The Problem: This week, I heard in our readings themes of searching, longing, seeking. Where is God? and “How do I find God?” are the questions.
I felt like I knew Mary and Joseph personally when I thought about them losing their child in a festival, and searching for three days with such anxiety. Anyone who has had a child at an outdoor market, or a county fair, or an outdoor concert knows how easily a child can get lost. The child focuses on something interesting and quickly forgets that the parents are going another way. I remember looking for my nephew when he was about 2 at an outdoor market by a river. He had climbed out of his stroller while my sister and I looked at a stall with leatherwork. When we turned around he had totally disappeared. There was a river, and after we had run up and down the aisles, we turned to the river, petrified that he might have fallen in. But we found him just standing next to the water, watching a flock of big geese. Those minutes of anxiety were so palpable. What if we couldn’t find him, what if something had happened to him? It happened 16 years ago, but I remember the feeling like it just happened. When we found him, we were overwhelmed with relief, with love for him. We were full of admonitions, telling him how much he had frightened us. But he was just a little one and could only point at the geese and try to show us that he was right where he wanted to be.
I think that there are times in our lives when we are looking for God with that same anxiety, that same intensity. We get frantic turning this way or that to try and find God in our lives. I know people who claim that they have no use for God, or that they are sure that God doesn’t exist. But those people who are not looking for God’s presence by that name, are often seeking meaning, like all of us trying to make sense of their lives, trying to be good people, do the right thing. When we find ourselves asking, what’s the right way? Why does this happen to me? What should I do about this? Sometimes our questions are about other people—why is my relationship with this person difficult or broken? Why did this person hurt me? What motivates this person’s way of being with me? Whatever name we use for these questions, I would say that they are prayers—seeking God, looking for God’s guidance or intervention. We become so anxious when we don’t have the answers. We turn this way and that hoping that around the next corner, we might find truth, direction—God. We become like Mary and Joseph, distraught anxious searchers—looking among fellow travelers, family and friends—turning back, retracing our steps, trying to imagine where he might be.
The Answer to Where is God?
Jesus responds to his parents’ anxiety, their frantic searching, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?”
Jesus was right where his parents should have expected him. But maybe like us, they didn’t know that they were looking for God. They thought they were looking for their twelve year old. I can see Jesus so clearly, saying, “Look mom, it was so obvious where I would be.” But his parents were absorbed by their own anxieties that they did not recognize Jesus’ rightful place, the temple, the dwelling place of his Father. Maybe his parents were looking with their human eyes, and their vision was obscured by their human needs. Jesus suggests that they were looking in the wrong way, in the wrong place. They should not have left Jerusalem, they should have looked right where they were.
The Answer to: How do I find God?
1) look with the eyes of the heart enlightened
Paul in his letter to the Ephesians has a beautiful way of addressing this problem. Paul prays for the Ephesians, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of. your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you. . . “ Paul is giving the Ephesians advice about how to see clearly. Paul is writing this letter to encourage the Ephesians to build up their faith. He is encouraging them to know God. What does it mean to know God with the “eyes of your heart enlightened?” I hear in this poetic expression the opportunity to know something that we cannot see with our eyes or rational brains. But it is not just a feeling that we’re after, but rather a practical truth. Paul is encouraging his hearers to ask, “What is the hope that God has for us?” With that question in mind, we can discern our right path, the answers to our other questions. In that moment of frantic searching, we can shift the question from “what should I do?” to “what does God hope for me?”. We can shift from “why did this happen?“—which is a question about worldly motivations for past events, to “who does God hope we will be?”
Paul wants the Ephesians to grow in faith. We want to grow in faith. But our readings today remind us that this type of growth is different than other human exercises. Maybe for your New Year’s resolution, you promised to exercise your body more. Or maybe you resolved to be more patient with a friend, or to do a better job of keeping a clean house. These are human exercises that take human willpower. They are tasks that require that we overcome our desires. To grow in faith is not something that requires this same kind of striving, working, or taming of our natures. Growing in faith, is not something we work at, like we work at other things. Instead of setting our minds to this task, we must open our hearts to this task.
2) God is gathering us up.
Coming home is answering a call rather than striking out and looking somewhere new. It is God’s work (and our response), not our human work.
Our passages today suggest that the search for God brings us to a dwelling place. When we think of a dwelling place, I think of a home, a state of rest and security in God. Instead of running to a new location, we are encouraged to rest with God in God’s home. Jesus tells his parents, “I must be in my Father’s house”. The psalmist calls this place the “courts of the Lord”. Even the birds, the sparrow and the swallow, find their dwelling at the side of the altar of the Lord. Coming into God’s dwelling place, is a settling into trust in God. Instead of searching for a new place, a new program, a new exercise—we are encouraged to come into God’s house.
Now I have an opportunity to say that these passages suggest that the Bible is encouraging people to come to Church of the Nativity more—and certainly, we’d love to see you every Sunday. But I think that these passages are not about a physical place—the temple or the side of the altar. I think that these passages are about a way of being with God’s people, God’s family. Coming into God’s dwelling place is about know God’s comfort, God’s care love. Jesus reminds his parents that he is in his Father’s house. He’s not suggesting that he is leaving Mary and Joseph to be with the priests in the temple. He is speaking of God the Father, and he must be with him. When Mary and Joseph leave, Jesus goes with them, obeying them and living as any child should, following their guidance. But his home is not just an earthly place, it is a way of being with God.
Our Hebrew Bible reading shifts us from thinking about what we must do or where we must go to find God, to thinking about what God is doing. God is gathering up God’s people. Instead of running around to find God, we can trust that God is finding us, bringing us together, building us up and showing us God’s way. God is calling us to God’s home. Jesus was right where he was supposed to be. It was his parents who got lost, not Jesus.
What if we listen for God’s call. Instead of anxiously searching, we might instead just listen for that call to come home.
Discernment is a shift from worrying and searching to listening, opening ourselves up to God’s will in our lives, and recognizing that dwelling place, that home where we belong with God.
Now this prescription is no easier for us than it was for Mary and Joseph. But if, like Mary, we are prepared to treasure these mysteries in our hearts, we will grow in faith and wisdom. We know when we are coming close to home, we know when we are responding to God’s call. The signs are the signs of contentment—true bounty. Like the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, there will be rejoicing, dancing. We’ll that we have found God’s dwelling place when we can truly feel the bounty of God’s grace to us. Our anxieties will fall away and we will focus on God’s hope for us, not our human need for explanations, reasons or directions.
In this season of Christmas we are looking for Christ in our midst, but instead of anxiously searching, we are invited to take in Christ’s presence—already born in the world, a hope that is bigger than our human desires, a hope fulfilled in Jesus Christ who came to redeem us, died for us and was resurrected, so that all of us would have new life in God. The dwelling place has already been prepared. We are being called home to God.