Sunday, January 19, 2014

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

He brought him unto Jesus.

I made soup and salad for dinner last night. We had roast chicken on Sunday and I thought that the leftovers would go well in a soup and in a salad. I first learned to make soup in Home Economics class in Junior High School. We followed a very specific recipe with the meat, diced vegetables, spices and other ingredients. The soup was delicious, but I have to admit that I lost that recipe a long time ago. My soup last night was a hodgepodge of leftovers. I had some stewed tomatoes and green beans from a meal a few days ago. I added some aromatics: celery, onion and carrot. I threw in some complimentary spices. And of course I added the chicken and chicken broth.

I learned how to make soup by following a very specific recipe, but throughout my life Iíve also watched as others cooked. I have learned a lot about flavor and technique by watching the cooking shows on television. Eventually I just started experimenting. When I am not sure about something, like cooking time or temperature, I try to find a similar recipe and use it as a reference. I have to admit that some of my creations do not turn out so well, although most of them are at least edible. Sometimes they are so good that I hope I can recreate it.

This is how we learn. We begin with words that explain how to do what we are trying to do, like a recipe. Most of us do not learn very well by just reading words on a page. We have to have someone explain it to us, like a teacher in a cooking class. Even then the learning is only minimal. We need to see how things are done as the teacher demonstrates technique, shows us how to measure, explains the use of the equipment. We learn best when we get our own hands dirty and try to do what we are learning. The chicken soup recipe would be a lost memory if Iíd only read it on a page, but because I can still see our teacher telling us about it and I can still feel myself cutting the chicken, I can take that lesson into my kitchen and make my own kind of soup today.

The Gospel lesson for today shows John pointing to Jesus and declaring that He is the Lamb of God. Iíd like to back up our text a few verses, beginning at John 1:19. In these verses, John tells the Jewish leaders that he is not the Christ. He admits that heís really a nobody compared to the One who is to come; heís just the messenger proclaiming the coming of the One for whom they were waiting. They wonder why he is baptizing if heís a nobody, but he says, ďI baptize in water: in the midst of you standeth one whom ye know not, even he that cometh after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose.Ē

Last week we heard about John baptizing Jesus even though he thought himself unworthy to do so. With that act of obedience, Jesus appears on the scene, and John witnesses the very thing that God told him he would see: the Holy Spirit resting on the One who He has sent. In todayís passage, John points to Jesus and tells them He was the One he was talking about. ďSee, thatís Him.Ē Finally, John tells two of his disciples that Jesus is the one, and they go on to follow Him. The story began with John speaking the words of the promise, then he showed the One who is the promise, then the disciples followed the Promised One. It wasnít enough to hear about Jesus, but they had to also see and follow Him to receive the promise.

We sometimes think that it is enough to just tell people about Jesus, but they need more. They need to see Him, they need to experience life in His presence. Can they do that if they are looking in from the outside? Thatís why we need to do more than give them the words. We need to point to Jesus, invite them in so that they can experience the love, mercy and grace of God within the community of saints. We need to be like Andrew, who went to his brother and dragged him to see Jesus. ďCome and see!Ē

Shouldnít we, too, want to drag those we love into the presence of God? Oh, I know, thatís sounds terribly narrow-minded and fanatical. Shouldnít people be able to decide for themselves? A generation of Christians has grown up with parents that did not want to force their faith on their children. They didnít attend Sunday school. They didnít even go to church. The parents chose to give the children the freedom to find out about Jesus on their own. But how will they ever learn if someone doesnít take them? How will they ever experience the love and mercy and grace of Jesus if they have not been dragged to church on a regular basis?

Yes, dragged to church sounds awful, and Iím sure many of the children who are dragged to church on a Sunday morning reject the idea of institutional religion for just that reason. But why is it seen as dragging? Why are those parents going to church? Are they going out of duty? Do they think that they have to force some sort of faith on their kids? Where is the joy? Where is the peace? Where is the hope that comes from being in a relationship with Christ?

It is no wonder that the servant in Isaiah felt frustrated by the work He was called to do. We know, of course, that the Servant Songs of Isaiah (chapters 42, 49, 50 and 53) are about our Lord Jesus Christ. The song we hear today is from the servantís perspective. In verse four the servant says, ďI have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nought and vanity.Ē The words may have been said about any generation, because we all go through periods in which we disappoint our God.

Look at Israel, Godís chosen people. I was looking through a concordance for the word ďpeaceĒ and I found dozens of times when it was written in the history books (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles). The nation of Israel was like a roller coaster ride. They lived under the care of a king whose heart was for God and they knew peace, but eventually the kingís children or grandchildren began to turn away, worshipping false gods and relying on pagan allies. After a few generations another king came whose heart was for God and the nation once again knew peace. It is no wonder that God was exasperated with His people!

We arenít any different. We continue to go through the roller coaster of faithful obedience to self-righteousness. This happens to denominations, churches, nations, and individuals. We look to God in faith but eventually the cares and temptations of the world turn us away. It takes Godís grace to bring us back. It took Jesus to make us His people. In the Servant Song, we see that the servant is not only sent to restore Israel, but to draw the whole world into Godís heart. Everyone is invited to experience Godís salvation. His grace reaches to the very ends of the earth.

But the world will not know Jesus if we let them find Him for themselves. Too many people have an eclectic faith, a faith based on what they want to believe. Oh, there are many who believe in Jesus, but they prefer to pick and choose the parts they want to believe. If they donít like one aspect of the scriptures, they explain it away as being specific to that time and place. If they donít like one aspect of Godís character, they claim that He isnít like that anymore. If thereís something about the Christian faith they do not believe, they site that it is nothing more than myth or superstition or a literary tool.

Yes, if I were God, if I were the Servant, I would be frustrated. We fail constantly to live up to the expectations of our faith. Willingly or not, we canít believe without some help. We canít be disciples if we just hear the words. It is not even enough that we hear and see. We have to experience God in Christ Jesus, dragging one another into His presence so that we will all be part of His Kingdom together.

I had a friend with whom I had several conversations about faith. She knew I was active in my church and that I really believed. She said she believed, too, but had not found a church to attend. I invited her to ours, but she had plenty of excuses. She didnít think she was good enough. She didnít accept the fact that churches are filled with people who are not good enough, but that we go because God loves us so much that He wants to help us transform into the people He has created us to be. She didnít have enough money. When I said that there is no financial requirement, she said she couldnít belong to a church that didnít require a tithe. It is no wonder that the Servant is frustrated. Maybe if Iíd dragged her to churchÖ

We canít do that, of course, with our neighbors. We can only encourage them to become part of a Christian community, to grow in their faith and experience the love, mercy and grace of God.

The problem here has been the use of the word ďdrag.Ē I suppose it is true that some children feel like they are being dragged to church. Quite frankly, there are many adults who feel that way, even though they have a choice. They go for all the wrong reasons. They live their faith only on Sunday morning and ignore God the rest of the week. They donít have that longing to be in His presence always. They want God to be available to them at their convenience, but to stand back when they are busy living in the world. The faith Jesus calls us to is deeper, fuller, eternal. It calls us to be part of something bigger.

I was disappointed, of course, that I couldnít convince my friend that she needed to find a church home. We are reminded in the text from Isaiah that even Jesus was disappointed. How can we expect anything less? That doesnít mean we shouldnít try. And 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 may not see evidence of our work in this world, we can trust that God is doing something we canít see and He is faithful.

The problem with my friendís attitude is that she thought she had to begin Ďgood enough.í The psalmist, however, understands that we donít begin good enough. We donít even end up good enough. We are made good by Godís grace. 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 had some very real issues to deal with in his letter. By Godís 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 a little more spiritual, a little more gifted. They also began to see themselves as gifted because of themselves, not because of what God had done. That is the whole point of the first letter to the Corinthians, to remind them that God is faithful and that He will get them through the good times and the bad.

What those who claim to be Christian but do not become part of a community of faith do not realize is that they are withholding the very gifts God has given them by staying apart. It is not enough to say that we are Christians and that our gifts will do amazing things. Our sophisticated tongue and superior wisdom are useless without Godís grace. The gifts are not given for us to be an island, to use them on our own or for our own benefit. They are given to be shared with the community of faith, to build up the church. Faith is not simply a personal relationship with God. It is a relationship within the kingdom of God, the body of believers and through it we will be sustained until the day of Christís return.

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. Paulís 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 Johnís 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.

John and Paul both knew that discipleship meant more than just hearing the word or even seeing Jesus; discipleship is about living in the faith we have been giving, following Jesus. It means not just speaking words to people or showing them what God is all about, but also dragging them into the fellowship of believers so that they too can grow and learn and share Godís grace with others.

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. We are called to do the same. We arenít called to be saviors, to bring salvation to the world. Rather, we are called to be witnesses to what we have seen; pointing to Jesus so that He might draw them into a relationship. It isnít about us, it never has been. As John, we are nothing more than voices crying out in the wilderness 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. We might sometimes be disappointed, but it is never in vain because God is always faithful.

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