Sunday, January 19, 2020

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

I have not hidden your righteousness within my heart. I have declared your faithfulness and your salvation. I have not concealed your loving kindness and your truth from the great assembly.

My favorite part of working in retail was setting up shelving. Those who have worked in a store know that some person in a corporate office makes the decision about what a unit will look like. They have all the items and they figure out what pieces will go where. They take a photo of their work, and then send the plan-o-gram to the stores, who are then required to make the shelves look exactly the same way. This meant consistency for the customers; if an item was in one place in one store, they should be able to find it in the same place in another. Despite the lack of creativity involved in these projects, I loved following the map and putting up the new merchandise. I loved it so much I even worked on a team that set up brand new stores.

It was not always easy. It was often like trying to place the pieces of a puzzle together, that’s probably why I liked it so much. Though the stores used shelving units that were supposed to be identical, they weren’t always the same. The developers in corporate had a perfect shelf unit or pegboard to work with. We often had shelving units that were falling apart, or pieced together from leftovers. In one store, we still had the ancient display tables that were completely different than usual shelving units. We had to lay half the merchandise on tables even though it was meant to be hung from hooks. If the pegboard was cut even a fraction of an inch differently than the one in the plan-o-gram, the entire display went off kilter.

We ran into another problem. The plan-o-grams were designed with a specific item in mind for each hook and shelf. However, manufacturers are constantly changing and redeveloping their products. The stationary aisle was especially difficult. We would set the hook up to hold a hanging card with one pen, but the manufacturer sent an item that was “buy one, get one free.” Instead of a two inch by six inch package, the package arrived as three inch by six inch. That one inch difference made it impossible to fit that item where it belonged in the display. The manufacturer never realized the impact of their decisions. The changes were probably good ones; it was better for the customers, retailers and the manufacturers. However, it made our job much harder. It took hours of work to rearrange the items.

We don’t know what impact something we do will have on the lives of others. There is a theory called the “butterfly effect” which says that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas. This seems absolutely impossible, but theory suggests that the flap of a wing changes the world around it which causes ripples that grow and grow and grow until the conditions are perfect for a tornado to form. While I’m not sure a butterfly has ever caused a tornado, small things can have a huge impact on the world. We never know when a kind word will change the course of a day for one person that might cause them to do something that will affect thousands of people. I’ve seen a video of a young boy who helped an elderly woman climb a set of stairs. The boy didn’t even realize he was being videotaped, but at this point millions of people have watched his good deed. At least a few of those people saw his example and did something nice for someone they met that day. For some, the impact was even greater as their perspective on the world changed in a great way.

We don’t know whether planting a flower might make a neighborhood more beautiful. We don’t know how one small act of kindness might change the life of a person who is suffering. We don’t know how our witness might bring the Gospel to a new generation of preachers. All we know is that God has done great things for us. He has even put words of praise in our hearts and in our mouths. That song we sing might just change the world.

More than two thousand years after he lived, we know that John the Baptist had a huge impact on the world. We can see that his preaching made a difference in the lives of a few and we know that those few went on to make a difference in the lives of others. Andrew heard him talk about Jesus and he invited his brother Peter to “Come and see.” We certainly know what an impact Peter had on the Church and the world, but Andrew is not so well known. He is remembered in the scriptures as the one who had faith enough to give Jesus five loaves and two fish to feed thousands. Even though Andrew is not one of the better known apostles, his invitation had far reaching impact.

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.

So, when John saw Jesus, he proclaimed the Good News. Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In the verses preceding our text, John answered the question of the Jewish leaders that he was not the Christ. He admitted that he’s really a nobody compared to the One who was to come; he was 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.” That confession of faith had eternal consequences because it pointed some of the first disciples to Jesus.

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 was 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. 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.

The Epiphany season is when we 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 expectations based on their understanding of those Old Testament promises. They were looking for a king that would save them from Roman occupation. They wanted to return to the glory days of David. 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 just as God promised and John proclaimed.

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 someone 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?

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.

Isaiah wrote, “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. Like John, I know I’m a nobody compared to the One who came to fulfill all God’s promises. 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 knowing that He was anointed to accomplish God’s will in this world. His ministry was never about Himself; He did what His Father sent Him to do. He was the promised servant through whom God would draw His people, both Jew and Gentile, unto Himself.

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. Our little acts, whatever they might be, can have a huge impact on our world.

That impact can be positive, but it can also be negative.

When I was a preschool teacher, we had some sandboxes on the playground. One day our sandboxes were filled with water from recent rains. We decided to allow the children to play in the sandboxes anyway, and we covered them in smocks hoping that they would not make too much of a mess. It was fine at first, only the occasional slip of the shovel that brought droplets of muddy water onto the arms and smocks of the other children. As the sandboxes got more crowded, some of the children began to play without smocks. By then the splashing mud was no longer an accident, they were throwing mud at one another. Several children were covered from head to toe. When I tried to intervene, they got mud on my clothes.

We aren’t much different than four year olds even though we are grown. Our toys are different and the mud we sling is not necessarily made with dirt and water. We are selfish and vengeful. We will do anything to get our way no matter who gets hurt in the process. Unfortunately, many of these battles are not so easy to clean up. Mud comes out of hair and clothing, but spiritual mud can be difficult to remove. We are wallowing in the mud of sin and death and the consequences are sometimes eternal.

I tried to be a peacemaker from a distance, to tell the children how they should act with kind but firm words. It did not help. I had to get right in the middle of the situation, take some of the mud myself, before I could make a difference. We closed down the sandboxes and took the messy children inside. The bathrooms became muddy messes. We put clean clothes on the children that were extremely dirty. We will have to adjust our rules for the sandbox to ensure that this problem did not happen again.

All this happened because some children were selfish and vengeful. Are we any different? We don’t see the effects of our own self-centeredness but there are others who follow in our wake that suffer from the effects. There are no victimless sins, they all spread some degree of darkness and destruction into the lives of others. This is true for all of us, for we are all sinners in need of a Savior.

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 Jesus Incarnate Word stood and spoke in their presence. So, He went to the cross and took the wrath that was released by our self-centeredness. He brought us out of the mud, made things new and gave us a new life to live in Him.

The “butterfly effect” might be negative, but it might also be positive. While it is possible that the flap of one butterfly wing might cause a tornado in Texas, it is also possible that the same flap might change the world for the better. 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. Andrew heard John’s words and invited his brother to come and see. They were nobodies compared to the One who came to save the world, but their little acts shared Jesus with the world.

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 aren’t called to be saviors. 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 isn’t about us, it never has been. Like the butterfly, we flap our wings and God brings change to the world we may never really see. Like 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. Like Andrew, we are called to invite others to “Come and see,” so that they will experience the amazing grace of the God who is faithful, who fulfills all His promises.

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