His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it; but supposing Him to have been in the company, they went a day’s journey, and sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances. So when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.”
And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.
Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
I’ve recently started a book club with several other men from about town, and the first book we read together was C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The Great Divorce is a fascinating but strange little book. It’s a sort of extended parable about salvation that uses the story of tourists getting to visit heaven. Most of them don’t actually like what they find there and choose to follow their sins instead. In that surprising rejection of true goodness, Lewis highlights the basic nature of sin and the internal struggle that all sinners face when coming to Christ.
One of the most powerful chapters involves a possessive mother who is unwilling to put her relationship with God before her relationship with her own son. Because of her confused understanding of love, she finds heaven offensive. She cannot imagine putting God before her family. I can’t quote the whole scene, since it’s quite long, but I’ll read you some of the most striking lines. The mother, named Pam, has just arrived in heaven and wants to see her son Michael, who died several years earlier. The first Spirit who greets her explains that she cannot see her son right away but will have to first learn more about God. This infuriates the mother who eventually says:
I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of love. No one had a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to his face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever. (103)
At one point, Pam even says that she’d rather be in Hell, if she could have her son, than to have to wait in heaven without him. This is all because she couldn’t bring herself to put her relationship with her son in second place to her relationship with God.
This rather depressing illustration highlights just how difficult it is to actually put God before your family. If asked who should come first, we would all give the correct answer. But in real life, if God actually called on us to sacrifice our relationship, then we would feel how intense, how real, such a teaching is. And we may not be able to actually obey the right answer.
This is the central point of our text today. The big idea is found in verse 49, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” What appeared to earthly observers to be a young boy perhaps neglecting or even disobeying his parents is actually a lesson in who Jesus’ real Father actually is and which family is owed the highest respect and loyalty. Jesus is telling us that He comes from a heavenly family and He must honor it before all others. By extension, we must also honor our heavenly father before we can honor our earthly fathers.
The Father’s Business
The story of Jesus in the temple shows us that, even as a child, he had observable gifts and talents. The fact that the religious teachers allowed a twelve-year old to question and answer is incredible! (vs. 46-47). It was clear to all who saw that Jesus was not just any ordinary Jewish lad.
But, of course, the major drama in this story is the fact that Jesus remains in the temple, even after Mary, Joseph, and the rest of his family have left and set out for home. This group would have been large, and so it is not really all that strange that Mary and Joseph would allow Jesus to stay away from their immediate oversight. But as soon as they notice that He’s missing, they panic. When they discover Him in the temple, they are amazed at what they see, but they also give Him a mild rebuke, “Son, why have You done this to us?” (vs. 48). Joseph and Mary explain that they have been anxious. They felt like any of us would have. They were responding like good normal parents. But Jesus does not apologize, much less repent, but instead corrects their misunderstanding. “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (vs. 49-50). This answer means two things—Joseph and Mary should have known where Jesus was and what He was doing, and they should understand that it was the right thing for Him to be doing.
Jesus places His heavenly Father before His earthly parents. In doing this, He does not disrespect or dishonor His earthly parents, though they may have mistakenly thought that at first. Rather, Jesus is teaching them an important lesson, about Himself and about the highest duty that we all have. This is a lesson He teaches in several places throughout the Bible. You might remember what Jesus says in Matthew 12:48-50:
Jesus replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
The most basic family, and the one to whom highest honor is owed, is the Spiritual family of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit who unites all believers.
A New Samuel
There’s a very important thing going on in the closing verse of Luke 2. Where it says “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (vs. 52), that is a nearly exact parallel to 1 Samuel 2:26. Why is that important? Well, it’s where Hannah has just given her son away, dedicating him to the Lord. Jesus does not have to spend his entire life away from His earthly family, as Samuel did, but, at the same time, he is destined to leave them and conduct his own ministry which will end in his death. He will be taken away from the ones who love him. And really, Jesus’ entire ministry was a kind of “donation” from God the Father, giving Jesus away for a season in order to sacrifice Him for our salvation.
In this sense, Jesus is a new Samuel, fulfilling the types set forth in the Old Testament and completing the redemptive work. It’s also worth comparing Hannah with Mary. Hannah was barren. She could not have a child. Then God blessed her with a child who she then gave back to the Lord. Mary was like this but even more so. She was more than barren. She was a virgin. And her child was not her own but rather God’s child given on loan to her for a season. She knew that He was destined for a tragic end. She had been told by Simeon, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (vs. 34-35).
Even at the beginning, she knew that she would have to give Jesus away, to be killed, in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation for us. As difficult as this must have been, and we know that Mary did have to learn it over the years, this was the sort of example that she set for us—being willing to give up a Son in order to serve the Father. After the scene in the temple she begins to realize just what this means. Luke says that she “kept all these things in her heart” (vs. 51).
The example that Mary sets for us is not just in her bearing Jesus in the womb, but also in being a proper mother to Him. She is willing to bear the child and to raise the child she knows she is going to have to give away. Mary is an example of a mother who loves her Father in heaven enough to give up her son.
Honoring Our Father First
So our central message is that we must, all of us, honor our Father in heaven first, even before our earthly father and mother. We must love our Father in heaven more than our earthly father, mother, daughter, or son. We must put Him first and everything else, even very good things, second. This is a great challenge. But it is the challenge that Jesus Himself points us to.
Jesus’ loyalty to His heavenly father took priority over His loyalty to His earthly family. This is why He stayed behind in the temple. But, it is important to also point out that Jesus did submit to His earthly parents. The text says, “He was subject to them” (vs. 51). This is a great example of voluntary submission, even on the part of One Who was naturally superior. Jesus really did “know better” than His parents, and He really did have more inherent authority than they did, but He submitted to them. He was teaching them, to be sure, but He taught them through His humility and obedience.
Now, this does not mean that the visible church gets to “trump” the family. We need to be careful to make this distinction. Even though the church is a divine institution given the ordinary means of grace and ministry of the word, it is not, for all of that, equivalent to Jesus Himself. The visible church is led by mere mortals, and sinners at that!, and it can make mistakes. It can over-schedule and be insensitive to the needs of the family. And so the church would be wrong to demand that the family always bow to it. However, the family must also be careful to not treat the church as a mere tool at its disposal, to use or not use as it sees fit. The church really is God’s instrument, and God gives the ministers of the church as spiritual gifts to build His kingdom and nurture men and women in His kingdom. As it says in Ephesians 4:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; (Eph. 4:11-13)
And so the earthly family must recognize the church for what it is, a divine institution given to them to help lead them to Christ. And the family must be willing to sacrifice of its time in order to see to it that its children are raised in the church, properly taught and nurtured by the church, and allowed to serve in the church as God calls them. There is certainly a balance of interests and time, and both church and family must work together in loving wisdom. But they must both see that their primary job is to point their members outside themselves, to God in Christ.
Parents, remember that your children are actually on loan to you. Their first Father is God, and you must honor their Father in the way that you raise them up. You must see yourself as having the privilege of raising your children and the duty of raising them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The Christian ideal is for the honoring of both fathers, the earthly and the Heavenly, to be consistent and work together. Hopefully, the same actions can and will honor both. But this can only work if you are in tune to God’s word as revealed in the Scriptures and want to see your children loving Him even more than you want to see them loving you.
It’s around this point that normal parents usually ask, “But isn’t this a great sacrifice you are asking of us? Are we really going to ‘give up’ our kids?” This is an understandable response, but the answer is “Yes, that’s exactly right.” But remember, it’s what God calls us to, and God set the example. He gave away His Son so that we might be able to once again become His sons.
And take heart. If you give your children away to God, then you can rest assured that you will get them back. Certainly, you’ll be reunited in heaven. But even in this life, if the Lord preserves you from unforeseen trial and tribulation, your relationship with your children will strengthen and flourish, as you allow them to put their love for God ahead of their love for you. As you all put God first, you will find that you don’t experience a diminished relationship with one another, but rather an enriched one. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). You won’t be disappointed.
There’s also what Jesus said about sacrifice in Luke 18:29-30. In that passage He even mentions the sacrifice of family, specifically.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
God never asks you to put anything to death without also promising to resurrect it. If we give up things in this life, we can take comfort in knowing that we will get them back and more. It will be better than it would have been otherwise. We can’t understand it fully now, but we know that by putting God first will mean the richest and fullest blessings. We will get more not less.
About now, you might be wondering whether this is really an appropriate sermon for Christmas. Shouldn’t I be spreading good cheer? Isn’t this precisely a time to extol the family? But remember what Christmas was. It was God, giving His son away. Christmas is the first step towards Good Friday, and God the Father gave His son to live on earth, to make Himself of no reputation, and take the form of a servant who suffered things that he did not have to suffer. Christmas is about God voluntarily setting the example for all parents everywhere.
Parents, love your children. Love them enough to give them to God. And as you let them love God and put Him first and be about His business, you will find that God will let them love you and bless your earthly families through Him. He will miraculously and mysteriously bless you and your children. He will let you love them in such a way that nothing is lacking. You will not be shortchanged. You will be blessed, along with your family to all eternity.
Because Christmas points to Good Friday, it also points to Easter. It points to the resurrection and new life together that we can expect after this sacrifice. So, this morning for Christmas, let’s rejoice. Let’s joyfully give those good gifts away to God, in the knowledge that they will be given back to us even. And we will be blessed through Him.
Let us pray.