An Open Table where Love knows no borders

When you lose Jesus

A sermon on Luke 2:41-52 by Nathan Nettleton

A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.

Now that the Christmas trees are being discarded to the nature strip and they’ve stopped playing schmaltzy versions of Christmas carols in the supermarkets, we are a lot more free to get into the Word of God and explore what the stories of the birth of Jesus have to say to us as his followers. The summer solstice festival known as Christmas finally ended yesterday. The Church’s Festival of the Nativity, which confusingly is also known as Christmas, only began on Friday night, and we will now enjoy it at our leisure until the Feast of Epiphany in eleven days time.

As we’ve journeyed through the gospel according to Mark over the last year, we’ve had lots of examples of how Mark makes connections between different stories, connections that are easily missed when we hear the stories in isolation from one another, but which make the stories all the more meaningful and powerful when we discover them. Well, Mark was certainly not the only gospel writer who drew connections between different parts of the story of Jesus’s life, and tonight we have an example of Luke doing a similar thing. 

This one snuck up on me a bit. I have preached on the connection that Matthew makes between the infancy stories and the crucifixion stories, because his story about Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus clearly foreshadows the later plot to have him crucified, but Luke doesn’t tell that story. But lo and behold, there are some similar shadows in tonight’s story of Jesus at twelve years old, on the verge of his transition from childhood to young manhood.

Luke tells us that each year, Jesus’s family went up to Jerusalem for the Passover, and this story of Jesus going missing in Jerusalem takes place on one of these annual trips up to Jerusalem for the Passover. Now already we have got our first hint there, because Jesus going up to Jerusalem for the Passover becomes a major theme in the gospel narrative; a theme which Luke emphasises more strongly and deliberately than do the other gospel writers. Much of Luke’s gospel is structured around the big final trip up to Jerusalem for the Passover, the trip which culminated in the arrest and execution of Jesus.

In tonight’s story, the young Jesus is mistakenly left behind when the big extended family group head for home at the end of the festival, and when they realise he’s missing, his frantic mum and dad leave the group and rush back to Jerusalem to look for him. It is three days before they find him. That will probably give you another clue. This is not the last time people will think they have lost Jesus in Jerusalem. And it is not the last time he will reappear after three days either. 

It is also not the last time that Luke will introduce us to a couple on the road who are distraught at having lost Jesus but who find him again engaged in a discussion of the scriptures. Do you recognise the story I’m pointing to here? Right near the close of his gospel, Luke tells us the story of the couple on the road to Emmaus. He tells us that they had put their hopes on Jesus, but now he had been lost and they were devastated, and it’s been three days now. And then Jesus appears with them, unrecognised at first, and discusses scripture with them, pointing out to them exactly the sorts of connections between stories that I’m pointing out now, and finally they recognise him in the breaking of the bread.

Both of these stories – the twelve year old Jesus lost in Jerusalem, and the road to Emmaus account – appear only in Luke’s gospel, and with one being close to the start and the other close to the end, they serve as something of a frame for the rest of the story. 

And to add further colour and light to the message suggested by this framing, Luke is the gospel that puts the most emphasis on images of being lost and found. He is the only gospel writer to include the stories of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost prodigal son. Losing Jesus or being lost ourselves and being found by Jesus are significant theme for Luke, and you will notice of course, that in neither of the stories of Jesus being lost does Jesus himself think he is lost. It is other people who think he is lost, not him, so Luke is begging the question, “Who is really lost when we think we’ve lost Jesus: him or us?”

For Jesus knows what he is about – his Father’s business. And he knows where he needs to go to fully engage in that business, and it is often to places we would neither be expecting, nor perhaps be willing to go ourselves. Sure, a theological discussion in the temple might not be so frightening, although it would be pretty daunting to the average twelve year old, but the image there of Jesus being in his Father’s house doing his Father’s business is leading up to the later story. 

You see, the temple is not only the place of theological discussions (in fact, if that had been the point it would probably have been in a synagogue rather than the temple). The temple is primarily the place of sacrifice, so it is not the place you want to be when a hostile mob has joined forces with the religious and military power brokers and turned their anger on you and decided that you are the one who is going to be sacrificed. “It is better than one man die than that the whole nation face the wrath of Rome,” says Ciaphas, the High Priest. A classic expression of sacrificial logic from the most powerful man in the sacrificial system. 

And so this twelve-year-old story anticipates the later story where for Jesus to go about his Father’s business meant walking into the fires of hatred and hostility and offering himself to appease the wrath of an angry violent humanity and so expose the ultimate religious lie that it is God who demands that blood must be shed.

Mary and Joseph, the couple on the Jerusalem-Nazareth road, thought that Jesus was lost because they didn’t know that he would be about his Father’s business. They expected him to simply be fitting in with the family business, which at this point was all about going home and getting back down to their ordinary day to day business. 

And the disciples later, including the couple on the Jerusalem-Emmaus road, thought that Jesus had been lost because they couldn’t comprehend that going about his Father’s business could mean surrendering himself into the violent hands of the angry mob. They expected him to fight fire with fire if he was going to walk in and confront the powers that be. They expected him to overthrow the Roman occupation forces and reestablish the throne of David, a throne which of course had been established by one who the crowds lauded in the streets with cries of “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” That’s the kind of king we want, everyone thinks, and that’s what they were hoping for and expecting of Jesus. 

So when the powers strike first and Jesus is killed, that’s it then. Jesus has lost, and his friends have lost Jesus. But three days later, there he is, discussing scripture again, and still trying to get them to comprehend that his Father’s business does not involve matching the world’s violence, but absorbing its full force and giving it back transformed into love and forgiveness and extravagant grace.

But even in the far less earth-shattering losing of Jesus in the twelve-year-old story, there is an important warning for us about our expectations of Jesus and where we will find him. If even Mary and Joseph could take Jesus for granted, and just expect him to be going along with whatever they were doing and wherever they were going, then you can be pretty sure that we are very much in danger of making the same mistake. How often do we just head off on our own business, unquestioningly doing whatever we have always been doing or whatever we have decided we should be doing, and just assumed that Jesus would be with us? 

Jesus may well have said, “I will be with you, even to the end of the age”, but he wasn’t saying “Whatever you choose to do is fine with me, I’ll just come along and baptise whatever you decide.” 

Jesus has not offered to follow us around and bless whatever we want. He has called us to follow him, and to do as he does: as our reading from Colossians put it, to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and above all love, and to forgive each other; as he has forgiven us. (Col 3:12-14) The promise of blessing is that blessing is found in following Jesus and in being where he is and doing as he does, even when it means following him into the fires of hostility, clothed only in love, compassion and forgiveness. 

If even Mary and Joseph could get Jesus wrong and think he was lost, no doubt we will often make the same mistake. We too will be just going about our business and inadvertently leave Jesus behind, and then panic because we think he’s lost. And whenever that happens, then it is absolutely right that you will have to get searching and retrace your steps and hunt high and low and pray hard and do whatever it takes to find where he is. And when you find him, stick with him. But take it from the twelve-year-old, and take it for a fact: it is not him that is lost.


  1. Vincent Michael Hodge

    Thank you Nathan for the sermon. The concept you opened up for us is truly life enhancing. Certainly the parable of the Lost coin and the prodigal Son is unique to Luke but the parable of the Lost sheep is shared with Matthew – although Matthew uses it in a different way and so Nathan is quite correct to explain them as 3 texts unique to Luke. Nathan pointed out that Luke points not to an angry God but to an angry wrathful humanity. It is humanity that is shown to be lost in killing Jesus. Maybe this is why Luke’s Greek word for “lost” is different from Matthew’s word. Matthew’s word for the sheep is one that ‘goes astray”. Whereas the word used for Luke’s text refers to something that is “utterly destroyed” which of course leads to the more passive derivation of “being lost”. Luke seems to refer to the sheep as being “sacrificed” rather than culpably going astray. A not so subtle reference to
    what Nathan alerts us to as Luke’s intention – the killing of the prophets- such as Luke references in chapter 11(41-52). It seems not to be a coincidence that in these verses Luke refers to the murder of a “Zechariah” – a name familiar right from the opening of his Gospel at Luke Chapter1:5!. So Luke is not all what bappearnces seem to make of him…he is not all fun and niceness….eventhough Jesus seems to have no trouble being born near Jerusalem, visiting Jerusalem and returning quietly to Nazareth. This underlying theme of ‘sacrifice” is expected more to be in accord with Matthew’s opening – Herod and the magi; flight to Egypt; killing of the innocents.
    In addition to Nathan’s main point – that we must be seekers of what is important to The Father and not seekers of our determinations- I found his sermon was a catalyst for clearing up something that has confused me for years- Luke’s unique focus upon the Ascension compared with the other 3 Gospel texts. And here I recovered Luke’s major theme – JOY. The three texts that Nathan gave us ALL end with a celebratory feast with friends, neighbours or family – the discovery, the recovery of what was “lost’ is an occasion in all three stories for communal gathering and celebration. The experience of finding must be one that is so great that it bursts beyond the individual and flows over abundantly in the need for assembly. A topic to define what Sunday worship is all about and why we want to go to church and be with other “seekers and finders”. But even beyond all this Luke has this astounding story of the Ascension – luke does NOT end his gospel with the celebratory feast of discovering a suffering Messiah who has been raised – he ends it with what appears to be on all counts ” ANOTHER LOSS” – The Ascension. However this time there is no seeking after what has been lost by Jesus returning to His Father – rather there is great joy as theyretirn from Bethany to the temple in Jerusalem – finally after all the journeying from the 12 year old boy lost and found in the temple, the disciples now gather in the temple since they no longer can lose Jesus- they have him with always and are continually in the temple praising God and awaiting with certainty the “clothing” from on High. Maybe this is why the Reading from Colossians 3:12-14 has been chosen to accompany us for this Sunday – it too is about being clothed as Nathan describes in his sermon.
    Finally a note of the “incomprehensible” returns by Luke just as he did to us with the Boy of 12 in the temple after the majesty and joy of the Birth narratives. In Acts the Ascension seems to be less joyous – the angel asks them why they are seeking something in the sky – do not they know jesus has been ‘taken up into heaven” – he has returned to His Father – they return not to the temple but to the privacy of the Upper Room where there is a constant devotion to prayer with women, including Mary and his brothers..”. There seems to be a hint of darkness lingering amongst the “loss” of Jesus as per Acts. Luke cannot get away from the theme he introduced through Mary – we must ponder, pray and rejoice- constantly.
    Thanks Nathan- a grand foundation in your sermon for so many new pathways of understanding what Luke is putting to us.

  2. Thank for showing me the “Bookends” that these 2 stories make to the Gospel narrative in Luke. I am never quite sure that the Gospel writers were as smart as current thinking gives them credit for but it does open the scriptures in new and different ways for us to ponder on – perhaps as Mary did.
    I liked the closing verses – his parents did not “get it” – then in “The Message” it says – “so” he goes with them to Nazareth and was obedient to them but Mary does not forget this event – she also pondered on its meaning.

    • Vincent Michael Hodge

      Sylvia….Your point about the writer’s intentions is interesting. They did live in an oral culture and probably saw links to stories and events that we would miss. They had memories and recognition skills that we would pay money for today!. So I often wonder if the similarities are a mixture of actual events that share a lot in common and this is then capitalised upon by their ability as the storytellers to then construct narratives using the common threads and their memories and their creative thinking. Jewish people, so i am told, like to debate and haggle over texts and so we need to be careful as Westerners about characterising their way of writing history with our so called ‘scientific” approach. Life has a lot coincidences that we think are unusual but which are quite regular co-happenings. I have an old book called “The roots of Coincidence” by a guy named Koestler. Things like why events seem to happen in threes etc. So discovering causes and links is fraught with the need for open minds as you say.

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