Epiphany 2B Sermon (1997)

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: John 1:43-51;
1 Sam. 3; 1 Cor. 6:12-20


It was a rollicking night at the theater. A young actor named Tom Key was playing the part of Jesus in the play Cotton Patch Gospel, and he was clearly bringing the house down. The play, a romping bluegrass musical, which depicts the ministry of Jesus as if it took place in the cotton fields of the Baptist South, was in its final performance run, and Key was feeling confident and even inventive with his lines.

During the scene depicting the Sermon on the Mount, Key, as Jesus, suddenly turned from the group on the stage. He turned toward the audience, pointed to the blank auditorium side wall, and said, “Look at the lilies in that field…” He stopped, almost as if he had forgotten the next line, peered around at the disciples, focused against on the audience, and repeated, “Look at the lilies in that field…” Once more he stopped and seemed to be searching for the next words. The audience began to shift uncomfortably. His hand extended yet again to the blank wall, and this time he spoke the words slowly and deliberately, Look … at … the … lilies … in … that … field…” Now he turned to the disciples on stage, shrugging his shoulders, and said, “I can’t get them to look.” The room filled with laughter as it dawned on the audience that he really wanted them to look. And sure enough, when he gave one more try, “Look at the lilies in that field…” every head in the audience turned toward the side wall.

For St. John the Evangelist, this was his kind of show. Indeed, he spends his entire gospel trying to get people to look, really to look, at the life of Jesus. Light and darkness, vision and dimness, “Once I was blind, but now I see,” these are the images materials of John’s gospel. Chapter after chapter, John’s finger points toward his Lord and his voice sounds the refrain, “Look… look… look.”

The willingness to look and to see stands at the center of this morning’s story about Nathaniel and Philip. Philip has made an important discovery in Jesus and says to Nathaniel: “Come and see.” Philip uses three words which embrace everything the church knows to say in its evangelism: “Come and see.” Like children who have seen a meteor shower lighting up the night sky and have run breathlessly into the house to beckon their parents, the church runs toward the world, pulling it gently but urgently by the hand, “Come and see. Come and see. There are wonders beyond imagining to behold.”

“Come and see,” says John’s gospel, but the actor playing Jesus, shrugging his shoulders, said, “I can’t get them to look.” In fact, it’s shocking to realize all the imagery in the Bible having to do with God not being able to get us to look and really see, to listen and really hear. Our First Lesson this morning comes at a time of crisis for the people of Israel. Under Samuel’s leadership, they will move from the brutal, violent time of the judges, to a slightly more peaceful time of the kings. Eli, representing the current leadership, is blind, we are told; he can’t see. And the story is about Samuel’s first attempts to listen to God. He has ears, but can’t understand who is talking to him. Samuel will learn to listen to God for a time; but, as I said, the time of the kings which he inaugurated was only slightly more peaceful. A whole slew of prophets would have to come along and continue the job of listening to God.

The greatest of those prophets was Isaiah. And it is the following passage from Isaiah which is quoted as a central piece in all four gospels (Mt. 13:14-15; Mk. 4:12; Lk. 8:10; Jn. 12:40). Isaiah tells the story of his own calling as a prophet, and says,

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” (Isa 6:8-10 NRSV)

Wow! Isn’t this a strange and shocking passage? It’s as if Isaiah came to see his whole ministry as one that was impossible for people to really see and hear and understand.

Yet Jesus, too, quotes this passage in all four gospels as a way to say the same thing: that he came to give us a message from God that is nearly impossible for us to hear and see and understand. We look, but what do we see? We listen, but what do we hear? The gospels show how Jesus’ own disciples had a difficult time seeing and hearing; they wouldn’t really start to see and hear until after Jesus rose on Easter and came back to them and graciously forgive them for not hearing and seeing and understanding. Thank God for that forgiveness! And thank God that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them, or we might never have begun to understand!

So what is it that is so hard for us to hear and see and understand? It has not only taken Jesus’ resurrection to get us disciples to hear and see, but it has continued to take the work of the Holy Spirit through the ages for a few people here and there, to help us to see and hear and understand. In this morning’s gospel John begins a theme that is carried throughout his gospel. Jesus says that Nathaniel will come to see even greater things. Later, Jesus will tell his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12 NRSV) Greater things than Jesus! Because Jesus also promises them the Holy Spirit.

So there are saints who, with the help of the Holy Spirit, come along and refocus things for us again that we might better hear and see and understand. One of those people in our own tradition is Martin Luther. He came at a time of crisis for the church, and he listened anew to this gospel message and helped us to see God, and to hear God, and to understand God anew. Luther helped us to see God as merciful and loving, to hear God’s words of forgiveness, and to understand his love for us as completely unconditional, a free and gracious gift through Jesus Christ. We call Luther’s sharpening of that message an “evangelical theology.” “Evangelical” means gospel-centered; “theology” is learning to see and hear and understand God. So Luther did help us re-center on the gospel of Jesus Christ once again–to look at Jesus–in a way that we’re better able to hear and see and understand who God is.

But every so often, we come to a point of crisis–like I believe we are in once again now–we come to a point of crisis so that God sends us someone to help us listen and see and understand. I firmly believe that God has given us another Luther, another of those persons. When I try to explain my discovery of this person’s work to others, I sometimes use the image of putting on glasses for the first time. Because of a stigmatism, I’m a bit near-sighted. I no longer wear glasses, but I did get my first pair of glasses when I was in the fifth grade. I strongly remember the experience of putting on those glasses and having the world look so instantly clear. That’s what these last five years have been like for me in discovering René Girard. His work, I believe, can be like Luther’s, helping us to see and hear and understand. Except that, if we say that Luther’s work was an “evangelical theology,” a gospel-centered talk about who God really is, I’m not sure Luther helped us as much to see a gospel-centered way of who we are as human beings. We still need, I think, an “evangelical anthropology,” a gospel-centered talk about who we as human beings really are. Remember, Jesus is God Emmanuel, God with us. We proclaim that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. So we proclaim that Jesus came to show us both who God truly is and who we truly are. We need both an evangelical theology and anthropology. Luther gave us the first; I believe that René Girard gives us the second, a gospel-centered talk about who we really are as human beings.

So if we look again at the gospel with the pair of glasses that Girard gives us, what do we see? We see two basic things about ourselves. And I will very briefly recount both these things with the help of this morning’s lessons. The first thing Girard shows us about ourselves is that we gain all our desires, even all our deepest longings, from others. We have no desires that are completely our own. For if it wasn’t for seeing and hearing and interacting with other people, we wouldn’t have any desires at all. Oh, we would have basic appetites, like hunger and sex drives. But they wouldn’t yet be human desires.

Now, this is something about ourselves that we don’t necessarily want to hear. Sigmund Freud, for example, has given us a modern psychology founded on something completely different. He says that each of us is born with our own desires, and that it is up to us to control them. Most of the modern world has bought into this psychology, I think. We like to think of ourselves as in control of all our own desires. But what has happened to us and our desires? Haven’t we run rampant with them?

Take a quick look again at our second lesson from St. Paul, as he deals with the problems of sexual desire, a desire that is usually the first indicator that something has gone wrong. Does St. Paul buy into this modern psychology that we are each in control of our own desires? I don’t think so. I think that René Girard helps us to hear St. Paul’s words anew so that we recognize our dependence on others for our desires. St. Paul definitively tells us that we are not our own. So what makes all the difference in the world for us is who we gain our desires from. St. Paul asks us point blank: are we going to go to a prostitute, or are we going to go to our Lord Jesus Christ? If we turn our lives, if we turn our desires over to Christ, then we can truly find the freedom to desire what God wants us to desire.

O.K. That’s the first insight, about desire. The second involves our social arrangements as human beings. Girard says that underlying all our human social arrangements — our institutions, our governments, our economies, our culture — that underlying all these things is a scapegoating mechanism — that is, a built-in tendency to contain all our conflict and violence by putting it off on someone else, ultimately upon a minority. Once again, this is something we absolutely don’t want to hear and don’t want to see and don’t want to understand. But isn’t this what Jesus came to show us on the cross? That all our human ways of being together boil down to this: trying to pin the bad stuff on one person? That’s what the cross means.

And Girard further shows us why it is so difficult to hear and see and understand what God is trying to show us. It’s this: behind those scapegoating mechanisms are the false gods of our own creation. We always subconsciously make up our own gods to justify the way we do things. “God wants us to do it that way!” we always say. Well, with all these false gods of our own making, do you see why it is so hard to hear and see and understand what the true God might be wanting to tell us and to show us? But with René Girard’s insights we can understand this about ourselves, and so we can begin to finally better distinguish between the false gods and the true God. We can truly understand what God is telling us and showing us in Jesus Christ.

That’s why I’m like that little child these days, who has seen a meteor shower lighting up the night sky and has run breathlessly into the house to beckon his parents. I want to help lead the church to run toward the world, pulling it gently but urgently by the hand, “Come and see. Come and see. There are wonders beyond imagining to behold.” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 18-19, 1997

The opening five paragraphs (+ one sentence) were edited from a sermon by Thomas G. Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes: Sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (Cycle B Gospel Texts). Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing, 1987, pp. 70-75.


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