The Second Sunday after the Epiphany A
January 20, 2008
For the last couple of years I’ve been part of an informal network of women clergy who mostly know each other through the internet. This group comprises women of all ages and many different denominations and besides the camaraderie and commiseration we offer one another, we also share notes on preaching. This has been a real learning experience for me, particularly hearing how others choose their texts. Suffice it to say that there is great variety in how this happens, but what it has reinforced for me is something I’ve said here before: I’m really glad we have a lectionary. I’m glad because I don’t have to pick, I just preach on whatever is assigned, whether I like it or not.
Lately though, I’ve been intrigued by the choices made by those who constructed the lectionary…why this lesson this week? Why that one now? And so about 10 days ago when I looked up the readings for today I had to ask myself, “Why do we get the Gospel of John when we are just getting settled into year A which focuses on Matthew?”
That question stayed in the back of my mind as I let this week’s gospel settle into my bones. Why John? Why now? It was a little discomfiting to me because lately I’ve been thoroughly immersed in the Gospel according to Matthew, and I’ve asked you to enter that narrative world with me, and now we have to shift gears. But late Friday night as I read over today’s gospel one more time, I had a “eureka” moment—a flash of insight, an epiphany if you will, in this season of Epiphany. One way to look at the lectionary is just as a walk through the gospels, roughly in the order that they’re written. But the lectionary is also shaped to tell a story—THE story, and the season of Epiphany is all about being shown who Jesus is—that’s what the word means, after all, epiphany coming from epipheinen, to show. Read in this light the gospels passages for season of Epiphany might be seen as a series of “epiphanies” On the feast of the Epiphany the Magi show us that Jesus is the chosen one who comes not just to the people of Israel, but to everyone. On the first Sunday after Epiphany Jesus is baptized and hears the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s beloved son—perhaps confirming for himself who he really is. And today we hear the story from John the Baptist’s perspective; we get another view of who Jesus is and what he’s all about.
Now perhaps I’m preaching the obvious to many of you, but this notion of the whole season of Epiphany being specifically about showing us who Jesus is was so intriguing to me that I skimmed over the lectionary for all three years, and sure enough, it’s there. No matter whether we’re mainly focused on Matthew, Mark, or Luke, the gospels selected are ones that concentrate less on what Jesus did and more on who he was and is. In almost every passage there’s some new clue about what it means for Jesus to be the messiah, the anointed one, about the meaning of his ministry. And each year, the season of Epiphany reaches its culmination with the story of the transfiguration when Jesus is shown, revealed in all his glory to his closest disciples—but I’ll have more to say about that in two weeks!
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what today’s gospel reading from John shows us about Jesus. To do that, I’d like for us to leave behind the narrative world of Matthew where we’ve been for the last few weeks and to enter instead into the world of John, a very different world in some ways. In the Gospel according to John, we get no birth story at all. We know nothing about Jesus’ human origins and early life. What we get in John’s gospel is a beautiful and poetic prologue, which places Jesus as the Word, with God at the very point of creation. In this prologue we also learn that there will be voice crying in the wilderness to prepare for the coming of the anointed one, and we meet John the Baptist who embodies that voice, but it is not until we get to verse 29, where our gospel begins to today, that we actually meet the person Jesus or hear his name. And even then we first meet him through John, who sees him walking by. There is no interaction between John and Jesus—we suppose that John has baptized Jesus, but we do so on the basis of what we know from the other gospels because there is no direct evidence of that happening here. Nonetheless it is clear that John, and perhaps John alone at this point, knows who Jesus is because as Jesus walks by John exclaims,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” That phrase, familiar as it is to us, is fraught with meaning, and I wonder if John’s disciples standing there with him fully realized the impact of what John said. With this one phrase John has placed Jesus clearly into the scope of Israel’s salvation history. The full impact of this won’t be obvious until the crucifixion, but it is a clear portent of what is to come, and a sign that God has privileged John, allowing him this insight, this epiphany.
John is not the only one who has an epiphany though. The next day John is again standing with two of his disciples when Jesus walks by. John once more exclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God,” and this time his two disciples, struck by what he has said, or compelled by the magnetism of Jesus, or both, begin to follow him. And one of them, Andrew, not only follows but also goes to fetch his brother Simon, telling him that they have found the messiah.
It seems remarkable to me that at this point Jesus hasn’t said or done anything that would signify his status. Rather John and his disciples have been shown who Jesus is through revelation—God’s voice and John’s, proclaiming that Jesus is the one. Like the Magi who followed the star to find the babe, John and his disciples are pointing to Jesus, revealing his identity, showing him to others.
And that brings us back to where we started. If this season of Epiphany is about being shown who and what Jesus is, what then does this gospel from John show us? And what are we to do about it? During Epiphany we move between the two great feasts of the Church Year—Christmas—the birth of the child—and the Triduum—the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Liturgically, theologically, we spend this time trying to grasp—yet again—who this Jesus is and what he means for our lives. In naming Jesus the Lamb of God, John seems to grasp the full import of Jesus’ life and ministry, and John’s voice, crying in the wilderness is clear and strong: Jesus is the one for whom the people of Israel have been waiting. John points the way so that others might follow, and we are among those others. Like the crowds who followed Jesus, we are sometimes slow to get it, but get it we must, otherwise Easter is meaningless.
But it doesn’t stop there. I don’t want anyone to leave here today thinking that this is all esoteric, abstract theology, something that we have to think about only during church. In fact, I think today’s gospel and all of the gospels of Epiphany raise a very real and pragmatic question for us. How do we recognize Jesus in the here and now? Where do we find our epiphanies? Is it in the words of the evangelists? Is it in the Eucharist? Is it in the faces of our guests at the days and nights of hospitality? Is it in a word of condolence, a hug we receive from others, a light moment shared with a friend? Is it in a walk in the garden or on the beach?
Because, friends, the good news is that Jesus is here with us, and Jesus calls us to follow, just as he called his first disciples. Every day. All the time, whether we’re aware of it or not. Like the disciples we are free to hear and respond or to ignore him. But if we do respond, like the disciples, if we do respond our lives will be changed in ways that we may not be able to imagine.
And so, I have a challenge for you, for all of us as we move through the last two weeks of this season. Look for Jesus. Watch for epiphanies. Be ready to respond when Jesus says, “Come and see.” And see where that leads us.