Sunday, January 20, 2008

Epiphany Two
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: Many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in Jehovah.

Those who have teenagers understand exactly what I mean when I say that our words fall on deaf ears. I don’t know at what point it happens, but it seems like one day our kids just stop listening to us. We might tell them an irrefutable truth, but they don’t believe us. They think they know it all. They become independent, a good thing, but that maturity comes with a need to reject parental advice and suggestions. I can’t count the number of times when I have made a comment to my kids which they shrugged off or ignored, but then later accepted when told to them by a teacher or other adult in their world. Sometimes it seems like the things I have done with and for my kids were done in vain.

I know this is not true. I know that someday my kids will appreciate the sacrifices that I made to give them the life that they have had. I know that someday they will remember the things that I taught them as they grew into maturity. The seeds planted when they were tiny, innocent and still listening to me will grow as they continue to mature. They will see it when they have children of their own. I know I did. When my mother was still alive, I used to call her regularly and apologize. She knew what I was doing. “What did Vicki do now?” I recognized in my daughter’s actions the very things I had done as a child. I suppose if there is hope for me, there is hope for her, too.

I wonder if Jesus was ever disappointed. I wonder if He was saddened by all those who rejected Him. I wonder if He ever felt discouraged, wishing He could find the right thing to say to convince people that He was who He said He said He was. I wonder if He ever wanted to give up the mission and just go home, seeing how little impact He was having on the world. 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 can identify with Isaiah. I have been disappointed after teaching a class or leading a workshop to find that my words fell on deaf ears. I often wonder whether “MIDWEEK OASIS” and “A WORD FOR TODAY” actually have an impact on the people who receive them. It is selfish and faithless for me to have these doubts, I know. But I still wonder.

Certainly the words found in Isaiah are words with which I can identify. These words remind us, however, 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. “Thus saith Jehovah, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers: Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall worship; because of Jehovah that is faithful, even the Holy One of Israel, who hath chosen thee.”

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. “And now saith Jehovah that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, and that Israel be gathered unto him (for I am honorable in the eyes of Jehovah, and my God is become my strength); yea, he saith, 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.”

I may be lucky enough to see the fruit of my labors in the lives of my kids. I might even catch a glimpse of the impact I have had through ministry. I might not. However, we are called to go forth in faith, trusting that God is doing good things in this world. He is able to use the ministry we do each day, no matter how insignificant and inadequate it may seem to us. Our work and words are not in vain when we help others learn about Jesus and grow in Christian maturity, because God is the mover and source of our ministry. He is faithful, He has chosen us to be His witnesses and He will give value to our work.

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 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. That might sound extreme, but it could happen.

John the Baptist had a big impact on the world. His preaching made a difference in the lives of a few and those few went on to make a difference in the lives of others. We certainly know what an impact Peter had on the Church and the world. We also see it in Andrew, but not so much. He is remembered in the scriptures as the one who had faith enough to give Jesus five loaves and two fish to feed thousands. He is also remembered for inviting his brother Peter to “come and see” the Messiah. Even though Andrew is not one of the better known apostles, his invitation had far reaching impact.

Small actions can have huge impact. We don’t know when a kind word will change the course of a day for thousands of people. We don’t know that 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.

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 behavior. He brought us out of the mud, made things new and gave us a new life to live in Him.

We aren’t much different than four year olds playing in a muddy sandbox. It begins fine, with children cooperating to stay clean even while playing in the mud. But as the sandbox becomes crowded, mud begins to fly—not by accident. Children end up covered with mud, in their hair and on their clothes. 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.

We don’t see the affects of our own self-centeredness but there are others who follow in our wake that suffer from the effects. There are no sins that affect only the sinner – 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 work of Christ was to bring salvation to the world.

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 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.

Paul had some very real issues to deal with in his letter. 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 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.

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 God’s 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 Christ’s 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. 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.

John the Baptist was a loner. He was strange, not living up to the standards of the typical holy man of his day. He attracted great crowds, but he wasn’t part of the community. I doubt anyone was inviting him over for tea in the afternoon or a barbeque in the evening. They came to hear him preach, to be baptized, but he was a loner. That may have been part of the attraction. The listeners had nothing invested in the relationship. They could listen and when they were done listening, they could leave. John’s words might have made a difference in their lives, but they might not have.

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. 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.

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, 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 isn’t 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. It is never in vain because God is faithful.

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