The moment I like at Christmas comes for me at mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, though for you the timing may vary – but I think you’ll recognise the moment. It’s the moment at which it’s too late for any more preparations, and you’re going to have to have Christmas with whatever you’ve got. I mentioned this when I was giving a talk this year at an Advent Vigil in Southwark Cathedral, and a lady said to me afterwards that she had always felt the same, though she’d never heard anyone else say it, and told me about the time one Christmas when she had lots of children to look after, and ‘the relief!’ she said, ‘when the shops had shut on Christmas Eve.’
I’m going to come back to her, but I’m going to get there by way of this morning’s Gospel. This is an odd little story. It’s only in the Gospel of Luke, not in the other Gospels, and it’s the only story in the four Gospels of Jesus as a child – not a baby, not an adult, but twelve years old. We could think about what it’s doing here, how it fits into the pattern of events that Luke is tracing in his Gospel, a pattern whose centre is Jerusalem. But I’d like to look at it, instead, from a bit further back – with a wider perspective, if you like. Although it’s only in Luke, it has something in common with a great many other stories about Jesus. It’s a story about Jesus in the wrong place.
It’s a big category. There are lots of stories of Jesus in the wrong place. If you would like to stick with the Gospel of Luke and think back only as far as this Tuesday, Christmas Day, Jesus shouldn’t have been in a manger: but there was no room for them in the inn. If you would like to look forward to the Baptism of Christ, marked in two weeks’ time, Matthew’s Gospel tells us about how the Baptist, John, sees Jesus coming to be baptised with all the others and asks what on earth Jesus is doing there – ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ In the manger and in the river, Jesus is in the wrong place. He has dinner with the wrong people. He talks to people who are themselves in the wrong place, or doing the wrong thing, or being the wrong nationality. Jesus is constantly getting into the wrong place and he is not short of other people, in the right place, who are happy to point this out.
In this particular story, the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, Jesus is in the wrong place because he is not with his family and the group going home after the festival. He is, at the very least, disobeying implicit instructions, he is acting unsafely and he is old enough to know better. He has not stuck with his family in the crowd and he has gone off to do his own thing, regardless of the people who may be looking for him.
And the point of it, of course, is that the wrong place is the right place after all. Jesus is in his Father’s house. The searchers eventually find him where he really belongs, only they didn’t know that.
Can we find that twist in the other stories of Jesus in the wrong place? I think we can. Jesus is not supposed to be in a manger: what’s supposed to be in a manger is hay for the beasts. But, in the manger because there was no proper cot and no proper lodging, Jesus is in the right place to be with the people who have nowhere to be, who are out on the edge, who are disapproved of by respectable people like us. Jesus is with them again, the people who can’t get into the right places, when he has dinner with tax-collectors and when he’s talking to the people – they’re often women – who answer him back and argue with him. He is with them, with everybody, when he comes along to be baptised alongside everybody else and ignores John the Baptist’s protests. The wrong place is the right place to be alongside people, to be with the ignored and the poor and the ones who have nowhere to be. On the cross, finally, once and for all, Jesus is in the wrong place, and for all of us that turns out to be the right place.
What shall we do with this story of Jesus in the wrong place that is also the right place, in the Temple? How shall we take this story home, now we’ve found it?
First, we can learn to look for Jesus in the wrong places. In night shelters and hostels and food banks and refugee centres and debt advice clinics. We’ll know it’s working when we get told that the church is being too political. And then we can point out, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did earlier this month, that if the church is not going to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and shelter the shelterless, we are going to have to ignore whole sections of the Bible, including most of what Jesus says and does.
Second, we can notice what happens when Jesus gets into the wrong places, when we find him there. They become the right places. There is something transformative about the presence of Jesus. So there is not, after all, a limited supply of right places. We don’t have to defend them in case we run out of them. If we go and find Jesus in the wrong places, alongside the people who have nowhere to be, we will also find that those wrong places are transformed. This is where we come back to my friend who was so relieved when the shops finally closed on Christmas Eve. There isn’t a limited supply of Christmas. You don’t have to buy it all up before the shops shut, and fight other people in the queue. Christmas is Christmas whatever you celebrate it with, even if it’s a tin of beans in the cupboard, because it is transformative. If you would like to have this point worked out in greater detail, I would recommend to you The Good Life Christmas Special, which you’ll find with a very little research in the archives. It’s the one, you may recall, in which Margot has ordered Christmas, all of it, in a van. But when the van arrives she sends it back because the tree is a few inches shorter than specified. And the van doesn’t come back, and so Christmas is off. Disaster. Except that they find it with the next door neighbours. The whole episode is extremely sound theologically. In Christmas we find and we celebrate the presence of God, not in a van, with us. At Christmas Jesus is born in the wrong place, and it becomes the right place for us.
And the third thing to take home from this story is that we can take it home. This is a story of Jesus in the wrong place, and it reminds us that the wrong place is often the right place. And this is also the story of how his parents, having tracked him down to a wrong place that is the right place after all, don’t leave him there but take him home. This is the story of Jesus not staying in the Temple, safely tucked away among the religious authorities. It’s the story of Jesus growing up in an ordinary human family, engaging in ordinary human life, with its mistakes and learning and wisdom and misunderstanding and justice and unfairness and oppression and freedom. This is the story of God alongside us, with us, making the wrong place right.
Derby Cathedral, 30 December 2018