January 19th, 2020, Second Sunday after Epiphany, YR A
“We have found the Messiah.” What a wonderful closing line we have in today’s Gospel. What a wonderful way of expressing the very essence of the Christian faith and life. “We have found the Messiah.” We have found God’s anointed one; we have found the source of new life. In one sentence Andrew sums up the goal that drives all people: the goal of finding something that gives our lives meaning, purpose, shape and direction. “We have found the Messiah.”
I have no doubt that John the Baptist must have been frustrated by all those who came to hear him. He was frustrated by their sin and disregard for God’s Law in spite of his calls for repentance. Similarly, Andrew and the other disciples must have been frustrated in their wait for the Messiah, the appearance of God’s chosen one who would deliver Israel. They were both looking for meaning, purpose, shape and direction in their lives.
But once they realized that God had called them, once they discovered that they were accepted by God and part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world, they found courage and hope. John’s calling was to be the messenger, the forerunner of the Messiah. Andrew’s calling was to witness to Jesus as the Messiah and to bring other disciples to him. And each one, in fulfilling their own unique vocations, in living their lives responding to the call of God—each found meaning in their lives.
But when you and I begin to wonder about the meaning of our lives, we usually look in all the wrong places. We tend to think about what we do, what we have achieved, what status we have attained, and what projects or programs have come about as the result of all our hard work. But the hard truth is that it is not primarily what we do that gives meaning to our lives.
Quite the contrary: finding meaning in life is much more about who are are. God is interested in us not for what we do, but for who we really are as individuals. What the Messiah has shown us is that God loves us all just as we are, regardless of what we do. Of course, God “hates” all those things that separate us from God (“sins” are what we call them), but nevertheless, God still loves us, the sinners.
Several years ago I visited one of my elderly parishioners at her request. She was living in a nursing home and said she had some things she wanted to talk over with me, so we made an appointment. As I drove into the parking lot, I wondered what our conversation would be about. Surprisingly it was about finding meaning in life. She expressed her frustration at not being able to do anything productive any longer. And she also had concerns that at the end of life she might not measure up, that God would find her lacking. As she talked about her fears, it became apparent that she imaged God as standing over and above her, the one who would judge the works of her life.
What a delight it was to proclaim the Gospel of grace to her—to share the Good News that God has accepted her just as she is, irrespective of any of her failures or achievements. I spoke of how in Jesus God has chosen us, not for what we have accomplished, but by God’s grace, simply for who we are. And I reminded her that in Jesus we can know God as a friend, as one who has shared in our mortal nature, as one who stands not over and above us, but as one who stands with us. We prayed that she might learn to be patient with herself in this seemingly “unproductive” period of her life. And when I left she seemed to have a deeper sense of peace and trust.
Throughout life, we all experience this tension between doing and being. But usually we are seduced by our contemporary culture to define ourselves purely in terms of our achievements. We are fooled into thinking that in some way we can prove that we are worthy by what we have accomplished —worthy of recognition in this world, and worthy of God’s love. But God calls us to a different kind of life, a life of grace, a life where we do not have to prove that we are worthy.
The truth of the matter is that God has made us worthy. The creation story in Genesis bears witness that God has created us, both male and female, in the very image of God. And the core message of our Christian scriptures is that by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus God has redeemed us all. In one of our Eucharistic prayers we even remind God that in Jesus you have “made us worthy to stand before you.” And so we are free from having to prove anything. We are free to be who we are called to be. But it’s not easy to accept the freedom and love which God offers. We forever want to be able to say that we have achieved it “the old-fashioned way,” by earning it!
Last week, in the baptism of Jesus, we saw one who identifies himself with our humanity, and yet, at the same time, is the one on whom God’s Spirit rests. And in this morning’s Gospel, John the Baptist witnesses not to what Jesus does (after all, Jesus hasn’t even begun his public ministry), but to who Jesus is. John announces that Jesus is the “Lamb of God,” the one who is willing to sacrifice himself, the one who is willing to take upon himself the sin and separation of the world so that he could redeem us and reconcile us to God. We see that it is on the basis of who Jesus is, and not what Jesus does, that the disciples come to place their trust in him. He performs no miracles, no healings, but only says to them, “Come and see.” Come and see who I am, and then believe.
In the Cathedral of Copenhagen, there is a magnificent statue of Jesus by the Danish sculptor, Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen. It was completed in 1821 and I was fortunate enough to see it recently on a trip to Iceland and Scandinavia. It is held in high regard and has been reproduced throughout the world.
As part of his preparation for the design Thorvaldsen completed a clay model of his work. He is said to have looked upon it with great satisfaction. It was a statue depicting a majestic and victorious Christ, with eyes looking upward to heaven and hands raised as befitted his awesome power. Thorvaldsen said, “Jesus is the greatest figure in human history and this statue will so represent Him.”
But later that night, after the artist had gone from his studio, a mist came in from the sea to where the statue had been left to dry and the humid conditions prevented the clay from hardening as quickly as the artist had anticipated. The upraised hands drooped: they no longer commanded; rather, they beseeched. The fiercely upturned face lowered itself onto the Master’s chest as if in a pose of gentle invitation.
When he saw the clay statue the next day, at first, Thorvaldsen was bitterly disappointed. But as he looked at the sculpture he came to see a dimension of Christ that had never been real to him before. He saw not the majestic, conquering Christ, but Jesus who simply and gently invites us to be with him. His original intention had been to inscribe the words “Follow My Commands” on the base of the statue. But now he realized that was no longer appropriate. Instead he chiseled Jesus’ own words, “Come unto me.”
We are always so busy doing a lot of things. I suspect that we could devote a lot of time talking about our individual achievements, and surely we could make lists of all the project and programs of this congregation in which you justly take pride. But that’s not really why we are here. We are not here because of what we do, either as individuals or as a community of faith. We are here simply to be who we are—the Body of Christ in this place. A diverse group of redeemed sinners, created in God’s image and made worthy by God’s love for us—a love given flesh in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
That is what gives our lives meaning and purpose.
- The Rev’d Dr. Kenneth J. Dorsch