January 15, 2017
Donna G. Joy
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
Each of our readings this morning offer a reminder that God has chosen – and called - each and every one of you for the purpose of doing God’s work, and as we look through these readings we recognize this theme of call and response. God calls... and we respond.
In our reading from the Book of Isaiah we have heard what is often referred to as the Second ‘Servant Song’, where God’s servant announces himself to the world. God has called him before he was born, to be his spokesperson – his mouth ‘like a sharp sword’ – to deliver his message of judgment and love.
The identity of this servant has generated much debate. Most rabbinic commentators and some modern scholars argue that the Prophet himself speaks here in the first person and that these verses describe the prophet’s own mission. Others argue that the whole nation – Israel – is the servant, and some suggest that an ideal Israel or a faithful subset of the nation is the servant. But whoever this servant may be, he is called by God to share the good news that the people will return from the exile they are currently experiencing; and this servant has responded to this call and is offering a message of hope; a message of restoration. The rulers of the nations will bow down before this mysterious, rejected, glorious servant who so perfectly expresses the purpose of God. God has called this servant – whoever he may be; he has responded to God’s call; and is offering the people a message of hope.
In our epistle this morning, the term (the word) that binds this passage together is the word, ‘called’: Paul has been called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, and the Christians at Corinth have been called to be holy ones, or saints. The significance of this word ‘called’ is that it is not by virtue of his own doing that Paul bears the title and office of apostle or that the Corinthians have become saints. Instead, Paul is an apostle of Christ Jesus because God has called him into this role; and Christ Jesus is the one by whom the Corinthians have been called, and in whom they have been sanctified. God has chosen – and called - each and every one of them for the purpose of doing God’s work.
As we reflect on this theme of call and response, we discover that what this actually means from a Christian perspective is made clear in our Gospel reading from John. Christians believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophesy: Jesus is the one who is called and has come to offer God's message of hope, and this passage identifies the nature of his role in salvation history.
The reading this morning is a continuation of John’s story about Jesus and John the Baptist, and here, when John sees Jesus he proclaims that Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God.’ John is consistently focusing his attention away from himself, and toward Jesus. If John the Baptist had an iphone, I think it is safe to say that while he might be tempted to take a picture of Jesus with the Spirit descending on him from heaven like a dove, he would not be inclined to wrap his arm around Jesus and cozy up to him cheek to cheek in order to take a selfie... he would NOT be inclined to insert himself into the center of the story.
John consistently focused his attention away from himself, and toward Jesus, whom he describes as the ‘Lamb of God.’ And as he uses this image to describe Jesus, he is fully aware that the year-old lamb, almost full-grown, is a familiar image of sacrifice. At Passover a lamb is killed for every family or household. Jesus will be sacrificed for the sin of the world. He is the Son of God - the Lamb of God - and he will die for us.
So, very important here, is to recognize that Jesus – ‘the Lamb of God’ – is not ‘called’ to walk in the direction of a trouble-free zone. Anyone hearing him described as the ‘Lamb of God’ would automatically link his identity with the Passover lamb which is killed; anyone hearing him define himself in this way would be introduced to the idea that he is to be sacrificed for them; for us. So, clearly, anyone who answers a call to follow him – to follow in his footsteps – is also not necessarily choosing an easy life; a faithful life, but not necessarily an easy life.
And that brings us to the next section in our Gospel reading today, where two of John’s disciples are drawn to Jesus as John says again, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” One is Andrew, and the other may be John, the writer of this Gospel (although we don’t know that for sure), and they are both sufficiently intrigued that they immediately follow Jesus. And here’s where it gets particularly interesting, because when Jesus turns and sees them following him, he speaks for the first time in this Gospel, as he says, “What are you looking for?”
It seems interesting to me that his very first words in this Gospel articulate this question; it kind of sets the tone for everything that is to follow. “What are you looking for?” I imagine Jesus in our midst today, looking at each of us probingly and carefully, and asking this question, “What are you looking for?” "Why are you here?" "What motivated you to get out of your warm bed this morning, to go out in the cold (albeit not as cold as the last few days) but still, cold winter air, to be here to worship this morning? What are you looking for?
And their response is equally fascinating, as they answer his question with another question, “Rabbi – teacher – where are you staying?” William Willimon makes the point that often, when we’re striking up a conversation with someone we attempt to get to know a little bit about them by asking where they are from. The assumption is that if you can discern where someone’s hometown is, or even where that person is currently living, you may come to know more about who that person is.
But Jesus responds to their question with a kind of strange response, as he says, “Come and see.” Does he mean that they should come and see where he is living or that they should come and see who he is; or perhaps both? It’s the Gospel of John, so we cannot not know for sure because there is such mystery and ambiguity. Perhaps Jesus’ “come and see” is the equivalent of the other Gospels’ “follow me.”
Charles Campbell, Professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School, suggests that one little detail which may offer a clue to the meaning of this message, “come and see”, is the way in which the words are ordered. One might expect that the order would be “see” who Jesus is; then “come” follow him. But here the “come’ precedes the “see” so what’s implied is that often disciples first follow Jesus and only later do they “see” who Jesus really is and the direction in which he is headed. I think this is worth noting, because that’s the way it is often throughout the Gospel of John: disciples stumble after Jesus and only later, along the way, as Jesus corrects their misunderstandings and misperceptions, do they gradually come to see who Jesus really is.
In today’s Gospel those who are invited, do what Jesus says. They got to where he is staying and they remained with him. “Come and see” for them becomes not only an invitation to discipleship but also a promise about discipleship. They gradually come to see who Jesus is, and in the process they become the ones who invite others. They gradually come to recognize that Jesus is ‘The Lamb of God’; that Jesus’ road is one of suffering; one of sacrifice; one of answering God’s call to serve, even when – perhaps especially when - that service may not be the popular way to go.
Indeed, the theme for each of our readings this morning is call and response, culminating with our Gospel which identifies what this call means for followers of Jesus. We are called to spend our lives in faith pondering Jesus’ question, “What are you looking for – what are you searching for – what are you seeking?" We are called to search for where Jesus can be found – where does he stay – where does he dwell? When we gather here for worship, where might we discover him? Where does he live in this place? Many might say that he lives in and through the gift of each other; in and through the love and compassion that is offered and shared in this place. At the same time, it might be said that he can be found in - he lives in - the Word proclaimed; the sacrament of the Eucharist; the prayers – sung or said.
When we leave this place to go out into the world, where does Jesus dwell – where does Jesus stay? St. Matthew’s Maryland, perhaps; Winnipeg Harvest; Siloam Mission; Police force? First responders; in the classrooms in schools and colleges and universities...
As we live our lives day to day, where does Jesus dwell? Where does he live? I think he is found in acts of kindness and generosity; in acts of forgiveness. I think he is found when the church and individuals within the church transcend the petty rivalries and acts of vengeance and hate that are so often part of the human condition. Jesus, the Lamb of God, calls and asks, “What are you looking for?” And I think we are seeking to find him in acts of love and generosity and kindness.
This past week I read an article written by Mariann Edgar Budde who is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. She and her Diocesan Dean are under fire at the moment for agreeing to host an interfaith inaugural prayer service this coming week. She says, that as that day approaches many people in that diocese and throughout the U.S. question their willingness to host an inaugural prayer service for one whose behaviour and words have been perceived as offensive and divisive for so many. She also says that they have been asked why they accepted the invitation for the Cathedral choristers to sing as part of the musical prelude to the inauguration when so many other artists and performers, on principle, declined that invitation. She says that she acknowledges the anger and disappointment that these decisions have engendered.
And yet, she says, while these decisions may conflict with their critics, she urges them to recognize that she believes this is essential for the work that lies ahead. She writes,
The first spiritual principle, which always characterizes the Episcopal Church at its most faithful, is that we welcome all people into our houses of prayer. We welcome all because we follow Jesus who welcomes all, without qualification. Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean that we agree with or seek to legitimize. We simply welcome all into this house of prayer, in full acknowledgment that every one of us stands in the need of prayer.
She continues, “The second spiritual principle that informs my decision is that in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all.” She says, “I am alarmed by some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds and by those who now feel emboldened to speak and act in hateful ways." (As an aside: As Meryl Streep so wisely and profoundly said last Sunday evening at the Golden Globes Awards, "Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose." And personally I am so grateful to her for pointing this out. This - I believe - was also an important message for us all to hear.)
Nonetheless, says Washington's Episcopal Bishop:
I believe in the power of God to work for good, and the capacity of our nation to rise to our highest ideals. As President Obama said in his last speech, our nation’s future will be determined by our resolve to ‘restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.’ I ask the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to join me in dedication to that purpose, in faithfulness to Christ and as ones who cherish the gift of democracy.
And she concludes:
Finally, Dean Hollerith and I decided to host an interfaith prayer service and to accept the invitation for the Cathedral choristers to sing before the inauguration itself as a gift. At a time when emotions are raw, we hope to offer a few moments of spiritual solace and the healing gift of transcendent beauty. We want the nation to know that we are still here, as people of hope. While the inauguration is a civic rather than a religious ceremony, it is also an occasion for prayer and an opportunity to offer the balm of beauty... Even as we pray and work for common purpose, know that I understand how much is at stake in this moment and the importance of our collective witness. We are called (WE ARE CALLED) to pray and sometimes to protest. We are called (WE ARE CALLED) to seek reconciliation, bur never at the expense of justice.
Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” I think we are searching for Jesus’ wisdom, which transcends the hatred and hostility that is so evident in our world at this moment in time. I believe we find Jesus in the message of people like Meryl Streep who name the truths that we probably need to hear, as well as Bishop Mariann Budde who reminds the church that our role is to be that place where love transcends the pain, and calls the church to respond accordingly. Of course we have diverse opinions when it comes to matters large and small, but as we seek to find Jesus the Lamb of God in the midst of these trying times, he calls us to “come and see”; he calls us to come and find him in those places that transcend the pettiness of the world in which we live.