January 17, 2021
I don’t know how well I managed to express myself last week… I was still caught up in the emotion of the dismal display of a mob in action… watching… to borrow some words from our first reading… watching the consequences of unrestrained iniquity. So before we read our passage today from the Gospel of John, I want to go back and recap the messages our scripture readings have brought us in January.
Because that Wednesday… that Wednesday when darkness was on display for all with eyes to see… that Wednesday was Epiphany… the day when the Magi experience that something in Bethlehem… that something when they finally arrive at the door of the holy family… that something that sends them home physically… and I want to believe spiritually… by another road. You remember that story that we hear every year… how the Magi first go to Herod’s palace to find the Christ child and instead find fear… fear of loss of power and position… fear and grievance… fear and lies… fear and the easy plan to murder children… to unleash violence as an appropriate means to a desired end. Fear… when on Christmas and before the message of good news always began with the declaration “Do not be afraid.” The good news of Christ is not based on fear… does not play to your fears… does not have an underlying threat to it that you should fear.
It’s one of those red flags that should pop up in your Christian awareness… the use of fear… the language of fear… the consequences of unrestrained fear. Fear is the fuel that drives propaganda. Fear is the wall that surrounds tribalism. Fear is the mind killer and the hardener of hearts. Fear is the tool of the mob. Do not be afraid for I bring you good news of great joy.
The Sunday following Epiphany, we are always reminded how Jesus is anointed as the Christ in the waters of repentance. The failure of much of American Evangelicalism today is that after Bethlehem, they decided to return to Herod’s palace and put their hope in Jerusalem’s power rather than the waters of repentance. Such alliances have consequences. John the Baptizer has little patience for such hypocrisy… and the lusts of a Herod is what will later separate John’s head from his shoulders. You can’t stand with both John and Herod. Repentance does not work that way. Repentance is not the pointing of the finger… is not the detailing of others’ sins and the downplaying of your own. Repentance is not the game of pointing out that those others… those others did it first so your guilt is somehow covered by their sin. Repentance is not a simple cheap avoidance of accountability… but is an acknowledgement of our own iniquity and the consequences of that iniquity. Repentance decenters the self… and puts God in God’s rightful place for our lives. Repentance… repentance is opening your eyes to the truth of God. Repentance is finally hearing all those words we use that express what God has revealed… is revealing… will reveal in the days ahead. Those words are scattered all over our liturgy. Repentance is finally hearing the prayers we say week after week after week… hearing and knowing that we all fall short of the way of God… hearing and knowing that we all require a savior… that we cannot save ourselves… that we are sinners whose every action no matter the goodness of our intentions… every action we take is tainted with sin. That is why John’s baptism is never enough. That is why there is the one who will follow… who will baptized in blood and Spirit. The truth of that one is revealed in the waters of baptism… but that revelation is only the beginning.
So… at Epiphany God is revealed and that revelation cannot be contained or controlled through fear… that revelation will spread beyond any of the boundaries sin and fear will try to build to contain the good news… that revelation alone points us to another way.
On Baptism of the Lord Sunday, God is revealed and that revelation will require a response on our part… confession… contrition… humility… repentance. Today… Jesus calls you to the truth he brings into the world… calls you once again to follow him. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from the first chapter of John’s gospel starting at verse 43.
READ John 1:43-51
I have to say… I like the call of Nathanael so much more than Philip. Jesus finds Philip… says “Follow me.” And that’s it. His is like the other call stories we have from the front of the gospels. Jesus says, “Follow me.” And immediately everyone just drops everything and does. It’s a great story… but for me… a bit hard to relate to. I can’t say that my experience is as immediate. Nathanael is more relatable, perhaps, with his snarky question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” See… that’s us… or me at least. That’s what we do… whether it is at the beginning when we’re asked to follow Jesus… I mean, really follow Jesus… not just acknowledge his presence or go through the motions at whatever church we’re attending… but really commit to discipleship. That’s us at the beginning… “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”… and that’s us at multiple points on our faith journey as we stop following and start remaking Jesus in our own image… whenever we’re reminded of the disconnect of our self-created Jesus and the Jesus who is revealed.
This idea of call is so important to our own faith journey… especially where that journey will take us. These are the first steps… and they are first steps that can happen at anytime and sometimes even happens more than once. I know… I know… that sounds like one of those preacher statements… but call is like repentance… it’s not a one and done event.
Let’s talk baptism theology for a bit. Baptism theology is a point where Christians differ. Here is our understanding… because that’s my job isn’t it… to tell you our tradition’s understanding and why we believe what we believe. We understand baptism as a sign… a sign of what God has already done. God first. When we baptize someone… at any age… at any point in life… what we are acknowledging more than anything is God’s call… God’s claim on our lives… God calls us by name and says, “You are mine.” We acknowledge then the work of the Holy Spirit in that person’s whole life… not just there in that moment with the water… but that the Spirit is at work and will be at work in the days ahead. When the congregation vows to raise a child in the faith or to join with an older individual on their journey of faith… we are following what God is already doing through the Holy Spirit. A baptized infant grows and at some point that person has to acknowledge God’s call… God’s claim upon their life… has to take responsibility for their discipleship… has to submit to the work of the Spirit that has been ongoing in their lives since the time God claimed them as God’s own.
God reveals who God is. God calls, “Follow me.” We respond. That is so important to understand. But that gets flipped around doesn’t it? That gets flipped around where it starts with the self… and the message that you must find God… you must claim God… you must call God to be your God. That’s not the way scripture tells the story. It doesn’t start with you. And for good reason… reason that we can readily witness at work all around us… the consequences of bad theology are clear… because the God we seek will be the God we want to find… will be the God who will satisfy my longings… will be the God who supports my place in the world… will be the God who is indistinguishable from my politics or from my prejudices… will be the God of little cost to me but of great and horrible judgment for all others who I perceive stands against me and my God. It’s arrogant and foolish for us to think that Christians can’t be radicalized… of course they can… and it begins with bad theology… a self-oriented theology that doesn’t begin with the God who has been revealed but with the God we want to find… and to act… and to be towards our enemies.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nathanael already knows the answer to his own question. Imagine Nathanael… imagine the story of Nathanael as he seeks for the God to whom he will lay claim. Guess where Nathanael isn’t going… if that’s the way the story is told. Guess what Nathanael’s reaction will be to the Jesus of Nazareth who so clearly already doesn’t meet his standards for who God’s messiah ought to be.
Discipleship isn’t easy… it isn’t nice and neat and easily outlined. How quickly Nathanael goes from his slur against Nazareth to proclaiming to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” And Jesus says why? Why because I performed an amazing trick in your eyes? Want to see me pull a rabbit out of a hat? Will that further satisfy your notions of who I’m supposed to be? Follow me and I will reveal to you the Christ and you will know God. Follow me and after every new revelation… after every act of mercy and grace… after every revelation of the cost of your discipleship… after every hard truth that doesn’t support the lies you carry… after every disappointment that makes you want to stop… I will say to you again… Follow me for I have called you by name and claimed you as my own. I have led you where you did not want to go… but where you needed to be. I have shown you a way that will call you to a lifetime of service to others. I will set you on a path of discipleship that will lead you to carry your own cross, to die to the call of this world, and to be raised up by the glory of God.
Saints, these are dark days that try our souls. The God who is revealed through Jesus Christ is still the same God of steadfast love… the same God of mercy and grace… the same God who has called each of you by name and the same God whose Spirit abides with us. Like you, both Philip and Nathanael were called… but these were their first steps at the beginning of their discipleship in the shared ministry of Christ. The challenge for Nathanael… as is the challenge for each of us… is not that at the beginning we can declare to Christ, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”… the challenge is that we can make that declaration all along the journey of faith as our discipleship meets Christ’s revelation for our lives. Discipleship is our response to the darkness. If you want to double down somewhere… double down with discipleship in the days ahead… discipleship that begins in the light revealed through promise, through the law, through the prophets… light fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of the Son… light to which we respond through faith and service each and every day. Amen.