Sunday, January 17, 2021

Come and see!

A Sermon preached on Epiphany II January 17, 2021 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51.

Mark’s Gospel often seems to be written by someone in a hurry – it is brief, very brief compared to the Gospel of John, it is intense, and it jumps right into the story of Jesus’ ministry, beginning with his Baptism. Yet if we ignore the prologue, so does John’s Gospel. And John squeezes the calling of the first disciples into just three days. First Jesus calls two men who had previously been followers of John the Baptist: Andrew (Simon Peter’s brother) and an unnamed disciple – possibly the so-called “beloved disciple”. The two of them decide to follow Jesus and recognise him as their teacher (rabbi). The next day Simon Peter is called: Andrew brings his brother to Jesus, “who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” (John 1:42) And then comes the passage we heard this morning. On the 3rd day Jesus decides to leave the river Jordan and go to Galilee, there he first finds and calls Philip, who then finds Nathanael, presumably a good friend, and introduces him to Jesus. That’s five followers in 3 days – not bad without social media! 

As is appropriate for the season of Epiphany – meaning revelation or manifestation – each successive encounter with new disciples reveals a little more about who Jesus is. John the Baptist calls him the Lamb of God (John 1:36) – one who will die a sacrificial death for the world; Andrew and friend call him Rabbi (1:38) – a teacher; Andrew calls him Messiah (1:41) – the anointed one; Philip says he is the Prophet like Moses (1:45); Nathanael calls him the Son of God and King of Israel (1:49) – come to liberate his people; and finally Jesus uses the term the Son of Man (1:51) – to whom according the Book of Daniel will be given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” (Daniel 7:14)

When Jesus tells Nathanael that “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” (John 1:51) he wants him to think of Jacob’s dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth (Genesis 28:12) and to see Jesus as a new connection between the two.  The Evangelist John does not leave us in the dark, he has no Messianic secret, he presents the whole truth about Jesus in each episode of his gospel.

It is also interesting to see the different reactions of the disciples. Andrew and companion, Simon, and Philip just turn and follow without question. Nathanael on the other hand is not so sure and initially resorts to light sarcasm: Can anything good come out of Nazareth, he asks. Nathanael comes from the nearby village of Cana, so his question is a bit like someone from Cologne asking, can anything good come out of Düsseldorf, or someone from Frankfurt saying, can anything good come out of Offenbach, or even someone from Mainz asking, can anything good come out of Wiesbaden?  [Not Brian, I hope.]

Anyway, Nathanael quickly changes his mind when he actually meets Jesus. He may not know Jesus, but Jesus already knows who he is: a true or genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit! A man who spends time studying scripture – under a fig tree – looking for God, looking for clues about the Messiah and how Israel will be saved. Nathanael means “one who sees God.” It seems that while he, like Andrew and Simon Peter, thought they were looking for the Messiah, the Messiah was already looking for them. ‘What are you looking for?’ Jesus asks. But knowing them, he knows the answer – they are looking for him, for his teaching, for his example, and for his love and so his invitation is simply ‘Come and see.’

Jesus does not care if people turn and follow the first time he calls, or the second, or the third or more. He is as persistent with Nathanael as the Lord was with Samuel in the Temple in the Old Testament passage. The Lord calls four times before Samuel answers, and is finally ready to listen, follow and obey. Samuel struggled to hear God’s call because he “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” (1 Samuel 3:7) Eli had to help him and tell him what to do. In those days, we heard, the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread. (1Samuel 3:1) Not just in those days, I fear.

As John tells the story of how the first disciples were called, we discover that they do not come to Jesus on their own. They are all introduced to Jesus. First John the Baptist, standing with two of his disciples, exclaims ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ as he watches Jesus walk by. (John 1:35-26) Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus. Philip brings Nathanael to Jesus. They were all looking for a saviour, a Messiah, a King. John, Andrew, and Philip help them find the one they were looking for.

People have not stopped looking for someone to follow, for a saviour, for a vision of truth. but too often they look in the wrong place, and find and follow false prophets: fearmongers, prophets of doom, leaders who feed our prejudices, men – mostly – who claim not only to have, but to be the answer. The later 19th century American social reformer Susan B. Anthony once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” Like the disciples in John’s Gospel, our role is to point people in the right direction, to bring them to Jesus, to introduce them to him with the simple words: Come and see!

But when we tell people to “come and see,” when we bring them here to this church for example, what do we show them? How do we show them Jesus today? We can and should point them to the Bible, to that written record of the acts of the Word of God. But that alone will not convince them unless we can show them that the word, both the written and the living word, that this Jesus who we claim to know, and be known by, makes a difference in our lives: In how we interact as a community, in how we welcome strangers, in how we reach out to those in need, in how we put the needs of others first, in how we acknowledge our weaknesses and mistakes and ask for forgiveness, in how we recognise and follow and in the end rely on a power much greater than ourselves.

Our Collect today also addressed this question – how do we show Jesus to the people we invite to come and see; how do we make him known? Let us pray it once again:

Almighty God, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever.  


Sunday, January 10, 2021

What for?


A Sermon preached on Epiphany I January 10, 2021 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

If you are having a sense of déjà vu after hearing today’s Gospel, that is only to be expected as you heard some of this reading about John the baptizer almost exactly a month ago, on the 2nd Sunday in Advent. And you would be forgiven for thinking that you had been caught up in a temporal anomaly – to use Star Trek language – or in “a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimeystuff" – to quote Dr. Who, as our chronology is currently all mixed up: Christ’s birth was followed only 3 days later by the murder of the Holy Innocents, after another 4 days by the feast of the Holy Name, recalling his public naming and circumcision. But then we had the flight to Egypt, followed by the appearance of the three Magi (who were the reason for the flight), and now today we have fast forwarded to Jesus’ Baptism at age 30 …. what is going on?

It has to do with how we read scripture. During the special seasons: Advent, Christmas/Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, we focus on special events and on passages that help explain and understand the message of that particular season. During what we call Ordinary Time, which this year is only two Sundays in February, and then the long period after Trinity Sunday until Christ the King, Gospel extracts will tend to follow the events as the Evangelist Mark wrote them down. The big theme of Epiphany, meaning revelation, appearance, or manifestation, is just that: revealing who Jesus is, manifesting his divinity, grasping his mission, and disclosing his power. In his Epiphany message, Bishop Mark wrote that Epiphany is the moment when Jesus is both manifested and recognized as the fulfilment of God’s promise to come and live among us.

To make very clear that the “us” in that promise is inclusive, the story of how Jesus is revealed to the gentiles, as represented by the pagan magi, is followed by the account of the revelation to the people of Israel of Jesus’ intimate relationship with God, as represented by the “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” who witnessed his baptism. And over the next weeks we will hear more about how Jesus reveals his mission to the disciples, as he calls them to follow him, and how his power is revealed in acts of loving healing before this season finishes with the Transfiguration, a final confirmation of Jesus’ divine nature and calling before his Passion. Then, on that mountain top, we will hear a voice from the cloud say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) echoing the words we heard the voice from heaven saying today, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

But apart from the chronology, our 30-year time jump, Jesus’ Baptism by John presents us with another problem, why? “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness,” we heard, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) But surely Jesus does not need to be baptised, he is sinless, we are taught, and therefore in no need of either repentance or forgiveness. On the contrary, he constantly dispenses the latter!

The Evangelist John is so embarrassed by this that he carefully does not directly refer to Jesus actually being baptised in his account of the event. And Matthew has John trying to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) But Mark has no time for that, Mark does not interpret much – he reports: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1:9)

In his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, the Scottish theologian and Bible commentator William Barclay writes that for Jesus, his baptism was indeed not about repentance or forgiveness, but about decision, identification, approval, and equipment. 

Except for a childhood appearance in the Temple, we hear nothing about how Jesus grew up – especially not in Mark’s Gospel that begins with the Baptism! As God came into the world as a human baby, he had to grow up first, be trained, experience life and then – according to Barclay – “Jesus knew when John emerged that the moment of decision had come. Nazareth was peaceful and home was sweet, but he answered the summons and challenge of God.”[1] If you were baptised as children, your parents took that first decision for you. But the fact that you are here today, or watching today, shows that you too have decided to answer the summons and challenge of God. Quoting our bishop again, which is always a good thing to do: “Epiphany is that moment in the annual cycle of enacting our faith that calls us forth to meet the world. It is our inherently evangelical feast; we are the ones now called on to manifest God’s purposes on earth, so that others will see, and come to, the light.” That is the Epiphany summons and challenge - to manifest God’s purposes on earth – that we have all decided to accept with our baptism and active membership of the Church.

The Incarnation is also about identification, about God choosing to fully identify with and share the lives of the one God created in God’s image. Jesus did not need to repent from sin, but Jesus wanted to identify himself with this movement of people back to God again. We too are called to identify with people in vastly different conditions than our own. The poor, the persecuted, the homeless, the refugee, the sick, the lonely. We do that not for our sake, but for their sake and for the sake of the one who sends us.  We would be poor Christians if we only looked out for ourselves and our own needs, and only mixed with one another.

Barclay also calls the baptism a moment of approval: “Jesus had decided on a course of action, and now was looking for the seal of approval from God.”[2] Did Jesus need approval? How much Jesus knew about who he was and what he was called to do at the beginning of his mission is one of the big theological questions. Was the divine hidden or dormant? In his letter to the Philippians (2:6-7), Paul writes that “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” And yet, as Mark’s Gospel will go on to show, the divine shines through in Jesus’ teaching and actions, and here in that voice from heaven calling him Son, Beloved, with whom God is well pleased. I don’t know if Jesus really needed approval, but we do! The good news for us is that we already know that we are God’s children, God’s beloved. That is what Jesus came to tell us, to remind us of, and to call us all to act accordingly, as we are created to be. God loves us unconditionally, let’s live up to it.

And because that is not as easy as it sounds, we need to be equipped for the task, just as Jesus receives the Spirit, described as descending like a dove on him, at his Baptism and like John’s disciples in Ephesus, in the episode described in Acts, who receive the Holy Spirit when Paul lays his hands upon them. We too are equipped at our own baptism, but also whenever we read or hear God’s word, and especially at the Eucharist when we receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, whether physically or spiritually. Sharing in Christ strengthens and renews us and equips us to be as Christ in the world.


[1] The Gospel of Mark, William Barclay (Westminster John Knox 2001), 21

[2] Ibid, 22