Sunday, January 15, 2017

Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42a

Yahweh has called me from the womb; from the inside of my mother he has mentioned my name.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is one of four servant songs from Isaiah the prophet. These servant songs describe the Messiah, whom we identify as Jesus Christ our Lord. Today’s song is from the servant’s perspective and in it we see that the servant is not only sent to restore Israel, but to draw the whole world into God’s heart. Everyone is invited to experience God’s salvation. His grace reaches to the very ends of the earth.

This was the plan all along. The servant said, “Yahweh has called me from the womb; from the inside of my mother he has mentioned my name.” We know from the Nativity story that God told Mary and Joseph the name they should give Jesus. A few weeks ago we talked about His name; I wrote, “God is given dozens of names in the scriptures: Creator, Almighty God, Father, the Lord our Righteousness, ‘I AM.’ The Holy Spirit has a special name: the Counselor. Jesus is identified by certain names: the Light of the World, Savior, Redeemer, the Christ, and Son of God. The name Jesus is especially important; it means ‘the Lord saves.’ It is by His name we are saved. Paul writes to the Philippians that the name of Jesus is the name above all other names, that at His name every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. It is His name we take when we are baptized, we become Christians by faith. His name is written on our hearts and on our heads. In His name we are adopted and made heirs of the Kingdom of God.”

God knew from the beginning that He would send Jesus to save us. The promises begin in Genesis and continue through the books of Moses, the history of Israel and the words of the prophets.

John recognized Him.

John had a pretty good thing going. He was followed by many, sought out by men for baptism and to hear his teaching. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees seemed to be interested in what he had to say. Herod was fascinated by his teaching. He had disciples, men who had committed to his cause, who were with him as he ministered. He could have been a powerful force in and around Jerusalem, perhaps even as a military leader. Certainly there were others who were fighting the Romans, and a powerful leader was what the people sought to save them from Rome.

Did John think twice before pointing out Jesus to his disciples? He must have known he would lose followers. John had to do what God intended. He was not meant to be a powerful leader, but instead was born to point the way to Jesus. He even told his disciples when they argued against Jesus that he must be diminished so Jesus could flourish. (John 3:30)

The Gospel lesson for today shows John pointing to Jesus and declaring that He is the Lamb of God. In the verses preceding our text, John answers the question of the Jewish leaders that he is not the Christ. He admits that he’s really a nobody compared to the One who is to come; he’s just the messenger proclaiming the coming of the One for whom they were waiting. They wondered why he was baptizing if he’s a nobody, but he said, “I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you don’t know. He is the one who comes after me, who is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to loosen.”

Last week we heard about John baptizing Jesus even though he thought himself unworthy to do so. With that act of obedience, Jesus appeared on the scene, and John witnessed the very thing that God told him he would see: the Holy Spirit rested on the One whom He has sent. John saw the fulfillment of the promises; the One whom God planned all along was finally breaking into the world to accomplish His work of salvation. In today’s passage, John pointed to Jesus and told the crowds that Jesus was the One he was talking about. “See, that’s Him.” Two of John’s disciples followed Jesus.

We are still at the beginning of the Epiphany season, the time we talk about the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world. It is a long Epiphany this year, with seven Sundays (there can be as many as eight) so we’ll have plenty of time to get to know Jesus before we begin the penitent period of Lent. In the next few weeks we’ll study the Sermon on the Mount, focusing heavily on Matthew chapter 5, but before we get there we are reminded that Jesus is the fulfillment to God’s promises. He is the One we seek; He is the One God named even before He was born. He is the One who was chosen even before the beginning of time.

He is the One to whom we must listen.

The disciples had an idea of the Messiah they expected when John pointed at Jesus. They heard his words “the Lamb of God,” and understood that the Messiah would be a servant like we see in Isaiah, but were they really expecting that Jesus would face the cross in barely three years’ time? Did you see Him as the Lamb that would be slain or as the one whom kings and princes would worship? The Epiphany story begins with the wise men from the East; did the disciples think the story would end with Jesus on a throne worshipped by the world?

It was probably pretty easy to follow Jesus, knowing that He was the One. Would they have followed Him if they could have seen what would happen in a few years? Would they have believed if they knew He would die? Jesus was the hard path, but did they know that? Or were they taking the easy way out? John was rough and harsh; Jesus was clean and gentle. John preached about repentance and wrath; Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God. Which would have been the harder path to follow?

We know that it didn’t turn out as they expected. As a matter of fact, it ended horribly. Israel never got a new king. They weren’t saved from Rome. Jesus did not fulfill their expectations. Instead, He was slaughtered like a lamb on the altar of sacrifice, just as God intended. See, God was not sending Jesus to save them from earthly troubles, but to save them from sin and death. Jesus was the Lamb who was slain, He was the final sacrifice that made all things right again. Faith in the Lamb brings forgiveness and life.

At that moment, however, the disciples were ready to follow a king. They left John and went to follow Jesus. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asked. They didn’t know how to answer. Have you ever felt that way? Have to ever wondered what you want when you drive to church on a Sunday morning? “What are you looking for?” is a question that is often asked when a church is in a time of transition. We put out surveys; we ask members what they want from a new pastor. Should we build a new education building or a larger sanctuary? Should we put our money into ministry or hire new staff? What are you looking for? I don’t know about you, but I have a tough time answering the questions on those surveys. I don’t always know what I’m looking for.

Perhaps their answer to the question is not unreasonable; after all if they are going to follow Jesus they need to know where to find Him. Yet, Jesus’ question begs a much different answer, particularly in light of the message of John’s Gospel. John writes to prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Messiah for whom they were waiting. He writes to prove that even though Jesus did not fit the expectations of the people, He was exactly what God promised.

The question “What are you looking for?” begs us to consider why we are following Jesus. What do we seek when we go to church on a Sunday morning? Are we looking for entertainment? Are we seeking a place where we feel like there is someone who cares? Do we expect that God will hear our prayers and give us what we need to survive another week in the world? What are we looking for when we open our bibles to read at home or study with others? Are we looking for the answers we want or are we open to the answers God has for us? We might just discover that God has something completely different planned than what we expect. Jesus was never meant to be an earthly king; will God nail our expectations to the cross, too, and give us the Savior we really need?

John’s law focused ministry might seem tough; who wants to be told they are doing everything wrong? His harsh ways, his strange life, his angry words were not pleasant to the ear. Jesus was soft-spoken, kind and loving. He talked of God’s kingdom and about loving our neighbors. He was humble and He had a charisma that drew people to Himself. The text for today is early in His ministry, but He was a man that would heal the sick, raise the dead and offer forgiveness to those who were outcast. The Old Testament prophets promised that the Messiah would set the prisoners free: who wouldn’t want to follow that man?

It would not take very long for the disciples to realize that following Jesus was not going to be the easy path. Jesus drew great crowds, but they disappeared when His words became hard to accept. “We have to eat His flesh and drink His blood? That’s ridiculous.” The words of the Sermon on the Mount are certainly not easy.

I can just imagine Jesus giving Andrew and his companion a sweet smile, knowing that they would be His followers and that they would eventually learn the right questions to ask. The question He asked was, “What are you looking for?” He wanted to know what they thought they might find with Him. Were they looking for the Messiah? Were they looking for the easy path? Were they looking for the latest, greatest prophet in the land? He wanted to know why they would leave John to follow Him. “What are you looking for?” is the same question He asks us.

We might not always like what we find when we follow. We might think that we’ve chosen the better way, whether it is the easier or harder path, but when the circumstances become difficult we begin to question our choice. I wonder how often the disciples thought about returning to their fishing boats or their homes. I wonder if they ever regretted the choice they made to leave John and follow Jesus. I wonder if Jesus ever wished that He could take a different path.

Isaiah writes, “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength in vain for nothing; yet surely the justice due to me is with Yahweh, and my reward with my God.” I get it. I've felt the same way. I often wonder if the work I do has any impact on others. Jesus did not see kings rise up or princes bow down once He began His ministry. He saw the rulers of His world reject Him and deny His words. Yet, He did not concern Himself with those failures; He went forth in faith knowing that He has been anointed to accomplish God’s will in this world. His ministry was never about Himself or His work; His task was to point to the One who sent Him. He was the promised servant through whom God would draw His people, both Jew and Gentile unto Himself.

But the words of Isaiah remind us that when we are disappointed and discouraged, we need only look to the promises and remember that God is with us to help us do everything He has called and gifted us to do. While we do not see evidence of success in our work in this world, we can trust that God is doing something we can’t see and He is faithful.

The work of Jesus was to bring salvation to the world. This is what John spoke about Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. John bore witness to the fact that Jesus was the One promised by the prophets. He pointed toward Jesus who pointed to God. John came to baptize people, to call for repentance and prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. He was not the savior, he did not save anyone. He simply pointed toward the One who was God’s salvation. What are we looking for? Are we looking for salvation, or are we looking for something that satisfies our own expectations.

The church at Corinth had numerous problems, among them immorality and misconceptions about what it meant to be a Christian. The church was divided as the people began following specific ministers rather than worshipping as one body in Christ Jesus. The focus had turned and the people were wandering in whatever direction they wanted to go, believing the doctrine that tickled their ears rather than that which was given by the witnesses like Paul. The people were following their own expectations rather than the Christ who is revealed in Jesus.

All too often, even in today’s world, we put our hope and our faith in the wrong things. We think we are able to bring salvation to people. There are those who count the number of souls they have saved by witnessing. There are pastors who plaster their pictures on billboards to call people into fellowship at his church. There are ministers who spend so much time on agendas and issues that they lose sight of God’s kingdom. We are just as likely to miss the Messiah like those in Jesus’ day when we seek our own expectations rather than see Him as He is revealed. We can’t see the Christ because we are so busy seeking the Jesus we want.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is still relevant to us today, since we are beset by divisions, immorality and the other troubles that early church experienced. Even more so, we need to read the words of Paul’s greeting to that congregation, for it sets our hearts and minds in the right direction. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus; that in everything you were enriched in him, in all speech and all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that you come behind in no gift; waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will also confirm you until the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” Paul had some very real issues to deal with in his letter, but he began by pointing them back to their salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ.

By God’s grace, the Corinthians had a sense of self assurance about their faith, an almost haughty understanding of their spirituality. They were a gifted congregation, both in word and in deed, able to do amazing things in the name and for the sake of the Gospel. Yet, they were also arrogant, thinking that they were more spiritual and gifted than others. They also began to credit their gifts to something they did rather than God had done. Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians to point them back to God, to remind them that He is faithful.

Paul began by pointing them back to their salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ. How easy it would have been for Paul or John the Baptist to take credit for the salvation of millions. Paul’s words have been read for nearly two thousand years and he has been a witness who has pointed a multitude of people to Christ. Yet, when John’s disciples were drawn toward Jesus, he did not try to hold on to them. He told them that Jesus was the anointed one, the chosen Messiah. He pointed out Jesus and sent them on their way. Paul reminded his readers that the grace they knew came from Jesus.

Even though Andrew did not answer Jesus’ question with his expectation of the Messiah, Jesus told him to “Come and see.” Even when we do not know how to answer the question, Jesus still calls us into a relationship with Him so that we will come and see.

Jesus dwelt among the people. He drew them into a relationship. He made them part of His community, and then sent them out to bring in others. Andrew listened to Jesus, and in the hearing knew that he’d found something new and different. He went to his brother Simon (Peter) and said, “We’ve found the Messiah.” Simon Peter became part of that community. Jesus was revealed at His baptism and then John testified about what he saw. Then the people followed Jesus, lived with Him and served with Him. They learned and grew and were transformed by His grace. The baptism may have been a very intimate and person moment in the life of Jesus Christ, but it was just the beginning of a very public and personal relationship between God and His people. It is a relationship that led to salvation, not just from worldly troubles but from the worst enemy: sin and death.

The words of the psalmist are the words of a child of God who has realized his own sinfulness and has cried out for the saving grace of his God. God is the peacemaker who went into the middle of the battle and shed His blood for the sake of others. He is the teacher that tried for many generations to speak the truth into their lives, but they did not hear. They did not see the truth even as the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, stood and spoke in their presence. So, He went to the cross and took the wrath that was released by our self-centered choices.

The servant in Isaiah said, “Yahweh has called me from the womb; from the inside of my mother he has mentioned my name,” and thanks to God’s grace we know that the servant is Jesus Christ. It is as God intended from the very beginning. Jesus was promised throughout the Old Testament and revealed in the New. Peter found Jesus because Andrew pointed to Him. Andrew found Jesus because John pointed to Him. John found Jesus because God pointed to Jesus and revealed Him to be the One for whom they were waiting to save them. “What are you looking for?” The answer to that question is “The Savior.”

We are called to point to Jesus. We are called to be witnesses to what we have seen; pointing to Jesus so that He might draw the people of the world into a life-saving and life-giving relationship with God. It isn’t about us; it never has been. Like John, we are nothing more than voices crying out in the wilderness. We might face difficulties, we might even be persecuted for our faith, but it is never in vain. God is faithful. He planned our salvation from the beginning of time, promised His Messiah through the ages and fulfilled all His promises in Jesus Christ. Let us go through each day, no matter what we face, with a song in our hearts and praise on our lips, pointing the way so that the world might see that which has been revealed in Christ Jesus.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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