This 2nd Sunday after Epiphany is a good time to think about discipleship. We hear about it in Isaiah’s 2nd “Servant Song” and in John’s version of the call of Jesus’ first disciples.
Both the real prophet we know as Isaiah and those who wrote in his name (for the sixty-six chapters of the book we know as “Isaiah” were not all produced by the same voice) lived during the difficult years before, during, and after Israel’s conquest and captivity in Babylon.
Today’s passage gives us a glimpse of the frustrations and difficulties of being a prophet (or, for our purposes, a disciple), in a dialogue between the prophet and the Almighty.
Isaiah is very sure of his having been called by God, in fact, from before he was born! “While I was in my mother’s womb God named me.” (Is 49:1)
And yet, Isaiah doesn’t feel that he has been able to exercise the calling for which he was born. He has been “hidden away” “like a polished arrow in the quiver”, his mouth silenced behind the “shadow of God’s hand”. (Is 49:2)
Isaiah, it turns out, is not shy about expressing his frustration to God: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing!”, he exclaims. (Is 49:4)
God’s response is that Isaiah has been called for an even broader and more important mission than that of teaching and restoring Israel: God’s servant is to be “a light to the nations”, that God’s salvation “may reach to the ends of the earth”.
It seems to me that it’s probably not unusual that there is a difference between the calling that a prophet or a disciple may envision for themselves and the work that it turns out really needs to be done. I think that for many of us, the plans we make fall by the wayside when different and unexpected options open up. Scripture is full of accounts of reluctant servants who need serious re-direction before they are ready to accept the role they are called to in God’s vision: Moses and Jonah are two that spring immediately to mind.
Turning to this morning’s gospel account of the call of Jesus’ first disciples, we first need to observe how different it is from the better-know story we hear in the other gospels, of Jesus calling the fishers from their work on the lakeshore (which we will hear next week).
Today’s narrative takes place in Bethany, across the Jordan where John is encamped with his disciples, baptizing and proclaiming the approach of God’s reign.
The reading begins with John’s account of Jesus’ baptism and John’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29)
As John testifies to Jesus’ identity to his followers, as Jesus is passing by, two of his disciples begin to follow after Jesus, and he turns and asks them: “What are you looking for?”.
The two don’t seem to have an answer ready, and reply with a question of their own: “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
Jesus, in turn – in a manner we will, of course, see many times – himself does not answer, but issues an invitation, an opportunity: “Come and see.” (Jn. 1:37-39)
Just as our text from Isaiah reminds us that the work to which God calls us is not necessarily what we plan, this story of the call of Jesus’ first disciples provides two simple and fundamental questions that can (and probably should) shape our lives as disciples:
What are we looking for? And
Are we looking to see what God in Christ is up to?
Did the disciples know what they were looking for? Probably not. Like us, they were undoubtedly searching for meaning and direction in their lives. What any of us is
looking for is complicated, and varies from day to day and year to year, depending on the issues, hopes, and challenges of the different times and circumstances in our lives.
This weekend we commemorate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because of his leadership in movement for civil rights for all persons. While most of his life was spent in the southern states, King spent some of his formative years here in Massachusetts. You may have seen or read about the new statue that was unveiled in Boston on Friday, paying tribute.
For us as Christians, King provides a powerful witness and model of a life of discipleship, a life lived in response to the gospel.
Like Isaiah, King was a servant of God, a “light to the nations” and an initiator of transformation not only in own parish and community, but a speaker of truth to a nation divided by deep-seated racial bias and legalized injustice, bias and injustice that we have still not eradicated today, as we all know.
Pastor King’s call to discipleship, like Isaiah, Andrew, and Simon, probably seemed simpler, as he set out on the journey, than it turned out to be.
Pastor King came to experience the cost of discipleship to a new degree during the boycott: four local churches and the homes of both King and Ralph Abernathy were firebombed.
The eventual success of boycott – the determination of federal district court that Montgomery’s laws regarding bus segregation were unconstitutional - sparked the more widespread movement for civil rights. Martin Luther King was increasingly called on to organize and provide leadership.
The leadership he offered, and which we celebrate this weekend, was grounded in King’s investment in the principle of nonviolent resistance to unjust law, which was born during his graduate studies in Boston, and further nurtured when he traveled to India to study the work of Gandhi. His understanding was based on belief in the “network of mutuality”, the idea that destiny of all persons is connected, that no one can be free if another is not free.
King is frequently seen as civil leader and organizer, but all his work was based in his commitment to Jesus, to the call to serve God, to be “a light to the nations” so that salvation might reach “to the ends of the earth.”
We know that he often faced violence in his life as a disciple: Martin was jailed, physically assaulted, and threatened on regular basis, and of course, he was eventually assassinated. His relationship with Jesus sustained him.
King often told of a critical incident that occurred during the most difficult days of the bus boycott. He recounted it in several sermons and in his autobiography. Here’s one version of the story, taken from Charles Marsh and John Perkins’ Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community:
“In January 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. returned home around midnight after a long day of organizational meetings. His wife and young daughter were already in bed, and King was eager to join them. But a threatening call—the kind of call he was getting as many as 30 to 40 times a day—interrupted his attempt to get some much-needed rest. When he tried to go back to bed, he could not shake the menacing voice that kept repeating the hateful words in his head.
King got up, made a pot of coffee, and sat down at his kitchen table. With his head buried in his hands, he cried out to God. There in his kitchen in the middle of the night, when he had come to the end of strength, King met the living Christ in an experience that would carry him through the remainder of his life. "I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on," King later recalled. "He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone … He promised never to leave me, no never alone."
In the stillness of the Alabama night, the voice of Jesus proved more convincing than the threatening voice of the anonymous caller. The voice of Jesus gave him the courage to press through the tumultuous year of 1956 to the victorious end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. More than that, it gave him a vision for ministry that would drive him for the rest of his life.”
(cited on preachingtoday.com)
The life of Martin Luther King Jr illustrates the fact that when we “come and see” the ministry of Jesus, when we take on the ministry of Jesus, we can be summoned to places we would really rather not go.
King’s witness reminds us that bringing light to the nations is not always welcome. It reminds us that preaching the gospel involves not just caring for those in need, but challenging the unjust structures in our common life.
But, as King was promised, we will never be left alone.
As we, in our own time and living with the particular challenges and opportunities of OUR lives, strive to follow Jesus, let us continue to ask ourselves:
What are we looking for?
Let us pray for the courage to really “come and see”, regardless of where the journey takes us.
Let us give thanks for the commitment and sacrifice of those who have gone before us in working for justice and peace.
We are blessed to have a diversity of preaching voices in our parish. Our guild of preachers is a mixture of lay and clergy. We hope you enjoy the varied voices.
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