Epiphany 2 A: A Question, Invitation, and Promise
Dear Partner in Preaching,
It all starts with a question and an invitation. Jesus’ ministry and mission in the Gospel of John, that is. And I find that both interesting and instructive.
First the question. Jesus’ first words in John’s Gospel are not a sermon or an exorcism or the proclamation of the coming kingdom, as in other accounts, but rather a question. When disciples of John the Baptist come looking for him, he asks them, “What are you looking for?” The richness of this question in the original Greek bears notice, as the question could also have been translated, “What are you seeking?” or “What do you hope to find?” And we might expand that to “What do you need? What do you long for? What do you most hope for?”
It’s a great question, one we rarely ask or try to answer in church. Which is a shame, because the culture – and particularly the consumer culture – in which we live asks and answers it all the time. Except when the culture asks the question, it’s not really a question, but a set-up to a prefabricated answer. “What do you need?” quickly becomes, “I know what you need – a new pair of running shoes, a more expensive car, whiter teeth, to lose ten pounds,” all of which, we’re told, can be had for a price.
Our folks know better, of course. Deep down we know that true wealth is counting all the blessings we enjoy that money can’t buy. But message after message to the contrary can wear us down and push us to look for substitutes. Which is why it might be great to start off this new year of grace asking this question, what do we really need, long for, hope for, and how might our congregations offer those things. Is it silence in a world of so much noise? Is it relationship in a world increasingly isolated and isolating world? Is it community in an individualistic and often lonely culture? Is it the chance to serve and be connected to others in a world that encourages putting yourself first? Is it hope and courage when headlines inspire fear and despair? Is it Sabbath rest in a 24/7 world where relentless busy-ness has become a badge of honor and is regularly substituted for meaningful activity and necessary rest.
What is it that we most need and how can our congregations provide it? None of our congregations can do everything, of course, but I think it would be really interesting to ask this question and then choose one thing to focus on in the coming year. One deep need to meet, one purpose around which to organize our efforts, one hallmark of our community to lift up that others may see who we are and what we offer and come have that need met.
The disciples reply to Jesus’ question by asking where he is staying. Again, the translation limps a bit, as they are really asking where he is dwelling, abiding, remaining, indwelling. They want to know, that is, where they can come and simply be with him. And that leads to Jesus’ invitation. And before getting to the specifics of that invitation, I think it’s important just to notice that in response to their question, Jesus doesn’t offer an answer but instead issues an invitation. Invitations are inherently relational, and I think that’s instructive, as it reminds me that when folks ask questions, particularly questions about faith, they’re often less interested in a particular answer or information but seek relationship. It also reminds me that we don’t have to have all the answers, but simply be ready to offer an invitation and through that invitation offer ourselves, our commitment to them regardless of where the questions and conversations may lead.
Jesus’ invitation is really quite simple: “come and see.” It’s non-threatening. It’s clear. As we’ve already noted, it’s inherently relational. And it’s something any of us could say. Which invites us to imagine evangelism rather differently. Evangelism doesn’t have to be intrusive or abrasive or unwelcome. Evangelism is offering a simple and relational invitation to other people seeking something more than the culture has to offer: come and see.
I’ve said on a number of occasions that the decline of our church traditions will stop the day a critical mass – and it doesn’t even have to be the majority, just a critical mass! – of our people a) know why they value their participation in church and b) can share that with others. This Sunday might just be the day to ignite this turn, this new reformation, by inviting people to name what they are seeking and longing for, determine to be a congregation that meets those deeper needs, and help people offer a simple, three-word invitation: come and see. The point, in the end, is not to get more people to church or to stop decline, but rather to invite people into the joy and life we have experienced in Christ.
And here’s the thing: It’s not just we who is offering this invitation. It is God in Christ working through us to invite others to abundant life so much richer than anything we can buy. And, just as importantly, it’s God in Christ inviting us to that same life. Even if we struggle to name or understand or articulate our faith. Even when we opt for cheap substitutes we think we can buy or earn rather than receive the gift of faith from God. Even when we struggle to share our faith with others. Even when we wonder if we believe at all. Yet Jesus is still there, still asking what we most deeply need, still inviting us to come and see, and still determined to give us more than we can possibly imagine. Jesus simply will not give up on us. Ever.
Thanks for sharing this question and invitation, Dear Partner. And thanks even more for sharing the promise at the heart of the Gospel that God in Jesus is always both with us and for us and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. It’s an important word to share, and I’m grateful for your partnership. Blessings in your proclamation in this new year of grace.
Yours in Christ,