Rev. Dr. Christopher "Kit" Schooley
In the capitals of history's great empires, Babylon (Babylonia), Ashur (Assyria), Jerusalem (Israel), Athens (Greece), Rome (Roman Empire), Karakaroum (Monguls), Madrid (Spanish), Timbuktu (Mali) London (British), Paris (French), Berlin (Axis), Tokyo (Imperial Japan), Washington (USA), and Beijing (People's Republic), they their capital is a center of brilliance. Paris, no longer center of an empire, now only called one of the greatest cities in the world, still calls itself The City of Light. History has moved from empires to a wide and unbounded world.
In centuries past it was not like this. In Rome, after their fall in 410 CE, Romans remaining were furious with the Christians, claiming it was the Christian God who did not love and protect their great city—if only Constantine hadn't replaced their many gods with the Christian God, the empire would never have crumbled. Out of this disagreement Augustine wrote his great work: The City of God.
Does the character of the people define their city? Does a capital city reveal the people: character strengths, flaws and all? Carry this curiosity in your mind's ear in this our season of light in this city of light. What is the character of any place in which Christ's people dwell?
Scripture offers two examples of what God would have a great city be. First, Isaiah's story—the Quiver of God story; and second, Gospel writer John's story of the calling away of John the Baptist's followers, leaving the great baptizer, to join Jesus.
You heard Felicia Henderson (9h00)/Carolyn Bouazouni (11h00) read from Isaiah, whose hometown—and great capital—was Jerusalem, of the kingdom of Israel. His capital had been ransacked and its political leadership, along with Isaiah, carried into exile in Babylon, another great city. Jerusalem turned to a shadow of its former self. Yet, Isaiah, from Babylon, boldly claims God's light will return and restore Jerusalem." Note what Biblical prophets say, their words have survived the rise and fall of many capitals which paid little heed.
Isaiah was filled with unheard of ideas. His prophetic poetry is what scholars call servant songs. Four songs of a servant, a hero, it turns out ,who is sometimes one leader, sometimes collective—a nation. You'd want this servant on your side if you suffered hand to mouth in a foreign capital with little or no hope of going home. To hear Isaiah, a sufferer himself, tell it, this Servant, spoke like a sharp sword, and was so favored by God as to be a secret weapon. God hid him like an arrow in the Lord's quiver, just waiting to aim him, or was it unleash him, on the Babylonians?
Over forty years the Jerusalemites dwelled in this land of strange gods. Long enough to make them think Yaweh, who led them out of Egypt, had run out of steam.
Never mind, Isaiah says, God has a plan in this servant. Yet Isaiah's claim about the plan fell on deaf ears. Nonetheless, he didn't tire of shouting it from every hill. He was convinced that on the third or the fifth or the tenth hearing, someone will hear what he hears.
Keeping his ear tuned to the Lord, soon Isaiah couldn't tell himself from the Suffering Servant. Then, it happened—a bolt out of the blue. He saw it in a way he had not expected. It startled him. God wasn't just calling, commissioning this Servant sufferer to gather up the hopes and fears of all the years of exile so Israelites could walk out of Babylon as they had walked out of Egypt. More than that. God wanted the Israelites to be free and was going to lead everyone else in the world into their own freedom too. God was not a lover of the Israelite Empire. This was a God of the whole world No one had ever been bold enough, or crazy enough, to believe God, once-encamped in Jerusalem, would return to his beloved exiled Jews and then offer rescue to the entire world. It even startled Isaiah to hear what he was saying on God's behalf. Here was a "gathering God" who brings us together; who doesn't want us going off on our own personal pilgrimages...off on our own seeking that is, more often, self-seeking. God expects us to be in community, gathered. Like we are today. Each Lord's day.
A gathering God!
What are we being gathered for? The greatest question of our time.
Our second story comes from John, the writer of the 4th Gospel. It is a story about another John, John the Baptist, whom Matthew and Luke have written into their script as a wild and wooly guy who lives in the desert, dresses oddly and survives on whatever he can dredge up. This John is somewhat different. He's working up an organization and has a few disciples. He's a message to spread, but that message is not one about how John's the One, the Messiah; None of that. He knows its another, but twice says: "I myself did not know him."
On this day Jesus shows up. Relieved, John knows his proclaiming has not been in vain. Here he is, Jesus, the one John didn't know. Startled, he calls him the Lamb of God. Here, the Messiah steps on stage.
John makes this clear. With Jesus, you never know him. No matter how you study, prepare, even memorize what he will say in hopes you'll hear it again to identify him, it won't work. You'll only know Jesus when God reveals him. John didn't know him 'til he saw him and then bam, here's the one, the Lamb.
Jesus is a sheer gift of grace; always a surprise. Those who have had a glimpse of him will tell you, it was nothing they had planned for. To that, I testify.
What seems to matter is not how thoughtful, smart or pious a witness you and I are. We see the same in the first two disciples who hear John's proclamations. At first, they think John's proclaiming is on to something, and then in the next instant Jesus is there, and they know "He's the one." They ask, "Where are you dwelling?" Not 'what's your neighborhood" But, in what do you abide, dwell? "What's the character of the place in which you dwell." We want to be in that place. He responds: "Come and See. They knew they had seen the Christ.
Two decades ago in Sydney, another great city, people from the Pitt Street Uniting Church befriended some youth in an abandoned warehouse near the church. They invited the squatters to come to church. The youth, made up of runaways and drug addicts, even prostitutes, cried in superstitious fear: "God will strike us dead if we ever show up in church. A few days later, those church folk gathered up some bread, wine and a communion plate and took the Eucharist across the street to the warehouse. Some of the squatters remembered a few of the traditional words from the times their parents took them to worship. And when the bread and cup went around many whispered them aloud. A few broke down in tears. The members returned to Pitt Street and said to others: Brothers and Sisters, we have seen the Christ! Amen and Amen.