Jesus, The Missing Years

I preached this sermon, JESUS, THE MISSING YEARS, on Luke 2:22-40, at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southern Pines, NC on February 3, 2013.  

Jesus…. the missing years[1]

That’s how singer/songwriter John Prine starts his song by the same name.

He tries to fill in the blanks of what happened with Jesus between his miraculous birth in Bethlehem and his violent death in Jerusalem.

Photo by Dave Brenner

Prine isn’t alone in wanting to fill in the blanks about the things we don’t know when it comes to Jesus’ life.  From the 2nd and 3rd century writers of texts we call today extra-canonical gospels (because they are not a part of the biblical witness) like the Gospel of Thomas, and the Protevangelium of James to the gospel writers of our biblical texts we get bits and pieces of lore about the boy Jesus.

About Jesus’ the missing years.  Listen to a bit of Prine’s version of these missing years:

It was raining. it was cold

West Bethlehem was no place for a twelve year old

So he packed his bags and he headed out

To find out what the world’s about

He went to France. He went to Spain

He found love. He found pain.

He found stores so he started to shop

But he had no money so he got in trouble with a cop

Kids in trouble with the cops

From Israel didn’t have no home

So he cut his hair and moved to Rome

It was there he met his Irish bride

And they rented a flat on the lower east side of Rome…

Italy that is

Luke isn’t that different than John Prine really.  John Prine is a good storyteller—and he likes the artistic flourish.  Luke did, too, and he wanted Jesus’ identity to satisfy some basic cultural requirements.  So, he focused on a few pivotal aspects of his religious context to create his narrative framework of who Jesus was.

Luke wanted it to be clear that the conditions were in place for Jesus to be uniquely and positively Messianic.  Luke wants to convey to the reader that Jesus was the real deal.  And the first step to creating those conditions for Luke was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and Law.

Our passage today has Mary and Joseph doing what good Jewish parents did—present their first born son for purification in the proper time after his birth, circumcision, and naming.

Mary and Joseph were dotting all their I’s and crossing all their T’s.  And in Luke’s narrative framework everything is falling into place, as it needs to, as it should be for Jesus’ identity as Messiah to be clear.

Luke has Jesus’ identity confirmed by witnesses who testify to Jesus’ identity in this passage—Simeon and Anna.

Luke’s is the only gospel to have this account of the purification and Simeon and Anna’s recognition.  Luke is also the only one of the biblical Gospels to have the account the account of the 12-year old Jesus precociously teaching the teachers in the synagogue in verse 41 of chapter 2.

To fill in the blanks between the blessing Jesus received as an infant and the twelve-year old Jesus who taught the teachers in the Temple, Luke says, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”  And similarly after his time in the Temple at twelve Luke fills in the time between that Jesus’ adult ministry with “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

Everything was as it should be, everything was falling into place.

John Prine has some other ideas than this neat and tidy tale of a good Jewish growing up highly favored:

Wine was flowing so were beers

So Jesus found his missing years

So he went to a dance and said “this don’t move me”

He hiked up his pants and he went to a movie

On his thirteenth birthday he saw “rebel without a cause”

He went straight on home and invented Santa Clause

Who gave him a gift and he responded in kind

He gave the gift of love and went out of his mind

You see him and the wife wasn’t getting along

So he took out his guitar and he wrote a song

Called “the dove of love fell off the perch”

But he couldn’t get divorced in the Catholic Church

At least not back then anyhow

Maybe, just maybe, everything didn’t go according to plan in Jesus’ life—or at least according to the hopes and dreams of a mother and father who had high hopes for him—He was the miracle son, the one who came as a surprise, born in mysterious and even mystical circumstances,  the one named by angels and recognized by faithful ones, the one who seemed to be who the whole world had been waiting for.

Jesus’ missing years are not given to us in a seamless narrative.  Instead we are left to wonder, what could it have been like to raise a Messiah-in-training, to nurture and set boundaries for the Prince of Peace.

Some of the extracanonical Gospels have Jesus struggling with his power, struggling to sort out his identity.  Some tell of Mary and Joseph stressed out by Jesus’ behavior—he may have even been a behavior problem.  Jesus, the problem child, the high maintenance child, the child with special needs?

The “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” has a taste of all these possibilities:

  • Jesus turns clay into sparrows on the Sabbath .  When someone tells on him for making clay into birds on the Sabbath and Joseph scolded him for this breach of Sabbath practice, Jesus clapped his hand and the sparrow flew away chirping.
  • Jesus getting mad at other kids and cursing them, some would even die on the spot and boy Jesus would bring them back to life
  • Some other parents getting together to tell Joseph and Mary that they need to teach him to bless instead of curse or he can’t live in the village.
  • Kids on the roof playing, kid falls, other kids run, Jesus gets blamed, Jesus brings the child back to life so that he can tell the parents it wasn’t Jesus that did it.

These stories may sound ridiculous to us today—in our time Jesus has been plenty sanitized by many.  We picture him as the serene hippie/guru type who made friends and changed lives everywhere he went like Jesus Christ Super Star.   Or maybe he’s the buff, muscle bound man’s man who challenged the powerful and took the bullet for the rest of us like in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ.

In the last few decades there has been a strong movement among some Jesus scholars to find the historical Jesus, to distill what we can really “know” historically about Jesus—to whittle away the superstition, the legend, and get to the “real Jesus.”

I wonder what this means—getting to the “real Jesus.”  What is at stake for us as church in this quest—and where do we, the faithful, the followers of this Jesus find ourselves in and among these questions and these constructions of the one we call Savior, Messiah, Son of God, even God.

I, like Luke Timothy Johnson[2], a biblical scholar and one of my professors at Emory, want to say that the “real Jesus” is not simply a historical figure, in the past, but a very present person—a person whose presence defines our faith today through his presence. [3]

Those extra-canonical Gospel writers struggled with the same questions that call to us in what some call our “post-Christian” era.  Who was Jesus?  Or more importantly who is Jesus, today, now, for me and for you?

We, his followers, what do we know of Him?  How has he changed us?  Do we have the eyes to see him when he’s in our midst?

I wonder sometimes, if Jesus has gotten lost in the shuffle somewhere along the way in the church politics, in institutional attempts to make him palatable, in intellectual tendencies to make him respectable, rational, socially acceptable.  Sometimes I wonder if the church took Jesus away—if he’s gone missing among us because he became a hindrance to the more moderated and orderly ways we like to do church.

Jesus, the Missing Years—his, or ours?  Has Jesus gone missing in the church?  Has Jesus gone missing in your life?  In mine?  Can we see traces that he’s been here, that he knows you, that you know him?

John Prine’s song goes on:

When [Jesus] woke up he was seventeen

The world was angry. The world was mean….

So he grew his hair long and threw away his comb

And headed back to Jerusalem to find mom, dad and home

But when he got there the cupboard was bare

Except for an old (black) man with a fishing rod

He said, “Whatcha gonna be when you grow up? ”

Jesus said “God”

Brothers and Sisters, this one who we know so little about, this one who calls to us and gives our faith a name—Is this one truly God with us?  Do we have the courage, the vision to see him, to believe that this is true?

Can we profess what is compelling to us about this Jesus?  Can we tell the story, our story, your story, my story?  And if we can then how can we expect others to see him for who he truly was, for who he truly is if his own followers have lost track of him somewhere along the way.

John Prine’s song goes on:

Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?

I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood

They’re gonna kill me mama…

Jesus calls us toward Jerusalem—speaking truth to power along the way, hearing hard truths along the way, and cultivating hope, vision, connection, compassion along the way.

Jesus created profound connections in this brutal world—enough to spawn a movement of followers who still need his love and can feel his love all these centuries later.

Jesus is asking us to live a life that matters, not a life that works perfectly or fulfills all the requirements of our world institutions.  Jesus is asking us to risk ourselves, to risk the things we hold dear to follow him.

The missing years could be our own—the ones we spent trying to conform, to please, to accommodate.  Today’s world needs Jesus more than ever.  Abuses of power are rampant and people are struggling to trust each other, to heal from pain, to take care of the world around us and to be loved the way we each deserve to be loved.  In this world of violence, in this world where justice doesn’t roll down like waters, but often stagnates at the feet of those who the injustices benefits—this a world that needs the Jesus who can change things, the Jesus who can see right through us and call us toward who we were made to be.

Prine sings on:

So Jesus went to heaven and he went there awful quick

All them people killed him and he wasn’t even sick

So come and gather around me my contemporary peers

And I’ll tell you all the story of

Jesus…the missing years

My story of Jesus is simple—he was there for me when no one else was—in the missing years of my own life—for me it started when I was 15 and went on into my young adulthood.  Those years are missing because I was afraid—afraid of anyone finding out that I have been sexually assaulted by a boy I was dating, afraid of anyone seeing him push me down during lunch at school, pull a knife on me after track practice, or chase me down the roads of my small Kentucky town in his car.  I was so afraid of people seeing what was really going on in my life—that things were not going according to plan, that I was broken, that I was ashamed, and uncertain that things could ever be made right.

My story of Jesus is simple, brothers and sisters, he was there, right there, holding me in the dark, a witness to the truth, a lifeline to keep me from giving up, from disappearing like I wanted to some days.  Jesus was there in my missing years—and I have him to thank for being found.

You have a story, too, a testimony the brings the real Jesus into our midst—alive and well, a living, breathing Savior who will not let us go.

And may all of His followers say, like Simeon, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2: 30-31, NRSV).

Thanks be to God.

[1]  John Prine’s song “Jesus, This Missing Years” was released on his “The Missing Years” album in 1991.  The lyrics used in this sermon are displayed in red.

[2] See Luke Timothy Johnson’s book, The Real Jesus:  The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, (Harper Collins, 1996) for his thorough review of the historical Jesus dynamic of contemporary scholarship.

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