01/19/20 – Pulling the Door


January 19, 2020
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; Psalm 40: 1-11; John 1:29-42
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Cartoonist Gary Larsen, in one simple image, captured the folly of humanity’s pride and imperfection. In one of his “Far Side” comics he drew the front of a school building with a sign “School for the Gifted.” With perspiration popping around his head, a student, with his whole weight, pushes inward on a door. Printed on the door are the words “Pull.” The student was so sure he knew the right way to open the door, he ignored the simple direction that should have been sufficient to correct his error.

In our epistle reading, the Apostle Paul has heard that some members of the congregation in Corinth were boasting they had better spiritual gifts than others. By virtue of these superior spiritual gifts, some claimed to have “the truth” and their faith was complete. The congregation in Corinth had lost its focus on Christ by engaging in a competition over spiritual gifts. Paul reminds them that all of these gifts come from God and therefore cannot be used to set one person above another. Through Christ, God called them into a relationship with one another for the purpose of working together for God’s kingdom. Paul explains that no one can claim to have perfected their own faith because their faith comes from God; and, their knowledge of Christ will not be complete until Christ comes again. In centering their attention on themselves the congregants had lost focus on Christ. They had missed out on Christ’s truth while deceiving themselves with their own self-importance.

It has been said that we live in a post-truth society. Facts are denied, manipulated or falsified. Truth does not reveal as much as it is used as a weapon. We limit our information to sources that report the truth we want to hear and, thus, become easy targets for those who tell lies and cut and paste pictures creating false images. Jesus presented God’s truth carefully and purposefully. He did not create doctrine to be affirmed or denied. John’s gospel tells us Andrew, and the other unnamed disciple, referred to Jesus as “rabbi,” a teacher, at their first encounter. As any good teacher will tell you, teaching is more effective when students are asked questions rather than told a “fact,” which, when examined, may not be a fact at all.  Good teachers teach the process of learning.

In our gospel reading, John the Baptist gives testimony based on what he has seen with his own eyes. John proclaims: ““Look, here is the Lamb of God!” It seems strange that John the Baptist claimed he did not know Jesus. Weren’t they cousins of sorts, nearly the same age? It appears that what John, the gospel writer, is telling us is that, although John the Baptist had known Jesus perhaps all his life, he did not know him as the Messiah. John’s gospel never says that Jesus was baptized. We only know that John the Baptist saw the Holy Spirit descend “like a dove” and heard a voice declaring Jesus was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. By this, John is suddenly made aware of a truth that was always present but only then revealed to him. When John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God, he was likely referring to one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs, which defined the character of the new king God promised. Isaiah describes this new king:  “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” (Isaiah 53:7)

Andrew and another, unnamed disciple are following him. Rabbi Jesus asks a question. “What are you looking for?” (John 1: 38) If Jesus were to declare he is the Son of God then, he would have first-hand, eye-witness testimony from John the Baptist to support his claim. But he made no proclamation of the truth, instead, he asked a question of the two disciples who were meeting him for the first time.

Many New Testament Greek scholars claim that a better translation for verse 38 would be “What are you seeking?” This adds more layers to Jesus’ query. At the heart of this question is “What do you need to make life meaningful for you?” In Mark’s gospel Jesus publicly reveals his identity with the command to silence a demon. In Matthew Jesus is revealed to the public by preaching a sermon on a mountaintop, like Moses at Mt. Sinai, to a large crowd. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus makes known his identity with a quotation from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah about a suffering servant king who will reverse the situations that create poverty and injustice. But in John’s more artistic and mysterious portrayal of Jesus, the proof of his identity begins with observer testimony and a question.

Jesus asks Andrew and his fellow disciple what they are seeking, because what we find is often determined by what we are seeking. The two disciples answer Jesus with another question: “Where are you staying.” The Greek word used here could also mean dwelling or abiding. John’s gospel begins with claiming Jesus is “God’s Word made flesh” who has “come to dwell among us.” With that perspective, the true answer would be God is dwelling with God’s people. Where Jesus is, God is. If Andrew and the other are seeking God, then the only response is to stay with Jesus and follow him wherever he leads.

At this point the disciples are early in their search. They don’t realize all the truth Jesus has to share with them, they just know they want to be with him and follow where he leads them. This is where most of us start our faith journey and why we are here today. Andrew and the other disciple don’t have all the answers, as some of the members of the Corinthian congregation thought they did. These two disciples do know that now they have found Jesus, they don’t want to lose him. They know the world isn’t operating as it should be. They know something is missing in their lives. They understand if they want to find the truth, if they want to find their purpose in life, this man, Jesus, will lead them.

We all have the same hope. In times of the inevitable suffering that comes from living and loving, we envision a better future. Some will look for ways just to numb the pain of suffering in their lives. The world offers many quick fixes for that, but they don’t last and always take us back to the pain because they don’t give us a purpose for life.

Each of our scripture readings for today affirms that our greatest need is a relationship with God. The world denies this. We are bombarded with media pronouncements that what we most need is something for our own pleasure and purpose, which can be bought. Madison Avenue tells us happiness can be found in being more beautiful, more successful, more entertained and so on. They offer us “a new me” rather than a new life. Yet, whatever we gain with our purchases or achievements always leaves us empty and wanting to find something else to calm our restless spirits.

Andrew and the other disciple were seeking hope and purpose extending beyond what they could see or find on their own. None of us would be here, in this sanctuary, today if we were not seeking the same. The world in which they lived was broken as it is today.  The religious and political leaders lived in luxury, while most of the people suffered under Roman oppression. These disciples came looking for a new purpose, a new leader to follow, someone to give them new hope and reason for being.

When we become aware that something in our lives is missing, and, that whatever it is can only come from God, we are ready for an epiphany. Like the wise men who knew to look up to the stars, with Christ we have a direction. And, like the wise men from the Epiphany story, we must give up what is valuable in the world to a greater purpose than obtaining any prize the world offers. The world tells us to “go for the gold” but Christ drives us to give the gold away. The world tells us to hoard our treasure. When Andrew finds a real treasure, he wants to share it with his brother, Simon Peter. The 19th-century Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard observed: “The door to happiness opens outward.”

When we only look inward, we are drawn away from a relationship with God and our neighbors. This inward perspective focuses on ourselves and our own family at the expense of others. We create boundaries that exclude those that we see as “not my people,” which can lead to enmity with those outside of our protective boundaries. In the extreme, we cease to see those outside our self-focused boundaries as people, much less God’s beloved children. The truth of these “outsiders’” humanity is distorted by labels and statistics that create lies of convenience and self-justification. An inward perspective denies our own vulnerability and fools us into believing we have no need of God and one another.

In Isaiah’s servant song, the prophet speaks poetically of God’s intimate relationship with us. The prophet makes the audacious claim that we are known in our mother’s womb and our purpose has already been formed. Isaiah is speaking to a defeated and exiled people. What is their purpose in a land that is not their own? What do they get in return for their labor? Isaiah assures them that their purpose is greater than themselves. It is a purpose that is aimed outward not inward. God has planned for them to look beyond getting back their land. For the present time, they were to be a people who shine the light of God’s love with the outsiders among which they lived. From an outward perspective, they were to give aid and comfort to others. Their purpose was to be the light that would shine on all the nations, bringing the whole world into a relationship with God and one another.

On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, I am reminded of his famous quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” King looked to one place for his direction, Jesus Christ. He dreamed that he had been to the mountaintop like Jesus’ disciples and saw the vision of the world, which Christ lived in perfect synchronicity. It was a world in which all the doors pulled outward, opening to a world with peace and justice for all. Christ beckons us to come and see and then to live with God’s purposes transformed into ours.

Amen, may it be so.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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