The Plastic Jesus: Reshaping Christ to Match Our Expectations
When the twelve-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem while his parents headed home to Nazareth, He knew what He was doing. He knew that Mary and Joseph would assume that He was somewhere in the large crowd of family and friends who’d made the pilgrimage with them. He knew that eventually they’d realize He wasn’t in the group, and that they’d retrace their steps in search of their missing boy. That first surprise, then disbelief, then fear, then full-blown panic would attack their hearts—these things also Jesus knew. Yet, knowing full well what He was about to put Mary and Joseph through, He still stayed behind in Jerusalem. Why?
You can imagine the frantic conversations these parents had as they rushed back to Jerusalem. “Is He okay? Herod had hunted Jesus down when He was a baby; was His disappearance now somehow politically motivated? Had someone kidnapped Him, or hurt Him, or worse?” They replayed the last few days, “Where all did we go? Maybe Jesus is where we stayed, or with our friends there, or with other boys in Jerusalem?” And when they arrived back in the holy city, you can hear them asking over and over again, to everyone they knew there, “Have you seen Jesus?”; and to other boys His age, “Have you seen our son?”; and even to strangers on the street, “He’s about yay tall, with this color hair, wearing these kinds of clothes. Have you see Him? Have you seen our Jesus?”
The first day of searching would have been awful, but surely they’d find Him by sunset. The second day of searching would have been heart-wrenching, but surely…hopefully…maybe they’d find Him before dark. And the third day of searching, as hour upon hour slipped by with no results, would have been catastrophic.
Then finally, on that third day, after scouring the city, as a last ditch effort they finally decided to check the temple. And, lo and behold, there Jesus is, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions,” (Luke 2:46). It doesn’t take much imagination to detect the frustration and fear and relief and anguish all blended together in His mother’s words, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” At this point we’d expect a sheepish apology from any other boy; or, at the very least, a string of excuses. But no apologies, no excuses, fall from His lips. He who had been questioning the teachers now questions His mother, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”
Jesus had known what He was doing. He put Mary and Joseph into a situation in which they thought they’d lost Him, in which they searched for Him, but in all the wrong places. Why? In order that, when they found Him, He might disclose to them more clearly who He really is. Did you hear what Mary said? “Your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And did you hear how Jesus replied, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Yes, Jesus was the son of Mary and His foster-father Joseph, but He was far more than that. He was the true Son of the Father, born into a human family precisely in order to be about His Father’s business. Mary and Joseph needed a sharp reminder of who this twelve-year-old boy really was, of why He was born, and of what mission His Father sent Him to fulfill.
And we need that same reminder. It is all too easy, and all too common, for us to make of Jesus what we want Him to be, to worship a plastic Jesus that can be shaped into whatever image we desire. And isn’t it strange how the Jesus we end up with bears such a striking resemblance to ourselves? Our Jesus thinks as we do, acts as we act, speaks as we speak. He espouses our causes. He cheers on our races. He furthers our dreams. Rather than challenging us, our Jesus He coddles us. Rather than calling us to repentance, our Jesus calls us to revel in whatever we enjoy. If we’re white Americans, our Jesus is a white American, too. If we’re conservative Republicans, then our Jesus is too. If we’re anti-this or pro-that, then our Jesus is too. What’s really going on? Nothing more than this: we’re making Jesus into what we think He should be instead of what He really is. And what are we in need of? The same thing Mary and Joseph needed: a wake-up call, a reminder of who Jesus really is, of why He was born, and of what mission His Father sent Him to fulfill.
You must lose your false Jesus in order that you might find the real Jesus. And the real Jesus won’t be thinking and acting and speaking as you do. He won’t be where you naturally think He ought to be, doing those things you assume He should be doing. The real Jesus will be about His Father’s business.
The business of Jesus, the business of the Father, is always quite the opposite of business. There is no buying or selling, no exchange of merchandise. There is only grace-giving and grace-receiving. There is the Father, so loving the world that He was giving His Son for the life of the world, for your life. The Father’s business is giving His Son at no cost to you. He gives Him into the womb of Mary, into a world gone wrong, into the vortex of suffering and bleeding and dying that happened in a far different temple in which the altar is a cross, the priests are Roman soldiers, and the sacrifice is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He gives Jesus into the splash of water that drenches you in grace on the day you’re baptized, and floods you every day afterward with the Father’s grace-giving love. He gives Him into the temple constructed of nouns and verbs and adjectives, into the temple of His word, in which the Spirit speaks life into your worn and weary soul. The Father gives Jesus into your mouth, into the quarter-shaped piece of bread that’s stuffed with the golden grace of heaven, into the sip of wine that’s been fermenting in the veins of God.
The Father’s business is always giving the Son in order that you might always be receiving the Son, and with Him, everything the Father wants you to have. He wants you to have a clean slate, a personal history purged of every wrongdoing, no matter how big or how small—and that’s what you receive in Jesus. The Father wants you to have
wholeness, no matter how broken you are;
peace, no matter how conflicted your life;
hope, no matter how overshadowed you are by despair.
And that’s what you receive in Jesus. The Father’s business is pouring Jesus into you, until you’re overflowing with Christ, in order that you might have and be all He wants for you.
Who is Jesus, really? He is one who’s about His Father’s business—the business of making you the Father’s child by uniting you to Himself, that who He is, you also may be.
This devotion is based on the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday after Christmas from Luke 2:40-52. It is written for LINC–San Antonio, which posts weekly devotions on its website for the upcoming Sunday.
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