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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sermon from 1/16/11

Sermon from January 16, 2011: The Second Sunday after Epiphany
“Too Light a Thing”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:28-42)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

My mother raised me to believe that I could do anything I set my mind to do, that the sky was the limit. As I get closer and closer to the mid-century mark of my life, I realize with each year that she wasn’t precisely accurate, that there are things I couldn’t have done even if I dreamed of doing them (such as playing for the Minnesota Vikings), and that as each year passes there are things I won’t be able to do because of choices I’ve already made. Still, this was a profound influence on me. But for my mother, this did not stem only from maternal pride and encouragement. It was for her a theological reflection on the Scriptures and a statement of faith in God’s desire for all people.

Isaiah today says, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” We often speak of the promise we receive in baptism that we are called by God to serve God in the world. Isaiah takes that a step further back: he says that even before we are born God has plans in mind for us.

It’s a little daunting, isn’t it? That God has plans for each child born which precede their birth, plans in the making perhaps for years. That each of us fits into God’s hopes and dreams for the world in some mysterious but very real way.

I’ll never forget the day Rachel was born. This was a week before we found out my mother had cancer; one of the last weeks of our blissful ignorance. Just hours after Rachel’s birth my parents were in the hospital. And my mother held Rachel in her arms and said to her, not for anyone else to hear but only for this tiny baby, “Dear, dear Rachel. Rachel. God has such great plans for you.” In that moment, my mother saw this infant as a complete sign of God for the blessing of the world. It is an awesome and almost frightening prospect for each of us, that we consider we are chosen by God, called by God, for great things in this world.

As we walk through this season of Epiphany together, a major theme of our texts we read at worship will be this call as disciples, our sense of God’s call to us to be a blessing to the world. I don’t think we take God seriously enough on this. Even when we bring a child to these waters, do we seriously ponder what God has in mind for her? Mary, Jesus’ mother, pondered such questions deeply. Little wonder, as she had some pretty serious promises about what her baby would become. But God’s promises, God’s call to us are no less astonishing, no less serious.

If there’s anything the Scriptures agree on regarding our role in God’s plan it is that we have one. That Jesus came to this world to live, to die, to rise, and to bring us into fullness of life. All so that we would become messengers of God, called servants of God, in this world. It is central to what it means to be Christian, that we are people who believe we are strategically placed by God in this world as signs of God’s love.

Yet we so often live as if our lives are our own. Perhaps out of some false sense of low worth or value. Others might be needed by God in certain places, to do certain things. But not us. We’re not gifted enough, talented enough. Surely God can use someone else.

And perhaps we live this way out of selfishness – it’s easier to think about our own needs, our own lives. It’s one thing to come to church to hear that God loves us, and that we are saved and forgiven. But perhaps we just don’t want to be bothered by the possibility that God’s got a great plan to bring love into this world and each one of us is an important part of that plan.

And this is not only an individual thing: if all are called, all are needed, and it is only together that we can do God’s work. This is a fundamental view of the Scriptures regarding the Christian community Jesus created and called. Even the secular world is picking up on this.

David Brooks wrote a wonderful piece in the New York Times last week about our president’s speech in Tucson. In it he brings up this point he thinks we’ve lost in our culture – that we need to relearn how important each of us and the other person is to what we do together. He writes: “We all get to live lives better than we deserve because our individual shortcomings are transmuted into communal improvement. We find meaning — and can only find meaning — in the role we play in that larger social enterprise.” He then quotes Reinhold Neibuhr: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. . . . Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

So we are left with this wonder: each of us is important and called by God from before our birth to make a difference. And we cannot do this alone – only when we see ourselves as called together can God accomplish what needs to be done.

But there’s more. Today Isaiah adds this amazing word from God: “It is too light a thing to save only Israel. I will make you a light to the nations.” This is astonishing prophetic speech to speak to a people who believe they are chosen by God.

Essentially the prophet says that God’s view of what it means to choose a people is different than Israel’s. Perhaps they think being the chosen ones means being the ones God will save. God, on the other hand, thinks that saving only Israel is “too light a thing.” Too insignificant. Not enough of a job for these servants God is sending.

It may be that Israel understood this in a less than inclusive, universal way – there are some who make that argument from the text. As if what is meant is that all nations would only be enlightened when they came to recognize the leadership of Israel and Jerusalem.

But regardless of what ancient Hebrews thought of this expansive word from God, we see it differently in the light of Jesus, the one John the Baptist claims today is come to “take away the sins of the world.” Once again the evangelist uses the massive word “cosmos” – all creation that exists is to be reached by this light.

For God, this light must shine for all the nations. This servant must come to save the whole cosmos. And once we get it in our hearts and heads that God is calling us to serve, then this is the next learning we must face: We are not the only chosen people. Nor is salvation intended only for us. Our whole purpose in following the Lord of life is to be a light for all the nations, for the whole world. Nothing short of everyone will be enough for God.

But this is the whole point of baptism for us, isn’t it? Not that we have a ticket to heaven but that we are anointed as God’s light-bearers in the world. Yes, Jesus’ death and resurrection give us abundant life now and in the world to come. But to think that we were the only reason Jesus came is the height of arrogance. To say, “I know that I am loved by God, and that’s all I need to know.” Or, “If God is calling me to spread that love, well, God must not mean it. And who has the time?” And so instead of being a light to the nations, we individually and as a congregation can become people who put our lights under bushel baskets so we can see, and can’t understand why others don’t come to this light.

Our baptism is our calling, just as it was for Jesus, to be a light to the nations. And once we begin to live in that calling, we find the amazing joy of God’s gracious presence and God’s loving plan for us. And as the people of God who are Mount Olive congregation, this is the center of what we consider as we seek God’s vision for our next years: what are we called to be in this place, not for ourselves, but for the neighborhood, the city, the world?

What a joyful wonder, to consider God has had plans in mind for each of us even from before our birth, and plans for us together. Sometimes, if we’ve never considered this deeply, sometimes it’s as if we’re like a baby at the font of baptism, or what my mother saw in Rachel that day – all potential, with a world out there waiting for our message from God. The good news is that God will always be ready to guide us to discover our path, to discern the way God’s love is calling us to be in this world. The good news is God’s got plans to transform the world by our presence in it. And by your presence, each of you. If you and I don’t think highly enough of ourselves to believe this, let us remember that God does.

Because it’s too light a thing that we live as children of God in Christ for our own selves. This is a world of darkness, and we are needed to be lights of God for the world. Be light – listen for God’s plan for you and for us. Then let us live in God’s joy and light, that all the world might see.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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