2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: John 1:43-51;
1 Sam. 3:1-10; 1 Cor. 6:12-20
SETTING RIGHT OUR HUMAN WAY OF SETTING THINGS RIGHT
We finally have our Christmas decorations all taken down. The holidays are over. Except we do have another holiday tomorrow: the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have turned 86 years-old on Friday had he not been killed.
I’d like to share with you how his birthday is special to me as a follower of Jesus by acting out why he’s so important. Dr. King showed us Jesus’ way of standing up against things that are wrong. But we need to start with something more familiar, an example of how we stand up against things that are wrong. I think the one you see the most in your life right now is bullying, when a bigger, stronger kid starts picking on or hurting a smaller one. [Choose two appropriately sized children to stand up.] Let’s say that [child 1] is bullying [child 2]. You know that’s wrong and you want to find a way to stop it. What the best and safest way to stop it? [Field suggestions until they land on, or you offer the right one:] That’s right! Get an adult. We get someone who is even bigger in the hope that [child 1] chooses to stop. [Place yourself or another adult between the two children.] And a teacher or adult at school is more than just bigger. They also stand for a lot of other people — the Principal, your parents, and all the adults in your life who want to keep you safe. They stand for what we call law and order — rules that keep things fair and safe. When we are in trouble from someone who wants to hurt us, for example, we call the police, right? And we are thankful that they risk getting hurt themselves to protect us. And when we are getting bullied at school or in the neighborhood, who do we call? An adult. That’s right, and it’s very important to remember.
But here’s why Martin Luther King, Jr., is so important. Let’s imagine that it’s not a bully who is threatening you but one of the adult supposed to keep things fair and safe. [Child 1 can sit down replaced by only you as one threatening child 2.] What can we do then?! That’s a tough one isn’t? Martin Luther King, Jr. finally tried what Jesus did. You see, there were laws and rules supposed to keep things fair and safe in our country. But they worked much better for white people than for black people. Some of the laws themselves were unfair. They were wrong. And Dr. King was among many people who decided it was time to stand up against the things that were wrong. But there was a big problem. They weren’t as strong as those who were against them. Who wants to play Martin Luther King, Jr.? [Get child volunteer to stand in between you and Child 2.] Dr. King, even though he was not as strong risked getting hurt himself. In fact, he was beaten by policemen and thrown in jail for standing against unfair laws. He invited all kinds of other people — but only if they wanted to take the risk of being hurt without fighting back. [Have MLK stand-in invite others to join her/him.] When it was enough people standing together, the unfair laws changed.
Why is that so important? Because that’s the way to peace, to being fair and safe, that Jesus showed us on the cross. He did it alone at first. And he even got killed because of it. But God raised him on Easter to invite others to join him in this new way of peace that involves loving even your enemies. It means, when the time is right, to try standing against things that are wrong in this world with love and truth instead of weapons. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and faith. But I think that is what Jesus is calling us to do. That’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my heroes. He risked following Jesus into God’s new way of peace.
When we see things that are wrong but feel small up against them, we look for help. Throughout the centuries, people have looked to help from God. God is the one big enough and strong enough to set things right. And for Jesus’ people the Jews, that’s what their history and their Scriptures were all about: God’s promises to set things right in the world. For many of Jesus’ fellow Jews, they were looking for the right person to lead them, the Messiah, and for the right moment to act. They poured over and over those Scriptures to find clues for recognizing the right person and the right time to set things right.
One of the common places for a Rabbi to teach his students to read Torah and look for these signs was under the fig tree. “Under the fig tree” was a metaphor, then, for having this yearning in reading and knowing the Scriptures to recognize the signs. When Jesus says he saw Nathaniel “under the fig tree,” it means that he knows his yearning. He knows Nathaniel wants more than just knowing the Torah well. He knows that Nathaniel dreams of seeing it come true, of seeing God’s promises to set things right put into action. So when Jesus invites him to “Come and see,” Nathaniel decides this is what he has been waiting for. His yearning for to see God’s promises come true might just be about to happen in this person Jesus of Nazareth. What good can come out of Nazareth? Out of the lowliest place of all places? Jesus says, “Come and see.” Jesus invites him to come out from under the fig tree and to witness God’s promises coming true.
But is this what Nathaniel does in fact witness? Does this end up being what Jesus’ disciples signed up for? When Jesus dies on the cross, a horrible, humiliating, tortuous event, the answer is a resounding, “NO!” This is not what they signed up for. Their God was supposed to be bigger and stronger than those bully Romans. Their God was supposed to send them the right person, a new king David, who would help them defeat the bully. Instead, God apparently sent them the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, one who suffered on their behalf. No, this is not what they signed up for.
But then on the third day something amazing began to happen. There were reports on an empty tomb, reports of Jesus alive again and appearing to Mary Magdalene and then a number of the other disciples. How could this be? What did this mean? Does it mean that God has in fact set in motion the events that will begin to set things right? But does it mean that it will set things right for everyone, even bullies like the Romans?
Which means this very important point: to set things completely right, God had to begin by setting right our usual way of trying to set things right. We expect things to be set right by casting out or killing those who were doing things wrong. But isn’t God in Jesus the Messiah showing us that that way will never succeed? That using force to set things right will always keep us reliant on something which goes against who God is, the one who created us in love to be free. Jesus came to show us once and for all that God does not use force. God uses love. God uses faithful, covenant relationship to keep picking us up when we fall, forgiving us, and continuing to invite us into another way to set things right. This is what Jesus invited Nathaniel to follow along and witness, to “Come and see.”
This is what Jesus continues to do for us. We Christians have found our own ways to turn God back into just a bigger force than the bullies who force us, right? How often have we chosen Jesus’ way like Martin Luther King, Jr.?
You and I are the Nathaniels of today. There are still lots of things wrong in this world that need setting right. Right? We have faith in a God who promises to set things right. We study the Scripture. We look around us at the injustice. We want to not just study but begin to act, because, unlike Nathaniel, we believe that God has already set some wonderful things in motion through Jesus the Messiah — who continues to invite us to, “Come and see.”
But here’s the question: Will we be ready to be surprised like Nathaniel and the other disciples that God’s way to peace continues to go through something like the cross? Through a refusal to use force when standing with those who suffer, and to have the courage to stand with God’s power of love, which is the power of life itself? Are we ready to truly put our faith in God’s way of putting things right, which is itself a putting right of the usual way of force we use to set things right?
Jesus feeds us at his table once again this morning. He feeds us with his power of self-giving love. He feeds us with forgiveness and courage and faith. And then he beckons us to follow him out into a hurting world, inviting us to come and see. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 18, 2015