Friday, January 20, 2017

Not Lacking

Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:4-9; John 1: 29-42
January 18, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today is from the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of the prophet Isaiah. This section, like the scripture we heard last week from Isaiah, is a part of the text called “Servant Songs.” These prophetic promises have long been understood as pointing to the identity of the Messiah, the promised one who fulfills God’s covenant. But the servant songs can also be understood to be speaking to all of God’s servants – the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, and you and me. Let’s listen to God’s call to us in Isaiah 49:1-7:

1 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."

In our Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians, we hear Paul’s assurance to these early Christians that they are not only called to service, they are not lacking in any gift that they will need to perform that service. Paul’s message to the church of that time is no less meaningful to us, the church in this time.
Let’s listen to his words in I Corinthians 1: 4-9

4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God
that has been given you in Christ Jesus,
5 for in every way you have been enriched in him,
in speech and knowledge of every kind
6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you
7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
8 He will also strengthen you to the end,
so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9 God is faithful; by him you were called
into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our Gospel reading comes from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, another look at the baptism of Jesus, this time from John’s point of view. In this account we see not only the baptism, but also the meaning of it – the identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God, who then begins to call people into service, to come and see, and who gives a new name to those whom he has called. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in 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).

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Those of you who were here last Sunday had the joy and privilege of joining in the baptism of the Yemms' newest grandchild, welcoming young Everett into the Christian family. It was the Sunday in the lectionary called “Baptism of the Lord” and we heard the story of the baptism of Jesus from the gospel according to Matthew. We heard how he came to be baptized, and John hesitated – how, after all, could John baptize Jesus?

But Jesus was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and called him beloved. That text never fails to stir me – to make me consider how God’s Spirit names us as God’s beloved. No matter how often I hear it, I never tire of it, anymore than anyone would tire of being told they are truly loved. I don’t mean the kind of fake cheesy sentimental gushing that we sometimes see in silly songs and bad movies, even though there are probably some folks who bask in that sort of thing. No, I mean that deep satisfaction we feel when someone we love, someone important to us, name us “beloved.”

I think that many of us need to hear it more often because we have a hard time believing that we are lovable, let alone beloved. The writer Graham Greene said,
“It's a strange thing to discover and to believe that you are loved when you know that there is nothing in you for anybody but a parent or a God to love.”

We so often fail to recognize how loved we are by others, God included! Sometimes we find it unbelievable that we could be named “beloved” and be so deeply loved even by God.

There’s a lot of naming going on in this text from John. Not naming of the beloved by God, but a kind of christening by John as he names Jesus the “Lamb of God.” Then Andrew, who had been John’s disciple, runs to Jesus and names him Rabbi, which means teacher. When Andrew goes to get his brother Simon, he names Jesus also as Messiah, the anointed.And then Jesus himself gives a new name to Simon – Peter, which is the English translation of “petros” – a stone, or a rock.

There are lots of ways to understand those names - Jesus as lamb of God, a sacrifice, not just A lamb, but THE lamb. Jesus as the teacher, the messiah, the one anointed by God.And Simon, ever after known as Peter – the rock. Whether he was stubborn as a rock or solid as a rock, Simon is now Peter. Each person in this narrative is a person who is called, and who is called by name, just as we are.And because we are called, just like the prophet Isaiah promises, God is our strength, and it is God’s light that shines in us.

Because we are called, the Apostle Paul assures us, we are also equipped – in speech and knowledge of every kind. Because of God’s call, we are not lacking in any gift. But the voices in our heads tell us otherwise. The voices around us tell us otherwise. We are like the young man I described last week, who stood up to sing, hesitant, uncertain. When a woman encouraged him, what she told him was
“Just sing the song you know in your heart.”
But what she was really saying is: “You are loved. You can do this.”

Today as we ordain and install officers for the coming years, we know that there are some who may be hesitant, uncertain. Every one of us, when we are faced with the responsibility of leading, feels the weight of our own limitations. Every one of us, when we are asked whether we will serve in the church, hears the voices that tell us we are not competent, not good enough.

How can you sing the song in your heart, when your fourth grade music teacher told you to just move your lips, so as not to mess up the program?

How can you step up to lead God’s people in the congregation when you know you have fallen down on the job in the past?

How can you agree to be a servant leader when you don’t believe you have the gifts and skills to do it well?

Here’s how: because you are not lacking. Paul uses the plural you here – y’all! Y’all are not lacking any of the gifts you need to obey God’s call. The God who calls you also gives you – all y’all - every good gift that you need. The voice that names us as beloved is the same voice that calls us and leads us and guides us, the same voice that names us as disciples.

Sometimes, we hear that voice like Jesus did, the Spirit descending like a dove.
And sometimes, we need to hear it from the other disciples around us.

Years ago, a friend told this story about her friend Kathy. “Kathy had been participating in a spiritual retreat. During the final hour on the final day, each participant was invited to come to the center of the circle and declare out loud the “name” by which he or she was called, the name by which the Holy Spirit had anointed each one to do God’s work in the world. The exercise was going swimmingly until a certain young man stepped into the center and sat down.

The group waited.
They waited some more….. More silence.
Polite Protestant impatience began to express itself… 
creaking of chairs, clearing of throats, glances at watches, 
surreptitious counting of the ones 
who hadn’t yet been to the center of the circle.

The young man finally lifted his gaze …
‘I’ve prayed and looked for my name for three days. It isn’t there.’
That broke the polite silence in the room.
What does he mean, exactly… ‘The name isn’t there’?
‘It’s not that I didn’t want any of those names we talked about. But they aren’t strong enough,’ he confessed to the group. ‘They aren’t strong enough to undo the one I already have. My father gave it to me. Over and over again. My name is…’

He stopped and his gaze dropped back down to his hands.
Then he almost whispered. ‘My name is ‘Not Good Enough.’’

There was silence then, deep enough to drown in. Tears formed in many eyes. The group watched and listened, helplessly standing by on the shores of this man’s grief, this dangerous confession of inadequacy.

Then there was a stir and a handful of the retreat participants got up and circled the drowning man. An ancient tradition… the laying on of hands… then spontaneously took place, [like the one we will share soon when we ordain Diane, Emma and Wanda.]

One voice uttered the words, “You are my beloved son.
With you I am well pleased.”

Another voice joined in. A chorus of voices, male and female, arose, surrounding the young man, buoying him with love and affirmation. And in that moment, the group found themselves witnesses to a rebirth.”

Friends, it is in the voices of community that we hear God’s voice. John saw Jesus coming toward him and named him: "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The next day, he saw Jesus and said it again:
"Look, here is the Lamb of God!"

John’s own disciples heard the truth in his voice, and called Jesus “Rabbi,” and they followed Jesus. When he asked them, "What are you looking for?" They awkwardly answered with another question: “Rabbi, where are you staying?”

He answered simply, “Come and see.”
He knew what they were looking for – it was him.
They had found the Anointed one, the Messiah.

And Jesus saw them, called them and named them.
And they knew that they were not lacking,
but they were beloved.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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