Losing Jesus


Losing Jesus
Brian Zahnd

Mary had lost Jesus. She couldn’t find him anywhere. Jesus had gone missing. He wasn’t among the friends and relatives who had traveled to Jerusalem for Passover and who were now returning home to Nazareth. Jesus had always been reliable and trustworthy, but now he was inexplicably absent. Concern gave way to panic as Mary and Joseph rushed back to Jerusalem to search for their missing twelve-year-old son.

For three days Mary and Joseph frantically searched Jerusalem. It must have been agony. On the third day they found Jesus in the Temple, sitting with the rabbis immersed in theological conversation. Mary’s anxiety turned to relief and then to irritation. “Why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.”

Our sympathies are naturally with Mary. After all, twelve-year-old boys aren’t supposed to disappear for three days without telling anyone. But this isn’t just any adolescent — this is the divine Word in boyhood. Jesus is unapologetic. He doesn’t offer an excuse. What he does say are the first recorded words of Christ:

“Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Mary and Joseph didn’t understand what Jesus meant by this. It wouldn’t be the last time people failed to understand Jesus.

This story (Luke 2:41–52) is about losing Jesus. Mary had Jesus. She gave birth to Jesus. She nursed him and raised him. She knew him. Better than anyone. Then she lost him. After an agonizing three day search she found him…but he was different. Mary was forced to re-evaluate what she thought she knew about Jesus. Years later Mary would lose Jesus again.

When Jesus began his ministry around the age of thirty, he left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum. But Jesus’ family didn’t understand what he was doing and wanted to force him to return home. Apparently they thought he was out of his mind (see Mark 3:21). When they found him in Capernaum, a message was brought to Jesus: “Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you.” Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” For the second time Mary had lost Jesus. After seeking and finding him, she had to again rethink what she thought she knew about him.

Mary would lose Jesus one more time. Again for three days in Jerusalem. She would lose him on Good Friday…and find him on Easter Sunday. After that Mary would have rethink Jesus in the ultimate sense.

Losing Jesus. Finding Jesus. Rethinking Jesus. This is how we make spiritual progress. This is the only way we make spiritual progress!

We think we’ve got Jesus figured out. We think we know the crowd where Jesus can be found. We think we know where we can always locate Jesus. Then one day…he’s not there! And we have to go searching for him. “Seek and you shall find.” But when we find Jesus after losing him, he’s…different. That’s when the rethinking (repenting) starts. It’s the only way we make spiritual progress.

I’ve had the experience of what feels like losing Jesus several times in my four decades of trying to follow Jesus. It’s distressing. But it’s also the way of progress. I became a Christ follower during the Jesus Movement. Those were glorious days, but the Jesus Movement wouldn’t last forever. For a long while I followed Jesus in the context of the Charismatic Renewal. It was wonderful. But renewal movements eventually run their course; and besides, the fullness of Jesus cannot be contained in any one movement. So in midlife I was forced to seek Jesus in a new way. After a desperate search I found Jesus in robust theology and the ancient practices of the church. I wasn’t expecting that. Just like Mary wasn’t expecting to find Jesus in the Temple. It was a joy to find Jesus in a new way, but I also had to rethink some things about how I understand Jesus and his church.

How did I become a sacramental, liturgical Christian? By losing Jesus and then finding him again…this time in the theology, sacraments, and prayers of the church. That’s my story. Others have a different story of losing and finding Jesus. Going from Jesus Movement to Charismatic Renewal to the Great Tradition is not necessarily a pattern (though a lot of us seem to have a similar story). What is a pattern is losing Jesus, finding Jesus, and then having to rethink Jesus.

What about those who never have the experience of feeling like they’ve lost Jesus? The Christian mystics would probably suggest they simply lack the spiritual sensitivity to notice Jesus’ absence. Because Jesus was in their crowd ten years ago, they assume Jesus is still there. But this is exactly what Mary and Joseph assumed. Jesus is faithful, but he’s not predictable. The Jesus of the Gospels is full of surprises. To assume that the way we once understood Jesus is the way we always understand Jesus is a prescription for spiritual stagnation.

We have Jesus.
We lose Jesus.
We seek Jesus.
We find Jesus.
We rethink Jesus.

This is the inescapable pattern for spiritual growth. In his book When God Interrupts: Finding New Life Through Unwanted Change, Craig Barnes says, “The deep fear behind every loss is that we have been abandoned by the God who should have saved us. The transforming moment in Christian conversion comes when we realize that even God has left us. We then discover it was not God, but our image of God that abandoned us. … Only then is change possible.”

What I’m calling “losing Jesus” is what John of the Cross (1542–1591) called the “dark night of the soul.” The dark night of the soul is not a crisis of circumstances, but a spiritual crisis of absence — the apparent absence of God. God woos us forward by seeming to disappear. It’s a kind of spiritual hide-and-seek. God hides and we seek. Once we recognize God’s absence, we begin to seek God desperately during the agony of the dark night of the soul. In seeking we find…but in finding we discover that we have arrived in a new place and that we have become a different person. This is all part of the spiritual journey.

Losing Jesus. The dark night of the soul. This is how we grow. Without these difficult experiences, we simply stay the same, not even realizing that Jesus is no longer traveling in our company. But if we can have enough spiritual sensitivity to notice when we’ve lost Jesus, we can seek him anew, find him again, and in the process be transformed.


Click here for the sermon “Losing Jesus.”

(The artwork is The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple by William Holman Hunt, 1860.)