Called to Be Light in the Darkness

Candle light

(Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany A, January 15, 2017 + Commemoration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Based on John 1:29-42 and Isaiah 49:1-7 )

     Our sons, Peter and David, just moved into their dorm room yesterday afternoon. Of course, we’ll miss having them at home, but since they’re right here in town, I’m sure they’ll be home to raid the refrigerator once in a while…and we’ll probably hold the door open for them while they do so!… Last year turned out to be an interesting year, as both our boys decided they wanted to transfer back to northwest colleges and then both ended up at the same school!… As I watched them set out on their new adventure, I couldn’t help wonder whether their experience would be different this time…. While attending colleges out of state, both of them at different times have commented on the shallowness of campus culture, where it seems like most students just want to get drunk and have sex. When our sons talked about this, I could tell by their tone of voice that they were disgusted by this behavior and felt contempt for those who engaged in it. When I suggested that maybe those students are just experimenting with their new freedom and that they, like most people, probably also have a good side, my sons looked rather skeptical…. On the one hand, as a parent, I have to confess there’s a part of me that’s relieved that Peter and David recognize this behavior as shallow and don’t want any part of it. Yet on the other hand, as a follower of Christ and a pastor, I also have to say I’m rather troubled by the idea of completely rejecting people based on the “sins of their youth….” I’d be willing to bet that many of those young adults who are cutting loose with alcohol, drugs, and sex are trying to fill a void: There’s an aching emptiness somewhere deep inside them, and the fleeting high they get from partying distracts them and gives them temporary relief from uncertainty about their identity and fear about the future. And, really, who can blame them?! With so much violence and uncertainty in our world today, especially with the specter of climate change rearing its ugly head, it seems our younger generations have every right to fear the future!…

     Most of us here today are old enough to have lived through the storm and stress of young adulthood, and so we can empathize with this search for identity and the distractions and temptations that go with it…. In fact, if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us will admit that we’re still searching for the identity that gives meaning and purpose to our lives, and we’re still dealing with distractions and temptations that get in our way, even though they may look different than the ones we faced in our twenties!…. Our deep spiritual hunger is one of the key reasons we’re here in worship today!… Of course, the search for identity and meaning isn’t a new phenomenon. For thousands of years, human beings have been trying to make sense of our short time on this earth. In their search for meaning and purpose, many have turned to religion, because religion at its best seeks to connect us: It connects us with our Creator, with our fellow creatures, and with all creation. In fact, the word “religion” comes from the Latin prefix “re-,” meaning “again,” and the root “ligio,” which we find in our word “ligament”; so, religion, then, is a way for us to “reconnect” with the Source and End of life. Personally, I like the idea of our connection with God being like a ligament, because a ligament is strong, yet flexible. It can take a lot of wear and tear, which is good, because the journey of faith isn’t always easy…. It’s good to know that in those times when our relationship with God becomes strained or even broken, there’s always the possibility of “re-ligio,” or reconnecting.

     Throughout history, religion has offered human beings many paths for reconnecting, but all of these paths involve hanging out in the presence of God. We see this in our gospel lesson for today, where the disciples of John the Baptist have been spending time listening, praying, and learning the ways of God. When John points them to the One who is greater than himself and who is, therefore, closer to God, two of his pupils just have to go and see for themselves. They begin following Jesus, and as soon as he realizes someone’s following him, he turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?…”[1] My friends, it’s no accident that these are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in the gospel of John: “What are you looking for?…” Jesus seems to know instinctively that these two men are on a spiritual quest for identity and meaning. The answer they give shows their hunger for a deeper connection with the God Jesus has come to reveal: “Rabbi, where are you staying?”[2] By calling Jesus “Rabbi,” they let Jesus know they regard him as their teacher, and by asking where he’s staying, they seem to be fishing for an invitation to hang out and learn from him!… Of course, Jesus is only too happy to take the bait, and he invites them to “come and see”[3] not only the digs where he’s staying, but more importantly, to “come and see” what God is all about! So, Andrew and the other disciple spend the day hanging out with Jesus, learning from him, and, no doubt, breaking bread with him…. By the next day, Andrew is so convinced that he’s found the Messiah, the Chosen One of God, that he brings his brother, Simon, to meet Jesus, who takes one look at Simon and immediately dubs his new acquaintance, “Peter….”[4] The gospel writer John doesn’t explain this, but Jesus’ renaming of Simon is significant, because in the Bible whenever someone gets a new name or a nickname it signifies a change in their identity and purpose: In giving Simon the name “Peter,” which means “rock,” Jesus is signaling that God sees the potential that lies within Simon and has big plans for this newcomer to the faith…. You and I, who know the rest of the story, know that it took Peter a lifetime to live into and to live up to his new name, but by the grace of God, he was eventually able to overcome his fear and become a compassionate and courageous witness to the gospel. In spite of having been a stumbling block at many points on Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem, Peter eventually become the rock on which Christ built his church….

     I don’t know about you, sisters and brothers, but I take heart when I look at Peter and some of the other bumbling biblical characters God has chosen to work through!   Who’s with me? [Can I get an “Amen?”….] In every age, God has chosen to work through ordinary people to accomplish God’s extraordinary purpose of loving and blessing the world.  Like the prophet Isaiah, and like God’s people across the centuries, God formed you and me in the womb and called us to be God’s servants in the world….[5] And what are you and I called to do as God’s servants? The very same thing God’s people have always been called to do: to bear God’s light into the world, so that the whole world may come to know the healing and hope that comes from God alone…. But in order to bear the light of Christ into the world, we must be diligent about tending our “lamps,” so that we don’t run out of “fuel!” And we must be clear that the only way for us to “refuel” our sense of identity and purpose is to spend time “hanging out” with God…. That’s why I’m glad you’re here in worship today, my friends, because when we come together to worship, our God promises to be here with us and for us in a special way: God is present in the Word we hear proclaimed in the Scriptures, sermons, prayers, and songs. God is also mysteriously present in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion; we can’t explain how, and, really, we don’t need to. It’s enough to know that our Creator, who loves material things, has promised to come to us in this way…. Our God is also present in the loving relationships we have with each other: in the words and deeds we use to comfort and to hold each other accountable to our calling as followers of Christ. In fact, ultimately our Christian faith is all about growing in relationship with God and with our neighbor. Indeed, as Jesus himself tells us, you can’t separate the two parts of the Great Commandment that call us to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

     Worship is central to our identity as the church, the Body of Christ in the world today, and yet worship is only one way that you and I can hang out with God. We can and should hang out and get to know God better in other ways: for example, by praying each day, by joining a Bible study, or by engaging in conversation and service with others. Yet even all those things together add up to less than a tithe of the 168 hours God has given us each week! Even if we were to subtract time for sleeping, for most of us the hours we spend in awareness of God’s presence would probably still be less than 10%!… Lately I’ve also become increasingly aware of the importance of two disciplines that have been sorely neglected by the church over the centuries: namely, the practice of contemplative prayer and the practice of cultivating a deeper connection with creation. In a nutshell, contemplative prayer offers us a way to clear our minds and hearts of clutter, so that we are ready to deeply listen for what God is saying to us. Listening is vital, if we are to have a balanced prayer life. Similarly, cultivating a sense of communion with God’s good creation is vital to restoring the balance in our lives. Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr wisely observes that every other part of God’s creation accepts its identity without question; it’s only human beings who resist being the loving children of God we’re created and called to be. It seems we have much to learn from our non-human sisters and brothers, and one of the first things we need to learn is that we’re all connected to each other as part of God’s good creation. To say it another way, we all live in the same home, and whatever happens to the earth will happen to all of us….

     As many of you know, today is the birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., who in 1963 wrote the following from his cell in the Birmingham Jail:

     The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.

     But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

Dear friends in Christ, these prophetic words from Dr. King speak to you and me and to all who count themselves among God’s people today: They call us to pay attention to the challenge of this decisive hour: to the emptiness and spiritual hunger that haunts our young adults, us, and many others in our world today…. There is great evil on the loose in our day, my friends, and there is great fear of the darkness. Many of us are deeply troubled, as we see the very fabric of our society unraveling. We tremble at the prospect of so much hard-fought human progress in science and human rights being rolled back…. Yet as followers of Jesus the Christ we dare not lose heart! This is our time to shine!… Like Isaiah and Peter and Martin, you and I and all who belong to the Body of Christ must be the light that shines in the darkness of our time and place, defying the powers of darkness that seek to divide us and to oppress God’s most vulnerable children…. Today our God is calling you and me and Christians everywhere to be a light to the nations, so that the whole world may come to know the healing and hope that is God’s desire for us…. Come to the table, my friends, and let your love-light be filled, so that you may go forth to shine with grace. And in the week ahead, let’s be careful to tend our inner flame by making time to just hang out with God in some way every day, allowing ourselves to be filled more and more with the love that compels us to share the light of Christ with others…. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it! Amen.

[1] John 1:38b.

[2] John 1:38c.

[3] John 1:39a.

[4] John 1:42c.

[5] Isaiah 49:1b, 3a.

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