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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Telling Stories

John 1:29-42
I love to read or hear a good human interest story. Who doesn’t, right? Hearing the stories of random acts of kindness, or learning about people who have dedicated their lives to make life better for others is inspiring.
Reading the story about a person who saw a problem and then did something to address it, to improve lives or comfort those who are hurting, is welcome balm to all those other stories that surround us, frighten us, anger us or frustrate us. At least that’s how it works for me. When I read these stories, I’m seeking relief from the constant onslaught of troubling news and commentary that overwhelms me.
I’m looking for evidence that that stuff is not all there is to this world.
A weekly magazine I regularly read devotes space in every issue to a “Heroes Among Us” feature. Television news programs often dedicate a segment at least once a week to a person or organization that has done something out of the ordinary that is good, altruistic, generous, or creative, on behalf of those who needed help.
I recently found stories about a childless teacher and her husband who adopted a young student who needed the stability and care of a loving home when the foster system failed him; and a middle school student who created a way to provide food for other students whose only reliable meals came in the form of federally funded breakfast and lunches, they received, but only when school is in session – his project went viral.
There is the church that planted a garden on their property which now feeds scores of low income families with good, healthy fruits and vegetables and has inspired other churches and organizations to pursue sustainable growing methods, providing healthy foods to supplement their feeding programs; and the woman who adopts and trains shelter dogs to become therapy companions for returning vets who suffer from PTSD.
These stories and others like them often appear toward the end of the news program, or magazine issue. I don’t think it’s because they are considered unimportant by those who have control over content, but because they know, that after receiving all that other stuff, the bad and troubling stuff, we really, really need to receive good news. We need to be reminded that one person or organization can make a difference. We need to be reminded of goodness. We need hope and joy to have the last word.
With all the darkness with which we are surrounded, with the pain of  lost loved ones as well as the sadness of other losses, betrayals, our own failures and struggles, we need these stories of hope. Testifying to the good that overcomes the darkness and the evil in our world is vital.
Well, isn’t that what John the Baptist did too, as he witnessed to the coming of Jesus? He told those who gathered around him that God was sending light into the world to bring hope and healing to their darkness. In fact, earlier in this gospel, the evangelist writes that John the Baptist was sent from God for this very purpose – to testify to the light, to the reality of who Jesus is, so that everyone might believe in him.
The people to whom John the Baptist delivered this good news lived in a dark world. Their lives were hard. They lived under Roman oppression. It was hard to know who to trust. They were poor. It had been a long time since God had sent a prophet among them, and so they may have wondered if God had given up on them; why was God so silent in the midst of their suffering?
Then John the Baptist came along and people followed him because he gave people true hope. He told his disciples that God has not forsaken them but is sending one to live among them who will be the fleshly embodiment of God himself.
John the Baptist testified that as God’s kingdom enters the world through this messiah, God’s mercy and justice will come upon the earth as well.
And then one day, as John was baptizing people in the Jordan River, Jesus himself appeared, to be baptized by John, and to begin his ministry among these people.
Last week, we remembered this key moment in the life of Jesus, which parallels a key moment in which the light of God breaks through and shines on each of us, in our own baptism.
We talked about the parallels between Jesus’ baptism and our own, and we gave thanks for baptism, the wonder-filled, grace-filled experience we share with our Lord. We even got a little wet as we were sprinkled with water from the baptismal font. We thought about how magnificent it is that we get to share this experience with Jesus.
We remembered that at the very moment when Jesus emerged from the water of the Jordan River at his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended and alighted on him; and the voice of God was heard as God declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Right after the water is sprinkled or poured or a person is dunked in the baptismal waters, we hear the words: “Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” A promise is made as a cross is traced in oil upon the forehead – ‘Child of God – you are beloved – I will never leave you or forsake you.’
A small child won’t remember the day of their baptism or the claim God makes unless the rest of us testify to the momentous event. A child will learn of the love of God as we remind them and show them over and over again how much God loves us. They will learn the way of Jesus as they hear the Good News shared, and experience God’s love from all the Jesus-following light-bearers who surround them and show them the way of Christ.
The story that makes up our gospel today happened the very day after Jesus was baptized. Perhaps John was standing around telling these two disciples of his about the amazing events that had occurred the day before. After all, that is what John the Baptist did so well. He witnessed to who Jesus was. He told the story of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
All of a sudden, as John saw Jesus coming toward him, he exclaimed, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
John is crystal clear about who Jesus is and what Jesus’ purpose is. John testifies. This is Jesus, the Messiah. This is the Lamb of God. This is he whom God has sent into the world as a light to the nations. This is he who takes away the sin of the world. Here is the Son of God. Follow him!
John’s disciples are curious. So they began to follow Jesus, to physically follow him, when Jesus turns around and looks at them. He addresses them, “What are you looking for?”
David Lose points out in his commentary on this passage that this is the first question Jesus asks in the gospel of John, in fact, they are the first words spoken by Jesus: “What are you looking for?” The question is ripe with possibilities. Jesus may just as well be asking us, “What are you seeking?” “What do you hope to find?” “What do you need?” “What do you long for?” “What do you most hope for?”
We could go back to those human interest stories to find our answer. Perhaps we are seeking the good news in a world of bad. If so, Jesus is the good news. Perhaps we are looking for relief from the burdens that weigh us down. Jesus frees us from sin so that we can follow him more closely, unencumbered by its weight.
Perhaps we hope to find the answers we need to solve the problems of the world, or even just to survive them. Jesus shows us the way to truth and love, and invites us to testify to their power. In the ministry inaugurated at his baptism, Jesus showed us how to serve others with compassion, mercy, and humility.
Perhaps we long for a day when peace and justice will rule. Jesus shows us that while evil forces are loose in the world, they will not have the final word. Even death is defeated by Jesus’ coming into the world, through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Then, Jesus invites us to take part in the work of sharing his vision of peace and justice for all people by the choices we make and the way we live.
Perhaps we simply hunger to see the goodness of God at loose in the world. Jesus invites us to look around and see clearly that God is present in simple acts of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked; in welcoming the stranger and embracing our neighbors with kindness and love; in sitting with shelter residents and sewing quilts for refugees. God is seen when news is shared of a family in need and people come forward in prayer, offering material support and Christmas gifts. God is seen in the nurse that works long past her shift to care for those under her charge, or in the health care aide who sits and feeds the woman who can no longer feed herself; or in the first responders who place themselves in harm’s way in an attempt to preserve and save lives.
In the text for today Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” and then issues the invitation, “come and see.”
We have the greatest human interest story of all to share as we give witness to the love of God and the mercy of Jesus Christ. In word and action we get to share that story, the story of God’s wondrous love revealed in Jesus.
I leave you with a poem attributed to the sixteenth century mystic, Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
          no hands but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
          Christ’s compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet with which
          he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands
with which he is to bless men now. 

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