The Second Sunday after the Epiphany: January 15, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Today we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – today actually is his birthday, January 15. He would be 88 today if were still alive. And here’s an interesting fact I just learned – Dr. King was born and baptized Michael King, Jr., named for his father. But he adopted the name Martin Luther as an adult, after his father, also a preacher, adopted that name, to honor the Protestant reformer. So we can claim Dr. King as a Michael as we honor him today here at St Michael’s. He was born and destined to make changes, following his father’s lead and answering God’s call – the change of name only the beginning of change that we are still living into today.
And at the beginning of this year, we are in a time of yet more change. It’s there in the coming inauguration, yes, but it’s there too in the response and reaction, those who will march in cities around the country next weekend, those who are signing on and donating money to stand with the vulnerable, those who are praying as we wait to see what will come. It’s an uncertain time. None of us know what things will look like this year. But it’s clearly a time to be faithful.
If you were here last week you might have thought on hearing today’s gospel, didn’t we just hear this story? Well yes – today we heard John’s version of Jesus’ baptism story – last week it was Matthew’s version. Added to the baptism, however, today we get the beginnings of Jesus’ recruiting campaign – starting to gather the circle of disciples who will follow him through his few years of ministry, and who will carry that ministry on after he is gone.
Part of the function of this story from John is as a piece of propaganda, if you will. John the Baptist had quite a following of disciples before Jesus came along, and many of them thought John was the long-awaited Messiah. So when the gospel writer starts with this narrative about John’s disciples becoming followers of Jesus, it’s a not-so-subtle way of saying, come on over everyone, it’s Jesus, not John, who is the Messiah. John the Baptist himself speaks of Jesus being one who ranks ahead of him, one who came before him, and then he points out Jesus to the disciples as the Lamb of God – and off those disciples go after Jesus. It’s the changing of the guard at the Jordan River: there’s a new kid in town, and everyone’s talking about him, and let’s see what happens if we follow after him.
Jesus turns around and sees them following, and they have a short, strange conversation. Jesus says, ‘What are you looking for?’ The disciples reply, ‘Where are you staying?’ – a non sequitur – and Jesus replies, ‘Come and see.’ And so they do, and later, they start bringing their friends and family along.
Which is kind of how it happens in the life of faith. We don’t hear anything of the inner thoughts and emotions of the two disciples, but something makes them stop following John and start to seek after Jesus instead. It may be that they trust John, and when he says, there’s the Lamb of God, they figure they’d better follow that guy. It might be that they’re in the habit of being disciples – they’ve been following John because they’ve heard something from him that sounds like truth, and now that the truth seems to be elsewhere, they’re going to follow that way. It might be that something has happened to them, some kind of crisis that has them looking for new answers. We don’t know from the story.
But any one of those reasons might be enough to get us on the path as well. Maybe we’ve always been churchgoers, and then something triggers us to go deeper and really see what this spiritual life is all about. Or maybe we’ve been trying to live out a success story in our lives and it’s all gone wrong, and someone else has brought us to a place where we might find healing. Maybe we’re alarmed at the state of things in the world, or wanting something else for our children, or maybe we’re just lonely – so we’ve tried coming to church. Whatever it is, we’ve started following after something that might just lead us to God. Whatever made us do it, we’ve started along.
Dr. King’s story followed something of this at the beginning as well – he was a son and grandson of preachers, so in some ways his choice to go to seminary and study was just doing what his family had done. But his father had believed and taught him that racism and segregation were against God’s will, and teachers and mentors had shown him how Christianity could be a force for change. And as he began to walk in the path himself, he saw that more and more clearly. He began as a pastor of a church, and only that. But when the Montgomery bus boycott needed a leader, he said yes.
And Jesus turns around and asks the two disciples, what are you looking for? What are you really looking for? – it could be they were hoping for revolution and the overthrow of the Roman Empire, or it could just be they wanted personal healing. People followed Jesus for all kinds of reasons then – and still do. What is it we’re looking for? Maybe it’s meaning, making sense of life or the world around us. Maybe it’s comfort and companionship, the deep love that comes from being truly known. Maybe we want to make things change, bring about the beloved community we believe can be. I think each of us would answer Jesus’ question differently, if we were speaking honestly from our heart of hearts.
But the disciples don’t answer – they say to Jesus, where are you staying? Where can we find you? We’d really rather have the certainty of knowledge: I have met God and this is where God lives, and when I want to go away and then come back, God will still be right here. Here, in this box, behaving the way I expect. Making the way forward clear, and the rules to follow obvious. Holding up God’s end of the bargain – if I do the right things, God will make it all okay.
But in return, Jesus doesn’t answer the disciples’ question. He doesn’t get out his Google calendar and say, I’m staying at Joe’s house, why don’t we meet for lunch next week? Instead, he simply says, come and see. Now is a good time, let’s go. And off they go. The same invitation Jesus gives us: Come and see. No guarantees about where we’re going; he doesn’t say whether any of what others have said about him, or what we’re hoping for from him, is true. He doesn’t really give any answers. Jesus simply says, come and see. Pretty risky.
It was certainly risky for Dr. King. And it was for the disciples as well. And it was risky for countless followers of Jesus throughout the ages in times of evil and struggle, and times of joy and possibility. They didn’t know exactly where they were going. Probably what happened wasn’t they expected to happen. But they were Jesus’ followers right to the end and beyond, leaders in the Jesus movement that we are still a part of today.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians in that bit of the letter we heard today, God is faithful. God keeps the promise. We’d rather have the certainties we understand: God in our corner, in our pocket, useful in times of need, making things work the way we think they should. But if we are truly seeking after the living God, we don’t know where that will take us. All we have to go on is what other people tell us, like John the Baptist told the two disciples – follow Jesus, he’s the one. All we have to go on is our memories, our own stories of how God was present to us times past. All we have to go on is our hope for what is to come – the promise of life we are given. The promise that our hope will be taken up and made holy in God’s greater hope for the world. Here, today, is a community of Jesus’ followers. Here we all are, together on the journey, whatever might come. What are you looking for? Jesus asks. Come and see.