Sermon - 2 Epiphany
In the Name...
Among the fables of Antiquity, there is the story of the pheasant and the eagle. The pheasant was envious of the eagle and would stew over questions like, “How come he can fly so high?", and grumble, "Everyone admires him and no one admires me.” One day the pheasant saw a hunter and called out to him to shoot the eagle. The hunter replied that he would need to add some feathers to his arrow for it to reach the eagle, so the pheasant pulled one of his best feathers and gave it to the hunter. That was not enough to reach the eagle. So the pheasant pulled another and then another and still the arrow was not quite able to reach the eagle. Before long the pheasant's best feathers were all gone and he was no longer able to fly. The hunter then turned round and shot the pheasant. The moral of the story is that envy and jealousy consume the person who harbours them.
Last week, we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus and we saw that the place where Jesus went was at the Jordan River where John the Baptist had a thriving ministry of his own already well established.
John was truly an amazing fellow. He was a powerful preacher, but, he didn't hold big crusades in the cities, like evangelists today. On the contrary, he stayed away from the population centres, preaching by a riverbank in the wilderness. And tens of thousands of people walked miles and miles to hear him. Imagine the strength of character he must have had to inspire that kind of response. John had a very strong character and today we're shown a particular quality of it. One which each one of us should have. It is the quality of purpose.
Thinking back to the fable, envy and jealousy are natural reactions to what we might perceive as competition even when none is intended. Take a typical work-place. How many people like to hear that the person who succeeded them in a particular job is doing much better than they did? Nobody, of course. John the Baptist, then, is a rare example. He had a good thing going. People's lives were changing because of him. Religious leaders deferred to him. The king was even afraid of him.
And yet, what did we just hear in the Gospel? "John declared, "This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me." And, as a result of this endorsement, two of his disciples leave him at once and become Jesus' first disciples.
Why is John so content to endorse Jesus rather than either treat him as a threat or try to get a place for himself in Jesus' ministry? Have you ever noticed that? John doesn't propose that they form a team. You'd think that would be natural. He's already got the crowds, the reputation, the influence. Those are important resources he can bring to a partnership. Why doesn't he go for it?
It's because John knows the answer to the question, asked by so many, "Why am I here?" "Why am I here?" In his case he says, “I came ... for this reason, that he (Jesus) might be revealed to Israel." And that is what John considers to have been the purpose of his ministry. To set the scene for Jesus to begin his.
The great message of John was about preparing a way for the Lord. Every valley raised up, every hill made low, the crooked made straight and all mankind beholding the glory of God. And John could preach this because he lived it. In his own life he brought down the mountain of pride and raised up the valley of humility. He smoothed the rough places of his heart and straightened every crooked inclination and so beheld the glory of God. And he could do these things because he put God's purpose for himself at the centre of his life.
Why are we here? What's the purpose, the meaning of life? On one level that's a very broad and philosophical question, and on another it's intensely deep and personal. It's a question with which great minds have struggled and which comedians have spoofed. George Carlin said the goal of life was to find a place to store all our stuff.
And there have been many other, more serious, answers given to the question, such as, to seek happiness, to pursue a dream, to be a good friend, to come out on top, to accomplish my goals, even to die, as the bumper sticker says, with the most toys.
Our Old Testament lesson contained a great line. "Surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God." In other words, the meaning of my existence lies with the Lord. That was how John felt and our Gospel today showed us another character who felt that same way. It was Andrew, the first disciple of Jesus.
We see Andrew a couple of times in the Gospels, but, despite being the first disciple he's not very prominent. He's actually best remembered for what he did in today's reading. He brought his brother to meet Jesus. His brother, Peter. And we all know what Peter eventually became.
I wonder, have any of you heard the story of a man named Albert McMakin. Ever heard of him? Oh. Well, he worked on a farm in NC back in the 1930's and when he heard that a famous evangelist named Mordecai Ham was preaching in Charlotte he tried to get a couple of his friends to attend the crusade with him. But, one of his teenage friends wasn't interested at all. So, as a bribe, Albert told this young fellow that if he'd go with them, he could drive the truck. Well, what 16-yr. old is going to pass up that opportunity? So, he agreed, drove them there in the truck, attended the crusade, and that night that young sceptic, William Franklin Graham, Jr., made his personal commitment to Christ.
Now, not many of us are going to be Billy Grahams and preach to billions or Peters and lead the Church. We can all, however, be Alberts and Andrews, bringing people to Christ just by being who we are and doing what we do. Each one of us has a wealth of opportunities and ways to fill our lives. We can be nurses or managers or sales clerks or even be retired. We can work with our minds or our hands. We can belong to sports clubs or play cards. There's a lot we can do in our lives. But, the most important thing we will ever do is what God wants us to do.
What does God want you to do? That's a question every one of us should ask, and not just once. It's a question which far too many people never ask, even once. Too many people never think about the purpose God has for them and, as a result, they end up like the pheasant, envious and jealous, treating everybody as a threat or rival, until finally they are consumed.
There is peace and blessing to be found in knowing our purpose. And we are blessed when we bring to others the peace and mercy which comes from knowing our purpose. As the prophet said, surely, our cause is with the Lord, and our reward is with our God. Let's never forget that.
In the Name...