Sermons That Work

Jesus Was Born Into a Troubled Time…, Epiphany 2 (A) – 1996

January 14, 1996


Jesus was born into a troubled time, in a troubled place. The land of Israel, with all its proud history, was a subject nation, property of the Roman Empire. Rome’s only real interest in this holy land — which the elegant and eminent Romans considered a benighted backwater — was how much tax could be soaked out of the place. The people struggled just to keep body and soul together, to keep on going, to make some sort of life in the face of such neglect and adversity. Few had the luxury of time or the freedom from anxiety to ask the deeper questions: about the meaning of their lives, about the meaning of their proud history in the face of their debased state, about God the Almighty. Mostly they toiled, and when they wondered, wondered if perhaps they had somehow lost the favor of God.

But there were, among them, seekers in those days — as there are in every age. The seekers — the ones who pondered, and wondered, and thought of the meaning of life and the nature of God — kept alive the ember of hope embedded in the heart of the people from the days of Moses and Abraham, through the exile and return, through the days of waiting for the new thing to happen, for the Messiah to come.

From time to time, preachers arose among the people, to stir up the dying embers of this hope, to fan the flame of promise. John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness, was such a prophet of hope. He insisted that the Promised One would come, indeed was among them now — the one who was to restore the glory of Israel. He called those gathered at the Jordan to repent and return to the way of righteousness.

The crowds grew, as others were drawn to him by the preaching — men and women who yearned for the truth to come, for the promised Lord and King, the “anointed one” — for that is what “messiah” means. Andrew and his brother Peter were among those who were seeking, gathered around John the Baptist in his encampment in the Judean wilderness, down along the dusty banks of the River Jordan. The day after Jesus had presented himself to be baptized by John, when John saw and heard the Lord’s sign that Jesus was the promised one, John was with Andrew and another disciple. As Jesus passed by them, John hailed him: “Look, my friends! There he is! The offering God has given to take away the sins of the world!”

I’ve often wondered if that was as startling an announcement to them as it would be to us. Can you imagine standing with your priest or your spiritual director, when she suddenly points to someone passing by and says: “There’s the one that God has sent to save us all!”?

The gospel does not record whether Andrew and the other disciple with him were startled; it merely says that when they heard John, their rabbi, say this, they “followed Jesus.” No, not “followed” him in some deep theological, symbolic, metaphysical sense — at least, not yet. They simply walked away from John and started walking along behind Jesus. Surely they wanted to see what sort of person this was, who had elicited such a comment from their own teacher, John the Baptist.

Jesus, who seems to have noticed most of what went on around him, no matter how subtle or hidden, saw these two following him and stopped to ask them a question: “What are you looking for?” Their answer — if you can call it that — seems odd at first. Instead of answering him with something simple and straightforward like, “We’re looking for the Messiah,” or even just,” We’re wondering who you are,” they parry his question with another question.

Of course, it’s a classic Hebraic speech pattern to answer a question with a question; anybody who’s ever heard Abbott and Costello doing the “Who’s On First” routine, or seen a Woody Allen movie, will recognize the pattern. Maybe they’re just flustered and can’t quite think quickly enough to say something appropriate. Anyhow, they answer his question, “What are you seeking?” by asking him, “Teacher, where are you staying?” And Jesus answers them, in turn, with one of the simplest and most gracious invitations imaginable: Jesus says, “Come and see.”

And so they did. And spent the day with him. And at the end of the day, they went off and told the rest of their friends — the other seekers — that they had found someone, something, very special. And so began the disciples, who became the apostles, who became the church — and so onward to us.

Every time and every age spawns seekers, people who are questing for deeper truth, richer hope, surer understanding. But dark and difficult, troubled and violent, times call forth seekers in greater numbers. A quick look at the headlines, at the evening news, at CNN will confirm that we live in such times. As the end of the century and the millennium draw nearer, the questions seem to get more troubled, the hope seems to grow fainter. All the settled answers are in flux, and many are searching for new hope, new meaning, new assurance.

Jesus’ gracious invitation is as simple and as open today as it was for the first disciples: “Come and see.”

There are no pre-conditions. Jesus does not say, “If you’re willing to subscribe to these rules, or accept these presuppositions, or sign this statement — or even swear to this statement of faith — then you are welcome to come and be with me.” No. When he sees that they are seeking, he says, simply: “Come and see.”

I said earlier that their first response, asking him where he was staying, seemed awkward. On second thought, though, it may tell us something important. St. Paul talks, throughout his letters, of being “in Christ” — almost as if it were a physical location, another place — somewhere like Never-Never Land, or Narnia. In sixties’ slang, you could probably translate the disciples’ question: “Where are you coming from?” (Which, in case you’ve forgotten the sixties or never knew them, meant something like: “What’s motivating you? What matters to you? What is the shape of your reality?”) And Jesus says, “Come and see.”

It is impossible to render the meaning of Christ in any rule or set of laws, in any propositional statement, even in any creed. St. Paul was right: “in Christ” is a place, a way of life, almost another state of being. The only way to experience it is to “come and see.” Over the years of following Jesus, the disciples grew and changed. They were molded and shaped and formed “in Christ.” It takes time, and living, and learning in community, to be reshaped into the people who bear witness to the light, who bear forward the flame of hope.

Each of us who is already gathered into the Body of Christ, this place we call the church, is continually being called to grow and change. Each time we come together “in Christ,” we come to know more — about ourselves, about the truth, about the meaning of our lives and the life in God. And as we grow, we are called to extend Jesus’ gracious invitation to other seekers, to “Come and see.” Come and see what it’s like to live “in Christ.” Come and see what it’s like to live among a community of people committed to growing and seeking. Come and see what it’s like to feel hope in the face of the despair of the world around us, to see light shining in the gloom, to know love and welcome in the midst of a world of pain. Come to the Word; come to the altar. Come to the place called “love,” “in Christ.” Come and see.

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Christopher Sikkema

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