Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 19, 2020
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42
Christmas has come and gone. Presents wrapped with paper of red, gold, and green, have been opened and are being enjoyed. By now, most of us have taken down the tree, gently wrapped precious ornaments and decorations, and returned them to their usual resting place in the garage, basement, storage building or up those never-ending steps to the attic. Christmas has come and gone, yet while preparing for the sermon, I happened upon what I can only describe as a belated Christmas gift. It came through the pages of a favorite commentary, Feasting on the Word, in an essay written by one of my favorite professors at Columbia Theological Seminary, Rodger Nishioka.
Before we open the gift, let me tell you a little about Rodger Nishioka. From my perspective, he and I became friends long before we met face to face. If you are a book lover as I am, you’ll completely understand—I first met Rodger Nishioka as the author of a book he had written about youth ministry. In those days, it was his area of expertise and he was in high demand—writing, lecturing and traveling. Through his writings, I came to admire him as a man of humility and wisdom. I am happy to report when I finally sat in his class at Columbia, my earlier impression of him was spot on—he is humble and wise, and he has a wonderful sense of humor.
One evening he invited our entire doctoral class to his home for dinner—a dinner which he prepared single-handedly. After we had eaten the delicious fare, someone remarked on our host’s culinary skills and he said his mother taught him and his brothers to cook when they were young. Then he shared how they nearly ate their parents out of house and home. After school, they’d be starving but their mother was often still at work. Finally, she decided it was time for them to pitch in since they were teenagers and fully capable of doing their part, so she taught them how to make one of their favorite meals, which included vegetables and a roast of some kind. Imagine her surprise when she got home the next evening and the table was bare. She asked her sons, “What happened, didn’t you cook the roast?”
“Yes mom, we cooked everything you told us to cook.”
“But where is it? Where’s the food?”
“We ate it!”
I guess Mrs. Nishioka should have been a little more specific with her growing boys—that is if she and her husband wished to partake of the evening meal.
It’s true that as we teach our young people, they teach us, if we will only pay attention. Our youngest son, Shane, has frequently played the role of my teacher—and often it has occurred on a long walk to one of our favorite spots. Generally, as we trek along, I can count on him to turn the conversation toward theology. So, I wasn’t at all surprised one afternoon when he started talking about certain televangelists and other people of celebrity status, who sometimes misrepresent Christianity. Finally, he said, “While I don’t mean to judge them, people who claim God speaks directly to them or insist they KNOW the mind of God, well, they make me a little nervous.”
“Smart boy,” I thought, and I had to agree with him. I went on to say that I believe God can instruct us in an audible voice—God can do whatever God wants to do—God is God, after all. But most of the time, divine guidance comes bit by bit, piece by piece. The Holy Spirit nudges us through the voice of a friend, Scripture, the Word proclaimed, the community of believers with whom we worship, poetry, art, music, prolonged silence, nature…
Yes, God speaks to us in endless ways, but there is no denying incredible evil has been carried out down through the ages in the name of God, when in fact, God had nothing to do with it! It seems to me that knowing, really knowing the heart of God is not something at which humans excel. Thus, when it comes to discerning the will of God, a little humility and wisdom go a long way.
Which brings me to our belated Christmas gift. You may recall several years ago when the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD?) campaign (based on a popular novel) was all the rage. Youth leaders near and far encouraged young people to wear WWJD bracelets to help them think before acting. Nishioka, who was working with Presbyterian youth at the time, had an interesting conversation with a high schooler one evening. Someone had given her a WWJD bracelet and she had chosen to wear it, but at the same time she found it disturbing. She shared this with Nishioka, who tried to explain that it was a symbol, a tangible reminder that as followers of Jesus, every step we take, and everything we do should be guided by Jesus. She said that she got that…but what she didn’t get was how in the world she was supposed to know what Jesus would do in any given situation, let alone carry it out. Nishioka tried to explain it all in theological terms, terms that I can hear myself saying to Shane, “Well, we have the Bible and we have a community of believers who help us interpret Jesus’ will…” But that’s not what the young woman was after. She interrupted, “Yeah, but don’t you see? I am not Jesus! I am fully human, but I am NOT fully divine. I just don’t think it’s fair to assume that I could even imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God!” [i] Smart girl—wise and humble!
16th Century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, toward the end of her life composed the following poem:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.
While being the hands and feet of Jesus should be our life’s goal, still it’s good to acknowledge we are not Jesus and knowing the heart of God is not easy. Sometimes, when we are so certain we are doing the work of God for God’s sake, we can trip and fall on our human nature.
In Nishioka’s essay, he tells about a time when he was teaching at the seminary. With an overloaded schedule and commitments galore, he was beginning to look a little frayed around the edges. That’s when a friend and colleague insisted on taking him out to lunch. “It’s urgent,” she insisted. When they sat down at the table, Rodger asked what was going on. She smiled and said, “I want you to know the Messiah has come!” He was confused, to say the least. Then she told him she had even better news: “You are not him!” A wise man became a little wiser that day: “The real danger in a distorted incarnational theology is that we come to believe that if we truly are Christ’s body in the world, then if the world is going to be saved, we have to do it.”[ii] Nishioka continues,
It may be better for us to ask, not so much WWJD? but rather WWJBD? What would John the Baptist do? Lately, I have been challenging myself and my students to be more like John the Baptist—to call attention to Jesus Christ and then to say to all who are within hearing distance, ‘Hey, look! See! God is alive. God is in our midst. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and through and for us and even in spite of us! Behold! The Lamb of God![iii]
Wise words, indeed! As baptized believers, we do house God’s Spirit. But for every ounce of the divine running through our veins, there’s a pound of flesh that will readily lead us in the wrong direction. That, for me, is one of the most important reasons we need each other. We need the community to help shore us up when we are weak and to remind us, no matter what is going on, God is alive. God is in our midst. We need to be reminded who we are and whose we are because there are plenty of naysayers who will gladly try to convince us there’s no way we can make a difference in a world so full of pain and brokenness. Yet, if all we do is stand with John the Baptist and point a finger toward Jesus—with what we say—with how we behave—with how we respond when life takes a surprising turn—then we have done a great thing.
Today, as a church, we install a new class of ruling elders. They will join others on Session to help lead our church toward the life and light of the Messiah, who takes away the sins of the world. Together, we will pray and study and listen and then, with all the faith and hope and love we can muster, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will try to do what John the Baptist would do—point people toward God. “Hey, look! See! God is alive. God is in our midst. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and through and for us and even in spite of us! Behold! The Lamb of God!”[iv]
[i] Rodger Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, 262.
[ii] Ibid, 264.
*Cover Art by Meister von Gracanica; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons