NRSV ISAIAH 49:1-7
49 Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The LORD called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the LORD,
and my reward with my God.”
5 And now the LORD says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength–
6 he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
7 Thus says the LORD,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
NRSV JOHN 1:29-42
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 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.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 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?” 39 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. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 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).
It’s the season of Epiphany. And while you are a very polite group, I can’t help but feel, if you were really honest, your response would be: So what? What difference does it make that this is this season of Epiphany? What’s that, anyway? Isn’t that something that comes to a person out of the dark, some deep revelation of God, or a deep truth, or the answer to a question that has been bugging them for years?
Sure, it’s all of that. The light comes on for us and we see things differently. A new insight occurs, and we are transformed. On the internet there is a cartoon of a breakfast place where all the customers, rather than eating eggs and bacon have these snappy little insights pop into their heads. The title of the cartoon: Breakfast at Epiphany’s.
But an Epiphany, at least in the Christian understanding, is not just some private, individual insight that makes us feel comfortable or at peace. For us, that’s not the way Epiphany begins. Though it should be said that it does begin with a light, the light of a star; a star leading three wise men, not Kings or royalty like we often think. Maybe not dressed in all of that fancy regalia we assume they were. Don’t forget, they had been traveling for quite a while. They probably looked like a trio of street people, looking more than a little rough and smelling bad. Being on a camel for a couple of years will do that to you.
But what makes Epiphany special is the act of the Christ being made known to the Gentiles – to wise men, to magi, to those from other places, to cooky people who dress a little weird and talk a little strange. Not the inner crowd of the Jewish circle, but Persians, or maybe from somewhere else. Epiphany is the Christ being made known to outsiders, to the world. I say “the Christ” and not “Jesus” because what the wise men were looking for was something more than just another two year old in a place a long way from where they lived. They were looking for the King of the Jews. But even that doesn’t quite cut it. They were looking for the fulfillment of what the Hebrew prophets had foretold years before: that the time would come, that the time would be fulfilled, when God would send a special one, one who is God incarnate, one not bounded by borders or denominations or cultures. One who is the love of God in human form, sent to show us that we can all be God in human form if we let the free-flowing love of God transform us. Being from another part of the world, they must have heard about this Jewish forecast of the special presence of God from the Jewish prophets. Some of whom had been carted off to exile some 500 years earlier. They knew that the stars would tip them off that God, the Creator, was up to something special. Not just something special for one group of people. But something special for all. Something that people could see and feel and touch.
Personally, that is why I love this season.
I love it because this is the season to lift up and celebrate a God who comes for all people, whether they attend church or not, whether they are Christians or not, whether they are Americans or not, whether they are like me or us or not. I love it because it is a fulfillment of those wonderful words out of Isaiah that we have been called by God to be a light to the nations. I love it because it is the one season where we celebrate our mission workers (not missionaries, that term has fallen out of favor, especially by the countries to whom these folks are sent) who go out and seek to be agents of light. There are other liturgical seasons to do that, of course. But when you have the three wise men as your examples of those to whom we are called to witness, what better season than this?
And yet I know that international mission is a tough sell, especially in the current social and political climate. The reasoning goes: Why do we go all over the place when there are so many needs here? Why not keep it all at home? Sure, we have always had missionaries but why not focus on what we have to do here?
I don’t think that’s an either-or proposition. We are called to do both. We are called to pay attention to the mission needs of our community, to the ministry needs of our church. But that doesn’t mean we neglect opportunities to reach out to other people. We don’t have to board a plane and fly to Africa or the Far East. But celebrating the work that people do who have committed their lives to going to another country to live out the Gospel is important. That is not an easy thing to do. They are living examples of what Epiphany is all about, even if we get but glimpses of the work they do. Since I have been here we have had both of the mission workers we support to visit us and share with us what they have been doing. We had the Ellington’s here several years ago to talk about their work in Zambia – formerly Northern Rhodesia – a land locked country in southern Africa. And a couple of years ago we had Bill and Ann Moore come and tell us about their work at a hospital in Japan.
But there are others who also serve as a light to the nations. During my meditations I like to read from our Mission Yearbook, a practice I’ve had for a lot of years. They used to publish a book every year, but now you have to get it online. Lately the reports have been especially striking for the ways people all over the world bring the light of God’s love – people like the Rev. Helivao Poget who ministers to trafficked people in her home country of Madagascar; or Dr. Bernard Sabella who heads the World Council of Churches health clinics in the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places in the world; or the Rev. Matthew Tracker, associate pastor at a church in Pittsburgh and a veteran of the Iraqi War, who is working with the Iraqi Partnership Network to bring reconciliation with people he grew to love even in the middle of combat.
All of these people are seeking to live out the call to be a light to the nations. We honor and celebrate them, even as we know that those words are not just for them. You don’t have to board a plane or go on a mission trip to be a light to the nations. You can be a light where you are – as we seek to be through FACES or Piedmont Senior Resources or Meals on Wheels or Habitat. Or as we celebrate our Souper Bowl in two weeks by helping to feed the hungry, or as we contribute to the Special Offerings of our denomination that go out around the world, or as we support other ministries we know about which seek to give light to the world.
That’s what this season is about. It is about, first of all, remembering that it is God who gives the call. This is not about us, or about our trying to earn our way into heaven or divine favor. This is remembering that even before we were born, God knew us, God called us, and God loved us. Just as our salvation is a gift and not an accomplishment, so our calling from God is not something we have earned. It is something that we grow into, something we live into as we expand our worlds and our insights to embrace all of God’s children.
Another thing that makes this season and these texts special is that the calling is not for a private piety. Yes, contemplation is important; we all need to take time to be still and know that God is the Lord of our lives. But contemplation always comes with a call to action. The words found here in Isaiah and John summon us outward, out into engagement in the world God has made, with others God has made. The light of the season of Epiphany is not for us to put into a bushel basket of solitude; it is for us to display publically, to be ministers of Christ’s love in places where darkness threatens.
We see and hear that in Isaiah, but we also see and hear it in John. When Jesus walks by, John the Baptist says, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” The call to be a light is not just to people like us, but to the world God has made.
It is interesting that when John identifies Jesus a second time, two of his disciples – Andrew and someone else – follow Jesus. They are walking behind him, and Jesus turns around and asks them what they are looking for. It must have been kind of creepy having a couple of guys tailing you. But in this case, it was to see who this special one was all about. When they ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?,” Jesus replies, “Come and see.”
That’s a loaded phrase, as in a few verses one of the disciples will say it again to a skeptical Nathanael. But for now I just want us to linger with those words – Come and see. Come and see, not just where Jesus’ bed and belongings are. But where does Jesus live. Where does Jesus abide. Where does Jesus remain.
We are called to be a light to the nations. But where? Come and see, Jesus says. Come and see where Christ’s love thrives. Come and see where hopelessness has been transformed into hope, where resurrection has become a gracious reality. Come and see where the needs exist for the light in the darkness. Come and see who our neighbors are – not who we want them to be, but who are the ones God is calling us to bear witness. Come and see all the places where Jesus lives, where Jesus abides; all the places were the light shines in love and grace and justice. But also come and see the places where the light is needed, and where we might be the bringers of that light.
Jill Duffield puts it powerfully: “Come and see. Listen to me. Pay attention. Follow me. God says: ‘I formed you. I called you. I chose you. I am faithful. You lack nothing. Christ strengthens you.’ Come and see. Remain with Jesus for a while. Simply remain. Do not do anything for right now. Fishing for people will resume. You will be a light to the nations. God says so, this is not of our own will or skill. Exercise some holy curiosity and see where it leads. Do not be anxious about measurable results. Do not fear failure or looking foolish. Meander with Jesus for a bit and notice the people and places along the way. Take note of the other disciples who dropped their nets and followed, too. Do not discount the strength and courage and community of the other nascent believers in the pew with you. Remember God calls you. God is faithful. You lack nothing.”
Be a light. And when others ask where, don’t be afraid to say, “Come and see.” Amen.