Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 19, 2020
To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make
the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us;
none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt-offering and sin-offering
you have not required.
Then I said, ‘Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.’
I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation.
Do not, O Lord, withhold
your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
keep me safe for ever.
For evils have encompassed me
my iniquities have overtaken me,
until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me.
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me.
Let all those be put to shame and confusion
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonour
who desire my hurt.
Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, ‘Aha, Aha!’
But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God.
The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
Sometimes on a snowy Sunday morning in Toronto it is hard to take your mind and imagination all the way back to the River Jordan two thousand years ago. You have to visualize the people tramping miles out into the countryside in the blazing sun to listen to the Baptist, the crowds milling around the river’s edge, people picnicking along the riverbanks, kids playing tag or leapfrog while they waited for their parents. Perhaps chasing minnows in the bulrushes or catching dragonflies.
Perhaps touching to picture farmers and fishermen and humble townspeople fretting and offering fervent little prayers as they worked up their nerve to step forward and be baptized. Or later, setting off for home in a strange state of euphoria, feeling deeply moved and somehow made right with God and reconciled to the world. I wonder what happened in the lives of people who had been baptized by John. Were they happier? Easier to get along with? More devout?
It’s not easy to grasp the motivation. They must have been feeling pretty bad to be attracted to such radical preaching in the first place. Hard to imagine what pressures and stresses that they would have been experiencing in that place and time – a setting that seems to us now rather quiet and slow-paced. What was their trouble? What brought people like Andrew and Simon Peter all the way from Bethsaida down to the Jordan river at Bethany? See how quickly they turn from John to Jesus. Just because he said, have a look at the Lamb of God? What made them so intent on finding someone to follow?
It doesn’t seem that these folks were fomenting a revolution, although you can see why the Roman soldiers would have looked askance at large inspirational gatherings of the local people. But they didn’t have much to worry about from this crowd. Instead of focusing on what to do about the foreign occupation or the oppressive laws or their high taxes, it seems these people were more interested in spiritual renewal through repentance. Strange really. Getting oppressed people to focus on their own sin sounds like bad religion to us now. And although we take the story for granted after hearing it again and again, it does seem very far from here, and not easy to fathom when you try to reconstruct it.
To be honest, it’s not only hard to imagine it – it’s hard to care about it, because it is all so remote from our lives here today. This task of casting the imagination when reading the Bible and trying to visualize the conditions in first century Palestine is especially difficult to do when things right here right now seem so pressing. This is not a great moment for the planet. It’s now simply commonplace to refer to the situation of the global ecosystem as a climate emergency. Worrying changes in species extinction rates and weather patterns everywhere seem to confirm the growing anxiety that something is out of control. Devastating wildfires in Australia seem to have subsided at last, though they are not out – but the knock-on effect of the fires in secondary destruction of habitat for wild animals and fish can’t even be estimated yet. The ash and smoke from the fires can be seen from space and have already circled the globe.
Meanwhile, the unfolding drama in Washington of the impeachment of a President who suborns a foreign government for help in an election, and plays with war as a distraction, has exposed such vulnerabilities in our democratic practices. Here in Ontario our teachers’ strike quietly burbles along, chipping away at goodwill on all sides, as budget cuts and classroom size and management policies bring specific harm to the next generation of Canadians. And in our own city a role of names was read and honoured this week, of a thousand people who have died here, homeless.
Surely if our faith, and our singing, and our Bible stories serve any purpose, it is that they help us to face the most difficult realities of life, both these large collective problems, and our own individual sorrows and stresses. Our faith should offer a framework for understanding the world, and a starting point for our own actions. And so, without the drama of a trip to the river Jordan, (though getting to church this morning certainly had its moments of challenge) we too come seeking something.
When Andrew and his companion at the Jordan turn to Jesus, he doesn’t offer them much. They begin to follow him as he walks along – and the conversation becomes oddly mundane. After John’s grand announcement that this is the Lamb of God, Jesus just says, what are you looking for? And they don’t say, we are looking for God! Or, we want you to expel the Roman overlords! Or, we want to know the meaning of life! It’s as if they are evading the question of what they really want. Where are you staying, they ask? And Jesus invites them but doesn’t spell anything out. Come and see, he says, with a laugh. Apparently they all went together to Jesus’ lodgings, and found something there – solace perhaps, or stimulation, or compassion – that they stayed through the afternoon, and then returned the next day. Somehow, just hanging out there met some deep need. Andrew told his brother Simon Peter that this was the messiah, but Jesus didn’t give them any big answers, or new plans. He was more of a kindly shepherd than the Lamb of God. He said to Simon, you will be a rock, but that is all we learn. For the very opening moves in what will be a world-defining set of events and a new religion, the afternoon seems somehow inconsequential.
And perhaps this is the way with faith for us now too. Perhaps we don’t come here to find a list of answers and instructions – here is what to do about the environment, this is what you must think about Donald Trump or the teacher’s strike, here is the solution for homelessness, follow these steps to resolve your grief, or your loneliness. Instead we gather in good company to face those problems. To encourage one another. To see things in a different light, in the larger light of God’s love and justice. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch theologian and writer, comments on what Jesus says to the disciples, and to us “I want to dwell with you. I want to be your friend… visit me. Stay here. Spend time with me.” (Following Jesus, p. 27) We are invited to take the time – to wait, as we said in the Psalm that Ben read with us – and to gather the strength we need.
What Jesus offered to Andrew and Simon Peter on that day so long ago is what we are called as Christians to offer to one another and to the world. A listening ear, a welcoming heart, a new perspective. Like them, we can trust that what we encounter will change us and change the world. We too are invited to come and see. And for this we give God thanks.
(Photo Credit: Paul Seling)