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Vicar Noah Herren

First Sunday of Christmas

December 29/30, 2018


Our Missing Piece


My dad’s favorite singer-songwriter is John Prine, so my siblings and I grew up listening to LOTS of his humorous folk-country songs. The album I remember most was called The Missing Years in which Prine fantastically imagines what Jesus might have gotten into during his adolescence and young adulthood.

One song starts out, “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.”

These lyrics may make us laugh, but they also point to our burning desire to know more about the historical Jesus. There have been many attempts over the years to fill the gap in the story between Jesus’ teaching in the temple at age12…and the beginning of his public ministry at age 30. It’s no wonder there is such curiosity surrounding these missing years, as this account in Luke is the only real glimpse of Jesus’ boyhood in the bible.

For the youth and young adults in our churches today, it may be hard to answer the once popular question, ”What would Jesus do?” when there is little information about what Jesus actually did at that age.

There are some things we can surmise about Jesus during this time. He lived and grew up in Nazareth (not West Bethlehem). He probably went to school at the synagogue, studied the Torah, and practiced his Jewish faith with his family. He was a woodworker like Joseph, which would place him at the lower end of the peasant class. But all of these facts don’t tell us who Jesus really was, his essence.

So, what are we missing? We long to emulate Jesus, but it feels like we lack an important part of the story.

Mary had to be terrified, as any parent would who had lost their child for three days in a wildly crowded city. Since it’s Christmas time, we might imagine this like the plot of the Home Alone movies where little Kevin MacAllister is forgotten by his parents amid the chaos and confusion of family Christmas.

But Jesus isn’t left behind by distracted parents, he deliberately stays behind at the temple, and later tells his mother that it is necessary that he should be in God’s house. Luke is a careful writer, and we will remember this moment during the season of Lent when Jesus is back in the temple, teaching again during the festival of the Passover…this time with much more authority. Mary will lose him again for three days and regain him in a new and momentous way. This faithful servant of the LORD will continue to be surprised and experience wonder at the way in which God uses her son.

“Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I’d be here?”

Mary and Joseph find Jesus, but they miss the point. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying about who he is. Twelve years from all the angels and annunciations of Advent has created some distance and amnesia from the known fact that this was no ordinary boy. Although Jesus may come across as a snarky pre-teen here, we see that he knows exactly who he is and what he is called to do…even if his parents have momentarily forgotten.

This scene in the temple underscores Jesus’ humanness, as a boy whose decisions have real implications for those around him, but it also secures his divinity, in that he follows God’s call and astonishes and amazes with his teaching. In the hymn In the Bleak Midwinter we sing, “Heaven cannot hold him nor earth sustain,” because in Jesus, for the first time, the great gap between God and humanity is bridged. Jesus is uniquely divine and human, holding the place as our missing piece.

“It was missing a piece.

And it was not happy.

So it set off in search

of its missing piece.

And as it rolled

it sang this song—

‘Oh I'm lookin' for my missin' piece

I'm lookin' for my missin' piece

Hi-dee-ho, here I go,

Lookin' for my missin' piece.’”

This is the introduction to Shel Silverstein’s children's book, The Missing Piece. The main character is a circle missing a pie-slice shape. As it rolls along on its adventure, it encounters friends, smells flowers, and enjoys life. It tries on several mismatched pieces until it finds its perfect match, the missing piece. But…in its completion, it rolls quickly past friends and flowers and “now that it was complete it could not sing at all.” Finally, it gently lays down the missing piece and continues on its way, contently singing its song.

This simple story illustrates a complex truth: our human lives are marked by longing and feeling incomplete. Even if/when we find that thing which we think will make us whole, we still are not completely who we were meant to be. We are still missing something.

Maybe its a good thing that there is mystery surrounding Jesus’ missing years. If this narrative were more fully developed, I can imagine didactic Christian living books with titles like, “How to Raise Your Child to Be Like Jesus.” What we do know about Jesus is that he always shows up in the least expected places: born in a lowly manger, in the temple instead of the caravan with his family, at the table with poor sinners instead of banquets with the wealthy, on the cross instead of robed as a high priest. 

We don’t find Jesus in a clean, distant storyline, but we find him in the realities of everyday life, hidden but ever present in friends and flowers, in chaos and confusion, in suffering and longing.  

As we gather at the table, we join in amazement in that he whom we have been waiting for has arrived, and we catch a glimpse of our completion in Christ. Amen.