He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.
When I was a boy and couldn’t find something I sometimes asked my father if he knew where it was. Often he would “yes”; the exuberant tone of his “yes” made you believe that you were just seconds away from locating the misplaced item. And then came his answer, “You will find it in the last place you look.” I eventually quit asking my father about the location of lost items.
It is rather obvious that the lost item will be in the “last” place you looked because once you found it, you stopped looking! But besides that self-evident advice there are other things that evidence themselves when looking for things: i.e. the longer you look for something, the more unlikely are the locations you check. If you lose your car keys, you check coat pockets first, then countertops, then drawers, then the car itself, then you look under the sofa cushions. If by some chance you ultimately locate the keys in the freezer, you might then remember how in the world it was you accidentally stuck them in there but the freezer surely was not among the most likely of spots to check. (For most of us … that is.)
So also in Luke 2: Mary and Joseph spend 48 hours before finally stumbling to the idea that just maybe they should check the Temple. “I can’t imagine he’d be there” they must have said to each other, “but we we’re running out of likely places so let’s check.” For his part Jesus is merely confused. The Temple was the first place they should have looked as far as Jesus was concerned. Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?
1. Jesus is in the Temple at Jerusalem. In King Solomon’s prayer offered on the day of dedication of the first Temple he prayed this: “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built! Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you. May your eyes be open day and night towards this house, the place where you promised to set your name, and may you heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place. And hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray towards this place; may you hear from heaven your dwelling-place; hear and forgive. (2 Chronicles 6:18-21)
While Solomon acknowledges heaven to be God’s dwelling-place he understands that God has promised to “set his name” in this Temple. The Ark of the Covenant that represents the presence of God with his people is brought into this Temple. To “set his name” is another way of saying God promises to be present there. This isn’t to say that God can only be found in this location; it is to say that he is certainly to be found here in this place he promises to meet his people.
That our Lord Jesus—even as a twelve year old—thinks it obvious that he would be found in his “Father’s house” meaning the Temple where God promises to “set his name” witness to Jesus’ own commitment to this promise. You see the festival is over and the crowds are gone home but Jesus remains at the Temple engaged in the study of the Torah (Bible Jesus knew).
The Christmas crowds have gone home, in a manner of speaking. The great festival of the birth of our Lord that drew many worshippers is past. Our Lord promised that “where two or three gather in my name, there I am among them.” (Matthew 18:20) There, in that place. The church building is not the temple; it is a place dedicated for this purpose—the gathering of his people. And while our Lord is not limited in how and where he can meet us, we can know that he meets us here in this place for certain as we gather in his name. Maybe someone is looking for you this morning wondering where you are; we could answer with our Lord. Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?
By the time we get to the first Sunday after Christmas many of us are exhausted. The cycle of Christmas activities simply wears us out. I find that drawing aside for worship provides a respite for the soul that I cannot find anywhere else—even in softest of pillow-top mattress covering. There is a restoring work our Lord undertakes on our behalf in company with him.
For many others, Christmas has simply been too much to bear. The pressure to have happy family times in the midst of family rifts of all sorts or the loss of the company of that special one we can’t bear to be without is simply too much. We dreaded Christmas coming and are relieved to see it go. It is here at worship we meet with this One who will never forsake us. It is here we experience the embrace of the one born for our sakes. Here we find ourselves sustained to meet another week of life.
2. We may wonder how it was that Mary and Joseph had travelled that first whole day and did not think to check in on Jesus’ whereabouts. The pilgrims who had come from Galilee to the Passover in Jerusalem typically travelled in groups. Often the women and children of a particular group were together and the men of that group also walking together. Jesus was twelve years of age and so could be in either group. Mary assumed he was with Joseph and Joseph that he was with Mary. Assumptions have a way of exposing us sometimes.
But think with me a little further. Mary and Joseph’s assumption is predicated on what they knew about Jesus. They could count on Jesus to be where he was supposed to be. Jesus was obviously not a child that ran off without telling them. He was an obedient child. Both Mary and Joseph were confident about Jesus. Had it been my parents they knew that the whereabouts of their son James needed routine checking and would have acted accordingly. Joseph and Mary know Jesus character; he is where he is supposed to be and so they are shocked to find that he is not among the relatives and other travelling companions.
This confidence of Mary and Joseph in Jesus points us in the direction of something the gospel writer is making plain. There is something about this boy that sets him apart. Theologians of the early church called this event a little transfiguration. The transfiguration is that event on Mt Tabor when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glory—saw that he is the Divine Son of the Father and hear the voice confirming—this is my beloved. When Jesus explained his whereabouts to Mary and Joseph he though it obvious that he “must be in his Father’s house.” The Divine Sonship of our Lord is on display. Jesus is at home; home in his Father’s house. Luke is quick to add that Mary and Joseph did not understand what he said to them. The disclosure of all this will find its reality in the resurrected Son explaining things to the disciples during the 40 days. But Luke is painting a picture of Jesus and what his hearers to know that this is the Son.
In Luke’s gospel this story ends what we call the birth narratives. The Angel had said to Mary the child she would bear would be called Son of God. But here in this moment of anxiety and relief at having found Jesus she does not understand. When Mary and Joseph had taken the infant Jesus for dedication at the temple Simon took Jesus in his arms declaring that was looking at the salvation of God. He then spoke to Mary a prophetic word about the child’s destiny saying—and a sword will pierce your own soul too. Surely Mary’s soul was pierced on that dreadful crucifixion day. But here now at the temple her son indicates that he belongs somewhere else—not just with the family. Jesus statement about his Father’s house indicates that it is not Joseph. Her soul is already experiencing some piercing.
Luke notes that Mary treasured all these things in her heart. For now she does not understand but treasures them nonetheless. When first entertaining the proclamation about the identity of this child as the Son of God there is much we do not understand. There are things that remain mystery to us. Mary’s response is instructive. Instead of casting side what we do not understand she teaches us to treasure them. Someday our Lord will connect the dots for us. Some connections have already been made. Hold these as treasures whose riches will become evident in our walk with our Lord in faith.
3. In this story of Jesus at the temple we have the first recorded words of Jesus. We will hear much from our Lord after his baptism at the Jordan River; when he comes preaching that “the kingdom of God is near.” But here in the precincts of the Temple is the first record in the gospels of something he said. I know that when I have read this text previously I typically thought of these words as the comments of a twelve year old with his parents about his whereabouts. I certainly didn’t think of them on par with something like “I have come that they might have life.” I wonder if I was mistaken. They are certainly an interchange with his parents yet Luke insists that these are nonetheless the words of the Son of God.
I note that he asks two questions. The earliest words uttered by Jesus in his life for which we have a record are questions. When Mary and Joseph found him in the Temple he was sitting among the teachers “listening to them and asking questions.” The teachers were amazed at his understanding of the law of God. The Greek word that we translate “asking questions” implies probing questions designed to elicit response. As I read the story of Jesus’ life in the gospels I note that Jesus is constantly asking questions—questions that elicit response. Questions that call us to reframe and rephrase our own questions.
Consider this first question, “Why were you searching for me? I don’t think that Jesus is castigating Mary and Joseph for their quite natural parental concern for their son. He is not rejecting their love for him and the very natural panic that might set in thinking that they had lost him. After all Jesus returns to Nazareth with them “and was obedient to them.”
I have to think that when Mary and Joseph were at the festival of the Passover a few days before they must have noted Jesus’ delight at being at the temple. Jesus question is about their frantic search anywhere else. He wasn’t hiding from them nor seeking to upset them. We might rephrase Jesus question—why were you searching and didn’t just come straight to the Temple. Or perhaps this way: why were you searching for me, have I hid from you before?
The same question Jesus puts to us. “Why were you searching for me?” The gospel story isn’t of a God who plays hide and seek with us. He does not ever tease us and say, “I’m hiding, see if you can find me.” He comes among us himself seeking us out. By his Spirit God facilities spiritual sight so that we can see that our Lord is right here. A number of years ago there was an evangelistic crusade launched with the caption, “I found him, you can find him too.” The gospel says this is backwards. Rather it should be Jesus found me and is right here for you too.
“Why were you searching for me?” You don’t need to search. He is seeking us. In the revelation of John he hears the voice of our Lord uttering, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Notice that he is the one knocking. And he continues to knock—consistently, relentlessly. Humanity is not depicted as searching for him. Rather he has come right up to our hearts door. And if anyone would just go to the door to see who it is and open it just once he will come in.
“Why were you searching for me?” Just open the door. Searching for God is not a gospel metaphor. The good shepherd searching for the lost sheep is however. The logic of the gospel is never an “if – then” logic. If you do such and such then God will. The gospel is always the logic of “because – therefore.” Because God has come among us in the Son we can believe and have life in him. God goes before and facilitates the very faith that brings us spiritual life. We don’t say if you repent you will be saved as if there were some merit in our repenting. God comes to us and fosters the very repentance, the turning around, the change of mind, which gives life.
And then he asks, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In this question of our Lord is the very clear commitment of his obedience to the will of the one he calls the Father. I must be in my Father’s house. It is after the Transfiguration that Jesus will articulate what he must do in relationship to his obedience to the Father in stark detail. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
The logic of Jesus question to his parents is that he expected they would have known that he must be in his Father’s house so would have known to find him there. Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and be killed and on the third day be raised. Clearly his disciples did not believe that he must do any of this. Yet our Lord must go there and we must too. It is to the cross we must go with him because it is here that “For our sake he (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
It is very instructive to reflect on what our Lord said he must do or where he must be. There are lots of important things in life but how many are musts? This is again the distinction between the penultimate and ultimate. Note that our Lord considers coming to that place he knew God promised to meet his people (Temple) as a must.
There is so much for us in our Lord’s questions. He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’