Dialogue, Discovery, Do Life Together

a sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

John 1:29-42

Beginnings. We have had a lot of beginnings lately. Some of it has to do with how a new year starts a lot of things over, but some of it is just the Holy Spirit’s timing. Today, for example, we receive new members into our congregation, so that’s a beginning. These fine folks have begun walking the journey of faith with us at Epiphany Lutheran Church. We’ll honor all recent new members with a reception between services, which is a new ministry of the Evangelism Team, in and of itself.

We’re also installing a new set of Council members and officers today. Some of them have never served on Council before, and so they are very conscious that this is a new endeavor for them. The new officers are thinking about the beginning of a new year of leadership that has fallen to them.

Council 2020 whole group
A new Congregation Council for 2020

As many of you know, our congregation hosted the ordination yesterday of one of our own, Daniel Hess, who now begins ministry as the pastor of a church over in the far southwestern part of the state. That is a new beginning in a number of ways.

We’ve at the beginning of an impeachment trial in the Senate (which we’re all looking forward to, of course), the beginning of commercials for the Masters tournament on TV, and this week, in the middle of January, you might have thought it was the beginning of spring. So did the cherry trees at the grocery store where I shop.

So much of the time, like in the cases I just mentioned, beginnings are very clear. In some sense we know they’re coming. We mark it with a ceremony or a reception of some kind, or by telling people it’s happening, or maybe we just know about it within. But sometimes things begin and we’re not aware they’re beginning. Sometimes things get underway before we realize what’s happening, before we comprehend a new thing has actually started. That’s how the beginning of Jesus’ ministry feels in John’s gospel. There’s no fanfare, no drum roll. One day John the Baptist is pointing Jesus out to John’s own disciples and then the next day they are following Jesus. Jesus doesn’t really call them to follow him. He doesn’t draw any attention to himself.

John the Baptist points to Jesus

We have no evidence, in fact, that Jesus is even ready to start his ministry or receive followers. What’s most strange to me is that one of those first followers never even gets named. We know one of them is Andrew and that Andrew eventually goes and gets Peter, but the other guy (or woman?) remains anonymous. We do know the time this all happens, which is a little bizarre fun-fact thrown in there. It is 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Other than that, though, it all seems to just take us by surprise. In fact, Jesus’ first words as his ministry begins are simply in the form of a question: “What are you looking for?” Those are actually the first words Jesus ever speaks in John’s gospel, and it occurs to me that is a great question to routinely ask ourselves in our faith journey every once in a while. What are we looking for and how might Jesus choose to address that need or hone it down for us?

So while the beginning of Jesus’ ministry among his first disciples seems to come from out of nowhere, there are at least three things about journeying through life with Jesus that are clear right at the beginning. The first is that it hinges on dialogue. That’s why that initial question of his is so significant. When the first disciples come up to him Jesus does not hand them a pamphlet to explain everything about him, with nice bullet points and graphics:

  • I am the Son of God.
  • I am the Lamb of God.
  • I am the Messiah
  • I am co-eternal with the Father in the bond of the Spirit.
  • Share this on Facebook, tag 20 of your friends, and a blessing will come to you tomorrow.

No, Jesus, right from the start, invites conversation and is more interested to learn about his disciples’ motives and interests than in reciting facts about his agenda.

Several years back I was speaking with a friend who was sharing about how he had entered a prolonged period of doubt about God and his faith that he described as intense and painful. As we were talking I asked him what had been helpful in that time, what had drawn him closer to trusting God rather than pushing him away and he said, “When people simply ask me questions about what I’m feeling or struggling with, rather than simply doling out answers.” This is hard for me to remember and model, because I like to give answers. I like to solve problems and share what I think I know. But Jesus teaches us how to begin and continue life with him and it functions on dialogue, and dialogue typically functions with questions, not closed, bullet point statements.


The second thing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry teaches us about walking the journey of faith is that it’s about discovery. If we are not truly OK with discovering new things about ourselves, even about our brokenness…if we are not comfortable with discovering new things about the world and about other people, then discipleship with Jesus may not be for us. If we’re really wanting certainty and safety and security all the time, then walking with Jesus is going to be off-putting. If we want everything to remain the same, if we want power and control, specifics about how to handle every situation coming our way, then Jesus is going to make us really uncomfortable.

There is a noticeable element of discovery with Jesus right from the beginning. The disciples leave John the Baptist, approach Jesus, and then end up staying at his house all day. As the story of Jesus unfolds, of course, we discover all kinds of things that we would never have figured from the start. He makes the blind see, he feeds people, he washes his disciples’ feet, and he eventually hands his life over. All of the things that stand in the way of discovery, that close life off—disease, hunger, oppression, and eventually death—Jesus removes. He makes a way where there is no way, but it’s not easy and it’s not always clear where the path will lead.

It’s like these new lights we ended up installing in this construction project. They are energy-saving LED lights that automatically turn on when you start walking down the hall. I’m still frustrated that there are no light-switches. I like the certainty of turning on lights and turning them off, but with these lights you need a sense of discovery. You just need to keep walking down the hall so the motion sensor knows you’re there and eventually the lights will turn on. Sometimes, though, it feels like they’re not going to work!      I’m halfway down a dark hall before the lights come on. It’s like they’re whispering “Come and see.”

“Come and see”

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we learn it is centered on dialogue, that it is essentially a process of discovery, and, thirdly, that it is an endeavor we do with others. Christian faith is done together. While each person’s faith and understanding of Jesus may be in some way as unique as we all are from each other as individuals, there is never a sense in Jesus’ ministry, even at the beginning, that it is a private journey. While we have our own ups and downs and navigate trials in our own way, Jesus’ life with us is always involving others.

Quite frankly, all of life is like this. Despite what we think about rugged individualism and the power of one person to overcome odds, chart their own course, none of life is truly done alone. We should be thankful that Jesus is so clear about that up front. The disciples naturally draw other followers in. They are a community from the get-go. They pass the message along from one to the next.

Every worship service has an element of this to be sure but yesterday at Daniel’s ordination service we had a very rare opportunity to glimpse how true this is. Gathered in the sanctuary were people from all aspects of Daniel’s life of faith. There were people from this congregation who watched him grow up and eventually be confirmed. There were people in the assembly who roomed with him in college and spent time with him in campus ministry in Harrisonburg. There were people from Camp Caroline Furnace, which is a Lutheran camp in the Virginia Synod where Daniel worked as a counselor for a few summers. There were people from the Synod candidacy Committee and seminary professors with us in worship. And there were people who just were there because they cherished Daniel and had influenced his faith in other ways.

Daniel Hess Ordination Jan 19 2020

It’s powerful to have visible so many of the people who had been doing faith together with Daniel, and ordination are rare worship opportunities which provide for that. But it’s important we remember that we all have that in our walk with Jesus. We all are ultimately doing this as one. Jesus has called us all together, with Christians throughout the world, in his ministry of dialogue and discovery. Jesus promises to be with us along the journey and more often than we probably would like to admit, Jesus’ presence is not borne to us in some warm glowy feeling in our heart but in the friendship and love of other people. It is Andrew to Peter. It is John saying to his friends, “Look there. Here he comes.” It is another disciple saying to another, “We have found the Messiah.”

Dialogue, discovery, and doing the life of faith together: three things that are clear right from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, even if the beginning itself kind of comes out of nowhere. And, of course, the most glorious thing about beginning with Christ is that there is always a chance for a new one. Maybe that’s why the beginning is no inauspicious, so sneaky. It’s because Jesus can always begin again with us anywhere, anytime. Risen from the dead, and ever-ready to take our sins away, he holds out his arms and asks, over and over, “What are you looking for?”



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Nativity of all nativities

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas [Year A]

John 1:1-18 and Jeremiah 31:7-14

This year our set of Scripture readings for late Advent and the season of Christmas have provided us with the opportunity to reflect on the story of Jesus’ birth through the eyes of three different gospel writers. We only really get that chance about once every three years or so, depending on how the readings of our lectionary fall with the calendar.

This was one of those years, and so two weeks ago we read from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth. As we heard then, Matthew’s focus is on Joseph. Joseph, Mary’s fiancé and husband and Jesus’ earthly father, hears the news about Mary’s pregnancy through the power of the Holy Spirit and it is Joseph who must wrestle with what it all means.  Then again last Sunday we heard the extension of Matthew’s birth story and how, again, it is Joseph who must immediately take up the role of protector and usher Jesus and Mary to safety in Egypt.

Between those two Sundays, on the night of Christmas Eve, we heard the version of the nativity that Luke tells, which is the one with which most of us are probably familiar. Luke’s focus is not on Joseph at all, but on Mary. There are other characters, too, that factor in—characters like the shepherds and the angels—but it is mainly Mary who wrestles with what all of this means. Luke tells us that there by the manger, after the shepherds arrive and tell the holy family what they heard from the angels, Mary ponders these things in her heart.

Today, on the second and final Sunday of the Christmas season, we hear John’s version of Jesus’ nativity. And in John’s version all the focus is on Jesus. That is not to say, of course, that Matthew and Luke don’t think Jesus is important, but John tells this story of the mystery of God’s birth among us in such a way that Jesus is the main character and that, right at the start, it is to Jesus where our attention is drawn.


Our attention, we find, is taken all the way back to the beginning, far before Nazareth or Bethlehem or even ancient Israel, which is where we typically think of Jesus having his start. John takes us back to the very, very beginning when God speaks over the waters of creation. “In the beginning was the Word,” echoing the words of Genesis, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This Word, which we come to understand pretty soon is Jesus, is there as God begins forming things into existence. All things came into being through this Word, which is a pretty profound statement given that most cultures at the time believed creation was either accidental or the result of capricious or indifferent gods. And just as the first thing God spoke to create was “Let there be light” so we know that this Word was even a part of turning on that first lightswitch so that things could live. So this is the birth story of all birth stories: life itself starts with this Word. There may be no manger and there may be no star, but clearly everything that exists comes to be through Jesus.

It’s hard to translate what John means by Word, but it helps to know that in the culture and language of that time, “word” was a synonym for “basic essence” or “key action” of something. We kind of have something similar today when we say, “I give you my word.” What we mean when we say that is that I am speaking the truth. You can count on me, not just on what I’ve said. It means that whatever I’ve said to you about something is so true to who I am and what I’m about that it’s like a unite myself to that statement I just made.

Black American slang has given us this sense of the word too. We could say, “Hey, that baptism this morning was really awesome.” And I could reply, “Word.” I’m saying, “Yes, that is the truth.” When John talks about God’s Word he is talking about that “Yes” of God, that fundamental truth of whatever God is.


So when he says that Word became flesh and lived among us, then that’s a pretty big deal. This key action of God, this fundamental component of the divine doesn’t just stay out there somewhere as an idea or concept but takes up residence as one of us. God gives us his word and that word is Jesus. And since God has now taken on our flesh, since God’s Word has now put on human skin and bones then it leaves God vulnerable to anything that a human with skin and bones might experience.

And that is glorious because that is some kind of love. That is grace upon grace. It’s one thing just to speak your agreement with something or someone. It’s a completely different level of commitment and compassion to become that thing or that someone to get your point across.

Several years ago I went ice-skating with a church group and we watched one woman who was not a part of our group fall to the ice and not be able to get back up. Thank goodness she was not hurt, but no matter what she did, she could not get back up. One of the ice rink attendants skated over to her to guard her from being run into and we watched as he tried to explain to her how to get off the ice. He kept saying things like, “Put your hands like this,” or “Pull over on this railing,” but nothing was working. Then he tried to pull her up himself, and that didn’t work. Eventually he decided to get down on the ice next to her and lay on the ice in the same position as she was in. That was the only way she got back up. He became what she was. That is the story of John’s nativity of Jesus.

Skating on the frozen lake

Once we understand that God became human, then, we can never really look at another human being the same way again. Once we come through faith to see that the Word of God took up residence as a man on earth, we can never really interact with another one of our fellow humans as if they don’t mean anything. No matter what another human being looks like, no matter what gifts they have or what gifts we perceive they don’t have, no matter where they’re from, no matter how old or young they are or how they communicate with us, we know God has decided that is the kind of thing God wants to be, that is the place where God wants to dwell, that is the space the Father’s love wants to call home for a while. This rearranges our understanding about God and what God is like but it also rearranges our relationships with one another.

Over the summer we’ve been having to rearrange a lot around here. We’ve lost our main gathering area and our main entrance, for example, and had to improvise with the large fellowship hall and bringing in people through our side doors. Initially some of us were concerned with how that might impact our relationships on Sunday morning and the sense of community. At the same time, we were renovating a room for a new parlor and needed somewhere to stick the old parlor furniture. Someone decided to place it out there in the fellowship hall until we decided where we’d donate it. Well, something kind of unexpected happened. People sat in the furniture right away. Lots of people. That furniture has probably never seen so much sitting! And people sat with people and across from people they didn’t really know and started talking to them. I walked in there one Sunday and there were so many people on the old floral-print couches and wingback chairs, and with the way they were all arranged, they looked like the start of the old Family Feud show.

Price Hall
the old furniture is on the right of this photo

By rearranging space and physical objects we were able to form new community and draw people together. In fact, those are the kinds of things we heard from the Building Consultant in 2016. She had told us that people are opened up to each other—or closed off from each other—simply by how space and doorways and furniture are used, but not until we were forced to change things around here did we see how much that was the case. The words had been spoken to us, but it’s different when it actually happens to you.

In Jesus, God’s love has actually happened to us, and we are rearranged to be gathered unto him. Because God does not become flesh among us in Jesus just as a type of undercover investigation. God does this to bring us back to him. God does this to draw all people into his love and glory. God does not become flesh among us just to experience what we experience. God undertakes this in order to draw us to him, to seek us out and bring us into the divine life, to give us the power, as John says, to become children of God. Or, as Jeremiah announces, “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, a great company, they shall return here.” No condition or hardship will disqualify anyone from God’s great search and rescue. All are brought in, with a preference for those most vulnerable.

I notice that when we perform baptisms and I walk down the aisle with a newborn baby people are just drawn to watch. They try to sing the hymn—in many cases they’ve got their hymnal open—but they mainly want to watch the baby. There’s just something about a little human that naturally attracts us. That is the life of Jesus, the Word made flesh. There is no baby in John’s birth story, but there is plenty of gathering in. Whether it’s calling fishermen from the lakeshore…or feeding thousands of people with a little bit of food…or washing his disciples feet…or being the shepherd that calls all of the sheep into the safety of the fold…Jesus is always gathering, always drawing people to him, always rearranging all the furniture so that we will see his face and see the face of love. And so that we can see in the face of each other the image of God.

Eventually, though, he gathers us to look to his cross, when he is lifted high in the deepest darkness. He draws our attention there so that we can see the depth of his love for us, just how far he will go to stoop down and pull us up. He is lifted high in the deepest darkness, but the darkness will not overcome it. It is the nativity of all nativities—a new life that never ends, with all things on heaven and earth, from the farthest parts of the earth, the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, a great company—they shall be with God. Evermore and evermore.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.