Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
There is a story about a minister who was new to the community, and one of his first days there, he came out of the church and wanted to go to the post office. But he realized he didn't know how to find his way there. So he stopped a little fellow going by and said, “Son, can you tell me how to get to the post office?" The little boy replied, 'Sure, you go down this street here to the light, you take a left, and then you go until you see the post office on your right." The minister thanked the lad and trying to be clever, said, "I really appreciate your help. You see this church here? I'm the new pastor, and if you'll come to worship next Sunday, I'll tell you how to go to heaven." The little boy sniffed and said, "Sure!? How are you going to tell me how to find heaven when you don't even know how to find the post office?" Sometimes I feel like that minister: too confident in the abstract, and a little fuzzy in the concrete...
John begins his Gospel with more of a rather abstract theological conviction about who Jesus is rather than a concrete historical assertion as the synoptic gospel writers do. John flatly proclaims that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one you do not know, the one who would be revealed to Israel and who would not baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit. John from the very beginning, almost in a suffocating way asserts the divine origin of this one who in the beginning was with God and who was God, and through whom all things came into being.
It is ironic then, given John's lofty theological convictions about who Jesus is, that he introduces Jesus’ ministry in such a down-to-earth way. Jesus, presented in dramatic contrast with John's prologue, does not assert anything, does not drop any divine directions or wise words, but rather asks a question: "What are you looking for?"
Jesus gives a good first question to ask ourselves as we begin this new year. It’s a question I’m asking myself as I turn 50 this week. It seems a natural time to re-think what is really important in life and what are our ideal as opposed to our actual priorities. "What are you looking for?" can be a stirring, provocative question…
How you might begin answering such a question depends naturally on where you are in life's journey. Most of us would answer with vague ideas of happiness, fulfillment, peace or love. Some would have specific goals which they want to achieve in their career or personal life. Others would say they are simply looking for a way to stop and rest a while, to find relief from what has been to date a painful forced-march. For many of us, like it was for the first disciples, the question can be unsettling, if not irritating, and we would rather dodge it with questions of our own.
So the disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?”
Jesus beckons, "Come and see."
Could it be that there is a connection between Jesus' profound elusive question and his answer to the disciples’ evasive question? Put together, Jesus asked, "What are you looking for?" and he invites them, "Come and see." The fact is, we don't always know what we are looking for in life, but the Lord calls us to come and be with him. And in following where the Lord leads, we may find what we’re looking for in life…
Isn't that a little irritating? I don't know about you, but I want to know as many of the details as possible. We typically want to assess our own needs, define our own goals, and then nail down our own plan to reach those goals. But sooner or later we learn that reality is not neatly framed or determined by our needs or aspirations.
January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus was two-faced, looking in opposite directions. Janus depicts very well the uncertainty of life. We know that there will be both good and bad in the year ahead, there will be ambiguities and perplexities; we will be pulled to make choices in opposite directions. The complexity of our sitz im leben, or life situation, makes it very difficult for us to always know what we want out of life - or what our deepest needs really are. But, there is a liberating word for us here. Jesus knew that the disciples didn't know what they were looking for, and yet he still called them with the promise that they would see!
So also does the Lord call us out of our existential confusion! We are free from abstract speculation. By honestly acknowledging that we are not so sure of ourselves, we are more free to follow God. And maybe that's the key to some of our struggles of faith. Possibly what you and I need to hear more than anything else today is that it doesn't so much matter where we are going as who we are following. God will take care of our future. The direction that we so desperately want to plan is not ours to control ultimately. Our primary calling is to trust God's Word to us here and now, to follow and be where the Lord calls us. As Paul once wrote, "We walk by faith and not by sight."
In a world where random acts of violence and tragic death seem to dominate the news, it is important that we remember our faith is not primarily a self-improvement project. I still can’t get the maniacal grin of Jared Loughner out of my head. His shooting spree last weekend took the life of six innocent people including a judge and a young nine year old girl (Christina Taylor Green). I was shocked to find out that that young girl was the grand daughter of one of my former parishioners in Zürich. Please continue to pray for all of those families… But did you realize 80 people die a day from gunshot wounds in the United States. Incredible! Some days when I read the news I range somewhere between deep despair on the one extreme and angry frustration on the other… The human condition seems so hopelessly absurd at times... Baptist minister Will D. Campbell summarized the gospel rather bluntly, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”
I don’t say that to be flippant. That is a deep theological confession that too often we live as though we don’t have a merciful father, a gracious heavenly parent who loves and pursues us. We need to remember that Christian gospel presents a clear choice in how we live out our lives. Professor Richard Lovelace put it this way, “Are you basing your justification on your sanctification? Or are you basing your sanctification on your justification?” What he means by that is that the gospel is simply this: we are saved by grace through faith. That is our basis for justification. We are saved, justified (or made righteous before God) by what Christ has done for us that we could not do for ourselves. But sanctification is the process of working out God’s grace in all areas of our lives. Now we can choose to try to live our lives so that we are good enough to stand justified before God, or we can live our lives knowing that we are already justified before God, and so freely live to honor and glorify God. There is a profound, a foundational difference here and you need to constantly ask yourself, “Am I obeying God in order to be loved by God? or “Do I believe I am loved by God, therefore I want to obey God?”
It’s all about who is the source of your salvation, your glory, your purpose and goal in life. If you think you have to perform in order to please God, you’re going to live a very frustrated life. But consider the good news that you can’t do anything to earn God’s favor! Your salvation comes from God’s faithfulness, God’s righteousness, God’s mercy!
In our Old Testament text, Isaiah was speaking to a people whose world had come to an end. Having been once the envy of the Orient, the people of Israel were now enslaved in exile and as Isaiah described them, they were "deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slaves of rulers." Like then, sometimes our road in life seems to lead to a dead-end; to undeserved pain, neglect, rejection, defeat, doubt, and frustration. But it was Isaiah's conviction that God's calling goes back to our very beginning. "The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me... and he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
We discover here that our purpose and worth is not dependent on where we are headed in life, but on God's gracious initiative and confirmation. No matter in what kind of exile we may find ourselves, God is faithful and will show his glory through us. This is a word of hope as we begin another year together. God promises to work in and through us! Through good and bad, God's grace will prevail. The disciples proved this. Even through such as we who are aliens, even through we who feel despised and abhorred, ill-equipped and inadequate, God proclaims he will reveal his glory.
Tomorrow is the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., and as many of your know Dr. King preached from this pulpit after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. A friend (Daphne) shared a true story about a former national leader of the Ku Klux Klan Johnny Lee Clary. It’s a story about how by God’s grace followers of Jesus become people who invite others to “come and see” through the way we think, speak and act…
In 1979 Clary went to a radio debate with the Rev. Wade Watts, an African American who had worked with Martin Luther King. When Clary arrived, Rev. Watts held out his hand for Clary to shake and said, “Hi Mr. Clary. I’m here to tell you I love you and Jesus loves you.” It took Clary off guard. He was expecting a black man who hated white people. And he shook his hand, jerking it back quickly remembering that it is a Klan rule not to touch a man of color. When Rev. Watts saw Clary looking at his hand in horror, he said, “Don’t worry Johnny, it don’t come off!” Clary started calling Rev. Watts various obscenities, to which the Rev. responded, “God bless you, Johnny!” He said, “You can’t do enough to make me hate you. I’ going to love you and pray for you.”
After the radio debate, Clary and his Klansmen cohorts started to harass Rev. Watts. They would go by his house and call him names. No response. They threw trash all over his lawn. No response. They stood outside his house in their sheets and yelled, “Get on out here boy, we have something for you.” Rev. Watts came out and said, “Boys, Halloween isn’t for four more months. I got no trick or treat in here for you! Come back in October!” They burned a cross in front of his house. The Rev. came out and asked them if they needed hot dogs and marshmallows? Finally, Clary set fire to Rev. Watt’s Church… The fire was put out before the church was destroyed… And so he called and tried to disguise his voice, saying, “Boy we’re coming to get you and you better be afraid.” To which the Rev. responded, saying, “Hello Johnny! A man like you takes the time to call a man like me. I’m so honored! Let me do something for you… Dear Lord, please forgive Johnny for being so stupid. He doesn’t mean to be so ornery. He’s a good boy…” And at that point Clary hung up the phone…
This really frustrated Clary, so they followed the Rev. into a restaurant. They surrounded the Rev., who was sitting at table with a chicken dinner in front of him. Clary said, this restaurant is for whites only, and I promise you we’re going to do to you what you do to that chicken!” And so the Rev. looked at the Klansmen and looked at the chicken and then he picked up the chicken and kissed it! And after he kissed the chicken, the whole restaurant started to laugh. Even the clan was laughing.
It was a year ago this past November, that Johnny Lee Clary, at 50 years old, was ordained as a minister into the largest body of black churchgoers in the United States (Church of God in Christ). You see, he gave his life to Christ. He “came and saw” that God loved him, and his life was changed because of the courageous love of Rev. Watts. He said, “Yes I made mistakes in my life, and a person cannot go back in time and change the past, but he can certainly do something about today in order to build a better tomorrow…I believe I have something to contribute in the area of racial reconciliation. I’m going to spend the rest of my life building bridges and bringing people together.”
Johnny Clary didn’t know what he was looking for in life. He sure wasn’t looking for God to call him into the ministry of reconciliation. But despite his earlier racist and bigoted worldview, by God’s mercy his heart was changed. Through the patient love and courage of Rev. Watts, follower of Jesus, Johnny saw the light of God’s grace…
Friend, when you hear Jesus' question: "What are you looking for?" don't be surprised if you don't have a quick answer. Even though you may not be too sure of yourself, take comfort in the fact that Christ is sure of you. He loves you, and he calls you to follow him. He promises that you will see God's love prevail. Even when you don't know what you're looking for, Christ's call is still there. As you come to him and trust in him, you will see his light shining upon you, you will see his glory at work within you, and you will see his merciful salvation reaching through you even to all the earth...
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
(1) Nicholas D. Kristof, “Why Not Regulate Guns as Seriously as Toys,” International Herald Tribune, January 12, 2011.
(2) Doris Betts, Everything I Know about Writing I Learned in Sunday School, referenced January 15, 2011, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=365