Misunderstanding Jesus

This is my sermon from Sunday, January 8, 2023. It is based on Luke 2:41-52.

Years ago when my wife Alisha chose to go to Houghton College in New York, her best friend Janis also decided to go there. Houghton is a Christian college. And Janis’s parents had a lot of trouble understanding why she wanted to go there, all the way to New York, to attend college. Nor did they understand why she wanted to work at Circle Square Ranch instead of getting a real job. Janis is the only Christian in her family.

I’ve heard stories of other parents who were disappointed and dismayed when their kids chose to enter this or that form of ministry, either because they didn’t share their kids’ faith or because they didn’t understand the sense of calling their kids experienced.

There will be times when people who follow Jesus make decisions that people who don’t follow Jesus will not understand.

What about us? What choices might we have to make that others, others who perhaps do not put God first, will not understand? Maybe you already know what this is like.

We can have family and friends who don’t understand why we go to church, why we want to read our Bible and go out to a Bible study or prayer meeting. Especially if these commitments potentially conflicts with family obligations.

“But they did not understand”

When I was a kid I was once in a small Sears outlet with my Mom. She was at the counter ordering something from the catalog and when she turned around I was gone. She looked and looked, and when neither she nor the staff could find me, Mom got frantic and they called the police. Eventually, they found me sitting inside a TV cabinet in the store watching TV. I wasn’t exactly pursuing a higher calling.

That story is very different from the one we find in our passage today. Even though there’s a young child who is apparently lost and frantic parents.

Now here’s the context: there were 3 annual festivals in the Jewish calendar (Tabernacles, Pentecost, and Passover). Jewish people would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for them. Most families would only make the pilgrimage to one: Passover. That was the most important one.

So that’s what’s going on in our passage. Mary and Joseph and Jesus are making the three day trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover in a caravan that likely was made up of all kinds of relatives. They would have travelled in caravans for safety.

After the festival is over, on the way back, Jesus, a 12 year old boy at this point, would no doubt be thought to be mingling with other family in the caravan. Maybe with cousins, aunts, and uncles, friends of the family. Maybe that’s why it took a day’s travelling for Mary and Joseph to realize he wasn’t there.

They travel back to Jerusalem — another day’s travelling — and once there spent an entire day looking for their lost son. That’s three days Jesus was missing. But not really missing, as we discover. They find him in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions.

And here’s where we begin to see the purpose of our passage unfold. Because understandably Jesus’ parents are beside themselves, overwhelmed with anxiety. After all, he was missing for three days. When they finally find him, they are frustrated. We can hear all of that in their words to Jesus: Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.

And we get it, right? Wouldn’t we feel the same way? I’m sure my Mom did, and she only “lost” me for a very short time. I know that when our kids were very young and we were in a large, crowded store, I wanted them right with me. I felt this moment of anxiousness when they turned the corner of an aisle without me and were out of sight for a moment.

Of course, in those situations kids are just being kids. Unaware of danger. Being precocious. Maybe even teasing Mom and Dad by trying to hide in Walmart. But that’s not what’s going on with Jesus.

Look at how he responds to his Mom and Dad: Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house? Was Jesus insensitive to their plight? Didn’t he care about how worried he made them? Wasn’t it wrong of him to stay behind in the first place? Like it or not, the passage doesn’t answer these questions for us. As far as all that stuff goes, we’re left hanging. We’re left to speculate, to wonder, to draw our own conclusions.

One thing, however, is clear. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it. As he says: Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?

And notice how those who heard him speak and ask questions were astounded at his understanding and his answers. Jesus is a 12 year old boy, still one year away from the age of accountability in Jewish culture. Yet he possessed wisdom far beyond his actual years.

He identified God as his Father, so he had some understanding of who he was as the Son of God. He would grow in wisdom, as our passage says, but he already had plenty. And he said that it was necessary to be in his Father’s house. He knew why he was here — to be obedient and faithful to his Father. To learn and grow in spiritual understanding and maturity and wisdom. To live into his relationship with God more and more fully.

It’s also important to point out that in Luke’s Gospel the phrase it was necessary is often used to show that God’s plan is being fulfilled. So whatever else is going on in our story, it reveals to us both who Jesus is and the fact that he was becoming more and more aware of who he was.

As for Mary and Joseph, all we know is that at this moment they did not understand what he said to them. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get him. It makes me wonder. In the 12 years since Jesus’ birth, how did Mary and Joseph come to terms with the angelic visitors and messages, with the magi that visited from the east, with their experience of Jesus’ miraculous conception? Had this memory begun to recede into the background of their lives or were they just unable to make the connection between that and what was happening on this Passover? Whatever we make of it, even at this young age Jesus experienced what it was like for people — even people close to him — to not understand who he was and why he did what he did.

To put it another way: We have a Savior who is or who can be easily misunderstood. Indeed, all throughout Jesus’ life and ministry he was misunderstood by family, by his disciples, by religious authorities, and by the crowds who followed him around.

But for the sake of being who he was, he risked this misunderstanding. Because Jesus understands what it means to put obedience and faithfulness to his Father first.

Jesus understands that if we do trust in and believe in the God revealed in Scripture that this entails certain consequences for our lives, for our choices, for our priorities.

“It is necessary”

Why is this important to think about? Because what happened to Jesus can also happen to us. Just like Alisha’s friend Janis.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I have made choices in order to please other people or at least to avoid what I thought was unnecessary upset. I think we do that a lot as human beings, especially about more sensitive topics. And faith is a sensitive topic. When I was in university, and I was working through what I believed and what it meant for me to follow Jesus, I found out that a lot of my family didn’t understand why I wanted to go to Acadia Divinity College. Conversations were sometimes awkward and difficult. Sometimes I chose to avoid certain topics.

One of the commentaries I read this week had this to say about our passage: “Sometimes we have to make choices that others do not understand, for God has called us to set priorities that differ from people who go through life without any reference to him. Granted that Jesus was . . . unique . . . yet the way he lived his life and pursued God faithfully reflects how we should seek God’s face.”

When Jesus said it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house, clearly he didn’t think the choice of being obedient to God, of pursuing God faithfully, was an option. It was necessary. And Jesus wasn’t only speaking about going to church for worship — or to the temple in his case. He was speaking of pursuing God in all of everyday life.

The same is true of us. And sometimes God’s call on our lives will conflict with what others want or expect of us. When that happens, what will we do? Are we prepared not to be understood even by those close to us in order to be faithful to God’s call on our lives? I suppose the more foundational question is this: do we prioritize our relationship with God like Jesus did in his relationship with the Father? And if we do, what does that mean for our everyday decisions?

One of the interesting details in our passage is how we’re told that after the conversation with his parents, Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them. Jesus wasn’t looking to disregard his earthly parents or ignore family obligations. Indeed, it would be almost another 20 years before he would begin his earthly ministry. Instead, Jesus was looking to set his priorities and make them clear.

So his time to go public had not yet come. And when that happened, Jesus prioritized his mission from the Father. Even when that came into conflict with the desires of his family, who at times thought he was out of his mind for pursuing his path.

We’re not called to forego family responsibilities or obligations. But we are called to grow in discernment, so that when it seems like what others want of us and what God seeks of us comes into conflict we’ll know what to do. Because here’s the thing: it’s not always obvious when such a conflict exists. Because it’s one thing if someone in your immediate family tries to keep you from going to church or is always making an issue because you always attend prayer meeting.

Could Jesus have been obedient to the Father and yet still not stayed behind in Jerusalem? Can I choose not to go to church this week or Bible study next week because my family expects or wants something else of me? What if someone close to me is uncomfortable because I want to pray before I eat or want to spend time at home reading my Bible and praying?

The question then is this: what’s going in my heart? In what ways does my relationship with God inform how I use my time, how I balance out various obligations? What does it mean for us to echo Jesus’ words, It was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house? If pursuing this path, and making this decision, meant Jesus’ family didn’t understand him and were frustrated with him, are we willing to risk the same thing to pursue God in our lives?

“In my Father’s house”

Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple. After expressing their dismay, he asked them: Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?

This wasn’t the last time Jesus took off to be in his Father’s house. In the gospels Jesus would withdraw to pray, to spend time in the presence of his Father. Such intimacy with God is what gave Jesus strength and power during his earthly ministry. Often when he withdrew, his disciples and the crowd would be looking for him.

It was his time spent in the presence of his Father that enabled him to bear the weight of misunderstanding that he no doubt felt everyday from many people around him, including some of those closest to him.

Here Jesus is both our example and our strength.

Because he understands what it’s like not to be understood by others when pursuing a life of faith. Because he demonstrates that it is only through intimate communion with God that we can have the strength to pursue this life of faith — that such a relationship is the foundation and heart of such a life. And because he is the one through whom we can have such a relationship with our heavenly Father. It is through Christ that we are drawn into the mysterious and yet wondrous fellowship that is the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In other words, spending time in our Father’s house — and I don’t just mean going to church for an hour on Sunday but spending time in the presence of God in prayer, worship, fellowship, communion, contemplation throughout the week. This is what enables us to live this life of faith even when others do not understand us.

Conclusion

We have a Savior and Lord in Jesus who was and is still often misunderstood. We are not alone, therefore, when this happens to us. Like Jesus, as we pursue lives of faith we risk being misunderstood. We risk having others frustrated or unhappy with us. So we need to pray for the wisdom of Jesus, to know when our faith conflicts with family and other obligations and how to handle it when it does. More than anything, we need to seek the very presence of God, learn to abide in him, and to trust that he can and will sustain us even if others don’t understand us and why we put him first.

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