A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]
I have no plans whatsoever to read it myself, but I have been intrigued by the all of the hoopla and fanfare surrounding the book by former Prince Harry, now Harry, Duke of Sussex. It is simply called Spare, in reference to the fact that as second-born child to the first-in-line to the throne, Harry was once called a “spare” heir The book, which is a more of a tell-all, from what I’m hearing, was just released this week and has broken all time sales records. On its first day, in fact, it sold 1.43 million copies. The hype building up to the arrival of the book has been thoughtfully orchestrated, and that’s what’s been so interesting to me. The Duke has given juicy interviews on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and just prior to Christmas Netflix aired a 6-part series about Harry and his wife, Meghan, for which they were paid a whopping $150 million.
But all of that was prologue for the book, and now that we have it, or can have it, we can reportedly hear Harry speak for himself. Up until now, as we are to understand it, we have largely heard about Harry from other people. Now we can know what Harry stands for, what his real story is, what he really wants the world to know.
At this similar critical intersection between what is said about someone and hearing their story from their own mouth is where we find Jesus this morning. He is an heir too, of course, though not a spare. He is the heir to God’s kingdom, the one people have waited so long for to reveal what God is about. And John the Baptist is the publicist, arranging Jesus’ P.R. campaign. John the Baptist tells us key things we should now about Jesus as we hear about Jesus and meet him.
In many ancient and medieval paintings, in fact, John the Baptist is depicted with an exceptionally long pointer finger lifted in the direction of Jesus. It was kind of like a Snapchat filter designed to accentuate certain features for painters in earlier centuries. John’s elongated pointer figure made you look at Jesus instead of John. It is emphasizing that John the Baptist is not the promised holy One, but rather Jesus is.
Biblical scholars and historians have long suspected, that John the gospel writer was writing his gospel and letters from a place of conflict and pressure because some were still preferring to worship and follow John the Baptist over Jesus. These are two different Johns, so it gets confusing. John who writes this gospel and tell us this story is being especially careful to remind his readers that John the Baptist did everything in his power to introduce Jesus properly and throw his support behind him. John the Baptist was no longer trying to recruit his own followers and perhaps getting them instead to follow Jesus.
And so John, in no uncertain terms, tells his disciples and apparently everyone else who would hear that Jesus is the Lamb of God. If we can’t see the long pointer finger, we can at least hear his pointed words: Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the one who ranks ahead of John himself. Jesus is the one on whom the Spirit of God descended. And eventually it works with at least two of John the Baptist’s disciples. They turn and leave him to start following Jesus.
People in the business world talk about having an elevator speech. An elevator speech is how you would explain what you do and what you are all about in the time that it takes to ride in an elevator with someone from one floor to another. John the Baptist has an elevator speech for Jesus. What’s yours? Can you explain who Jesus is to you for someone else—and not in an off-putting way that makes you sound like a salesperson, but in a way that might convince someone they’d be interested in knowing why Jesus matters? What would you say that might make someone pick up the book and read Jesus in his own words? Do you understand Jesus as the person who takes away the sin of the world? Said another way: do you see Jesus as the person whose way of living releases us from our inherent inwardness, who takes dead ends and creates new life? Where does Jesus rank for you in terms of influences? Can you share how we rank at the center of his love and forgiveness?
If you’re like me and many other Lutherans I know, perhaps words are not your strong suit here. How then does your life communicate the impact of knowing Jesus in other ways? How do your choices, your actions serve as P.R. for Jesus’ movement of justice and peace and mercy? In what ways does your life become that elongated pointer finger of John the Baptist that directs the world’s attention to Jesus?
I was happy to see that one priest I follow on social media, Kenneth Tanner, happened to post this week what sounds like his John the Baptist-like elevator speech: Tanner says, “God makes the world. God loves the world God makes. In becoming human God becomes what God makes—[which is] what God loves. God cannot become what God hates. God cannot become what is not good. God does not give up on what God becomes. This” concludes Tanner, “is the simplest way I have found to say what Christians trust.”
You may come up with something even simpler than that, but “God does not give up on what God becomes” sounds really good. John the Baptist seems to understand, even if he can’t see that a cross will eventually lie in Jesus’ path, that Jesus means that God is not giving up on us, no matter what lies in our path.
Once those disciples leave John, though, the attention is focused on what Jesus is going to say about himself. He can share his own story and define himself on his own terms. And the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are so very interesting. He doesn’t confirm what John the Baptist has been saying. He doesn’t really promote himself at all, ask if anyone wants autographs, or anything like that (“It’s me! Hi! I’m the Messiah, it’s me! At tea time everybody agrees.”) All he says to the guys running along behind him is “What are you looking for?” and then, “Come and see.” It’s so inviting, so unassuming, no unpretentious. It expects us to be curious.
One of our new Adult Sunday School classes offered right now, led by Jim Huddle, is called “The Difficult Words of Jesus.” They’re using a book by Professor Amy-Jill Levine from Vanderbilt that unpacks some of the really thorny and touchy things Jesus says at times—things like “Hate your mother and father” and “Sell all your possessions.” My guess is that “Come and see” is not considered one of the more difficult sayings of Jesus.
And yet it probably should be. “Come and see” is an invitation to change, and, well, we all know how well most of us love change, right (myself included)? Change is difficult. Change is scary, even when it is change that we welcome. Change involves leaving behind certain values and judgments and loyalties, just like those disciples, Andrew and Peter leave John the Baptist behind. It’s important to note that Simon receives a new name—a new identity—in this process. Jesus doesn’t give an elevator speech about himself and list off the things that are good about him but “Come and see” does sound difficult because it may take us out of our comfort zone.
“Come and see” is also difficult because it’s not immediate, and most of the time we like immediate and instant. Even if it is change we’re looking for we prefer it to start now and make itself known. I’ve had a chance over the past several weeks to observe the process of physical therapy up close as my young son recovers from a surgery he underwent. All is going well, I’m happy to report, but progress and growth takes time and perseverance and a bit of curiosity. It takes patience and a healthy bit of curiosity—curiosity to try something that may seem uncomfortable or strange at first. Physical therapy, I’ve learned, is a “come and see” vocation. Come and see what this particular exercise will do. Come and see how your body will respond to this motion. The patient can’t really see what might occur unless the patient comes and tries.
Jesus right off the bat presents us with a faith journey that is more like physical therapy and less like taking medicine. Taking medicine is typically quick, immediate, and doesn’t require quite the same commitment level. But Jesus calls us to a relationship that resembles therapy: We involve ourselves in prayer, we stick to the church or service commitments that seem awkward and inconvenient at first. We show some curiosity in what the next step may be. And God will surprise us. God’s Spirit sustains us and promises us amazing new life.
Three years ago we were poised at the precipice of a pandemic that no one saw coming. By the end of January 2020 we were starting to hear about a mystery illness that was making people sick in China. By the end of February it was here in the States and by mid-March everything was shut down. It was bewildering, it was frightening, it was frustrating. None of us had ever been through anything like this before, so we weren’t sure about the next steps. No one had been through it…except for Jesus, who on the cross endured all kinds of isolation and depression and rose again to defeat it all.
And in mid-March, as things were going on line and Zooming like crazy Jesus said, “Come and see.” “Don’t give up, don’t turn back. Just come and see how I will guide and provide through this.” And this congregation did just that. Committed to Jesus’ “call over the tumult” you stepped into the weird, maddening COVID unknown and followed Jesus’ voice. I still remember Amy Boyle and Tatter Hartmann and others out in the parking lot that very first weekend collecting food for children at Ridge Elementary because no one could figure out how children would eat if school was shut down. And they were all trying to do it while standing 10 feet from each other!
Through weeks of no in person worship, to weeks of worship with no singing and sitting three pews apart to weeks of signing up for worship spots…to weeks of singing but with masks God kept leading. And we came and saw what might be next. There were some very interesting steps along the way.
Last Sunday, January 8, 2023, our in person worship attendance was 334. The attendance on the second Sunday of January 2020 was also 334. When we add those who join us on-line each week, our worship attendance is now 33% higher than it was pre-pandemic. Now I’m not declaring the pandemic over and there is still reason to be cautious and to support those who don’t feel comfortable yet without a mask or joining us in person. But this does feel like some important milestone. I am also saying I would have never, ever have predicted this is where we’d be at the start of the pandemic 3 years ago. We had to come and see it happen ourselves.
I guess that’s what happens, my friends, when you pick up Jesus’ book, when you take hold of his gracious invitation to come and see and hear him speak, in his own voice, for himself. In the bread, in the wine, in the word spoken and shared. May that be what you discover in your own path as the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Son of God calls you again today.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.