It was a joy to be with the good people of American Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska on Sunday January 15th. I was invited by Pastor Carla Johnson to preach and lead worship, and to join the congregation’s vitality team in conversation with the whole congregation about the vitality work that the team has been a part of, and collectively what the congregation might be imagining, sensing, and wondering about as part of that on-going work and culture shift. It was a great morning! What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from based on the appointed readings of the day for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year A), especially John 1:29-42 and 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. As I was also leading the whole service, my usual introductions that go in my sermon time I included in the announcements.
Grace and peace from God in Christ who is with you, for you, and who loves you. Amen.
In being with you today, I’m excited to dig into God’s stories for us today and to wonder a bit about what God might be calling us to see and inviting us to be a part of, as well as to think in this time after Epiphany, a time of literal “ah-ha” moments, wonder, and light, about what your congregation may be seeing, sensing, and being a part of through its experience in the inaugural cohort of the Nebraska Synod Vitality Initiative for Congregations. To start with, let’s see what God might be inviting us to see and hear in the Word.
The Gospel Lesson for Us
Our gospel story picks up shortly after Jesus’ baptism. Mind you, this is in the Gospel of John’s purview, not Matthew’s as we heard last week. So we don’t actually experience Jesus’ baptism in real time here, but we do get what happens next through John the Baptist’s testimony, and the start of Jesus’ ministry according to John with his first disciples.
The Gospel according to John gets right to the heart of the matter of who Jesus is. In just thirteen verses in this opening chapter, John identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, and Messiah. All titles we know so well now for him. But John, the one who has baptized Jesus, is the first to name him any of these. It’s a cause for wonder, awe, and good questions. What might God be up to here? What might God be inviting next? Surely these were questions that John was wondering.
But within a day of witnessing this moment in the river, John is already testifying to it. He testifies, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” This testimony is that of a prophet. But also that of a disciple- one like you and me. And John will not miss a chance to witness to God’s mysterious presence and life-giving love. When John sees Jesus after his baptism he says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
And again, when he sees him pass by with two of his own disciples he exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” We know John doesn’t mince words. After all, he’s the guy down by the river calling one and all to repent. To turn toward God. Warning us that we might even be part of a brood of vipers. And calling us to change. To prepare the way of the one who is to come. And it just so happens that that one, has come. So it’s clear to John at least, what his responsibility is here, and he’s wondering, excited, and perhaps even a little anxious about what might be coming next.
He probably isn’t that worried or surprised even when the two disciples who had been following him, turn and follow Jesus. In fact, I suspect John would be pleased about this. They have learned well enough from John’s preparation that this one Jesus will be their “Rabbi,” their teacher and they want to follow him. And Jesus invites them along by saying just three simple but profound words, “Come and see.”
Come and See- an Invitation to Wonder
“Come and see.” That brings us to now. Jesus invites us all to come and see. To see what God might be up to. To wonder about what God might be inviting next. To come with awe, hope, trust, faith, questions, doubts, brokenness, hurt… To come from no matter where we are on our journeys. To come no matter how we’re feeling or doing on our journeys. No matter our experiences, viewpoints, or the ups and downs of life we might be facing. Jesus says come and see.
It’s an invitation to wonder. It’s an invitation to experience. To open ourselves up. To experience however we might experience through our eyes, ears, hearts, minds, and hands. This invitation is at the heart of this season after Epiphany. This green period of time between Jesus’ baptism and Transfiguration. Between the coming and going of the Magi, and when we hear the story of Jesus being swept into the wilderness and later his journey towards the cross. But in this in-between space, is something we sometimes miss in the church as we move from all the preparation of Advent and busyness of Christmas to the deeper kyries of Lent and the mournful journey towards Holy Week.
In this in-between space God is up to something and doing something new. Jesus is just starting his work. The world is just starting to get a glimpse. A glimpse. An ah-ha. An epiphany of sorts. From the witness of the wisemen, to the testimony of John the Baptist. To the first moments of Jesus’ life-changing and life-saving work. The work of discipleship. Through his preaching and teaching- through the words of his Sermon on the Mount. Even through his first acts of mercy and miracle- such as turning water into wine, and healing those longing for a new day. Yes, in the eyes of some in our church this is just now a period of “ordinary time.” But really, it’s anything but.
It’s a time of exploration. A time of discovery. A time of experimentation when we have some space to try some things. To take some new things on in this new day and space. The calendar helps with it being a new year. But more so, in this season we also celebrate the light of Christ shining through- opening our senses to God’s love and presence made new daily among us. Even in ways as simple as witnessing an earlier sunrise or a later sunset as the days start to inch a bit longer.
This season of Epiphany is an invitation to come and see that Jesus extends to each of us and to all of God’s beloved in this story today. To lean into the baptismal waters we witnessed last week, and let God be God, but follow God’s invitation to witness. To wonder. To try. To learn. To do. To live out all those baptismal promises: “to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the Good News in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” And to show up through all of our various vocations for the sake of all those in need, here and now in the world that God so dearly loves.
Our Work as Disciples and Stewards
In this gospel story today, we get a glimpse of the first two disciples, and the beginning of their walk with Jesus. Two disciples who responded to the invitation to “come and see,” and decided to follow with their own questions, doubts, hopes, and fears. But also with their full selves and their full lives. In doing so, over the course of their journey with Christ and each other, they grew and lived and served. And through and with them, God’s work was done, and the good news of God’s love was shared. And that work continues in you- disciples of Jesus and stewards of God’s love here in Lincoln today.
As I look out at all of you this morning, I can’t help but be grateful. To join with the Apostle Paul who writes in our second lesson, “I give thanks to my God always for you…” For you know just as Paul writes that we are “called to be saints, together.” We are called to be disciples together, “called into the fellowship” of Jesus together. And I know this is true for you- American Lutheran.
I know this is true because of your mission share, which is the undesignated offering that your congregation shares with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA. Through it you do ministry that spans the globe and changes lives. Through your mission share you help others “come and see,” through the way that you help raise up leaders in the faith, and help prepare new pastors, deacons, PMAs, and other lay leaders to lean into their calls as disciples. Through it you spread the good news of Jesus’ love near and far by supporting missionaries around the globe and new and renewing ministries right here all across the Big Red State. Through your mission share you help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them, in part, through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Carol Joy Holling Camp. And through it, you see your neighbors and meet them where they are at, through the many serving arm partners of the church like Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran Disaster Response, Tabitha, and so many more. Thank you for your generous stewardship and discipleship which daily changes lives and invites others to come and see that God’s love is real.
What Might God be Up To and Inviting Next?
But that’s not all. For the past year and a half, your congregation has been engaged in the Nebraska Synod’s Vitality Initiative for Congregations. You have been one of eight congregations from the 230 across the synod journeying together in this effort. Along the way your vitality team has pondered big questions such as: Who are we? Who are our neighbors? What might God be up to? What might God be inviting? What might be our next most faithful step? What might be next? Your vitality team will be joining me after worship this morning for a time of conversation with all of you- as we continue in this work together- and share about what your team and your congregation is learning, sensing, wondering, and imagining for what might be next. So for that conversation, as Jesus says to the two today, hear this as an invitation to you too. “Come and see.”
As one who has been walking with all eight congregations I can tell you this. God is up to something. All eight congregations in this inaugural cohort have learned, grown, sensed, questioned, and been challenged. All of them have discerned, prayed frequently, and along the way have discovered and taken bold, courageous, and faithful steps to continue to see and follow where Jesus might be leading. For some this has meant a deeper understanding of who they are- not the congregation of 50 or 100 years ago, who might have been having worship in German or Swedish, but the vibrant and vital center for ministry that they are today.
For some that has meant a new understanding and awareness of who their neighbors are. Of who their community is. This is something I know your congregation has worked on through this experience. Working to become more deeply rooted and vital in the community neighborhood around the church, growing relationships with your neighborhood, recognizing that this congregation isn’t just a group of people who live in one area but all over the greater Lincoln metro. As part of this effort, your congregation has grown partnerships with neighboring churches and other community organizations through this journey too.
For some congregations this initiative has helped clarify what their unique congregational vocation is- not just what their identity is, but how their identity as people of God connects with their unique gifts, strengths, resources, and passions and helps meet their neighbors needs. For some this has helped congregations see what the immediate future might look like in becoming vibrant outposts for Christ’s mission, who knows that the way things were are not how they are anymore. And that isn’t necessarily bad. But in recognizing that change, they are choosing to lean into now and what’s next, grateful for the legacy of faith that they are built upon, but excited to again follow Jesus’ invitation to “come and see,” and to help others “come and see.” And to walk with hope, faith, and excitement to witness what God might be up to next. And you are all a part of this.
American Lutheran, your congregation has been doing this. But I must warn you, it’s not a one- time thing. The work of this initiative is not some project or program where you can check a box and be done afterwards. No. This is part of a culture change. Of leaning in as disciples together, and committing anew to follow, grow, live, and serve as disciples. This is an on-going evolving, and changing effort. Because faith, discipleship, and relationships are not stagnant. They are alive, because we profess a living Christ- the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, and ascended one. Because we profess God’s on-going presence of the Holy Spirit who constantly breathes new life- calling forth creativity, imagination, and wonder. All of which are at the heart of this time of year, and so essential for this moment in the life of the church and our ministry together.
God is up to something. Yes, I am certain of it. Because I have the joy of seeing glimpses of it every day, and I hope you do too. Because I see it in you today. Because I know it’s happening through the stories I have heard emerge through you and because of you.
I wonder if this is what John the Baptist might have felt in today’s story. In recognizing the world as we know it had changed forever, through the Spirit’s presence and descending on Jesus like a dove. After baptizing him, watching him in the days that followed. In witnessing Jesus the Lamb of God. In testifying to God’s presence and promise. In sharing and calling others to see and follow. And inviting his own disciples to go and see too. God was really up to something in this story we read. And you know what, God is up to something in, with, through, and for you too. May we all have the courage to follow as Jesus invites, “to come and see” that the Lord is good, and share all that we see and know- trusting that God in Christ is with us, for us, and loves us. Always. Amen.
Citations and References:
 John 1:29 & 1:36, NRSV.
 John 1:34, NRSV.
 John 1:38, NRSV.
 John 1:41, NRSV.
 John 1:32-34, NRSV.
 John 1:29, NRSV.
 John 1:36, NRSV.
 For example, as in Luke 3:7, NRSV.
 Beginning in John 1:37.
 John 1:39, NRSV.\
 As found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), pages 236-237.
 1 Corinthians 1:4, NRSV.
 1 Corinthians 1:2, NRSV.
 1 Corinthians 1:9, NRSV.