Due to the unique arrangements we had this year for the Christmas season this is the first time I’ve been up here doing this in a while. It feels good to be back, even if it feels a little like the first workout at the gym after a few too many weeks away. It’s familiar, but at the same time new all over again? One of the things I enjoyed about the way we shared our Christmas season with Mt. Zion Lutheran Church was getting to hear sermons in the midst of our worship together. It’s not often that I get to do that when we worship together, here in this space. I was uplifted by Pr. Brian’s proclamations, and I hope you were, too.
On Christmas morning and the first Sunday after Christmas, Pr. Brian used a refrain a couple of times that stuck with me even until today. It stuck with me enough to become the guiding theme for my messages this Epiphany season. I wrote about it in the January newsletter a little bit even. Did anyone else hear it? Do you remember it?
When he was talking about those first verses from the gospel according to John, those beautiful words of poetry we call the Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God,” Pr. Brian summed it up this way, “God is on the loose.” That’s what Christmas announces to us. That’s what the incarnation is about. God has left the heavenly throne, put on the clothing of human flesh, and is on the loose - - living, breathing, walking, talking, healing, teaching, calling, and maybe most of all disturbing. God is on the loose.
Christmas tells us this is true in Jesus, but Epiphany tells us what he’s doing and calls us to be a part of the action. God is on the loose. The way John describes it in that Prologue is mysterious and exciting, cryptic and intriguing. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:10-11) We’re immediately drawn into the story of the Word’s presence and activity wondering how we will react. Certainly, we assert we will accept him. Certainly we will see his glory, full of grace and truth. Certainly, we insist we will know him when he is right before our very eyes. God is on the loose.
For a few disciples the intrigue and the testimony of John the Baptizer was enough. Having heard John’s account of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus as a dove and trusting his proclamation “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” they follow Jesus. Accepting his invitation to come and see. One of them, Andrew, came, saw, and believed enough to go to his brother, Simon Peter, sharing the good news of what he had found. Simon Peter was on board from the start. The next day Philip’s recruitment went similarly. With little other urging, he is simply found and invited, “Follow me.”
But the fourth disciple takes a little more work. This on-the-loose God maybe be exciting, scary, or intriguing enough to bring Andrew, Simon Peter, and Philip along easily, but even with the curiosity factor up, even with some attention being paid to this Jesus, Nathanael isn’t quite so easy to convince.
Nathanael doesn’t jump right in with both feet. Nathanael’s got some questions, some doubts. He’s skeptical about this run of the mill, backwater preaching. Everyone else is calling him every messianic name in the book - - Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, Anointed - - but really? This guy? Jesus, from, of all places, NAZARETH? Has anything ever good come out of Nazareth?
Nathanael’s question is a good one. It’s not completely out of line. We all want to see a few credentials before we sign onto something, don’t we? We all want to know who it really is that we’re going to follow, that we’re going to trust, that we’re going to look to for advice, wisdom, ummm, especially salvation from what binds us and a revisioning of the world in which we live. A little sign. A little proof. A little SOMETHING, ANYTHING to show that this guy, this Jesus, the one from Nazareth is really THE One.
Nazareth is not quite the hometown people expected. It’s why Luke in particular goes to great lengths to tell us about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Nazareth, Jesus’, hometown is sort of a nothing. It’s not an important port city. It’s not a fishing village right on the Sea of Galilee. It’s not the home to the temple. It’s not a place where Moses did anything. It’s not even mentioned ONCE in the Old Testament, certainly never predicted to be the place from which God’s Messiah comes. Nazareth, is, well, a bit unorthodox as the starting point for the work of the Son of God. Nathanael is justified in asking his question. Instead of being the exception, in fact, I sort of expect his doubtfulness to be the rule, the normal reaction to this spur of the moment invitation.
We understand it, don’t we? We love our credentials in this day and age. We like to know what the experts and the non-experts think. Some of us will watch hours of television analyzing the big football game before it starts this afternoon, then hours more after it’s all over to see what the commentators think. Others spend all sorts of time pouring over the business and finance sections of multiple newspapers and magazines to read what the experts think about the investments we’re considering. Many of us won’t commit to reading a book or seeing a movie without finding out who liked it or how many stars it got. On Facebook we can give people’s pictures, activities, locations, restaurant choices, travels, hometowns, and businesses a virtual thumbs up to show our approval and support. All because we want to know how something is going to go, what it’s going to be like before we commit to following.
Nathanael got a glimpse of what it means that God is on the loose. Detecting his skepticism Jesus flashes his divine credentials with the display of his omniscience card. When they finally meet, Jesus tells Nathanael where he has been, under the fig tree, where apparently Jesus had not been to see him. It’s a neat little trick that displays Jesus’ divinity, but even he sort of blows it off as unimportant, secondary to who he really is, what he really came to do. Seeing Nathanael under the fig tree when he wasn’t their physically is NOTHING compared to what it really means that God is on the loose. Jesus promises better things, greater things, than that to Nathanael if he just comes to see.
Even though Jesus dismisses the foresight as less than what he can do, I think sometimes we find ourselves wishing for a magic sign or two of God’s presence. I hear all the time people, church members, skeptics, agnostics, the faithful, even pastors, I should say ESPECIALLY pastors, wishing and hoping for a sign. Anything. A little magic zap here on earth so that we can see that God is really here, so that we can know what we are looking for is really around, so that we can trust the one who we say we want to follow really is Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed, the Son of Man, God on the loose. We look for those little signs, lamenting that bushes don’t burn without being consumed anymore, people who are blind aren’t healed before our very eyes, the seas don’t part at the outstretched arms of a man, and a star hasn’t appeared over the stable where a woman has given birth.
We look for the kinds of signs we have seen in Scripture for a time gone by and we lament that they aren’t repeating themselves before our eyes. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t here. That doesn’t mean that the Spirit isn’t moving. That doesn’t mean that God is not on the loose. Our signs aren’t absent; they’re just different.
- When our church family wraps its arms around those among us who are struggling with cancer – - driving each other to doctor’s appointments, vacuuming each other’s homes, making soup, making phone calls, sitting through long and lonely chemo appointments - - God is on the loose!
- Last year when over $3000 was donated and raised for this church to distribute to those in our church family and our community who are having trouble making ends meet, who need just a little bit of relief given in a way that upholds their dignity, not as a thoughtless handout, but a thoughtful and prayerful act of compassion - - God is on the loose!
- When a 3rd grade girl committed her body, her time, and her energy to run 50 miles in order to raise money for our partnership for the Bridge for Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities and adults supported her with sponsorships - - God is on the loose!
- Two adults this year went on national mission trips to assist with hurricane and flood relief, the first two trips for adults in mission from this congregation in several years because - - God is on the loose!
- When we prayed about a difficult decision to go in new directions with youth and family ministries and when God's presence was confirmed through the addition of Shelley on our ministry team - - God is on the loose!
- There was over 60 children being ministered to through our summer day camp and the camp in a van we hosted this year. - - God is on the loose!
- We celebrated 3 infant baptisms and one adult baptism upon profession of faith. - - God is on the loose.
- And when God's dreams were bigger than the financial support we anticipated, we saw evidence of God on the loose when generosity abounded and our needs were met beyond our expectations.
But the thing is, if these are the signs we can point to in order to see that God is on the loose, that Jesus really is in front of us, in the midst of us...
If these are the signs we have like the sign Nathanael had, then the promise made to Nathanael is also a promise to. God will do even greater things among us. The Spirit is stirring up even more in this church. Jesus is working even greater miracles in us and through us.
- We are hearing Jesus' call to show compassion and mercy to those whose lives are devastated by acts of nature; we are hearing Jesus' call to provide more opportunities for adults to travel on mission trips.
- We are hearing Jesus' call to let the children come to him, to witness to children with our own words, with our own adults, our own teens, about God's love for them through a Vacation Bible School.
- We are hearing the Spirit's call to offer emerging forms of worship and education to include generations and populations from our community missing from our traditional ministry offerings.
- We are witnessing the young girl who ran 50 miles for others last year, recruit at least 50 young people to run with her this year to more to make an even bigger impact in the name of Christ in the world.
If Jesus has done good things for us and through us in the past, come and see, because even greater things are yet to come. Even greater things are being dreamed and planned and pulled out of us than we ever imagined before.
It is true. We have seen it with our own eyes - God is on the loose. Look, here is the Lamb of God among us. Come and see.