Sermons That Work

Epiphany Is the Season…, Epiphany 3 (A) – 1999

January 24, 1999


Epiphany is the season in which we open – or have opened on our behalf – the gift that comes to us at Christmas. During Epiphany, we renew our exploration of the profound mystery of the Word made flesh. During Epiphany, we begin to learn anew what that mystery means for our lives. The gift is opened for us, a little at the time, by the testimony of a series of colorful characters.

First, we mark the arrival of those profoundly mysterious eastern scholars, the Magi; the Wise Men, the Three Kings. No matter what we choose to call them, these are men of obvious learning and stature who come to Bethlehem from the very limits of the known world. They bring gifts, in adoration and tribute to the newborn Jesus. Their gifts are intended as omen as well as tribute; signs both of present wonder and of future glory.

The testimony of the Wise Men is reinforced, years later, by that of John the Baptist. Both testimonies are valid and we do well to attend to both of them. Still, they are vastly different in their origins. Whereas the Magi were astrologers who studied signs in the stars to learn about Jesus, John the Baptist heard the voice of the God who made those stars. God’s voice told John the Baptist who Jesus was, and John the Baptist told everyone within earshot.

With today’s Gospel reading, we begin to see Jesus as the disciples saw him. The disciples were simpler and less complicated people than either the Magi or John the Baptist. They knew of no other way to describe Jesus, or to relate the earth-shaking effect his life had on theirs, than to recount their experiences with Jesus. Accordingly, their account begins where the experience began. The disciples begin their story with Jesus’ first words to them: “Follow me.”

The disciples’ accounts of their experience of Jesus are instructive for us at every stage. Each of these men had been taught from infancy about God’s promise of a Messiah. There were hopeful, even fanciful, stories of the coming of the Messiah and the sweeping changes that would follow. But in fact, no one actually knew how the Messiah would make himself known. Even so, they probably expected something a bit flashier than the scene described in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus’ entry into the lives of the disciples is simplicity itself.

Jesus came to these men as they were going about their lives, as they were going about the daily business of making a living. Not one of them was engaged in an activity that was particularly religious. Indeed, there is little indication that religion occupied much of their time or thought. They were engaged in the day-to-day necessity of providing food and shelter for themselves and their families. Jesus came to them, where they were, as they were. Out of his matchless Grace, he said to them, “Follow me” and, out of their nameless hunger and longing, they dropped what they were doing and followed.

Jesus’ invitation, and the disciples’ acceptance of it, marks the beginning of an adventure that continues to this day. Still, it is essential to know that when these men dropped their nets and went after Jesus, they had no illusions. There was not a starry-eyed dreamer in the whole group. There was ample evidence of the probable consequences of what they were undertaking.

Rome did not govern with subtlety. John the Baptist had been arrested, just as many like John had been arrested before. The future for the follower of an itinerant rabbi was not at all promising. The disciples were well aware of that, and still they followed.

Jesus has come to God’s people with the same straight-forward invitation from that day to this. Through the centuries, Jesus has called all sorts and conditions of folk. Some were noble persons whose names we remember. Some were common folk whose names are lost to us. Jesus called a rich young man named Augustine and a rich man’s son whose name was Francis. He called a nun named Teresa and a medieval noblewoman named Julian. Their experiences of following Jesus continue to echo down the years to us; in their writings and in the communities they inspired.

In our own time, Jesus called a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Ugandan bishop named Janani Luwum (juh-NAH-nee luh-WOOM) and an Albanian nun whom we knew as Mother Teresa. Each of them was keenly aware of the hazards involved and yet they put aside what they were doing and answered Jesus’ call. They followed, and their lives stand in monumental testimony to the irresistible power of God’s Love.

Jesus calls and people drop whatever they are doing to follow him. Jesus’ invitation compels us because it issues out of God’s love. Jesus’ invitation calls us into community with God and with each other. It urges us to reach beyond ourselves; to risk pushing beyond known, comfortable, limits. When we accept Jesus’ invitation, we find that, along with all those who have gone before, we are transformed.

We follow because, among other things, we long to have our lives make sense. It is imperative for us to know that our lives have a purpose higher than ourselves. In and through Jesus, we see God’s love mediated to us in new and compelling ways. God’s love assures us that our lives do, in fact, have a higher purpose; higher even than we would ever dare to dream.

What fits and equips us to live out that higher purpose is God’s love. As we follow Jesus, we are transformed. With every grace-filled day, we are reshaped into new creatures. With every passing day, we are becoming the persons God created us to become. With each new day, we are nurtured and re-equipped for the work of God’s kingdom.

At Christmas, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We participate in the depth and breadth of that marvelous mystery at Jesus’ invitation: “Follow Me.” As we follow, we are assured that the deep mystery of the Word made flesh is transforming us for God’s purposes. As we follow, by God’s infinite Grace, we are empowered to carry the light of God’s love into the farthest, darkest corners of God’s world.

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