Epiphany 2A Sermon (2002)

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: John 1:29-42;
Isa. 49:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:1-9


I’d like to begin with sort of a mystery quote. I’d like you to see if it sounds at all familiar to you — not just where this quote is from, but if it seems to describe anyone you know:

You must know that when our gentleman had nothing to do, which was almost all the year round, he passed his time reading books of knight errantry. He grew so strangely besotted with these amusements, that he sold many acres of arable land to purchase books of that kind. He gave himself up so wholly to reading romances that at nights he would pour on until it was day, and at day he would read on until it was night; and thus by sleeping little and reading much, the moisture of his brain was exhausted to that degree that he at last lost the use of his reason. His head was filled with nothing but enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, complaints, amours, tournaments, and abundance of stuff and impossibility.

Sound familiar? Sound like anyone you know? Does it sound a little, for example, like your child playing video games?

He gave himself up so wholly … that … the moisture of his brain was exhausted to that degree that he at last lost the use of his reason. His head was filled with nothing but enchantments, etc.

What do you think? Nintendo? Or perhaps watching football on Sundays? Well, actually, its Cervantes’ 16th century description of the hero of his great novel, Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha.

I think this example shows us some interesting features about we like to talk a lot about these days, culture. The first interesting thing about culture that I think this shows us is about the media of culture, “media” in the general sense of what is the medium, the conduit, through which culture typically passes to us.

  • Cervantes lived at the time when the invention of the printing press was revolutionizing the media of culture.
  • We live in a time when the invention of various electronic media are revolutionizing the media through which we receive culture.

But there’s something even more important about culture than its media. There’s the content. There’s what it is that the various media transmit to us. First of all, we notice what I’ve been calling the mimetic nature of human beings, namely, that we are imitative.

  • Cervantes noticed this big time. His novel about Don Quixote is about how the Man of La Mancha eventually went out and started to try to imitate these fictional knight errants.
  • We get concerned when our children begin to imitate too much what they see in culture: wrestling and fighting all the time when they watch wrestling. Wearing bare mid-rift clothing and being so sexual when they watch and listen to Brittany Spears.

But there’s something even more fundamental about the content of culture, I think. If I had to boil it down to one word, I would say catharsis. It’s a fancy word, mostly used in psychological lingo, these days. Catharsis basically means a purging of strong emotions, the kind of strong emotions that tend to get in our way in everyday life — the jealousies and resentments, the guilt and shame, the frustrations and anger — that we would take out on each other if we didn’t have some way to purge them, to have a release valve for them. It’s a good word, really, catharsis. Don’t we talk about playing video games and watching football and listening to music as ways of letting out our feelings? Catharsis.

But we need to go back to the beginning of catharsis. It didn’t start with modern psychology. The Greek philosopher Aristotle coined the term in talking about the new-fangled media of culture in his day, namely, Greek drama, Greek tragedy. Watching a play like Sophocles’ Oedipus was cathartic….

But knowing what it was that Greek drama was slowly replacing gets us to our Gospel lesson for today. Greek drama was becoming a substitute for ritual blood sacrifice.

Actually, the Gospel of John has a similar way of putting it. It begins somewhat as a pun. John the Baptist introduces Jesus to two of his disciples, one of whom was Andrew, and they ask Jesus, ‘Where’re you at?’ Jesus interprets it as, ‘Where are you staying?’ And he shows the two disciples where he’s staying. But I suggest this might have been somewhat of a pun for John the Evangelist, because the Greek word he uses here has far-reaching connotations throughout not only the Gospel, but also the letters of John (used more than 80 times!). It can literally mean where someone is staying or lodging or living. But it also the further sense of living or dwelling in something that has permanence or staying power. In John’s gospel, we are most used to hearing this word as “abide.” Abide. Later in John’s gospel, if someone is to ask Jesus where’s he at, he will tell them, ‘I abide in my Father, and my Father in me. You can abide in my Father, too, by abiding in me, like branches on the vine. The branches and vine. Do you remember that discussion? Jesus talks about abiding:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Isn’t this where we’re at in life? We need something with staying power in which to dwell. We need to abide somewhere with something that really abides, something that really lasts. Jesus tells us that that someone and something is him. We need to abide in him.

Why is this so important? What kind of world do we live in? Is it one where we can easily find something with staying power, something or someone in whom to abide? Or is our world characterized by its quickly passing fads and fancies, by impermanence, by seemingly constant change? This is where that light-hearted beginning about Nintendo gets more scary. Our children are searching for somewhere to be at, something of permanence in their lives. And they’re having a hard time finding it, aren’t they? So they fill their time with diversions, Nintendo games. I know that I try very hard as a parent to provide a stable environment for our boys, a home. But it feels like so many of those other human institutions are falling down around us that our home doesn’t feel like enough shelter in an otherwise shelterless world. We sometimes say that we live in stormy times, right? We need somewhere to abide. Our children need somewhere to abide. Somewhere of permanence to give us shelter. For the Christian Gospel that somewhere is someone. We need to abide in Christ. And then we even turn that around at times and say that we are the temple in which Christ abides. Christ comes to live in us. That is our faith.

What’s this all about? Right at the outset of John’s gospel, John the Baptist gives us another strong clue as to what this is all about. The first words spoken as Jesus comes on the scene are, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Lamb of God. These are such familiar words; we sing them most communion Sundays. Do we really know what they mean? It is a difficult image for us because we are far removed from the temples of sacrifice that consumed such lambs. Sacrifice. Jesus transformed that word so that it generally means self-sacrifice, giving up something of yourself. But that’s not what “sacrifice” originally meant. Sacrifice was about spilling someone else’s blood. And the most difficult part for us to understand is that the slaughter of these lambs provided a function for their society which they deemed essential. The importance of lambs in Jesus day was at the Temple for sacrifice. The Temple was the place that gave meaning and order to their lives. It was where they were at. They believed that God abided in the Temple and gave order to things, to make their places of abiding more peaceful and meaningful. The Temple provided their shelter in which to abide.

So what does “Lamb of God” mean in John’s Gospel. This. That Jesus comes most definitely to replace the Temple. Jesus abides in the Father, and the Father in him. And since the Temple is to be replaced, we too must also now abide in the new Temple, in Jesus. We must abide in Christ, and Christ in us. So Jesus comes to give us a new abiding place with more staying power than the Temple with its altars of sacrifice. But he is also the cause of the upheaval. This is very important: Jesus is also the cause of the upheaval, because he comes to replace that which previously gave us a safer place to abide. So, if we don’t abide in Jesus, then we won’t find ourselves with any place to stay, any place to abide. Without Jesus, we find ourselves increasingly homeless. We find ourselves like today, with so many of our old institutions seemingly falling down around us…. [provide ending that’s Good News]

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, January 20, 2002

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