“The Return Department”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
December 30, 2018
41Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.
42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.
43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.
44Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.
45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
50But they did not understand what he said to them.
51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
Is it just me or does it seem that returning things after Christmas seems easier these days? One of the things I have noticed and like about the more digital age we live in is that “returns” seem to be easier than ever, especially if you order something online. I can remember the post-Christmas horror of having to return items to some store and wait in line and then deal with hassles over having receipts or not. Talk about killing the Christmas Spirit before the New Year even gets here! This morning I want to talk about the “Return Department,” but not Amazon’s or Ebay or even JCPenney. I want to talk about God’s “Return Department.”
There are a lot of “returns” in God’s story. In this Scripture this morning we jump from the first Christmas, the birth of Jesus, to Jesus at age 12. This would be the age at which generally a Jewish boy would go through his bar mitzvah, the religious ceremony that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood in Jesus’ faith. Luke tells us it was the family’s tradition to “return” to Jerusalem for the Passover each year. When the holy days had ended Luke says they packed up began to “return” home to Nazareth. Not only had they returned to Jerusalem for the holy season of Passover, Luke reports they had already returned to Jerusalem to have the child Jesus “presented” to God, for the Jewish law required that all first-born sons were to be considered “holy” to God and an offering had to be made of turtledoves or pigeons. Luke tells the story of the Holy Family encountering Simeon and Anna at this time who prophesy about Jesus’ destiny as the Holy One of God. As with the annual visits to Jerusalem for Passover Joseph and Mary “return” home to Nazareth after that first visit.
Now Luke tells a story that probably shocks all good parents everywhere of this annual visit to Jerusalem for Passover in Jesus’ twelfth year. Evidently it was a pretty big group from Nazareth that year. They traveled together for safety, as the roads were often a place where robbers and road pirates waited to attack travelers. And evidently Joseph and Mary were not “helicopter” parents hovering over Jesus every moment. Luke tells us that at the end of the visit Mary and Joseph assume Jesus is in the caravan of travelers with them, but don’t check and a day later on the return to Nazareth they discover he is not with them. Then they return to Jerusalem again to find him, and in a nod to the resurrection promise that “after three days he will rise again,” it is three days of searching before Mom and Dad find young Jesus hanging out with the rabbis and teachers and learning, but also giving answers that astonished the wise professors of the law with their depth and accuracy. Jesus is the model student of the Torah. His answer to his mother when she scolds him for not being with them certainly sounds like a lot of teenagers – or almost teenagers – speaking to their parents with a bit of an attitude doesn’t it? Speaking of “returns” how many of us would like to return to being teenagers again? Or having our own children return to us at that wonderful time of life we call “teenagers?” What? No one?
If you could return to any other particular time in your life would you? Maybe you would return to Christmas, just passed. Maybe you would return to a specific day or a particularly great year? When was it again they said were the “best years of our lives?” Or maybe it would be a “where” would you return to? A favorite home, a favorite city, a favorite vacation spot? Some folks might wish they could “return” to someone, to a particular person – perhaps a loved one who has died. The truth is that despite all the apparent options, “returning” to the past in terms of time, place, or people is really just a fantasy, a daydream. So what’s my point in bringing up this whole business of “returning,” of making that the emphasis of this first Sunday after another Christmas in the past, that we can’t return to?
God does have a “return department.” It is a standing invitation God offers to us to return to God, if we have wandered away. God invites not to return to a childhood faith that doesn’t know doubt or struggle or fear. God invites us to return with all of that baggage. Like Mary and Joseph traveling with a caravan too full of people and stuff, we too travel with a lot of baggage made up of people and stuff we may have struggled with, failed with, found to be doubtful in value or in truth. But God invites us to return, baggage filled with old, dirty laundry or not. God welcomes returns.
If we go to God to return we may find that God can exchange a lot of those unwanted items. Oh, God probably isn’t going to exchange that 2-sizes-too-small sweater for stacks of hundred-dollar bills. And God isn’t going to exchange foolish childhood dreams that have been shattered for more foolish adult dreams. But God can exchange a lot of bad baggage if we show up at God’s “return department.”
God can exchange broken hearts and lives for healing and hope. God can exchange wrong-sized dreams and wrong-colored attitudes for new visions and new understandings. We can return to God when our faith doesn’t fit and find God gives new faith and when people and things we trusted turn out to be poor choices for our lives we can return to God and find one who is trustworthy in all things and faithful in all things. When we are feeling as if we are unloved and unlovable we can return to God and find One who loves us more than life itself, who will never stop loving us even at the end of our lives, and whose love not only gave us life, but gives us life everlasting in the presence of the One who loves us with an undying love.
I don’t know how many of you returned home during the holidays to the embrace of someone who loved you so much it practically or actually brought a tear to your eye. I don’t know how many of you had someone return home to you to an embrace from you that maybe brought more than a tear to your eye. If you did, or if you ever have, then maybe you have a glimpse, a tiny notion, just how much God welcomes our return when the holiday didn’t turn out quite right, or the year or the life to date hasn’t turned out quite like we hoped. God welcomes our return.
Let’s be honest though. Many times trying to return to something or someone from long ago often doesn’t work out. We go home to parents that don’t seem to be so welcoming or to a place that we loved and everything has changed. At the human level we may often find our expectations unmet. Whether we were hoping things had changed or hoping things hadn’t sometimes those hopes fail us. So it can be hard to believe that God is different. It can be hard to believe that God welcomes us, doesn’t manipulate us or control us, always forgives us.
We live in a rather unforgiving time. Most folks don’t give others a second chance. Someone says or does something wrong and we mentally charge them, try them, convict them, and sentence them with no appeal possible. I don’t know if that is truer now than a hundred years ago, or in that time when Jesus, Joseph and Mary returned to Jerusalem on an annual basis. It is interesting that Luke picks up on this and the importance of Passover to a faithful family like the one Jesus grew up in. The original Passover was in essence the beginning of the Hebrew people returning to the Promised Land after exile and slavery in Egypt for generations. The holy days of Passover were a time to recall God’s faithfulness to God’s people in the wake of their suffering and struggle in slavery. Passover was an annual reminder that God wanted God’s people to return to a place and a time of blessing. It was the reliving of a sacred story of God’s love for God’s people and God’s intention to give them a hope and a future. Maybe in a very real sense that is the best gift Christmas can give us.
Maybe whatever else Christmas is or does it reminds us, it returns us to a sacred story of God’s love for us. It reminds us we can return each year to this story of God’s love for us embodied in the birth of a child we believe is God’s own son. And it returns us to the faith that this child, God’s son, was and is the Savior of the world. And we can remember that, like Mary and Joseph, we can always “return” to him and to his love and find that we can start again. There may be no other part of life that allows us to do this. But there is certainly a longing in all of us at times to return to some previous time, whether it is childhood, early adulthood, or return to a geographical place that holds special meaning. And as we come to a new year the promise of Christmas is that, even as it returns to us each year, so we can return to the love of God at any time and find God welcomes us.
So, whether that sweater is just too tight, too large, or just to “sweater-y” and you feel like you can’t return it, remember this: God’s return department is always open, and the acceptance is certain, the grace, mercy, and renewal are eternal. You and I are always welcome at God’s return department. AMEN.