From Bethlehem to Bedlam: The Temple

Rev. Kraig Beardemphl, MDIV, BCC, ACPE Supervisor

RUCC Worship – December 27, 2015

Have you ever had one of those moments where you’ve agreed to do something and the more you get into the nitty-gritty of it, the messier it gets, and you ask yourself: “Why did I get myself into this?”  I wonder if perhaps that question crossed Mary and Joseph’s minds as they frantically searched the streets and markets of Jerusalem looking for the twelve year old Jesus.  

When I was twelve years old, I got lost in the Black Hills of South Dakota on a trip with a friend and his family.  My friend Danny, his brother Nick, his sister Amber and I were exploring the rocky landscape of Needles Point when I got separated from them.  There were no clear trails, I had no compass; eventually all of the boulders started to look the same.  I began to panic as the moment of separation grew into what felt like hours.  My friend Danny and I had toy walkie-talkies that we had brought along and I tried endlessly to reach him on it…calling out the question, “Danny!  Where are you?”  Eventually, I stopped and tried to get my bearings, but I simply could not get a grasp on which direction I needed to go.  The questions raced through my mind, “Am I really going to end up stuck out here?”  “How long until it gets dark?”  “What happens if I come across a bear?”  

And then, I simply broke down; I cried out to whoever might listen, and to my great surprise, someone responded.  About 100 yards off, I heard a voice coming from a rock face.  I looked more closely and there she was, a woman climbing on the face.  “Are you lost?”  She called out.  My twelve year old self thought, well, duh!  I’m not yelling out because I know where I’m going.  A split second later, a ten ton weight was removed from my chest.  Thank God, I am not alone out here.  So I asked, “Which way is it to Needles Point?”  She pointed the direction opposite that I was facing, “About two miles that way.”  I couldn’t believe I had wandered that far.  “Really?”  I asked.  “Yes, just go that way.”

This experience came back to me in a rush, about three weeks ago when I was at the wedding of one of those friends who I was with on that trip.  My friend’s mother, Wendy, came up to me to say hello; we hadn’t seen each other in years and after the initial hugs and hellos, the first thing that she said was “I’ll never forget that trip to the Black Hills when you got lost.  I was so scared, just thinking to myself, I cannot go back home and tell your mom that I lost you in the Black Hills.”  An event that happened nearly 30 years ago came into the present.  The great anxiety and fear of that experience had marked a permanent place in our collective memories.  

Like Mary, Wendy initially reacted with exasperation when I finally made my way back to the RV that day at Needles Point.  “Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  Before long, her exasperation melted away, she gave me a tight hug, and we climbed into the RV for the journey back to the campground.

Unlike my trek into the woods, we get the impression that Jesus does not think he is lost at all when he stays behind and goes to the temple.  We are told in Luke that the twelve year old Jesus questions his parents.  “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house?”  Like, duh mom, where else would I be?  But what we have here in this single canonical story of Jesus’ childhood is more than a simple tale of an overly confident adolescent.  Mary and Joseph were terrified that Jesus was lost, it felt like bedlam to them, but Jesus seemed to think that he was right where he belonged.  

Jesus had a solid Jewish upbringing in his home with Mary and Joseph; they were pious parents who made pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year.  Yet when it was time to return to that home with his parents and other relatives, Jesus stayed behind.  And he didn’t end up just anywhere; he went to the temple, to his Father’s house.  Just shy of the age appropriate for bar mitzvah, the traditional rite of passage from childhood to adulthood for Jewish boys, Jesus goes to the temple.  He seems to feel a pull that only he can understand to a place that was the center of life, faith and God for Jews at the time.

Within this family drama of scared parents and a rebellious child, there is a tension—the tension born within a child savior; no longer a baby, not yet an adult.  The Incarnate One who seeks and finds where he is called to be; One who questions and answers the teachers in the place that is at the very heart of their faith.  As scholar Michael White says, “The Temple is both the center of continuity, it’s the center of devotion, and yet it can be the center of religious controversy and apocalyptic expectation or sectarian identity.”  It is a place of monumental tradition, yet it is also a place of questioning and as we see in Jesus’ life—disruption of the status quo.  From the little we are told in this story, we can gather that Jesus not only held his own with the teachers at the Temple, but that he was a force to be reckoned with—the Sadducees and Pharisees who would likely have been mingling nearby had no idea what had just happened or what was to come.  The tables would be turned.  The time had come in Jesus’ life when he could not return to Nazareth straightaway, as he had all the years before.  So he stayed back, he went to the Temple.  

Jesus seemed to have that clear sense of where he belonged, yet from the framing of this passage it would appear he did not have all the answers.  The author of Luke tells us just before this reading, in vs. 40 and at the end of this reading in vs. 52 that Jesus grew in wisdom and strength throughout his childhood.  I take comfort in the message that even Jesus had to grow and learn; that he did not have life all figured out the moment he was laid in the manger.  Jesus went through that process of questioning, as we do, each in our own ways.

Questioning where we belong, questioning who and whose we are; pulling against the confines of family, turning over what it means to be family, to whom we are loyal.  “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house,” he proclaims to his mother and father.  Yet it was the family that Jesus was born into, the family that held him, who made it possible for him to find his way back to the Temple; to go and be on that journey of questioning.  This is not the familiar pilgrimage he had been on so many years before with Joseph and Mary, but one that would take him down a road fraught with peril; a road he chose nevertheless.  But in this risk, in this choice to follow his call and step away from the familiar, he chooses love of Something greater; a love not yet fully understood, a love that would lead to many more questions throughout his lifetime.

We each have an invitation to enter into this questioning, to step away from what is familiar, to be vulnerable, open to wherever or whatever God might be calling us.  Asking the difficult questions is in many cases the simplest and hardest form of vulnerability.  Andrew Solomon has this to say about vulnerability in his beautiful book on depression, The Noonday Demon: “To love is to be vulnerable; to reject or decry vulnerability is to refuse love.”  God incarnate could not be much more vulnerable than in the person of a Middle Eastern peasant boy, alone and questioning those considered the highest authority.  

Many of you will have heard of Malala, the Pakistani woman who began her advocacy of education for girls in the Middle East while still a girl herself.  Love seems to energize Malala.  At about the age of 12, she was shot in an attempt to silence her voice, to halt her questions about why it was that girls should not be educated just as well as boys.  Upon her recovery, knowing even more fully the nature of her vulnerability, she continued to ask the questions, raising her voice on the behalf of those with no voice.  Listening to her speak, one can hear that she is driven to action by a passion, a love for learning and justice.  And you can hear in her voice that she, too, has grown in strength and wisdom on her journey.  In a speech at the UN shortly after her recovery from the attempt on her life, she is thankful for their invitation, but sounds doubtful and questions what she could have to offer them.  About six years later, she speaks upon receiving the Nobel Peace prize and you can hear the growth in her voice.  She was still asking questions, but they were not doubtful questions, they were questions of justice.  She boldly questions those who would attempt to take her life, those who would attempt to prevent her peers from learning.

Questions may inspire us to action at times, as many in this congregation have taken action, but at other times it is more about the inner work to be done.  Wherever you find yourself on life’s journey, it is important to keep asking questions.  Jesus answered well the questions of the teachers in the Temple, yet even he continued to ask many questions throughout his life, 307 questions recorded in the gospels; far more questions he asked than he answered.  And he continued to grow in wisdom, even until the end, asking “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in her book, An Altar in the World, she says “Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right.  Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.  Wise people do not have to be certain what they believe before they act.  They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need to know.”  

We all get lost at times, as I did in that forest in SD, but if we live the questions with love, we, too, will be amazed at what can unfold.

I still like to go hiking; now I take along a compass and leave the toy walkie-talkie at home.  A few years ago, I took a trip to Owl Canyon.  It is a starkly beautiful canyon filled with hidden crevices and many trails that go deep into the earth.  As I drove out through the open field on the dirt road leading to the canyon, I imagine it would appear to the uninitiated passerby that I was lost, wandering through the dessert.  Yet I trusted that I was right where I needed to be and it was not a compass telling me where I needed to go.  As we walk toward the rim of this New Year, I will leave you with two questions:  What journeys are within you, waiting to come alive?  How can you risk love in a broken, vulnerable world in ways that allow your journeys to be born?

Traveling mercies; Amen.