First Sunday in Epiphany
Rev. Ryan Slifka
It was a couple years ago. I was at the Comox Rec Centre just after drop-in gymnastics for my kids, and I ended up chatting with one of the moms who had a two year old. I had to have that awkward conversation where someone asks me what I do, and I say “Pastor.” I don’t remember most of the conversation, asides from a couple things. I remember this person wasn’t a church person. And I remember how the conversation was somehow steered to the topic of Sunday School. “I’m glad you have that,” she said. “I’m glad you have that. Because faith is all about family.”
Faith is all about family. She said this without really going to church. This is how she understood it from the outside. And you can understand why. As a culture, especially in the church, we’ve tended to see faith and family as something that go hand in hand. For a long time Christians, in reaction to changing norms in human relationships and understandings of human sexuality would talk about, and still sometimes talk about “family values.” Think-tanks like Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council, would offer (and continue to offer) ways to raise Christian families, to shore up parental relationships. And to bind parents and children closer together. Kind of like that old phrase, “the family that prays together, stays together,” we’ve tended to believe that family and Christianity are synonymous, intertwined. That faith shores up, even serves family life. That “faith is all about family.” That they go hand-in-hand.
We tend to think of Christianity as a family-friendly faith. But if you pay attention to this week’s scripture passage, you’ll actually see the opposite.
Today’s reading focusses on Jesus. A twelve year-old Jesus. The only account we have, in fact, of Jesus between infancy and adulthood. This reading not only focusses on Jesus. It focusses on Jesus and his family as well. Mary, his mother, and Joseph—his father. The text just says father, but the Christmas story tells us that Joseph is his adoptive, step, or foster father.
In our passage, this family’s making their yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Holy City, for the season of Passover. In a nutshell, Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Hebrew people from Egypt, as described in the book of Exodus of the Old Testament. This is a significant detail because not everyone did this. Making a pilgrimage to the city would be expensive. It’d be hard work. So the fact that Jesus’ family makes it every single year shows their dedication, their devotion. Mary and Joseph are pious Jews. They take their faith seriously enough to take the time. If there’s a family that prays together, and should stay together, it’s this one.
And they may pray together. But they don’t stay together. They end up apart, at least temporarily. When the festival ends, when they’re on their way home, Joseph and Mary notice something missing. After about a day of travels, they notice someone missing—Jesus. Now, these long roads can be dangerous, rife with thieves and bandits. So before you start accusing Joseph and Mary of child neglect, keep in mind they’re traveling as a large group of friends and family. So they probably just assumed Jesus was with trusted family members as part of the big caravan. Kind of reminds me of the movie Home Alone, actually. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the appeal of unloading my children on relatives for a day. But that’s just me. At any rate, the family’s split up. And Jesus ends up lost.
But soon we discover how the family got separated. It’s not just youthful curiosity that caused Jesus to wander off. It’s not that he was kidnapped, or got lost. Something drew Jesus away, that sent him in the opposite way of family and home. Something mysterious, something deeper. Something more profound.
They retrace their steps. Back to Jerusalem, back to the Temple. And there in the Temple, thank God, is Jesus. And he’s sitting around with the Rabbis, the teachers of the faith. He’s listening, engaging them with questions. And everyone’s amazed at his understanding. And Mary gives Jesus that well-known parental mix of relief followed by scolding. “Why have you treated us like this?” she asks Jesus. “Your father and I’ve been out of our minds with worry.” You can imagine additional phrases too like, “what were you thinking?” and “don’t you ever do that again.”
But in the face of his mother’s frustration, Jesus doesn’t offer an explanation. He doesn’t offer an apology. “Why were you searching for me?” He asks, as if she should have known. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Or, as the old King James puts it, based on manuscript variations, “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business.” These are Jesus’ very first words in Luke, and chronologically in the Bible. I must be in my Father’s house, Jesus says. Or “I must be about my Father’s business.”
Needless to say, Joseph and Mary, the text says. Joseph and Mary don’t understand. For all intents and purposes, Joseph is your father, Jesus. And we’re your family. Of course, they don’t realize that when Jesus’ refers to his Father, he’s talking about God, and his unique relationship with God. He’s not saying God is male, God is somehow a man. But he’s referring to his relationship as the Messiah, the Anointed One. The one chosen by Yahweh, the God of Israel, to deliver his people from the political powers that oppress them, and the very powers of sin and death that enslave them. This relationship sets the pattern of his whole life. And it’s this relationship that draws Jesus away from Mary and Joseph and their friends and kin on the way home. Because Jesus is about his Father’s business above all else. Beginning to end.
Where we see faith and family as going hand-in-hand. Where we see Christianity, following Jesus Christ as something that undergirds, complements, even serves family life. Here we see in the case of young Jesus, faith doesn’t seem to reinforce family at all. In fact, Jesus’ faith, his relationship with God, suggests that faith may in fact family. So much for good, old fashioned family values.
We think faith’s all about family. But for Jesus, family comes in a distant second… a distant second to God. I’m not gonna lie, this is pretty challenging. Because at some point or another, our lives revolve around our families. Whether as children, where our parents hold pride of place in terms of influence and importance—no matter whether they’re good or bad. Or as parents, when we sacrifice, we put other things aside for the good of our children—for better or worse. It’s what comes natural to us.
And it’s not inherently bad. To feel the depth of love, that sort of unconditional love and loyalty for our parents or our children is to know something about loving the way God loves. But like all good things, family can be corrupted. When we put our parents at the center of our world, life becomes about pleasing them above all other things, even when pleasing them leads us away from what is right and good. When we put our children at the center of our world, they become our pet projects. Their success is our success. And when they inevitably grow apart from us, or fall short of our expectations, it can leave us deeply dissatisfied. Though it may come from a good place. It rarely leads us to one.
But Jesus shows us a different way. Jesus is driven primarily by his relationship with the one who he calls “Father.” But the relationship isn’t just vertical—between God and Jesus. For the Christian tradition, this relationship is also vertical. Jesus represents our full humanity. What it means to be who we are created to be. And we discover our full humanity, and our individual destinies when God is placed at the center of our lives. And everything else, every other relationship—including children and parents—are found revolving in that same orbit.
It means that as children—no matter our age—we can no longer measure our lives exclusively by how the please or displease our parents. Rather, our life’s purpose is as our scripture passage nicely puts it, to “grow in wisdom and in divine and human favour.” See, from the get-go, Jesus’ relationship with God took priority over everything else in his life. Over friendship, over money, over a job, over personal stability. Over his personal safety. Even in the case of something so precious as his own family, it’s his identity and his destiny as God’s beloved Son that wins out. Our end game is to become more and more like Jesus. And, like Jesus—even at an early age—to set our hearts toward God in all things. To be about our Father’s business, hearts flowing with mercy, compassion and sacrificial, self-giving love.
And it means that as parents, our children are not our pet projects. Simply because our children are not our own. Because Jesus is our brother, we are all children of the same divine parent. As parents, our vocation, our purpose is to have our lives witness to the love, power, and presence of God. Parenthood itself is our Father’s business. And that business is to, like Mary and Joseph, help our children find the answer to their spiritual hunger, to find their destiny with God at the center of all things. To discover their place. Even if it means losing our own.
Friends, faith isn’t all about family. At least not family as we normally understand it. Faith is about what we put first, about what drives us and everything we do. The promise of the gospel, the promise of our brother Jesus, is that if we seek first the kingdom, we’ll find our true identities… as children of God. And that when we’re about our Father’s business, we’ll find the life we’ve always been waiting for.
May God give each of you—each of us—the strength and wisdom to trust this promise. Parents, children. Brothers, sisters. All.