Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 61:1-3 + Romans 12:1-5 + Luke 2:41-52
Mary and Joseph were among the most blessed people who have ever lived on earth. They spent more time with Jesus—more days, more years—than anyone else. Even His disciples only knew Him for three years or so. But Mary and Joseph—every day. They were also kept humble by God. Jesus was born in a stable. You heard last week about the flight to Egypt soon after He was born and time—possibly years—they spent living on the run, living as strangers in a foreign country hiding from the murderous King Herod. But for all that hardship, at least they had Jesus with them. In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph were struck with what was certainly the greatest hardship in the 13 years since Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Son of God. They lost track of their Son. They lost sight of God’s Son. See in this Gospel how God treats His dear saints, how He disciplines us, and especially how He teaches us to find Christ in His Word.
The Gospel informs us that Mary and Joseph made the trip to Jerusalem from Nazareth every year, as faithful Jews, to attend the Passover. Whether or not Jesus went with them every year of His childhood, we don’t know. But He did go with them when He was 12.
The visit to the Holy City took place without incident. Then Mary and Joseph made a mistake that any parent might make, if you’re traveling with a large group of your family and neighbors. If your child is not with you, you assume that your child is with one of them. All the more so with Jesus, since, as a holy Child, He was not given to running off irresponsibly, or to anything irresponsible or reckless or disobedient.
But then, His parents begin to look for Him, and one relative after another informs them, “No, I haven’t seen Him.” They don’t find Him anywhere in their company. Panic starts to set in. So they go back and search Jerusalem. Painfully, as Mary later tells Jesus. Anxiously, as you can imagine. And amid all the fears of what could have happened to Jesus, the worst fear must have been the fear of God. Mary had been given the privilege to be the mother of God’s Son, to raise Him, to care for Him. And now, what had she done? She had failed as His mother! God must surely be angry with her. He won’t love her anymore after this. How could He ever forgive her? Maybe He’s taken Jesus away from her because she wasn’t worthy. Maybe He’ll be taken away forever.
Thoughts like these must have flooded Mary’s mind during the three days they searched for Jesus. And thoughts like these afflict Christians of all times. Sometimes God grants us peace and comfort and a firm confidence that Christ is ours. As Luther says, that’s like paradise. Other times, God removes Christ from our sight for awhile, sometimes due to our own negligence, as it was with Mary. And in those times, all seems lost. God seems angry again, and distant, and we’re driven close to despair.
God does that with a good purpose in mind, out of grace and love for His saints. He knows that if we’re comfortable all the time, we will quickly start to take credit for it. We will become puffed up and grow lazy and proud and we will look to ourselves for help and advice. So He allows us to experience pain and loss for a time, as a father disciplines his children, to drive us to repentance and to His Word.
That’s where He drove Mary and Joseph. They searched for Jesus for three days, and then finally, they thought to seek Him in the Temple, in the house of God. And there they found Him, sitting among the rabbi’s, discussing God’s Word with them, asking intelligent questions and giving answers that astounded the teachers. Today’s Gospel is fitting for the Epiphany season, the season of the revealing of Christ. Here it is revealed to us that Christ is to be sought and found in His Word.
Mary’s words to Jesus are telling. She even dares to scold Him mildly: Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.” Isn’t it kind of living in denial? Mary and Joseph were the parents. They had made the mistake of assuming Jesus was with them. And yet, here, Mary starts to blame Jesus. More than that, Mary seems to have forgotten for the moment that she and Joseph are not the only parents Jesus has. God is His true Father, and Jesus has come to earth to fulfill God’s plans and God’s will. They should have taken that into account.
God’s saints, even saints like Mary and Joseph, can fall into this blaming of God for things that really are their own fault. God, why would You do this? How could You do this to good, innocent people like us who don’t deserve to suffer like this? And yet, most often we have our own negligence or our own weakness to blame. No, God’s saints don’t willfully go out and sin against Him. God’s saints don’t willfully and intentionally break His commandments. That would be abandoning the faith. But God’s children do still suffer from great weakness, and we sin in weakness all the time.
But see how God comforts us in the Gospel today and gives us hope. He gives us the example of the greatest, most privileged saints who ever lived—Mary and Joseph. He shows us their weakness, their mistakes, their negligence, and their lack of understanding. And then He shows us how He set them straight and forgave them and didn’t reject them as the parents of His Son. So with us. Through trials and afflictions and suffering, He keeps us humble and penitent. He forces us to depend, not on ourselves, but only on Him. God allows His saints to suffer for a good purpose, and then drives them back to His Word and comforts them with His Word.
Jesus’ words to Mary were meant as a mild rebuke. Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business? Why did you seek Me among the relatives and acquaintances? Why did you seek Me everywhere except in the very place where I must be found? In My Father’s house, in My Father’s business. Now, God is everywhere, but He is especially to be found by us in His Word.
These words of Jesus were recorded by Luke, not for Mary’s benefit, but for ours, that we may know where to seek Jesus and find Him. Satan would have us seek Jesus everywhere but His Word, in the Church Fathers and councils, in our feelings, or in our own beliefs, or our own thoughts or reason. But God calls us back and drives us back to the Word alone. There we find Jesus, with His grace and mercy and forgiveness. There we find Jesus with His comfort and peace. And when we cling to Christ in His Word, then He goes back home with us and serves us unworthy people, just as Jesus went back home with Mary and Joseph and was subject to them.
So hear God’s Spirit today calling you to seek Jesus in His Word and in the Sacraments, which are the Word of Christ attached to visible signs of water, bread and wine. If you have neglected the Word of God in the past, see how God is gracious toward you and has called you back today. If you find yourself in the future neglecting the Word of Christ, you may look up one day and notice that Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then let this Gospel that is planted in your heart today take root and call you back to repentance and faith, to seek and to find Jesus in His Father’s house, where the Word of salvation is proclaimed to you. Amen.