Any time someone steps in a new pulpit, you cannot help but feel humbled. I am especially honored by Father Hooper and especially by you, the first Episcopal congregation in the state of Florida to be here today. I pray the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart ne not only acceptable to God, but may edify you as well.
I speak in the Name of God … Father, Son and Holy and Spirit.
Like many people in this age of the internet, I regularly follow a few websites and blogs, and one of those is called “Beauty Tips for Ministers.” Beauty Tips for Ministers is maintained by Unitarian clergy named Victoria Weinstein, and the tagline for this site is “Because you are in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.” As you may expect, this blog has more than a few tongue-in-cheek moments such as looking to someone right here in Key West (female impersonator Randy Roberts no less!) for make-up inspiration. Now while Beauty Tips for Ministers is geared mostly towards female members of the clergy, men should not fear for she will on occasion list some sage advice for us to follow, such as “Jesus will not judge you” if we use things like eye gel or moisturizer. Alongside of this, Victoria has a few common sense insights into things like how to tell if your suit fits well or what kind of shoes are appropriate for a given occasion. But what I think makes this blog particularly special is that she tries to show how all of us as Christians, not just pastors, priests and ministers, can be an Incarnational presence to the world through an intentional practice of self-care. In this season of Epiphany, we journey with Jesus as he performs many signs and wonders and teaches us how we are to show to the world the love of God so that we may point to him as the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. In other words, in this season, we see how Jesus really lives into one his titles, Emmanuel, which of course is “God is with us.” And that brings us to our Gospel lesson for the day …
This is the second Sunday after the Epiphany and the lesson always comes from the Gospel of John. Now, the Gospel of John is very different than Matthew, Mark and Luke because he does not simply tell a narrative of Jesus’ miracles interwoven with his sayings and other events in his life. John tries to explain why Jesus does what he does and to paints Jesus in a more divine light than his counterparts by the use of signs and wonders. In Epiphany, we celebrate God manifesting himself in human form, the enfleshment of God we call the Incarnation. So, you see it makes sense that we start the journey through this season with this Gospel so we are grounded in this idea and can view the rest of our lessons on the following Sundays in this light.
Today we get John’s account of Jesus baptism and the calling of the very first disciples. The baptism itself is not described, but John the Baptist retells what he experienced by focusing on the signs and wonders and using them to point to Jesus as the Son of God. This had such a tremendous impact on him that any time Jesus enters the scene, John the Baptist stops what he’s doing and says, “Behold the Lamb of God!” Eventually we see John’s disciples begin to peel off and follow Jesus, just as Jesus begins to attracts followers in his own right. John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as ranking ahead of him, so to speak, so in a way he is giving his disciples permission to leave and to move on.
I am sure all of us are familiar with the “What Would Jesus Do?” campaign which among other things sparked a great and profitable merchandising and branding opportunity (though that is an entire sermon in and of itself!), but the point of it on its face was to invite reflection and self-examination on what to do when you are faced with a moral dilemma. Perhaps a better question may be “What Would John the Baptist Do?” All John the Baptist does is point to Jesus and say, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Part of our calling, our vocation as disciples of Christ is how we present ourselves and how we reach out the world pointing to Jesus and saying, “Look! God is here! God is in our midst and at work! Working through us, in us, in SPITE of us, and standing here with us! Behold the Lamb of God!” And maybe … that is enough. But notice that Jesus, in turn, as he is calling the first of the disciples is asking an even better question: “What are you looking for?”
“What are you looking for?”
Now there is something for self-examination and reflection if there ever was. It is not enough to say that you want to follow Christ, even though that is quite a very good start and at the end of the day, I am sure God will take it, but it also begs the question, “Why?” What does it mean to say we are disciples of Christ? Is it enough to say we believe in Him? That we are in church most if not every Sunday? That we tithe? That we adhere to a certain set of rules and doctrines? We can argue that many of those things are part of it, but they don’t get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. First we must answer the question, “What are you looking for?” and respond to Jesus’ call to “Come, and see.”
Some times it is difficult to hear that call. Many times in the middle of all our busy lives when we are confronted with something bigger than ourselves, we can be oblivious to God’s call and even God’s presence. And sometimes … we mess up. I am as guilty as anyone of not my best foot forward, holding off things until the last minute, and saying exactly the most insensitive and offensive thing at the absolute worst time. But, there is Good News. God is faithful. Our Old Testament lesson covers one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, which are usually attributed to being about Jesus, but they really could apply to any of us as individuals or as a community. Isaiah shows how the servant acknowledges his own shortcomings and failures to live up to the person God is calling him to be. Then, in spite of that failure, the servant holds to hope and remembers God’s call; then, wonder of wonders what does God do? God doesn’t put the servant off in the penalty box to “abhor himself and repent in dust and ashes.” God enlarges the scope of the servant’s mission. No longer will the servant be a light to just one nation, but to the entire world.
You see, because of the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, being a disciple is now a two-way street. It is about a relationship, not a set of rules. It is us walking, talking and listening to God just as God walks, talks and listens to us. The story of our faith is not so much about how mankind went off and searched for God, but how God became a man and went searching for us. It reminds me of that passage later in the Gospel of John where Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not think you chose me, but I chose you and called you.”
Just over 100 years ago, the Flagler Railroad was finished and connected the Florida Keys to the mainland. It was a long trip and sometimes it could be very difficult just like our own walk with Jesus can be. There will be many times when our own journey is hard and difficult and there will be times when we want to give up. We are afraid we just won’t get it right or we will say the wrong thing or act foolish, but the Good News of following Christ is that Jesus doesn’t require us to be right all the time … just to be faithful. To keep at it even when we do want to give up. Because of the Incarnation, we do not just follow a God who asks us to sit back and say, “Don’t worry about it … I’ve got this.” The Good News I have for you today is because of the Incarnation, when we cry out to God, he says to us, “It’s ok … I get it.”
So when we get anxious, when we feel like a failure or we start to worry about any number of things going on in our lives and we say, “I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t pay my rent, I’ve lost contact with my family and friends, I can’t find a good job, I feel so lonely, depressed and discouraged and sometimes I feel as dead as a corpse.” The Good News I have for you today is that if you read your Bible you will find that every time that Jesus meets a corpse that dead person gets up and walks. We just need to remember to keep walking with Jesus because we can rest assured he is walking with us.
He gets it.
He gets all the joy and the triumph, the pain and the sorrow.
Being a disciple is like being on a train. It runs in two directions … to God and then back again. You can’t help but be reminded of the lyrics to the song, “There ain’t but one train upon this track, it runs to heaven and it runs right back.” Dear People of God, the Good News I have for you today is that as long as we are faithful in our walk with Jesus, this Great Gospel Train is bound for nothing short of glory.
So when Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?” our response may be, “Actually … I think I’ve been looking for you.” And then Jesus will respond in turn and say, “You know what? I’ve been looking for you, too.”
God has come in the flesh and has come looking for us. He gets what it means to be us. And that just might be one of the greatest signs and wonders of them all.