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