Why Are You Searching For Me?
Today we hear the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Luke. And his first words are a question.
I have long been fascinated by Jesus’ questions.
He asks 307 questions in the gospels and only answers 3.
And so every time I run across one of his questions, I’ve learned that it will almost always lead me to unexpected spiritual places.
Given that asking questions is one of his primary modes of interacting with people, I shouldn’t be surprised that the first words out of his mouth in this gospel are a question.
“Why were you searching for me?”
That’s actually an incredibly relevant question for all of us.
Why are we searching for Jesus?
Didn’t he just arrive at Christmas as our newborn king?
Or, here’s an equally relevant question: if we aren’t searching for Jesus, why not?
Have we deemed him extraneous to our everyday lives?
He’s someone we check in with once a week at church but don’t really feel the need to consult in the day-to-day crash and noise of our busy schedules and multilayered priorities.
Today is the 12th Day of Christmas. Tomorrow is the Feast of Epiphany.
We are in a moment of transition.
According to the song, today your true love is supposed to give you 12 drummers drumming, along with 11 pipers piping, etc.
The gifts get louder by the verse and I don’t know about you, but honestly I could use some peace and quiet as I strive to get my footing in this new year.
By this point, most of us are already settling into 2020.
We’ve put away our Christmas decorations, drunk the last of the New Year’s Eve champagne, and are attempting to embark on our resolutions for a healthier, happier year.
We are on the journey.
That’s exactly where Mary and Joseph were as they left Jerusalem after the Passover festival.
They were a full day down the road before they realized Jesus was missing.
We might need to stop and ask ourselves whether we’ve made the same mistake.
Did we embark full tilt on our new year without asking ourselves if we brought Jesus with us?
Do we need to pause and go back and find him?
Where is the first place Mary and Joseph look, a day into the trip when they realize Jesus is not with them?
“Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.”
Among our relatives and friends is a good place to look for Jesus.
God is often most present to us in the faces and hearts of those given into our care. The Holy Spirit speaks to us every day through the ordinary, beautiful people around us.
But Luke is making a point here.
He’s reminding us that we can’t always look in the familiar places to find God.
There are times in our lives, and moments of transition like this one are key times, when we’re not going to be able to find God the way we always have before.
There are going to be moments when the old familiar patterns of worship, of prayer, of meditation, of studying scripture, of reading devotionals—the channels we’ve relied on for years—suddenly seem to dry up.
We thought we knew how to be in touch with Jesus, and so we head out of town, on our way, pursuing our plans by our means.
And a day into the journey, we look among our relatives and friends, and Jesus is not there.
Why did Jesus not leave town with Mary and Joseph?
Why does he not leave town with us?
The first thing we have to realize is that the work of Christ in the world is not always about us.
God will never abandon us. But neither will God ever be manipulated by us.
We do not get to decide where and how God is going to speak to us.
Just because we’ve concocted a plan for how our new year should go does not obligate God to agree with us and fall in line.
We are headed into the season of Epiphany, which means revelation.
It’s all about waking up to the presence of God in our lives, seeing and understanding God in new ways in unexpected places.
And sometimes the way God coaxes us into exploring unexpected places is by not being quite so on-demand in the familiar places.
Where do Mary and Joseph find Jesus? Back in Jerusalem, in the Temple.
Jerusalem is the heart of their faith, and the Temple is the heart of Jerusalem.
They had left already, but they were called back, to the center of the center, the core of the core.
And they were surprised to find Jesus there, which he reminds them is a bit ridiculous.
Why would he not be at the very heart of their faith?
Are we surprised to find a call back to the heart of our own faith in our search for Jesus?
“Why were you searching for me?” he asks.
But the realization that we’ve accidentally left Jesus behind, the search for him in familiar places, and the call back to the very core of our faith, are in fact the soul’s journey that we need the most.
None of this is an accident.
As the T.S. Eliot quote reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
The realization that Jesus has gone missing and the call back to the center speak to me right now in terms of my ordained ministry.
In a couple of weeks I’ll celebrate eleven years as a priest.
This came to mind because the first two verses of our psalm today were a lodestone for me in my discernment for ordination.
“How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.”
For a frightened 19-year-old very close to drowning in the dark ocean of clinical depression, these words were a lifeline.
My thirst for God was so acute, and I was so grateful that the Church called to me with the gift of a place to explore and serve God for the rest of my life.
These many years later, post-college, post-seminary, post-ordination, I look around sometimes and kind of feel like I left town without Jesus.
I’m in a season right now where I don’t really understand my call.
I know broadly speaking that I’m here to serve this congregation and this community, but both how and why I got here, and where the road leads next are infuriatingly opaque to me.
I look for God in the old familiar places and often feel like I can’t find God.
But if I have learned anything from these last eleven years as a priest, it is to never discount the value of the dry and barren times in the spiritual life.
If you feel lost, if you feel confused, if you feel like prayer is empty and church is hollow, first of all, come on board with me and we’ll walk through it together.
And second of all, I have very good news for you.
We are closer now to finding Jesus than we ever were when we were confidently striding out of town, thinking we had it all figured out, not even knowing what was missing.
As we read in Romans 13, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
Mary says to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
Here is the gift that we have that Mary didn’t.
We are searching just as she was, but we don’t have to do it with great anxiety.
Luke has helped us understand that returning to the center of our faith is where we will find him.
So what does that mean for us?
I think it means a marriage of our old traditional practices with a call to deeper and more challenging priorities.
So, perhaps, starting small—reading a different translation of scripture than we’re used to.
Then maybe we take a bigger step, and ask a friend to pray for us, or ask how we can pray for them.
Then maybe ask some questions about how our worship experience in this building could be less comprehensively white and affluent.
The steps build on each other, one by one, until we are reentering the core of our faith but seeing it in new and exciting and challenging ways.
The closer we get to the Temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus is, the stronger and more sustained and rooted we will feel.
That in turn will make us ever more capable of taking risks in our vocation and ministry.
And we are in this together.
One of the best things about Christian community is that we can occasionally turn to one another as we’re on the road and say, “Hang on a sec, did we leave town without Jesus again? Dang it!”
And then we sheepishly turn around and head back into the center of our faith, into compassion and forgiveness and justice and peace.
Notice one more detail about this text: Mary and Joseph spend three days looking for Jesus.
Three days of darkness, three days of fear, three days of not being able to find him where he was supposed to be—those are the three days of the tomb.
And on the third day, when they find him, they can’t recognize the same old Jesus they thought they knew.
This also is not a coincidence, neither in this gospel nor in our lives.
“Why are you searching for me?” Jesus asks.
They are his first words to us in this gospel, and perhaps the first words we have heard from him this year.
They are well worth carrying with us.
The search winds ever onward, but the call to home, the call to him, is our compass and our core.
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