Monday, January 22, 2018

A Sermon for Epiphany 3, Morning Prayer – Follow and Invite

Before I begin, I want to let you know that I read St. Augustine’s sermon on our 2nd lesson from St. John today.  And it is a rather lengthy sermon.  Well at the end of it he admits that he made his sermon a bit long on purpose.  There was a pagan festival going on in the city and he wanted to reduce the opportunity of churchgoers to leave and join the pagans!  And St. Augustine admitted that’s what he was up to!  Well, I am unaware of any pagan festivals going on in town today, so I do not plan to prolong this sermon.

2018 is a year in which we experience a short Epiphany season.  So it turns out this is the last Sunday before we transition into the Pre-Lent season, into the ‘gesimas if you will.

The Christmas and Epiphany seasons present to us the Incarnation and then the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world in his First Advent.  The Pre-Lent and Lent seasons then ask how are we going to respond, with Lent especially asking how are we going to do better in responding.

We have a foretaste of that in the Collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany:

O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We thereby ask God for help in responding every day to Christmas and to the Epiphany of our Lord.

This is also reflected in the Epistle Lessons for the first three Sundays after Epiphany from Romans chapter 12, which focuses on our living out our response to God.

So how should we respond to the Incarnation and Epiphany of our Lord?  Well, we have a simple picture of how we should respond in the early responses of some of the apostles in our second lesson from the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John.

John chapter 1 is very central to Christmas and to the Epiphany.  The prologue of St. John wonderfully presents the Incarnation of Christ – the Son of God becoming God with us – a man like us, yet without sin, yet still very God of very God.  Then we see the testimony of John the Baptist, including his account of the baptism of our Lord, which is one of the three key events on which the Epiphany season focuses.  (The other two are the visitation of the infant Jesus by the Magi and Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding at Cana.)

Then we come to verse 35:
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, [By the way, we shall find out that one of the disciples was Andrew.  The other was likely John the Evangelist, the writer of this Gospel.] and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this,…

…And let’s stop right there.  For we are at a pivotal moment.  How will the two disciples of John the Baptist respond?  Well, let’s look at what the scripture does not say. The text does not say, “The two disciples heard John the Baptist say this and replied, “Thank you, John, for pointing out the Lamb of God.  That is very good to know, and we believe. Yep….  What’s for lunch?”

The way the two disciples responded to this epiphany was not mere intellectual assent that made no change in their lives.  Biblical belief is not mere intellectual assent.  So-called belief that does not change one’s life is not belief that saves one’s life.  True faith in Christ, the faith that saves, changes ones life.  God even uses such faith to make one “a new creature” as St. Paul wrote; God uses such faith to make one “born again” as St. John wrote later in his Gospel.

Now I do not presume to think I know the boundary between mere intellectual assent and faith that saves.  Instead, let’s allow the two disciples to demonstrate genuine faith.  Let’s go back to the text and see what did happen:

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.

Their response was to follow Jesus.  And that even though did not know where Jesus was going to lead them, not even on that first day.  They asked Jesus, “Where are you staying?”  Note that Jesus did not tell them right away.  Instead He said, “Come and see.”

They followed Jesus; they trusted Jesus, not a set itinerary.  They trusted and followed Jesus though they did not know where he would lead them.  Both after three years would find out that meant following the Messiah who would die a criminal’s death for our sins, then rise from the dead to defeat death, then ascend to the right hand of the Father. 

That was certainly not what the two were expecting. Further, following Jesus meant different itineraries, different life paths for the two.  Andrew would suffer a martyr’s death.  John, though persecuted, would not be martyred but instead live to a ripe old age.

It is that way for us.  We follow the same Jesus.  And here I should interject that we do not follow versions of Jesus manipulated to our own liking.  It is interesting that just about every religion has some version of Jesus that is not the real Jesus proclaimed by the apostles. Islam, for example, acknowledges Jesus.  But Islam denies that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead.  That’s not the real Jesus.  Individual people, too, often want a Jesus to their liking instead of conforming their lives to the Lordship of Christ.  There is something in human nature that is compelled to acknowledge Jesus yet deny him at the same time.

But we who are Christians follow the same Jesus, the real Jesus.  But just exactly where He leads us in this life may be different for each of us. To give just a few examples, for some following Jesus may mean trusting him for one’s needs in poverty.  For others it may mean generosity and meeting others’ needs in prosperity.  And many are called to do both in a lifetime.  For some following Jesus may mean love and faithfulness in parenting a multitude of children as we are blessed to see in this congregation.  For others following Jesus may mean faithfulness and contentment in singleness.

By the way, the church historically has had difficulties in these areas.  It was once thought that to be really holy one should take a vow of poverty.  Now you turn on the television and find out that holiness equals prosperity!

Well, I’m being unfair there.  Most television preachers do not mention holiness at all.

The church has had even more difficulty with singleness and family life.  In early medieval times, it was thought that the way to be really holy was to take a vow of celibacy and become a monk or a nun or a priest.  Getting married and having children were seen as necessary but lesser paths.  On the other hand, today in the American church, those who remain single are often seen as not as advanced in the Christian life as those who are married with children – and that understates the negative attitudes of some.

The situation today is odd when you think about it.  Take expectations for ministry.  The Roman Catholic Church requires all priests to be single and celibate.  But in many Protestant churches it seems to be a requirement that all senior ministers be married!

There is a balance and that is that all Christians are called to follow Jesus, but that calling is not identical in all the specifics of life.  Yes, we are all to trust Jesus.  Yes, we are all to pray, to hear his word, to love him, and to love others.  But God makes us his children, not identical clones.  We are to be different, diverse, to use a much abused word, with different talents, different ministries, different callings.  Some are called to be holy in poverty; others holy in prosperity; some holy in family life; others holy in singleness.  And so on.

But in every case, following Jesus means trusting in Jesus rather than following and trusting in some life plan.  Certainly, Andrew and John did not know where following Jesus would lead them.  But they followed him faithfully anyway.

Let’s see another important way Andrew and another disciple responded to Jesus:

One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

Both Andrew and Phillip not only followed Jesus, they invited others to meet him.  Now it’s interesting that this happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  It is likely that Jesus had not yet given them much instruction in evangelism.  Certainly, Phillip and Andrew were just beginning to learn about following Jesus.  Yet this early on, they were inviting friends and family to Jesus.  Why?

Because they were excited about Jesus.  So excited they could not keep Jesus to themselves.  They quickly came to love Jesus, and out of their love for friends and family, they wanted them to meet Jesus, too.  It was practically instinct for them.  It was their very natural response to meeting Jesus.

When we really get to know how excellent Jesus is, and how wonderful his Incarnation and Epiphany and all his wonderful works are, then we can’t just keep it to ourselves.  Our instinct is to respond by inviting others to meet Jesus.  And that is how it should be.  The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is not meant to be kept to ourselves!

And note that Andrew and Phillip did not try to argue people into believing in Jesus.  When Nathaniel skeptically asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, Phillip simply replied, “Come and see.”  Come and see for yourself.

And I think you will find that more come to Jesus because someone simply invited them to come and see rather than because they lost an argument.  Now certainly, as St. Peter exhorts, we should be ready to give reasons for our hope.  But much of the time simply giving a winsome invitation to “come and see” is more effective.  And we see Jesus certainly used that in Nathaniel’s case, taking care of his skepticism quite effectively:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

And Nathanael, also known as Bartholomew, followed Jesus.  He, too, eventually found that path led to martyrdom, but also to great glory as Jesus Himself prophesied:

Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

And that’s the way for us who follow Jesus . . . well, hopefully not martyrdom, but, yes, hardship and crosses to bear, as the collect for today mentions “infirmities,…dangers and necessities,” but also great joy in this life and great glory to come.  As St. Paul wrote, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom 8:18)

So how do we respond to the glorious truths about Jesus we have been shown during the Christmas and Epiphany seasons? How do we respond to His Incarnation and to His revelation to the world? Andrew and Phillip got it right – we follow Jesus, and we invite others to “come and see” and to meet Jesus.

May God help us by His Holy Spirit to do so joyfully and faithfully wherever Jesus leads us.  Amen.

Let us pray.

Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities, and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

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