Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42
Date: January 19, 2020
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
One of the delights of this past Christmas for me was hosting a young adult homecoming reunion here at EHCC for “kids” coming home to visit their parents for the holidays. I had brought some good whole bean coffee but forgot the grinder at home so I ran down to T & C for some ground coffee; I mention this detail only because I was delighted to find some fair traded coffee labeled “Mind, Body & Soul Blend,” which seemed perfect for the occasion. Part of what we want to do when we host such an event is subtly remind our scattered offspring that we still care deeply about their well-being mind, body and soul.
The folx who came stuck around for a couple of hours of good, far-ranging conversation and catching up. (Office Manager) Jennifer was in and out of the chatting since it was Christmas Eve and there was much to be accomplished yet in the office. At one point she, in her charming and forthright way, asked the young people, “So, where are you all going to church on Sunday mornings?” There was a split second of stunned, maybe slightly embarrassed silence–and then a great, hearty laugh as if she had just told the best joke of the year. Suffice it to say that none of the twenty- and thirty-something year olds in that circle are presently rising on Sunday mornings to go to church, although one mentioned later that she is involved with a spiritual community that is Earth/nature based.
Not surprising; if any of us in the room have adult children or grandchildren who go to church they would be in the minority. There has been, nationwide, a drop of 20% in church membership in the U.S. since 1999, according to a Gallup poll. Of those who still do that old fashioned thing of belonging to a church, attendance has dropped as people go less frequently than they might once have. I don’t want to talk about statistics, though. What’s more interesting is the cultural backdrop. As you have no doubt observed, it’s less and less “normal” to believe in God these days.
I was reading an article in a journal for church leaders the other day that addressed the challenge of trying to be a pastor in a secular age. The author, Andrew Root, had met a pastor who confided that he often had no idea what he was doing; it made him feel nauseous. It wasn’t that he was unskilled; he had been a pastor for 15 years and knew how to do all the minister things. Root says, “He’s not alone. I find myself talking with more and more pastors stricken with uneasy nausea and fatigue that they can’t name. It’s as though their calling has been stripped of meaning. This man could do a good job with the regular activities of being a pastor, he went on to say, but he wasn’t sure whether they meant anything to his people.” The cultural milieu has changed. Root goes on, “Of course, there have always been pastoral struggles, and they’ve shifted as time has unfolded. But throughout time, from Augustine to Thomas Becket to Jonathan Edwards, pastors and priests have at least served against a cultural backdrop with the shared understanding that the transcendent is real and our lives must interact with something beyond what we can see and touch. Today, things are different. We now live in a time where the very idea that God is real and present in our lives is no longer accepted. Indeed, it’s widely contested. Belief has been made fragile — for the pastor as much as for those in the pews. Charles Taylor calls this ‘the malaise of immanence.’ Now grounded in the material, tangible, rational realm, we’ve lost the sense that the ordinary flow of life has any meaning. The rituals of our lives don’t seem to point to anything greater anymore.”
After some conversation, the nauseous pastor says that the crux of the issue is this: “Ultimately, I guess, I don’t know what to do because I don’t know how to talk about God in a way that people sense and recognize. I’m not even sure if that’s possible anymore.” Root doesn’t give any answers in his article—I don’t know if he helped the fatigued and nauseous pastor “figure it out.” But he did say his encounter with pastors like that gave him a good question around which the calling of pastors these days must revolve: “How do we help those who no longer need a God encounter the living God in their lives?” This question, Root says, has its own inner dynamic energy, and pursuing it opens us to the Holy Spirit’s work to shape us in life-giving ways.
The question Root poses is not just for pastors, of course. It’s for all of the God-lovers, the Christ-centered, the Spirit-led. How do we help those who no longer need a God encounter the living God in their lives? Unlike the pastor in Root’s article who feels sick and lost, who wondered if it was even possible any more to talk about God in a way people could sense and recognize, I do think it’s possible to talk about and point to the living God in a way that just might help someone encounter and connect with the Divine. It’s not that I am superior to or smarter than the discouraged pastor; but I do have a little longer experience (35 years in ministry to his 15), and thus have had a front row seat to numerous close encounters with the Holy One by spending so much time with open-hearted people.
Let’s look again at today’s texts for some clues. I almost overlooked this, but I see that the Servant whose testimony we hear in Isaiah today feels quite discouraged at one point in their speech. God has just said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” The Servant is not feeling glorious. Maybe, like the pastor in Root’s article, “nauseous” would describe how the Servant is feeling; not sure what they are doing, not sure whether it matters. Listen: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” The Servant is not sensing that they have been a great success. Still, the Servant expresses some faith that this sinking feeling of failure doesn’t necessarily mean they have failed: “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with my God.” The Servant might feel disheartened by a lack of visible achievement in bringing wandering hearts back to God, but recognizes that they don’t have a God’s-eye view of whether they are truly accomplishing what God needs from them. It is comforting to see this Scriptural encouragement to put our faith in God even when it feels like our witness for the living God hasn’t been a splashy success. Everyone gets discouraged and wonders whether their work amounts to nothing. The key to surviving discouragement is to put more faith in God than in our human feelings of frustration.
Throughout the speech the Servant expresses a sense of calling, of being commissioned even before they were born. One of the things I appreciate about this is that the Servant can hold the feeling of discouragement and the feeling of being needed/called at the very same time. The feeling of being sent and not knowing where the heck this is all going–or whether it’s working–can co-exist in God’s servants. Perhaps Isaiah’s Servant, like the Servant of God named Thomas Merton, prayed in a similar vein to Merton’s prayer: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.” (One of the great prayers written in the last century!) Isaiah’s Servant is teaching us that we can have confidence we’re needed even if it’s not altogether clear what form our Servanthood will take any given day or decade.
Later in the address God has a bad news/good news word for the Servant. The bad news: the Servant will be deeply despised, abhorred by the nations. Well, heck. That’s no fun! The good news: Kings shall see you and rise up, princes shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful—and who has chosen you for service. I read this as a warning not to expect to be popular by doing what God is calling you to do—but your faithful work will have an effect even on the most powerful. Because God is faithful, and God faithfully chose and commissioned you. Just don’t take being in the minority and perhaps thought a great fool because of your faith as a signal you’re wrong; it might be a sign that you’re right on track.
Moving on to John’s gospel, take a look at what John the Baptist does when he catches sight of Jesus. Twice, he makes this loud proclamation: “Behold! Here is the Lamb of God!” John the Baptist isn’t really known as “the Baptist” in John’s gospel. A more apt title would be John the Witness. It’s his role to see Jesus, to baptize him in order that Christ might be revealed, to see that Jesus is Spirit blessed, and then tell everyone in the immediate vicinity what he sees. John the Witness is no shrinking violet. He’s doing his job, not only seeing for himself but pointing to the revelation he sees. Loudly. One of the commentators I read on this text points out that the metaphors of seeing and blindness run all the way through the gospel of John. “Seeing” is more than just registering what the eye takes in; it’s a way of implying understanding. The word often translated “Behold!” is an imperative to not just look in that direction but also to comprehend what you’re looking at. It has a dual sense in this context: 1) to see with the eyes 2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know. I wish the NRSV had used that word “behold” instead of the more prosaic “look!” to clue us in that we’re talking about seeing with the mind as well as the eye.
Those of us who are present-day disciples don’t have the same rather formal role of Witness that John the Baptist/John the Witness did in this gospel. Yet we are still called upon to “Behold!” the way God is active in the world. And to be bold in speaking about the ways we experience God’s presence and activity in our lives and in the world at large. John the Witness interpreted Jesus for the folks nearby, using a scriptural story that was meaningful to him as a frame—the Lamb of God. Jesus is given several names and titles in this gospel text—Lamb of God, Son of God, Teacher, Messiah—all aspects of how that generation of disciples perceived Jesus. Earlier in this same chapter, Jesus has been called the Word and the Light, one full of grace and truth who reveals God. The multitude of names and titles for Jesus gives us freedom and latitude for using an amazing array of descriptors for Jesus Christ as we try to tell others what we have seen and perceived in and through Jesus. It’s more important to loosen our tongues on the “Behold!” than to get it somehow exactly right about what we say about our faith experience.
The dialogue between the disciples who are intrigued enough by John the Witness’s bold “Behold!” to start tailing the “Lamb of God” and Jesus is rich. First, Jesus turns and asks “What are you looking for?” That’s a dynamic question that’s still echoing between Jesus and Jesus’ followers all these years later. Just the sense that Jesus turns to engage the seekers, asking about their yearning, is profound. We can consider that a fruitful question any given day; think of it as an open-ended invitation to ponder the character of our own spiritual yearnings.
Next, the disciples ask what at first blush looks like kind of a goofy question: “Teacher, where are you staying?” But the word for “staying,” which can also be translated “abiding” goes beyond the Air BnB where Jesus was hanging his hat. “Abide” will come to have its own complex meaning in this gospel, as Jesus talks about abiding in God and God abiding in him, and the disciples abiding in divine love. Inquiring where Christ is abiding is an enduring part of discipleship to this day—especially when the answers point to Christ abiding with the poor, the suffering, and the marginalized.
Jesus answers the potential disciples with an invitation to “Come and see.” Again, a short phrase that describes the dynamism of discipleship even to this day. Commit to go home with Jesus, and see where the journey leads. Those disciples long ago and our generation of followers as well are invited into an adventure with eyes wide open—but no guarantees of predictability or safety. It’s a tantalizing invitation.
I admire the disciples’ chutzpa, to just go along, to try to see for themselves what this fellow was all about. That they reached some insight after they spent some time abiding with Jesus is clear as they become witnesses themselves. But we don’t have the bodily Jesus with us; we can’t literally go and sit at his table and talk over what we’re looking for. The Christ we want to see is transient; we have fleeting glimpses, momentary sightings. How can we be reliable witnesses?
We need to remember that not everyone who saw Jesus in the flesh perceived the divine Spirit dwelling within. The story in John’s gospel is a story of disappointment in the blindness of Jesus’ compatriots as well as a story of glorious insight. Even in Jesus’ earthly lifespan the Spirit was hidden within. The first generation of disciples had some advantages, but perceiving Jesus as a revelation of God’s activity was no slam dunk even then. It actually seems to be part of God’s modus operandi to be hidden in this world of ours.
A recent Christian Century article gave me some delicious food for thought along these lines. The headline was “God is Humble.” The article reviews a new work of systematic theology by Katherine Sondregger. Sondregger believes that God is omnipresent—everywhere present—but humble enough to be hidden in plain sight. She says, “God is usually pleased to be present but unseen. [God] is that humble.” “Sonderegger’s key theological commitment is to what she calls divine “compatibilism.” God and creatures do not compete over shared space. God can be present fully without displacing material creation. God can work in history without overriding human freedom. The key example for [Sondregger is the burning bush of Horeb. Divine fire does not annihilate or destroy. It is modest, lowly, hidden to most eyes, appearing in a mere desert shrub. God is humble enough to be unseen…The One God is pleased to be hidden, this is [God’s] “particular and glorious epiphany—to be the Unseen, Utterly Unique, Invisible One, hidden in the midst of [God’s] people.”
If Sondregger is right, our perception of God’s activity in the world, and Christ’s living among us and within us will naturally be partial, episodic and intermittent. That’s such a relief to me, to know that this hide-and-seek between God and God’s creation seems to be intentional on God’s part, if we think the Bible is a reliable witness. To be hidden but effective is part of the Divine story unfolding—even the Servant in today’s Isaiah text says they are hidden in the shadow of God’s hand, hidden like a polished arrow in God’s quiver. I think, too, of the Kingdom of God parables that hint at God’s hiddenness—like the yeast hidden in an enormous amount of bread dough.
The hidden nature of God’s revelation makes the bold declaration “Behold!” all the more urgent. When we who are trying to follow Christ home, to abide where Christ abides, have a glimpse of God’s presence and power it’s vital to say “Behold!” Whisper it to ourselves when we get a glimpse of the God who is pleased to be hidden among us—“Behold! God’s here!” Sometimes our body perceives before our mind can catch up—goosebumps, tears, and other signals. I had a moment of joy experiencing the hidden God at the Crab Festival in Port Angeles, of all places. A singer was on an outdoor stage singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Suddenly there were all these strangers passing by the stage who love that song singing “hallelujah” very softly to themselves as they passed by or paused to listen. A little pop-up congregation proving the wisdom of Cohen’s lyric, “There’s a blaze of truth in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Hard to describe, but a moment for me of Spirit soaring, knowing God was present in every holy and broken moment, and that Divine Presence was being sung in every holy and broken hallelujah.
So we notice and whisper to ourselves, “Behold!” when we feel the brush of angel wings. But it’s not quite enough, because we are God’s servants, in whom and through whom God will be glorified, even when we feel discouraged and useless, despised and ignored. God has called us to be a light to the nations. We must find our tongues and give our witness, find ways to say to our neighbors, to our spiritual-but-not-religious children and grandchildren, “Behold!” We don’t have to wait until we are perfectly prepared and theologically astute. We can just speak simply of our experience and leave the rest up to God, to entice them into exploration of their yearnings. It’s not up to us to determine whether anyone to whom we give our witness become disciples; but maybe they will be interested enough because of our “Behold!-ing” to want to see where Christ abides for themselves.
Christ is forever bidding us to come and see where Christ abides. And bidding us as well to invite others along on the journey to be blessed mind, body and soul by the glorious love of God. We’re going to sing in a moment about that abiding invitation. Here is another opportunity, Beloved, to behold Christ Messiah leading us on new paths; to follow; and to exclaim “Behold!” to all would hear and be led to see.
 Root, Andrew https://faithandleadership.com/andrew-root-challenge-being-pastor-secular-age?utm_source=albanweekly&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=faithleadership>
 EHCC Mission statement begins: We are: God-Loving, Christ-Centered, Spirit-Led People of Faith. See eagleharborchurch.org