SESSION 1: MISSING JESUS
Luke 2:41-52 and Matthew 14:22-33
Below is the Individual Study Guide for Session 1 of Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus, a new 8-session video series and digital curriculum resource from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Learn more at http://www.cbf.net/eyesofjesus.
By Paul Baxley, CBF Executive Coordinator
At the heart of this text from Luke 2:41-52 is a terrifying reality. Jesus is missing. At age 12, Jesus has traveled with his family from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When the celebration is over, the family leaves to return home, completing the first day of travel before they make the discovery that he is not present. They first search for him among the group of travelers and, when they don’t find him, they return to Jerusalem and spend three days looking there before Jesus is finally found in the temple among the religious leaders. For nearly a week, Jesus is missing from his family and their traveling party.
This is terrifying enough. But there is an even more subtle truth present in this text as well. There is a period of time in the text when Jesus’ parents believe he is with them, when in fact he is not as we see in the haunting phrase found in Luke 2:44: “assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey.” In that day of their lives, Mary and Joseph believe Jesus is with them. They believe they are with him. They go about their business in the mistaken understanding that he is present. Only later do they discover that he is not. Scholars have engaged in comprehensive analysis of how it came to be true that Mary and Joseph somehow lost Jesus. That analysis is intriguing. But for now, our interest is not so much on how this came to be, but instead on this twin reality.
Jesus is missing. They did not know it.
There is a powerful lesson for Christians today at the intersection of these truths. We can take for granted that Jesus is present among us, that we are paying attention to him, that we are engaged in his work only to discover that he is missing, that we are not sufficiently focused on him, that we are so distracted that we find in hindsight we weren’t really seeing him or paying attention to him. We can take his presence and our awareness of it, for granted.
It is also fascinating that in this text, when Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus, their first response is to accuse him of creating the terrifying reality in which they have found themselves—these days they have spent frantically searching for Jesus after discovering he was no longer with them. As they see it, he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. They believe he was in the wrong. “Why have you treated us like this?” they ask him. But their question masks a deeper truth. They were separated from him because they made an assumption of his presence. They became distracted by other things. They were preoccupied with other interests. He had slipped out of focus.
Regardless of what we make of the position in which Mary and Joseph find themselves, or how they got there, the truth remains that as disciples of Jesus it is our responsibility to be focused on him. We are called to follow him, which means we need to be persistent in seeking him out, being where he is, joining him in his work. Following Jesus cannot flow from an assumption that we are where he is. When we become his followers, and join a community of other Christ-followers, we commit to being actively focused on Jesus, following him where he leads, and participating in his life in the world. If we lose sight of Jesus, if we get distracted by other things, then we are called to repent from the distractions and renew the promise we made when we first became disciples.
This text from Luke 2 is pivotal for Christians right now. We live in a world where it is incredibly hard to stay focused on Jesus, where we are at great risk to take for granted that we are with him and to become distracted by other things. Those other things are not always subtle. There are many powerful forces at work around us that want our primary attention, that occupy our imaginations, that beg for our allegiance.
Several years ago, Johnny Pierce, then the editor of Nurturing Faith, made the provocative suggestion that Jesus was missing from so much discussion among Christians. He pointed out that even the Barna Group had engaged in a study of evangelical Christians which operated under the definition that “practicing Christians are defined as 1) attending church in the past month and 2) considering their Christian faith ‘very important’ in their life.” Furthermore, Barna said that practicing Christians believe these six things:
- absolute moral truth exists
- the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches
- Satan is a real being or force and not merely symbolic
- a person cannot earn their way into heaven by trying to be good or by doing good works
- Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth
- God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.
Do you see it? Notice what is missing from this definition of Christian faith. There is no mention of actively following Jesus in the present. Christian faith is reduced to modest institutional involvement (i.e. attend church once a month) and agreeing to a set of precepts. There is no active attention to the presence of Jesus, no continued commitment to following Jesus, no understanding that Christianity is a way of life that consists ultimately in following the Risen and Living Jesus. There is no language about any ongoing relationship with Jesus or commitment to his stated mission in the world. Jesus is missing, and not only that, a sustained commitment also to following him is not mentioned at all. None of the categories at the heart of Barna’s assumptions actually require the Gospel, the Great Commission, the Great Commandment, Good Friday or Easter Sunday.
The reality of a missing Jesus is not confined to Barna’s categories. Increasingly we come to define Christian faith in its varieties by political affiliations or other commitments. And, we are living in a cultural moment that is filled with pressures and has cultivated a catastrophic level of exhaustion that has weakened our senses and made it much harder to pay attention, while increasing the likelihood that we take Jesus’ presence for granted while actually not paying attention to where he is.
In this regard, this moment for the Church is even more like the scene we see in Matthew 14:22-33 than the reality described in Luke 2. Matthew 14 tells the story of the disciples on a boat on an incredibly stormy sea. The disciples are straining against the wind and the waves all night long. They are exhausted. They are distracted. When Jesus comes toward them walking on the water, they do not recognize him. They think he is a ghost. Even when he is present, they cannot see him at first. That’s how tired, worn out and distracted they are.
One of the oldest images which Christians have used to describe the Church is that of a boat at sea. In some seasons, including the time in which we are living, it is not hard to identify with the condition of those in that boat as recorded in Matthew 14. The Church right now is besieged by many different adverse winds and waves. The acute strong wind of the persisting coronavirus pandemic challenged absolutely everything about how congregations carried out life together and almost everything about how we individual disciples lived our faith in the world, not to mention all the ways it has challenged and changed every other aspect of our lives. We are also caught in the midst of the adverse winds of terribly broken and partisan public spaces, where discourse of anger, hate, distrust and demonization is on full display. This has become even more evident during the pandemic and, as 2021 turned to 2022, that has not changed.
We are also reckoning with the unmistakable impact of centuries of racial and economic injustice. Increasingly, it is not just that congregations and individual Christians are being battered by these adverse winds, we are being invited to participate in them. Too often the speech and actions of the Church sound too much like political discourse at its worse. Too often in our history we have found ourselves participating in and benefitting from injustice.
And the more we are worn down by the wind and the waves, the harder it is to see Jesus and to resign ourselves to the impossibility of doing anything. Before any of these winds were at their current strength, congregations were also challenged by lesser but unmistakable winds that have often caused us to believe that we have less capacity for mission and transformation than we once did.
We live in a moment when we may be even more at risk than Mary and Joseph for not being aware that we have wandered away from where Jesus is. We are in that risk in our personal faith journeys. We are at risk in the lives of our congregations. We live in a time much like the stormy seas of Matthew 14, where it is easy to be exhausted and resigned, and unable to recognize Jesus, even if he walks toward us. There are formidable winds that blow against us, strong forces seeking our full allegiance which also have the power to distract us. We feel those adverse winds all around.
So, this is a time to ask:
Is Jesus missing because we have wandered away from where he is?
Have we allowed ourselves to accept a lesser definition of what it means to be Christian? Does that definition distract us from a heightened focus on Jesus?
What are the winds and waves that most distract us from being focused on Christ?
Are we so battered by winds and waves that we might not recognize Jesus even as he stands among us or walks toward us in the storm?
Can you remember a time in your own life and faith when you became aware that Jesus was missing because you had stopped paying attention to him?
Questions for Reflection
By Harrison Litzell
1. What are the most prominent distractions in your life? What most often takes your gaze away from Jesus?
2. How did you react to the six points of doctrine listed in the study from the Barna Group? Do you agree with them? Disagree with any? How would you recreate them to focus the points on Jesus?
3. Has your attention to Jesus changed since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted our lives in March 2020?
4. When do you feel Jesus is closest to having your attention?
Invitation to Prayer
Take a moment to practice a breath prayer. Breath prayers are simple repetitive prayers that are said while inhaling and exhaling. One traditional prayer is to say “Jesus Christ, Son of God” while inhaling and “have mercy on me a sinner” when exhaling. Or, you can say “Jesus Christ” as you inhale and “Son of God” as you exhale. Choose one of these prayers or another set of short statements, and practice slowing your breathing while praying. Continue to breathe in and out as you repeat the words. Focus on the words. Focus on your breath. Invite Christ into your attention.
Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus is a new resource from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that calls us back to the central focus of our Christian faith—the Risen and Living Jesus!
Access this free 8-session video series and digital curriculum resource at https://www.cbf.net/eyesofjesus