Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year B January 15, 2012
Come and See for Yourself The Rev. Dr. Howard J. Hess
Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth?
I. Introduction. In years past, I was sitting where Nathaniel is sitting in today’s gospel. I was searching for a Jesus in whom I could truly believe and for a community where I could be with others of like-mind. I yearned to know Jesus with the simplicity I had known him as a child without all the baggage of condemnation and judgment. Nathaniel was seeking as well – you see, the reference to being under a fig tree in the Hebrew Scriptures refers to one who is studying God’s word to find answers. The very name Nathaniel means “seeker.” Both Nathaniel and I had a grace-filled experience. We both had someone encourage us to “Come and See” the Christ, the Son of the living God. In spite of Nathaniel’s dismissal of anyone who might come from Nazareth, he went to look. In spite of my doubt that I would encounter the Christ I hoped to find, I went to look.
This worn and dilapidated prayer book helped me meet the Christ I sought. Not only the book itself – the book that contains all my marginal notes of when to stand, when to sit, with all the names of believers whom I have baptized, married, and buried written lightly in pencil in the pages of the liturgies. This book was a gift of invitation from an Episcopal priest: “Come and see. In the Episcopal church you may meet a Christ filled with mystery, acceptance, and substance. Come and see for yourself.” And in spite of my skepticism and the many demands on my time, I went to look. For at least a year, I sat on the very back pew of the Episcopal Church I visited. I never filled out a pew card or went to a coffee hour. But I returned again and again to seek and find the living Christ. And he met me there!
Today it is my intent to help us look more deeply and more broadly for the Christ who meets us each in our own needs and personalities.
II. Now I want to be absolutely clear; the source of transforming energy in our encounters with Christ flows from God, not from us. It is God’s grace that illuminates and inspires us to seek him. God’s effort to seek and pursue us is called prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the nudge, the call to action, the invitation of Phillip in today’s gospel, or the invitation of the giver of this prayer book. Then we must decide. Do we take the risk? Do we step out just to take a look? No long-term commitment yet, just a look. We make a choice. But I must warn you. When we step out to meet Christ, he will invite us in a compelling way to believe in him, to love him, and to follow him. We may respond quickly as John describes Nathaniel’s encounter with Jesus, or we may respond more slowly as I did, but meeting Christ is always just the beginning.
III. This was clear to me in this week’s Wednesday lectionary study with a faithful group of mentors in this parish. I hope those of you in this group know how much we clergy appreciate your counsel and witness. You help the preachers of Ascension see life in the Word. This past Wednesday, the members of this group described many different encounters with Christ, some dramatic and others more subtle, but there was one profound commonality among us. Encountering Christ always surprised us, changed us, and led us into our own ministries. (Jesus said to Nathaniel “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these” . . . “Very truly I tell you that you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Of course, Jesus is referring to Jacob’s dream while sleeping in the desert and struggling with God.) Our encounters with God and his Son Jesus Christ changed Nathaniel, changed me, and changed the women in this study group.
Iv. Let me share with you how we were changed. One group member was called and began to teach and lead in the Education for Ministry Program, or EFM, although she felt she had no skills to do so. Another was called to be a Eucharistic Visitor which at first was intimidating to her; another took leadership in founding a Florence Crittenden Home here in Knoxville, and still another taught Sunday School for years and years. Another was challenged in a sermon to be less judging, and another is discerning where God is calling her to serve. Still another described the meaning it has had for a family member to be called and to serve as a Stephen Minister. The commonality in all these stories is that we initially felt unworthy or unable to be effective in these ministries. To some of us, myself included, our calls were surprising and challenging. But for all of us, Jesus’ call was compelling. Those calls may sound routine, but for those of us who responded, they were dynamite!
We found that taking the risk to step forward and follow Christ has opened new experiences for us that we had not imagined. As the writer of today’s Psalm tells us, God knows us all so much more fully than we know ourselves. (As Frederick Beuchner wrote, God calls us to ministries where our greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need. We are all created for wonderful ministries. And of course – how could it not be? We are members of the Body of Christ.
IV. Conclusion. As you have just heard, yesterday we had our annual vestry retreat. We considered that in 2011 over 100 new members have joined us or reactivated their membership. They are excited about God’s call to ministry here at Ascension. God has said “Come and see. Come and see if you can find Christ at Church of the Ascension.” To those of you who have come, we are grateful and humbled by your presence. You are a gift to us. To those of us who have been here for some time, I believe God is also urging us to “Come and see.” Come and see what new things Christ has in mind for us here at Ascension – new friends, new ministries, expanding fellowship, and deeper faithfulness. In recognition of the freshness of God's call to us, please join me in the prayer found on p. 528 of the BCP from the Liturgy of the Ordination of a priest: