This weekend is the convergence of some seemingly much different, but to me, related events.
The events are: 1) the celebration/remembrance of the life and ministry of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 2) the Seattle Seahawks-Chicago Bears playoff game today (which just started, and now is 7-0 Bears already in the first quarter, as I look at my smartphone), and 3) our St. Mark’s Annual Meeting after worship in an hour or so. Keep these events in mind as I develop the theme of the call of God’s people for service and witness from our Lectionary readings today.
Our Old Testament reading from today comes from the so-called "Servant Songs" in the second part of Isaiah, Chapter 49. This large book of Isaiah can be divided into at least two, and possibly even three parts. Chapters 1 to 39 were written before the Jewish exile, from about 740 BC to about 700 BC. It was a difficult time for the southern kingdom, Judah. A disastrous war was fought with Syria; the Assyrians conquered Israel, the northern kingdom, in 723 BC, and threatened Judah. Isaiah wrote of this time as horrible social injustice, which he condemned, and against which he fought valiantly. Chapters 40 to 66 (including what we read today) were written during and after the Exile in Babylon, after 587 BC. Overall they are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the Exile.
The author wrote these verses during the waning days of the Babylonian exile. Persia was on the rise and the conquest of Babylon was imminent. Despite the possibility of returning to Israel, the exiled Jews had been living in a city not their own, and were among a strange people.
In this exile environment, the Jews had faced a crisis of faith. What God did they worship? Before the exile, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was only one God among many, but he was the only God that mattered for the Jews. Now, Jews, as a minority in a foreign city, had to face the idea of these strange gods head on. Their response was simple. Theirs was the only God. All other gods were false and did not exist.
In the reading, speaking as Israel, the writer’s (the Servant’s) complaint to God was that Israel had tried to become a united people under God again and had failed. God’s response was simple--not only was Israel to be gathered as a people for the Lord, but the Gentiles (the rest of the world) were also to be brought into the fold. In verse 6 it says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Israel was to be a servant and witness to the whole world for God! (This is also our call for today as Christians, as a new Israel, so to speak.)
In our second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he is speaking to a new group of Christians (who are mostly Gentiles, and not of Jewish origin). Corinth was a major port which also commanded the land route from the Peloponnesus peninsula to central Greece. An industrial and ship-building center, it was also a center for the arts. John Tennefoss pointed out in our Bible study on Wednesday (having been to Corinth many years ago), that as a seaport and hub its inhabitants came from far and wide and people moved in and out regularly. Paul wrote to this Corinthian church, a church he had founded, from Ephesus (now in Turkey), probably about 57 AD.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to know they were called as God’s people to action, while also letting them know they were ready for the task. Paul told them, “For in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He also said that, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” These Gentile people were being told that they too had been chosen by God (just like those Jews of Israel in the book of Isaiah), equipped well for God’s ministry, and that their testimony of Christ, their witness, would be strong.
In today’s Gospel from John, we get to see a true servant and witness for Christ at work. Actually, there are two—both Johns—the one our reading is written about (John the Baptist), and the one who wrote this Gospel (John the Apostle). Many scholars believe that John the Apostle has one of only two eyewitness accounts in the Bible of Jesus Christ. John, being one of Christ’s apostles, was actually there for Christ’s ministry. The other eyewitness, actually second hand, comes from the Gospel of Mark, written as a record of the remembrances of the Apostle Peter to Mark (who traveled together in ministry) before Peter was arrested and martyred upside down in Rome in the 60s AD.
John the gospel writer gave us his first hand eyewitness, about the witness of John the Baptist regarding Jesus Christ.
What does he say John the Baptist did? John the Baptizer gave testimony about the coming Messiah, he baptized the people with water, and he made it real clear his work was not for its own sake, but for the sake of the one who came after him—Jesus the Christ. After he had baptized Jesus, the Gospel says that the next day John the Baptist was standing around with two of his disciples, and they saw Jesus walk by, and John declared, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” John also said, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” This is John the Baptist’s bold and passionate eyewitness of what he had seen and heard of Jesus Christ. John did not stop there, he brought others to Jesus so they could see and follow him.
How does John say that Jesus dealt with those who would come to him? In verse 38 it says, “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”
The invitation, "Come and see," is actually given twice in this Gospel (verses 39 and 46). Basically, our witness as Christians is to state what we have seen and believe and then to invite others to "come and see." For both Johns, faith began by responding to the invitation to "come and see."
Back to the events I brought up at the start of this sermon. I think we all know about the Rev. Martin Luther King and his ministry, his call to bring justice to those who had been and continued to be treated poorly in our seemingly great country at that time—the African American people. He understood the call of Jesus Christ to be a witness to others and bring help to the socially abused, and he carried that out, even to his death. Anyone who ever heard his speeches knew his passion for this call and witness.
I mention the Seahawks and their fortunes this year and especially this week in the playoffs because of this—their success is all about playing with a mission and passion. When they win, it is because of these characteristics—that includes their fans, too! I am one of the most passionate sports fan (nuts!) there is—for my local sports teams especially. Today the “dilemma” is to either be in front of the TV watching my Seahawks in their playoff game, or here with this church community worshipping God and bolstering up each other in love and prayer. Bonnie has joked with me that whether I watch the game or not won’t change the outcome, and we have all the fancy tools to record and watch it later. But being here is not something that can be watched later, or has no effect on how our community is. Having more passion about our church attendance and worship, and even more, our call to ministry is what these readings today are about.
Our annual meeting will happen after worship today. It is required by national and diocesan canon that each church conduct this yearly meeting to cover certain business items—overview of the annual budget, review of last year’s finances and activities, and election of church officers (Bishop’s Committee for us) and delegates to annual convention. Beyond that there are no guidelines about what we do.
During the last year we celebrated our 100th anniversary as a mission church in this diocese, with a great day of events, seeing old friends, and a history book publication. It was great we were able to do that, to remember those who came before us, and that we have been here in this Montesano community for that long. It is now time to look to the future of St. Mark’s and its ministry—hopefully one that carries all of the focus and passion shown by Dr. King, and all of those Seahawks and their fans, to bring the message of Jesus Christ to others here.
Our now approved as postulant (not just seminarian) Sarah Monroe said this, paraphrasing from the Bible, "Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion into the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world." As Paul described to the Corinthians--and to us, we too have been equipped for this important work and have what it takes to be God’s people—witnessing with passion his message to “come and see”.