A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 19, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The high school I went to had somewhere around 2000 students.  There were three lunch periods, so there were as many as 700 students eating lunch at any one time.  And in New England in the winter, one really needs to eat indoors.  The way they dealt with this hoard was to have six lunchrooms scattered across the campus in six different buildings.  With six different lunchrooms, there was enough room for each clique to find their own space.  So I never had to eat with the jocks or the druggies or the motor heads.  I usually ate with the theatre and music geeks or the math nerds.

Like in every high school with a sizable student body across the United States – and maybe in any high school no matter how small – every kid had a place.  A few knew their place before they came to the school.  Most found their place very quickly, as if some divine hand was guiding us.

I wonder how many kids actually enjoyed being in their group.  If we could have picked a group, would we have stepped outside our self-perceived and peer-perceived caste and entered into another realm?  Would we have purposefully created a diverse group?  Maybe we weren’t mature enough to do so, but can you imagine a group of high school youth in your high school who would have welcomed any kid, no matter who they were or where they were on their life’s journey?

I can’t imagine that happening at Lexington High School – at least not while I was there more decades ago than I care to count.  No, we ended up in a group to which we were somehow assigned.  “We wouldn’t have used these words in high school, but we were living out what we assumed was our calling.  And it was very hard, next to impossible, to transition out of your group into another one.”[1]

Unlike what we assumed in high school, none of us are assigned to a clique or caste or station in life.  That is the last thing it means to receive a call from God.

In our reading from Isaiah, we hear the voice of a prophet singing about his calling.  (I say “his” because, given the social context, we assume this prophet was male.)  This is the second of four poems in the book of Isaiah that we call the “Servant Songs.”  We heard one of the four last week.  It is believed that all four were written during the exile.  In this song, the servant sings about human failings in the midst of a desire to fulfill the calling which the prophet senses existed from before birth.

Exactly who this servant is is unclear.  The servant is named “Israel” and is later sent by God to Israel.  Jewish interpretation tends to identify the servant as the community of Israel.  Classical Christian interpretation (as in John Calvin, among others) has found an anticipatory allusion of Jesus.  Historical criticism has attempted (and failed) to identify a nameable, known historical figure.[2]  But I think rather than trying to figure out who the servant is, we should just listen to the text itself and consider if we find ourselves.

The calling described here is not just to bring Israel back to God – that calling is “too light a thing,” too small a thing.  The calling described here is to be “a light to the nations” so that God’s “salvation can reach to the end of the earth.”  Imagine that.  Called by God to be a light to the nations.  That’s a mighty big task.

When it comes to our community, the Niles Discovery Church community, I’m hoping that being a light to the tri-cities is enough.  And if you’re like me, you may find even that narrowed-down task still to be a little daunting.  And if you’re like just about anybody God has called, your initial response is to say, “Who me?  I’m not good enough.”  Prophet after prophet says, “I’m not enough.”  I’m not old enough.  I’m not brave enough.  I’m not a good enough speaker.  So if you say, “I’m not enough,” you’re in good, called company.

Even in today’s reading, the Servant says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing.”  In other words, I’m a failure.  And God says, “I’m calling you to be a light to the nations.”

Niles Discovery Church – a light to the tri-cities.  Okay, so if we accept that calling, how do we do it?  I suggest we turn to the reading from John.

This encounter by the River Jordan is “very different from last week’s text from Matthew about the Baptism of Jesus.  Last week, the sky opened, the Spirit descended, and the voice of God testified about who this Jesus is.  This week, we move from divine words to human testimony, the ‘fragile and vulnerable testimony’ of John the Baptist, who admits that he didn’t even know who Jesus was at first.”[3]

John the Baptist performs two pastoral functions in this gospel:  baptism and testimony, and baptism is downplayed.  He doesn’t give any scathing sermons or dire warnings in this gospel.  There is mention that John has baptized people, including Jesus, but the gospel writer focuses on John the Baptist as one who offers testimony about Jesus.  “Here, the Baptists is an unimposing preacher who is ‘not the light’; his sole purpose is to bear testimony to the light.”[4]

John’s testimonies are lacking in content and a bit repetitious:  “Look!  The Lamb of God!”  When John identifies Jesus, he calls him ‘the Lamb of God,’ many, maybe even many of you, interpret those words to mean that Jesus is a “sacrificial lamb,” and start thinking about penal substitutionary atonement.[5]  It has been pointed out, however, that lambs weren’t used for sin sacrifices by the Hebrews.  The lamb is only for the Passover sacrifice, which remembers the liberation and deliverance of the people by God.  John the evangelist is portraying Jesus as the new Passover Lamb, an image that will be repeated toward the end of John’s gospel.  Jesus liberates the world from slavery.[6]

But John the Baptist (and John the evangelist) don’t unpack the testimony.  All the Baptist says is, “Look!  The Lamb of God!”  But that seems to be enough.  By pointing to Jesus, John even succeeds in getting two of his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus.

Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”  “Asked a momentous, life-challenging question by the one proclaimed as the Son of God, the followers reply by asking for Jesus’ address.”[7]  At first glance, that’s kind of funny.  But the disciples may not have missed the mark, whether they realized it or not.  Rather than getting themselves tied up on deep theological conversations or self analysis, they ask a question that will move them into relationship with Jesus.  Where are you staying?  They are seeking a person.  They are seeking Jesus, “to be with him, to know him, and to follow him.…  Their simple question challenges the church today to examine what we are seeking – Jesus or something else.”[8]

Jesus’ response is pretty pithy, too.  No long-winded sermon or theological discourse – just three simple words:  “Come and see.”  Rather than first asking these people to come to a full understanding of who Jesus is and then setting out to follow him, Jesus’ invitation brings these seeking close to him, into relationship with him.  “Come and see.”  Come to where I live.  Come to where I am.  And in coming to where Jesus is, lives are transformed.

When I got off of BART last Tuesday night in the City, the stairs I usually take from the platform were blocked off, so I walked down to the next staircase.  When I got up to the next level, I had to walk past the blocked-off stairs, and there was a crowd gathered around the stairs, looking down.  “Jeff,” I said to myself, “you really don’t need to see what they’re looking at,” thinking that maybe some interesting maintenance was going on.  But I stopped anyway and looked down into the stairwell.  And do you want to know what I saw?

As I was writing this sermon, I really wondered whether I should tell you what I saw.  I suspect that most of you are, at this point, with me as I got close to the railing, wondering what I will see.  That’s how it is when someone says, “Come and see.”  Our curiosity gets to us.  Karl Barth is supposed to have said that that anybody who stops on the sidewalk and points upward will draw a crowd of onlookers, each one looking up to see what’s captured another’s attention.[9]

Well, what I saw was some paramedics tending so someone on the stairs.  The stairs had been blocked off to allow the medics tend to the injured person without people walking past.

I’ve heard people say that what they would really like is a neon sign.

They would like for the sky to open and the voice of God to provide dramatic and clear instruction.  But maybe we’re missing the myriad ways that God is still speaking around us.  And maybe we’re missing the myriad ways that God is still speaking through us.

This gospel passage illustrates the call of the followers of Jesus to listen carefully, to live faithfully, and to tell the story of what God has done in the midst of their own transformed lives.

John the Baptist points toward the One who is salvation rather than drawing attention to himself.  Most of us would have to admit that one of the challenges of discipleship is not to lose sight of the true center and focus of our ministry:  Jesus.  Especially in the life of the church, it’s easy for the center and focus of our ministry to become all about us – or all about the building, or all about the program, etc.  Above all, it is not about loss, right?  We want to grow, to gain, to expand.  And yet, we hear, and feel, that discipleship costs.  What losses are we willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel?  Are we willing to forego recognition and popularity when we so easily enjoy both in the life of the church?

“Our calling, most of all, is to know and enjoy God.  Anyone who responds to this grace-filled call discovers freedom from anyone or any social group that tries to be a god in our lives.”[10]  After that, our calling is simply to be a light to the nations.  And we do that be giving our testimony of our stories of meeting Jesus.

The notion of predestination – at least in this life – that comes out of Calvinism is wrong, except for this:  We are all predestined to be loved by God.

We are not even predestined to experience that holy, gracious love.  I think we are given the freedom to accept that love or not.  Aside from being predestined to be loved by God, everything is quite open.  God does not assign us to a particular, unchangeable lot in life.  We are free to get up and eat at any table in any lunch room we choose.

And I choose to eat at this table,[11] Jesus’ table, because this is one of the places where I meet him and where I am nourished for my calling.

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] M. Craig Barnes, “Life after high school,” Christian Century, 11 December 2013, 35.

[2] Karen Georgia Thompson, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-19-2014.html (16 January 2014), citing Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 Westminster Bible Companion.

[3] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-19-2014.html (16 January 2014).

[4] William H. Willimon, “Reflection on the lectionary,” Christian Century, 8 January 2014, 19.

[5] Penal substitutionary atonement is the belief/theology that says that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was necessary for any of us to be forgiven by God.  This is a belief/theology that I reject.  If Jesus’ death were necessary for God’s forgiveness, how could Jesus tell people, “Your sins are forgiven,” something the gospels say he did regularly, before his death?  The opening paragraph on penal substitutionary atonement on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution) explains this theology and the page has a ton of information (which I haven’t read).   You might also like to read this (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/11/the-odious-penal-substitutionary-theory-of-atonement.html) blog post (read the whole post, please) and maybe even the links that go from it.

[6] Huey, op. cit.

[7] Ibid, quoting Charles Campbell, The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels.

[8] Ibid, again quoting Campbell.

[9] Willimon, op. cit.

[10] Barnes, op. cit.

[11] the communion table.

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