people—in this age of smartphones—to imagine losing track of our 12-year-old boy for ten minutes, much less ten hours or however much time had passed before Joseph and Mary realized that Jesus was not with them. But things were different back then.
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were traveling as part of a large caravan of extended family and friends from Nazareth down to Jerusalem and back. There might have a hundred people in their party. They would travel in large groups for protection—protection from armed robbers and protection from their political enemies, the Samaritans. And they just assumed that cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbors, good friends would have been keeping an eye on Jesus. By the time they realized Jesus wasn’t with them, they were “only” 20 miles or so from Jerusalem, but of course twenty miles was a full day’s journey on foot.
So… Mary and Joseph spent one day traveling away from Jerusalem. One day traveling back. And the third day they spent looking for Jesus once they arrived in Jerusalem. Can you imagine how anxious they must have felt? When Jesus asks, “Why were you looking for me?” He doesn’t mean that he was surprised that his parents came back for him. Rather, he was surprised that once they realized he was missing, they had to wonder where he was. Why did they have to spend any time looking for him? Why didn’t they head immediately to the Temple, where of course he would be—after all, he must be in his Father’s house—that is, the Temple—as verse 49 says.
In fact, if you have your Bibles—and you should—look at verse 49. Does your Bible have a footnote on that verse? It probably does, if it’s a modern translation. Jesus doesn’t literally say, “I must be in my Father’s house.” That’s an interpretation of the Greek text. Jesus literally says, “I must be about the things of my Father”—or as the King James puts it, “I must be about my Father’s business.” By all means, at that moment “his Father’s business” meant being in the Temple, talking with these Bible scholars. But… in another sense Jesus was always going to be about his Father’s business, whether he was in the temple, the synagogue, or “church”—or not.
Now, this is literally the only episode from the childhood of Jesus that we find in all four gospels. This obviously frustrated some ancient Christians… So much so that by the second century and later, they started making up their own stories about Jesus’ childhood—to sort of “fill in the gaps.” These stories feature Jesus as a boy using supernatural power in a frivolous way. For example, Jesus makes some doves out of clay—and miraculously brings them to life, so they fly away. He heals the foot of a friend who accidentally injures it with an ax. He stretches a piece of wood that Joesph, his carpenter father, had cut too short. All these stories are obvious legends invented a hundred years or more after the four gospels were written.
In fact, one reason we can be confident that this incident in the temple is true is because… well, it’s so unremarkable, in a way. It’s so mundane. It’s so down-to-earth, so true to life. Parents sometimes lose their children, and it’s terrifying. And we can relate to Mary’s anger: “Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you!” If Jesus had been abducted, then that would be one thing… But the fact that he’s doing just fine—happily, willingly, voluntarily sitting in the Temple… Well it’s clear that Jesus chose to stay behind instead of heading back to Nazareth. That makes his mother’s anger all the more understandable.
Luke—a very fine, careful, thorough historian—likely interviewed Mary in order to get this story. I suspect she recounted to him dozens of interesting stories from Jesus’ childhood. He probably had many to choose from. Why did he choose to include this story?
The key is verse 42: “When he was twelve years old.” In the first century a Jewish boy became a man—was considered an adult, was fully accountable under the Law of Moses, had all the responsibilities of being an adult—at age 13. Even today Jews mark this rite of passage with a ceremony called a Bar Mitzvah. In the first century, this meant that during a Jewish boy’s twelfth year of life, his father would apprentice his son, teaching him his trade. So Jesus would have spent this twelfth year being apprenticed as a carpenter. But also… more importantly… his adoptive father, Joseph, would have taught him about what it meant to be a full-fledged member of God’s covenant family, Israel. What it meant to live under the Law of Moses. And what it meant to celebrate, for example, the Passover festival—the very festival for which Jesus and his family had gone to Jerusalem in the first place.
Remember what happened in the Passover: faithful Israelites who placed the blood of a lamb “without blemish” on the frames of their doors would be saved from God’s judgment of their sin and God’s wrath on account of their sin—God would pass over their houses. Any house that didn’t have the blood of a lamb on their door frames would not be spared; the firstborn son would be taken by God—in this case, that means that God afflicted the Egyptians, until, out of the fear of God’s awesome, frightening power, the Pharaoh finally relented and let the Israelites go free. You can read all about this in Exodus 12.
But here’s a question: If God simply wanted to punish the Egyptians, so that they would set the Israelites free, why would God require the Israelites to do anything? God knew who his people were, after all—whether they put blood on their door frames or not. So why did God require them to do this thing?
Because God’s people Israel, every bit as much as the Egyptians, were sinners who were under God’s wrath… that is, God’s justifiable anger toward sin.
Now, if there is a topic in all of Christianity today that we talk about less than God’s wrath, I can’t think of it is. [Wesley and early methodists] We modern-day Christians often worry, for instance, that God’s wrath—that is, God’s justifiable anger toward sin—is at odds with God’s love. “Why would a loving God also have wrath toward sin?” We wonder because, when we think of human beings having wrath, we think of them flying off the handle and acting in an out-of-control, abusive way. But that’s not who God is. That’s not what God’s wrath is like.
In his book The Reason for God, pastor Timothy Keller argues that God’s wrath is a necessary consequence of his love. He writes:
When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad. If you see people abusing themselves, you get mad at them out of love. Your senses of love and justice are activated together, not in opposition to each other. If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care. You’re too absorbed in yourself, too cynical, too hard. The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved. And the greater the harm, the more resolute your opposition will be.
Keller’s point is, if God loves us, God will be committed to justice—he will see to it that the people who perpetrate evil will be punished. Which means God will have wrath toward sin. But if God has wrath toward sin—and we are sinners—where does that leave us? Are we in trouble?
These ancient Israelites would have been in trouble.
Like the Egyptians, they would have been punished for their sins… except for the fact that they put the blood of an unblemished lamb on their doorposts. And you might ask, “Okay, how can the blood of a lamb atone for the someone’s sins?” And the answer is: It can’t… in and of itself, an animal’s can’t atone for sin. The only way the blood of a lamb can atone for sin is by pointing us forward in time… to the cross… where God’s Son Jesus would spill his precious blood… for our sin. Remember what Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, would later say about him in John 1:29: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
How does all this talk about God’s wrath help us? Look at Psalm 94:1-2: “O Lord, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve!” The Bible, especially the Psalms, is replete with language like this, in which the psalmist is looking forward to justice being done, to God’s avenging evil, to God’s punishing wrongdoers. As the psalmist says, “Repay to the proud what they deserve.”
Well, that sounds great and all, but I promise you there is no one with more “sinful pride” than me—or close enough! I know how proud I am. If God is going to “repay” the proud on Judgment Day, how can I be confident that I’ll survive?
Here’s how: Because God has already repaid my sin of pride… he’s already paid for it… he’s already punished it… his wrath toward my pride has already been poured out against it… It’s just that it wasn’t poured out on me, but on his Son Jesus.
My point is this: If you are a Christian, you don’t have to fear God’s judgment. Not because your sin is “no big deal” after all, the Bible’s many words notwithstanding. Not because you’re not a sinner. You are. Not because God doesn’t care that you yourself have perpetrated sin and evil in this world. He does. It’s just that your sins have already been punished and paid for—by Jesus, on the cross.
Think of it this way: Because of what Jesus did, it would now be unjust for God to punish me for my sinful pride. Because then he would be punishing my sin twice—once, when Jesus died for my sins, and again when I face Final Judgment. To say the least, God is not unjust.
All that to say, during this Passover festival when Jesus was 12 years old, Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive human father, would have spent time teaching Jesus about the meaning of the Passover festival. But even more importantly, Jesus’ heavenly Father would have spent time teaching his only begotten Son an even deeper meaning of Passover: that Jesus would be the true Passover Lamb—not just for Israel but the world.
Just as Joseph would have taught Jesus his business of carpentry, so Jesus’ heavenly Father would have taught Jesus his business—which is to save people from their sins through Christ’s precious blood spilled on the cross: [singing] “O precious is that flow/ that makes me white as snow/ No other fount I know/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
So when Jesus tells his parents that he has to be about his “Father’s business,” it’s as if he were saying this to them: “You thought when I stayed behind in Jerusalem that I was thinking only of myself, and not you. You were afraid that I didn’t love you very much. But the opposite is actually true: I was thinking about you when I stayed here to attend to my Father’s business. I was thinking about what I needed to to do in order to save you from your sins. And I was loving you when I stayed here to do my Father’s business. Because if I’m not prepared for this difficult path that lies ahead—this costly, risky, dangerous, temptation-filled path that leads to my death on the cross—if I fail in my mission to accomplish my Father’s business… then you, Mother and Father, would not be saved. And I love you too much to fail to do what’s necessary to have you with me in eternity!”
So think about this: When the Father was revealing to his Son Jesus more about what would be required of him—that he would have to go to the cross in order to save us—you can imagine Jesus saying in reply, “That’s totally worth it! Dying this death on the cross, being the unblemished Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is totally worth it if it means having [fill in the blank] with me in eternity.”
But Mary and Joseph are right about one thing. Look at verse 48: “Son, why have you treated us so?” They rightly understand that Jesus is responsible ultimately for their pain and suffering—which was immense. It only lasted three days, but this experience was traumatic for them. Indeed, this completely understandable pain and suffering that Mary and Joseph endured for the previous three days—this was the first fulfillment of the prophet Simeon’s warning to Mary twelve years earlier, in Luke 2:35, that her obedience to Jesus will mean that “a sword will pierce through [her] own soul.” This was for Mary and Joseph the cost of discipleship.
But let me ask you: was the suffering that Jesus made Mary and Joseph endure worth it? Of course it was! They are with Jesus in heaven today, in part, because of the pain and suffering that Jesus made them endure. But not only that… on the other side of this pain and suffering, in verse 51, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured up all these things in her heart.”
She found treasure on the other side of her pain.
My question is, does Jesus love us any less than he loved Mary and Joseph? For the sake of doing “our Father’s business,” because we are disciples of his Son, our Father will often require us to endure difficult, painful trials. When he does, will we trust that he has treasure waiting for us on the other side?
1. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 71.
2. John 1:29