The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 1/19/14; Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
There’s a lot cooking in today’s scriptures! Isaiah wrestling with his calling and failure and despair and hope. The psalmist wrestling with despair and finding his footing. Paul reassuring the church in Corinth that they already have everything they need for the work that Christ has given them to do. And John telling us the story of how those first few disciples said “yes” to Jesus. That’s a lot!
Let’s take them in turn and see where we land.
Isaiah is clear that the LORD called him before he was born, called him in the womb. Isaiah knows that God had definitely given him a word to speak to the people of Israel, but Isaiah’s track record has been abysmal. No matter what he said, the people moved farther and farther away from God. God is still convinced that Isaiah is the right vessel to bring God’s people back to a lifegiving path; Isaiah, Isaiah is not so convinced; Isaiah is in despair. “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” But on the heels of that despairing voice, another voice rises up. Isaiah continues, “Yet surely my cause is with the LORD…” Then, Isaiah’s little mission explodes like the big bang that gave birth to the universe into this huge, crazy big mission. Isaiah knows that the LORD has called him to something much, much bigger—“[The LORD says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Wow! God isn’t content just to bring back Israel; God wants healing and wholeness and life to reach to the ends of the earth, and Isaiah is to be the light that shines on that hope; Isaiah is to illuminate that vision, point to that path.
First, do you understand that God has called you, specifically you, given you a word to speak into this world, a word of hope and healing and reconciliation? Can you grasp that this word started taking shape while you were taking shape in the womb and that this word continues to grow and take shape as you continue to grow? Whatever call you may have sorted out is yours at this point in your life, could you consider how God might be asking you to expand it in directions beyond the boundaries of what you can see? Isaiah could only see his call to the people of Israel; God asked him to think bigger. How is God asking you to think bigger for the sake of the world which God loves?
The psalmist has been in the desolate pit, mired down in the mire and clay. I didn’t know until this passage that “mired,” which means “to hamper or hold back, to entangle” comes from “mire,” which is “wet spongy earth, heavy often deep mud or slush.” So, the psalmist is in the pit and stuck. Gosh, any of you ever feel like that??? Do you ever feel like you are spinning your wheels and sinking fast? But the psalmist also has this experience of finding his feet again, of God lifting him out of that space and setting his feet upon a high cliff and making his footing sure. Now then, the psalmist is not out of danger. I am afraid of heights, so I frankly am not too sure whether I would rather be in the desolate pit or up on a high cliff? What I can grab ahold of, though, is that if I’ve got to be on that high cliff, God is there to ground me and make my footing solid and sure. The other thing that is intriguing is that the psalmist is experiencing a new song. Whatever song he’s been singing, whatever story he’s been living out, it’s time for a new one, and that new song has come to the psalmist as gift. The psalmist also knows that there are all kinds of ways to fall off the path. He is choosing to trust in God, but there are plenty of false gods out there, and there are plenty of folks resorting to evil spirits, destructive spirits, destructive ways to move forward. Finally, the psalmist is having to rethink what it is that God really does desire from God’s people—it is burnt-offerings, sin-offerings, animal sacrifices, or is God requiring something else of me? The psalmist finally understands that God isn’t desiring or requiring those externals; what God wants is him. What God wants is you. What God wants is me. And so, the psalmist says, “Behold, I come.” Can we say the same?
Paul is at the very beginning of a very long letter to the church in Corinth, and he will say plenty to challenge them along the way, but right at the beginning, he does two things: he gives thanks for them and he reassures them that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift as they wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, thank you for being the body of Christ, for coming together as a community, for bearing one another’s burdens and for celebrating one another’s joys, for helping one another to die, and for giving witness to what it means to truly live. This morning, hear Paul speaking to you, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Got that? You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. Everything you need to meet every challenge before you, you already have. It lives inside of you, that’s called the Holy Spirit, and it lives among you and between you as you live as a community as the body of Christ. It is sometimes a matter of unwrapping the gift you have, making use of it, exercising it, sharing it. You have everything you need. That is indeed worth meditating upon.
Finally, the calling of the first disciples. Actually, in John’s gospel it’s not so much a call story—there’s no leaving behind nets in this story. Cynthia Bourgeault has rightly called this “a recognition event.” Something in these disciples recognizes who Jesus really is. It starts with John. Boy, it’s really clear from this passage that he doesn’t understand it at all. He says, “I myself did not know him…I myself did not know him…I myself did not know…but I saw the Spirit descend…I myself have seen…” John didn’t know a lot, but something in him saw Jesus, and seeing, he recognized that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Okay, take off all the filters that immediately fly onto our brains when we hear language like Lamb of God and takes away the sin of the world. Lamb of God is tied to Passover imagery which was ultimately about preserving life and setting a people free. And taking away the sin of the world—could we just think about Jesus closing all the chasms that we open up? If sin is about separation, could we consider that, in Jesus, all the divisions and separations and oppositions of the world are held and loved and reconnected and reconciled, and that this is at least part of what it means to take away the sin of the world?
The main point here is that John recognized something in Jesus that drew him straight to the heart of God, so much so that he tells his disciples about it the next time Jesus walks by, and they off and follow Jesus. Whatever John saw, they saw it, too. Jesus gets the sense that they are following him. Jesus turns around, and he sees them, and he asks them, “What are you looking for?” All they can say is, “Rabbi, Teacher, where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and see.” And they do, and they remained with him that day, and they never left, except to go tell others, “Come and see; we’ve found him. He’s the one. I can’t quite explain it, I can’t articulate it, but there is just something about him. When I saw him, I knew. I don’t know what knew, but something in me knew; I had to follow him, and I had to remain.”
Bourgeault makes the point that the very first disciples didn’t follow Jesus because he had been raised from the dead—that hasn’t happened yet. They didn’t follow Jesus because they learned about Jesus in the creeds—the creeds would come three hundred years later. They follow Jesus because when they looked at him, something in them simply knew, “This is it. This is what I have been looking for. This is my heart’s desire. I have to follow him; I have to stay with him.” Everything else, for them, started there and flows from that point. The way of life they would ultimate live out comes from a moment when they looked at Jesus and saw Jesus and let their heart leap where their heart longed to go.
I might add, that for John, pointing his disciples toward Jesus ultimately would mean the diminishment of his own following—that took some ego strength on John’s part to release his followers to the path that their hearts had to follow. Are we, in the church, prepared for that possibility? If we really truly point people to Jesus, it may mean that their path takes a whole different direction from the one we have been on. Can we trust that this is as it should be? It’s not about St. Luke’s pointing to itself; it’s about St. Luke’s pointing to Jesus. It’s about this community pointing out, “There he is. He is life. Follow him. Remain with him. Let him pull you out of the mire and the muck and the pit. Let him change your name. Let him work with your tender heart. Let him set you on a sure footing. Let him make you steadfast, solid, like a rock. Let your heart leap at 4 o’clock in the afternoon at the most ordinary of times and do something crazy like follow Jesus on a journey that you can’t possible control or dictate. He will show you how to die, a thousand times if you let him. And he will show you how to rise again, a thousand times if you let him.”
This is so beyond our heads. This is a recognition event at the deepest levels of our hearts. Jesus isn’t asking you to do anything, except “Come and see.” Do that, and you will never be the same. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 19, 2014