Every day in America 2,300 people are reported missing! You heard it right: 2,300 are reported missing every day.
Some are displaced by hurricanes and others are abducted by a distraught parent. An old man, his mind long gone, simply walks away, and teenagers, tired of abuse and chaos at home, they flee for what they suppose will be a fresh start. Some people fake their death, and others are taken with criminal intent. There is a military category: missing in action. Amelia Earhart may be the most famous missing person in American history.
But one spring day many years ago Joseph turned to Mary and said, "Where is Jesus?" That set in motion, not a tragedy, but a teachable moment into the mystery of God's dealing with the mind and imagination of kids.
Jesus was 12 years old when it happened, a pivotal year for kids. No more childhood. Hello, adolescent! Time for bar mitzvah and confirmation classes, leaving behind elementary school, launching into middle school.
"What are you going to be when you grow up?" You ask a twelve-year-old and what do you hear? A singer. I want to be a farmer. One public school teacher said to me, "I teach in the west end of Louisville and all of my boys want to play professional ball. My friend Rick Stewart said recently, "Audrey wants to be either a zoo keeper or the president of the United States. But she is only 8."
So we shrug it off with a smile.
But some 12-year-olds are already thinking seriously about their future. Steve Jobs, for instance, wrote about his early fascination with computers. "I was 13 years old," he says in his end-of-life autobiography, "and already knew what I wanted to do." He did it, and the whole world is glad.
What about you? Did you know at age 12 or 13 what you would do with your life?
After the festival, the text tells us, his parents headed home, down that well worn road to the Jordan valley. Jesus, however, stayed behind in Jerusalem.
Years later he told a story that began this way, "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves." He told it that way because he was familiar with that road, that Roman road that headed east out of Jerusalem, crossed the Kidron Valley, went over the Mount of Olives, around the village of Bethany, and along the south side of that ravine that we call Wadi Qelt. At the edge of that stone road was the aqueduct that, to this day, carries water from the hill country down into the Jordan Valley. It still runs strong, a foot deep and is a welcome respite from the dry desert air.
That day this road was crowded with thousands of pilgrims heading home after the holidays. They were on their way to the Jordan Valley, or Galilee, or even further: Syria or Persia, perhaps. Friends and family, all of them Jews, traveling, talking, singing, eating, laughing.
For them it was a religious obligation: not a burdensome one, but a delightful interruption of the rough and rugged routine of regular life. "How delightful is your dwelling place, O Lord." That is one of the songs they sang.
Then the question: "Where is Jesus?"
All of a sudden, the joyful journey home becomes a frantic search for a young son.
Where is Jesus?
Maybe he stayed in Jerusalem. Maybe he started the journey home but turned back? Maybe when he saw his parents packing up and heading out, he hid somewhere or snuck out or darted away when he got the chance.
I did that once, my first day of school. I was six and decided quickly I did not like school. So I skipped out at recess and went home. My mom gave me ice cream and took me back to school. At lunch I went home again. This time my dad gave me a whipping and took me back. I learned my lesson for sure. At the next recess I slipped away from school but...did not go straight home. I hid in the bushes. Boy, did that set off a frantic search. I watched from my hiding place as the police cars drove up and down the street looking for the little boy who was not where he was supposed to be.
I was six; my motive was simple. I didn't like school.
Jesus was 12 and his motive more honorable than mine. He had a deep stirring in his soul, a curiosity for significant things. Jesus had a calling from God that was, even at age 12, a powerful pull on his imagination.
So Joseph and Mary: a day's walk back into Jerusalem, a search through the city until they found him--in the temple, at church we would say, in Sunday School, in the pastor's study in deep conversation with the ministers. Do 12-year-old kids ever display this kind of curiosity, this kind of intensity, this passion?
A university student said to me recently, "When I was a kid, I gathered my stuffed animals, lined them up, and preached to them." That's not quite the same as Jesus talking in the temple with the scholars, but it does mean something, doesn't it?
What does it mean for Jesus? How much did he know? What did he sense in his soul? Did something happen on that trip to Jerusalem? Did he hear something he had not heard before? Did he meet somebody that captured his attention? Did he read something, pray something, feel something, remember something, that triggered in him a vision of his future?
The story doesn't say, but it does say this: Mary pondered these things. Perhaps it was as much a mystery to her as to us.
I will tell you what she did not say: "Jesus, you're too smart to be a rabbi. You can't make a living as a prophet. How about starting a construction business with your dad?"
That's what too many parents today say to kids when they come home talking about ministry, seminary and church and preaching.
More than one student of mine at Georgetown College felt this pressure from parents, even Christian parents. God was calling them to a life of service, but their parents were pushing them to a life of success. Some of these God-called kids run into resistance from their ministers: tired, burned out, struggling to save a church or build a retirement, the pastors and preachers hear passion-filled testimonies and shake their heads. "Why does he want to do that?" they mutter to themselves.
Jesus didn't have that problem. He had other problems, then and later, some chronicled in the gospel accounts. What he did have, though, was a spiritual compass that pointed away from farming and building and writing or trading.
I am not surprised that Jesus had a sense of his own destiny at the age of 12.
Did he know about baptism? I don't think so.
Did he know about disciples? No evidence of that.
Did he know about transfiguration and triumphal entry and the trauma of crucifixion? No, just like young aspiring teachers do not know about tenure and burnout, and young athletes do not know about steroids and stress fractures, and farmer boys do not know about deductions and subsidies.
I didn't know about ordination and heresy and organizational communication when I first began to sense my direction in life. I was a young teenager. But I knew about Jesus and I felt a passion deep within my spirit; I was ready to forsake all and follow Jesus...right into the pulpit, even if that pulpit was a rock on a hillside or, as some today learn, a microphone in a big closet.
God speaks to the soul, at age 13 and at age 63. God stirs us to do something, go somewhere, serve somebody, preach news to people for whom it is good and glorious and God-sent.
What do you say when a teenager confides to you, "I want to be a preacher"?
There was a time when the minister was held in high esteem. He--and in those days it was always a he--was one of the few educated persons in the community: the teacher, the doctor, the lawyer/judge, the minister; these were the professions.
I wonder if Mary and Joseph thought this way about Jesus. The rabbi, then and now, is a position of high honor is Judaism. It has retained more of its social clout than the Christian minister or priest. Did Mary and Joseph envision Jesus as one of the esteemed rabbis of Galilee, perhaps a leader of the party of the Pharisees, perhaps even making it all the way to the temple hierarchy, exercising influence over the political and cultural life of the Jewish people?
But times have changed for us. Other professions have surpassed the preacher: educator, scientist, journalist, programmer, film director, professional athlete, entrepreneur. The minister is more a missionary in his home country. She must fight public opinion as well as spiritual lethargy. Gospel work is not an easy life.
Mary and Joseph found Jesus at the center of religious life in Jerusalem--in the temple. He was listening, the text says, and then it says: they were astounded at his answers. Jesus both listened and spoke. He was a genius. He was brilliant. Even on a human level, he was destined for greatness.
Can Jesus be a role model for young people seeking their way in the world?
Can Jesus be an inspiration today for teenagers longing to hear the voice of God?
When we find young people, even 12-year-old kids, who are smart, talented, love Jesus and want to make a difference in the world, can we say to them: "Perhaps God wants you to be a preacher like Jesus." Perhaps God is calling you like he called and anointed Jesus: An interpreter of the word of God, a teller of stories, a rebuker of the political and religious establishment, a caregiver of souls, a healer of diseases, a leader of people, one who stands and delivers a word for our time, who calls us all to abandon lives of selfish gain, who issues to us a challenge to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
My son is an artist. But his career, his vocation, his passion emerged almost accidentally. We lived in Pittsburgh when he was growing up. Sixty-five miles southeast of that great city is a state park with the name Ohiopyle. And in that park is one of the most famous buildings in America. It is called Falling Water. A wealthy businessman from Pittsburgh commissioned the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house to sit in his favorite spot on the mountainside. Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned the house sitting square on top of a water fall. The house and its situation were arresting and impressive from the very beginning; but when we visited the site about 1985, my 10-year-old son was impressed: visibly, verbally, vocationally. "You mean," he asked me, "you can become famous just by drawing a house?" It was another decade before his own talent arrived and found lodging in his hands and eyes. But it was there, in the mountains southwest of Pittsburgh that seeds were planted for the harvest that has come.
Not everybody knows at age 10 or 12 or 14 where the road ahead will lead. Not even Jesus knew all that we know now about his life, about his death and resurrection. But he was one man who went on his own way, followed his own sense of direction, and marched to the beat of his own drummer. He was full of the Holy Spirit, they said then, and we say now.
Young people today hear that ancient question, "Who will go for us?"
It speaks to them. It reaches into their souls. That question reorients their life, their loves, their longing.
And when they kneel before the almighty and everlasting God and say, "Here am I; send me," let us go before them to prepare the way, let us stretch our hand above them and give them our blessing, let us kneel with them and pray that God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, will protect and prosper them as they declare the unsearchable riches of the man who stayed behind in Jerusalem to pursue the calling that God had placed upon his life.
Where is Jesus? Right where God wanted him to be, and I hope you are as well. Amen.