Sunday, January 16, 2011

Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12 or (Psalm 40:1-11, NRSV)
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.

I went to college to be a teacher. I thought about being an art teacher, but there was something about the possibilities that frightened me. I wasn't sure I could deal with high school kids. I didn't know if I could handle the work in the art program at my college. I decided to do Elementary education because I was certain that it would be easier. I took the coward's way out, I took the easy path.

I don't regret the life I have. I have the most wonderful husband and great kids. I love our home, the life we have carved out for ourselves in our little corner of the world. As my kids are growing older, I'm rediscovering some of the gifts and talents I once used. I'm painting, pursuing photography and writing for publication later this year. Yet, I often wonder what successes I might have had if I had taken the harder road.

All too often we choose the easy way out, thinking that it would be better to keep our goals attainable rather than reaching beyond our abilities. We do this to avoid failure and rejection, but choosing the easy way is no guarantee. And the rewards of success in the hard things are more than we can imagine.

I was struck by the words of Isaiah, "It is too light a thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth." It was not enough for God's servant to save Israel: he was sent to be a light to the whole world. As it turned out, Jesus would have failed miserably if He had gone only for Israel, for they rejected Him. It was the harder path, the path that took Him into the whole world that brought salvation and peace. We may want to choose the easy path or do what we think is best, but God knows better than we can ever know.

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. 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 were looking for to save them from Rome. It must have been hard for John to point Jesus out to the crowds, because he was certain to lose followers if they knew the truth. But 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. When he spoke the words, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" some of his disciples followed Jesus.

Now, the disciples may have had the prophecy from Isaiah in mind when they followed Jesus, after all, John called Him the Lamb of God. Certainly this man would be the leader they were expecting. Certainly He would accomplish their every hope and dream for freedom and prosperity. He was the Messiah, right? He was the One who would fulfill God's promises. 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?

I love the answer of the disciples when Jesus asks, "What seek ye?" They answer, "Rabbi (which is to say, being interpreted, Teacher), where abideth thou?" Have you ever found yourself in the odd position of being asked a question by someone you have long sought but never expected to actually meet? Have you ever been tongue-tied when meeting a person of importance or celebrity? I imagine that's what happened with Andrew and the other disciple. Why else would they ask, "Where are you staying?"

It is like the time I met Rick Springfield. I was at a gas station on the Pennsylvania Turnpike with my mom and a friend. It was late at night and we were headed home. But we needed a quick break to use the rest room and get something to drink for the rest of the ride home. While in the rest area, we overheard the whispers about the bus in the parking lot. "It's Rick Springfield," they said. Well, we were teenage girls and Rick Springfield was our Justin Bieber. We had to meet him. So, we found some paper and stood halfway between the rest area and the bus, excitedly waiting for him to pass.

When he passed by, he graciously gave us his autograph, despite his own exhaustion from his concert that evening and the late hour of the night. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity, to impress him with something humorous or intelligent. Instead, I said something completely stupid. In the end, he gave me a sweet smile as if he knew I was over my head with excitement (he'd probably experienced it a million times with other girls.)

We've all had those experiences, and they don't always come because we are faced with a star. Sometimes we are tongue-tied by the circumstances or the words of another. What do you say when your daughter notices the mole on an elderly woman's face and says, "What's that?" What do you say when your best friend wants to buy the most hideous wedding dress on the rack? What do you say when blue haired Aunt Bertha brings that disgusting Jell-O salad she's been trying to get you to eat since you were a child? Sometimes we just can't find the right words.

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.

Jesus did not see the kings rise up or the princes bow down to worship Him. He saw the rulers of His world reject Him and deny His words. Yet, He did not concern Himself with His 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, but it was to point to the One by whom He was sent. He was the servant through whom God would draw His people, both Jew and Gentile unto Himself.

Isaiah writes, “But I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nought and vanity; yet surely the justice due to me is with Jehovah, and my recompense with my God.” I get it. I've felt the same way. I often wonder if the work I do online and in my church life have any impact on others.

But these words 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 all that He has called us to do. While we do not see evidence of our work in this world, we can trust that God is doing something we can’t see and He is faithful.

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.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is still relevant to us today, since we are beset by divisions, immorality and other troubles just like the early church. 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 thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus; that in everything ye were enriched in him, in all utterance and all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye be unreproveable in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom ye 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.

How easy it would have been for Paul or John the Baptist to take credit for the salvation of millions. 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’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. Peter found Jesus because Andrew pointed to Him. Andrew found Jesus because John pointed to Him. John found Jesus because God Himself pointed to Jesus and revealed Him to be the One for whom they were waiting.

Jesus brought a different kind of ministry to the people. Jesus dwelt among the people. He drew them into a relationship with Him. 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. Come and see.” 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.

But following Jesus is never an easy path. Jesus did not receive respect or appreciation for the people He came to serve; we can't expect to experience anything better. It is much easier to take a path that leads us to a place we want to go rather than the place where God wants us to go. Transformation means change; education means seeing the world through new eyes; faith means sharing God's grace with others, including our enemies.

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