Sunday, January 30, 2022

Moriah Hurst: I could sure use some living water

Beyond Borders: Jesus and the Samaritan woman
The Word became flesh and lived among us
Psalm 42:1-3, 11; John 4:1-42

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As the pandemic stretches on, week after week, month upon month and now year on year. I find that I am dry. When I need to come up with a new way of doing something or approach the consent conversation again of “are you comfortable doing this and what kind of mask are you wearing?” I am tired, weary, dry. So I come to these stories of Jesus in the gospel of John thirsting for meaning, something to sustain me. Something to give me nourishment right where I am and invite me on, into a deeper sense of being. And Jesus does meet us here.

There is a lot going on in this text. And there is a lot going on in the world and in our lives. So we peel back some of the layers to look at how Jesus acts and interacts, who this woman is and how she talks with Jesus. We bring our dry jars and buckets and ask what is the living water for this week?

(Map) Jesus sets out with his disciples from Judea traveling back once more to Galilee. When we look at a map it makes sense, Samaria is in between, the direct route would be for Jesus to go through Samaria. But for a Jew in Jesus’ day they would have gone around. To go through Samaria was unexpected and dangerous.

Jesus crossed an unexpected border. (border wall pic) In conversations this week, and with the picture on the front of the bulletin, I am reminded that with your support, 3 years ago I took a trip to one of our borders. I can hardly see that wall without crying. As I crossed the border from the US into Mexico and back again each day, I felt the tension of border guards' eyes, their hands on their guns and the unwelcoming message of razor wire fences as I walked past.

Yet with my trusty American passport in hand my discomfort was nothing compared to the fear and loss of control that my new friends felt as they were loaded into vans or turned away at locked gates and checkpoints.

Jesus is acting on the words that he spoke just verse before in John 3:16-17, that are memories by people the world around. As if Jesus is saying: See this is how I love the world. I go even to the difficult places and meet with the greatest outsider and outcast there. Crossing differences of gender, race, life experience and social placement to meet someone in their chores of daily life.

Jesus calls out to the woman asking for water. The narrator helpfully reminds us that this should make us shift in our seats at its awkwardness.  They are alone, a man talking to a woman, a Jew and a Samaritan, they are not each other's equals. Yet back and forth the woman and Jesus engage in witty banter and theological wrestling. Until the woman asks for this living water. I think I would want that water too.

Jesus shifts the conversation. “Go, call your husband and come back” and the woman replies “I have no husband”. Then Jesus tells her about her own life. And while some commentators seem obsessed with this woman’s sexual history, that doesn’t seem to be what matters to Jesus. Think of his tone being one of knowing and compassion instead of judgment. “You have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” However she ended up here, either through divorce or death. Imagine the amount of pain she has gone through, the trauma and sorrow she is carrying.Five relationships over and all the weight of living on through that. Losing one spouse or relationship can be devastating and she has lived through that 5 times. She doesn’t turn away or try to hide this from Jesus. And Jesus stays in conversation with her. He sees her, knows her story and does not turn his back. I hear it again “see, this is how I love the world”.

This bold woman who keeps coming back with her questions and wrestling to understand who Jesus is and what he is saying. Unlike Nicodemus in last weeks passage she doesn’t let it drop. This exchange keeps going on as she is gutsy to keep digging deeper. “The unnamed woman at the well is the first one to whom Jesus reveals his true identity — I AM, the first absolute I AM in the Gospel of John — not to the Jewish leaders or to the disciples, but to her, a religious, social, political outsider. This is whom God is for because God loves the world.”

“Jesus also builds community by crossing racial boundaries and breaking the distinction between “chosen people” and “rejected people.” He extends the mission of the Jewish Messiah to the Samaritan people, who were hated by the Jews for their history of racial mixture and religious syncretism.

Thus, Jesus left us with a crucial lesson to be learned: community can only be built when we are not afraid of overcoming old prejudices and are willing to break the social conventions that dehumanize us.”

As the disciples return the woman heads towards town. Even as she still has questions, she starts to proclaim the good news she has heard.

 This week while encountering a few people that I really don’t agree with, I’ve been struck by how Jesus went into this conversation. When I see and hear things I don’t like, don’t agree with or make me uncomfortable, I want to step back or step away. But especially while working with students I’ve had to ask myself, why do I think that their views make them any less likely to connect with God? Even if we disagree, does that lessen the space that we can learn together about our spiritual journey?

Jesus saw this woman, her full story. Jesus knew all the borders that were between the two of them and yet still leaned into this conversation. And from that, the woman became one of the great evangelists, many in her town believing.

Where would Jesus be standing on a border today? US and Mexico, Ukraine and Russia, North and South Korea? What wall would he be jumping over? And in that inviting us into places where we really see the other and hear their whole story, not with judgment but compassion.

“You and I are called to bear witness and we are called to do so even or especially among those who are different from us, with whom we disagree, yes, even among those with whom we have been enemies. As for how one does that, I can’t help but wonder if there is a clue for us in this last section where we hear that Jesus ‘stayed there two days.’ Jesus made himself vulnerable by agreeing to be their guest and in the resulting deepening of relationship, they were able to receive for themselves this marvelous gift of faith.”

Here we see the layers, this is not only socio-political but personal. Where is this living water for us? When we are too tired, too grouchy, feeling not good enough. How do we go to the well and have the hard but honest conversations with Jesus? Tell it like it is and ask for what we need. Give me this living water. Jesus says “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

This week I invite you to consider what borders Jesus may be asking you to cross and also to bring your thirst to the well that is Jesus. To show up honestly before God and ask that your parch places are nourished.

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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Stories of rebirth and renewal

Born from above: Jesus and Nicodemus
The Word became flesh and lived among us
Psalm 51:10-12; 17; John 3:1-17

Phil Kniss, Gretta Owen, Vernon Jantzi, Anieta McCracken, and Saloma Furlong provide personal stories of a time when God invited them to let go of something known, safe, comfortable and enter into something new, unknown, risky but turned out to be transformative and life giving.

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Sunday, January 16, 2022

Phil Kniss: Selling faith

The conflict begins: Cleansing the temple
The Word became flesh and lived among us
John 2:13-25; Isaiah 56:6-8

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Last Sunday my job was to try to make sense (or not)
out of Jesus first miracle,
where he used water to make 180 gallons of fine wine,
at a wedding party where they already drank enough
to be under the influence.
If you missed my attempt, go to our website and watch the video.
Spoiler alert: I did not make any sense out of it.
I made some meaning, hopefully, but not sense.

Today’s story is even more attention-getting than water into wine.
Same chapter, different location.
Not in a remote village this time,
but at the center of religious and political power,
the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus—peace-loving, gentle, turn-the-other-cheek Jesus—
walks into the temple not to worship,
but to engage in a dramatic one-person protest
involving a hastily-made whip,
turning over tables,
and chasing out the sacrificial lambs and oxen,
and offending pretty much everyone in sight.
The primary targets of his protest,
and the ones most deeply offended,
were the religious leaders of that temple.
But there were others left in his wake.
The sellers of the animals and doves,
the money-changers facilitating the sales,
the worshipers who just bought a lamb to sacrifice,
only to have it scurry away free.

John doesn’t say how Jesus’ disciples reacted in the moment.
He only writes about what they remembered, later,
in some post-resurrection analysis.

I rather imagine the disciples
were trying to make themselves invisible,
maybe slinking into a corner,
wondering what they had gotten themselves into,
following someone as unpredictable as Jesus.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you know this story well.
It’s in all of them.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke put it late in Jesus’ ministry,
in the week before his crucifixion.
John puts it almost at the beginning of his story.
If you’re bothered by that . . . don’t be!
John’s intent is not to lay out a precise timeline.
It’s to tell a story in a way that leads people
to encounter Jesus as God in the flesh,
and commit themselves to believing and following.

For John, it’s important to show, early on, how Jesus’ mission
fundamentally challenged the authorities,
especially the religious elite
who were invested in the way things were.

It’s only happenstance that this story shows us in the lectionary
on the weekend of Martin Luther King Day.
So let’s talk about nonviolence vs. violence with regard to this story.
This story is often brought up as evidence that
Jesus would approve of violence in some circumstances.

Many classical artists have painted Jesus
actively flicking the whip in the direction of people,
terrorizing them, knocking them to the ground.
It’s interesting that John is the only Gospel
to even include a whip in the story.
But what does John actually say about it?
There’s no mention of any act of violence
directed toward human . . . or animal.
It doesn’t say he struck any living creature.
Jesus’ goal was to empty the temple
of the desecrating livestock market.
A whip is how you get livestock to move somewhere.
It wouldn’t work against caged doves, of course,
so Jesus simply told those sellers to remove them.
Was Jesus disruptive? Absolutely!
Confrontational? Of course!
Did anyone get hurt?
No biblical evidence of that . . . at all.
The whip did have the effect of letting some animals
live to see another day.

So using this Gospel story as an argument
that Jesus used violence to bring about change,
is a flimsy argument, at best.
It simply doesn’t stand up under scrutiny.

At the same time,
anyone who thinks Christians should always be
quiet and non-confrontational in the face of evil
or injustice or religious hypocrisy,
needs to reckon with the Jesus of John 2—
or for that matter,
the non-violent and confrontational Jesus
of many other Gospel stories.

Now, bottom line, what was so upsetting to Jesus here?
Was it the fact that money was being exchanged in a holy place?
If so, is Jesus also unhappy when our youth group
sells brownies in the foyer?
Some people actually have qualms about that,
based on this story.
To repeat what I said earlier.
If you’re bothered by that . . . don’t be!

I don’t think there is any connection between
mission-oriented fund-raising,
and the crass commercialization of worship
that had infected the temple,
and had actually become economically oppressive.

What was happening inside the Temple—
this growth of an “animal sacrifice industry”—
was deeply offensive to,
and actively undermining the purposes of God.

What do I mean?
The first Passover, when the Israelites escaped Egypt,
showed the spirit of sacrifice God had in mind.
Families were told to choose their own best lamb for the sacrifice,
and to share it,
in case one lamb was more than they needed,
and they had neighbors whose families were too small or too poor,
to have a whole lamb to themselves.
Animal sacrifice, even when practiced individually,
was a ritual that discerned, respected, and cared for the community.
But as worship transitioned from a portable tabernacle,
to an elaborate and costly Temple,
so did the worship industry.

And this industry helped establish and maintain
a religious and social hierarchy.
Favor with God was, essentially, for sale.

So, it seems likely that
at least two offensive things were going on in the Temple,
that made Jesus’ anger bubble up.

First, the poor were being economically exploited
by the merchants and money-changers.
Those without means to provide their own unblemished animal
had to buy them on the spot, probably at elevated prices,
instead of having the community share with each other.

Secondly, this court where the livestock market was set up—
the Court of the Gentiles—
was specifically designed to provide a space
for anyone at all to worship God freely—
no matter your race, gender, or bloodline.
You didn’t have to be a ritually clean, circumcised Jewish male,
to worship in this space.
This is what the prophet meant in the Isaiah text we read today,
that “my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.”
All nations!

So this livestock market was taking over the very space
designed to welcome all nations to worship.
It was crowding out the Gentiles.

This was more than Jesus could take.
So . . . carefully, deliberately, and with forethought, I believe,
he walked into that desecrated space,
and acted on behalf of the God who was offended by it.

John sees this as another window into understanding Jesus,
as someone who acts on behalf of God, in God’s place,
as God in the flesh.

So, let’s bring this story home.
How does it connect with our story, our lives?
It’s so easy to hear John 2 condemn things that already offend us:
TV evangelists begging for money
to support a gilded lifestyle.
Megachurches marketing themselves like a big box store
to bring in more religious consumers.
Or whatever it may be that offends our sensibilities about church.

Surely, we are not the money-changers, are we?
We are not the ones running the temple and taking a cut . . . are we?

As I sat with that question for a while this week,
I started to feel more and more uncomfortable.
I suspect we all would have a little . . . pause,
if we owned up to the various ways our own worship
can start to look like a transaction—
a quid pro quo so to speak.
Maybe, more than we care to admit,
our worship is for sale.
Maybe, at least some of the time, if not most of the time,
we bring ourselves to worship with an expectation
we will be rewarded.

We invest an hour of our time once a week,
we help out when we’re asked,
participate in the service, drop money in the plate,
sing along with the hymns,
and then expect a certain return on investment.

We expect to hear words of encouragement and comfort,
reassurance that God looks on us with favor,
prayers that resonate with us,
readings that reinforce our beliefs,
songs we like, in the style we like,
sermons that only mildly challenge us, but mostly inspire.

No, we may not have a corrupted temple system,
and there are no livestock blocking the way to our sanctuary.
But let’s not assume our worship is morally superior
to the first-century Jews
who prompted Jesus’ angry protest.
I imagine Jesus is pained whenever people show up
at a house of prayer for all nations,
and end up not making room for the nations,
or reinforcing a social hierarchy.

We are invited to come to worship with a posture
of radical openness to God,
and radical openness to our neighbor,
ready for whatever will happen when the Spirit of God shows up.
When we come to worship with any . . . other . . . agenda,
we share something in common with
the money-changers and animal merchants.

The same can be said of faith itself.
Faith is openness and yieldedness to God.
Faith is not a bargain with God.
It’s not a sales transaction.
It’s openness.
We come, open to an uncertain future.
Open to mystery and unsettled questions.
Open to having our world view challenged.
Open to being transformed.
Open to disappointment.
Open to trying and failing.
Open to being forgiven.
Open to loving and being loved by God.

Let us offer a prayer of confession
to the God who invites us to worship.

one God of love and justice,
you desire honest worship with pure motives.
We confess that what we often bring
is worship with conditions attached.
all Forgive us, God. Take us as we are.
one God, too often we expect something in return for what we bring.
We offer you our worship, for a price—
In exchange for your blessing and approval,
In exchange for our comfort in worship,
In exchange for keeping our lives from being too disturbed.
all Forgive us, God. Take us as we are.
one The God of love and justice
gladly receives our confession, clears the slate,
welcomes us just as we are,
and invites us to be transformed into something more.
all Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, January 16, 2022

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Sunday, January 9, 2022

Phil Kniss: Nonsense and Glory

Glory Revealed: Wedding at Cana
John: The Word became flesh and lived among us
John 2:1-11; 2 Corinthians 3:7-8, 18 and Isaiah 60:1-2, 19

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Usually . . . my sermons try to make sense of a text.
But what do I do when I start with a text that makes no sense?
No logic. No rationality.
Let me just say it. Today’s story is non-sense.
In a good way, I think.
At least, I hope I can convince you of that.

This miracle at Cana defies logic.
And I don’t mean the actual miracle of turning water into wine.
That’s the least of my worries.

How does this strange miracle tale begin to fit with Jesus’ mission?
We know from every Gospel
that his mission is to proclaim God’s Kingdom,
a kingdom of raising ethical standards,
turning the other cheek,
loving enemies,
going the second mile
healing people,
overcoming evil and oppression,
welcoming the outcast,
touching lepers,
and yes, raising the dead.

So one would think . . . that for Jesus’ first miracle,
the first public exercise of his power to usher in God’s kingdom,
that he might do something more . . . well . . . useful,
than turning water into wine.

Not to be anti-wine, but
no one at this wedding, as far as we know, was healed by Jesus.
No one had their sins forgiven.
No one was cured of blindness.
No one was given words of wisdom about the kingdom.
. . . But they did get plenty of wine.

And adding to the non-sense,
why was Jesus’ mother so worried about the wine shortage,
that she felt responsible, as a guest, to fix it,
and pressure Jesus into playing his God card?
Maybe she thought Jesus’ Messiah clock was ticking, at age 30,
and he should move out of the house and start getting to work?
Like some other 30-year-old sons,
Jesus did not receive his mother’s advice very well.
He got a little . . . attitude . . . in verse 4, and I paraphrase,
“Mom! It’s not your business!
It’s not mine, either.  Let’s just stay out of it.”

So Mary stepped right into the Jewish mother stereotype,
ignored Jesus, went to the servants and said,
“Okay! I got it all worked out. Jesus will take care of everything!
Just do whatever he tells you.”
And Jesus caved.
Is this Gospel story? Or is it comedy? a nonsense narrative?

And then, the miracle itself is almost cartoonish.
Six 30-gallon jars?
I mean . . . sure this was a big party and all.
But Jesus made, out of water, nearly 180 gallons of wine!
This was after everyone already drank
all the wine the wedding planners
anticipated they would drink.
180 more gallons of not ordinary wine, but fine wine.
I’m with the steward here.
The wine steward objected to the groom when he tasted the wine.
“Why now? Everyone’s already tipsy.
They can’t appreciate this!”

So what’s the point here, Jesus? Why this miracle?

I’m not the first person to wonder this.
I’m in good company.
In 400 A.D. St. Augustine wondered about it.
Of course, he came up with an answer that made sense to him.
The six water jars signified the six ages.
from Adam to Noah,
Noah to Abraham,
Abraham to David,
David to the Exile,
the Exile to John the Baptist,
and finally, from John the Baptist to the present age.
A perfect six!
Augustine further explained that
each age was an empty vessel until it was fulfilled in Christ.
Augustine even took several pages to explain
that the capacity of the jars—30 gallons—
signified the Holy Trinity . . . okay!

Others have also tried to make sense of it,
like, leaving the best wine till last
means the real rewards of life come
only after Christ has transformed us.
I don’t know . . .
That’s cute and all . . . but I’m not buying it.

This is a story about Jesus and what he did in real life.
Nothing wrong with finding symbolism there.
If you like it, go for it.

But I want to know why John put this story in his narrative.
Well, John tells us why.
The Gospel writer says in v.11, and I quote,
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,
and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Ah, okay . . .

A little aside here.
See, John explains near the end of the Gospel,
that the reason for writing the whole book
is “that you might believe
that Jesus is the Son of God,
and believing, have life in his name.”

Belief, for John, does not mean agreeing with
a rational proposition about Jesus.
No, John means “belief” in one’s gut.
John wants us to be “wowed” by Jesus,
to be taken by, be seized by the truth
of Jesus’ union with God,
so that, being seized by this beautiful truth,
it takes over our own lives,
and we end up living the life we were meant to live.
The goal is not completing a checklist of doctrines.
The goal is full life!

John says, in a hundred different ways in this book,
that the God who created you with a word,
the Logos who spoke the world into being,
who filled your lungs with breath,
and your heart with rhythm,
that is the very same God you meet in Jesus.

So we can expect every well-told story in this book
to point in that direction,
to seize you with wonder and awe and trust in Jesus,
who is God in the flesh.

So . . . going back to this story, does it work?
The story is not supposed to “make sense.”
When we are told a story that “makes sense,”
we might nod our head, or quietly say, “ah...yeah.”

Stories that “make sense” help us understand things.
This is not that kind of story.
It’s not meant to “make sense.”
It’s meant to seize us, to get us in our gut,
to motivate us to put our trust in Jesus.

These stories early in the book?
John calls them “signs”—signs!
A sign is not main thing. It points to the main thing.

The glory of God, that shows up in Jesus,
through a miracle at a poorly managed wedding in Cana,
does to us what it did to the wedding guests.
Like nearly all of Jesus’ miracles,
it catches us off guard,
throws us off balance.
shows us there is something bigger going on,
than what we can see in front of our faces.

Miracles were signs pointing to a bigger thing.
It wasn’t Jesus’ intent to heal every sick person in the Middle East,
or wipe out leprosy or poverty or blindness,
or argue his case so well, that everyone became a disciple.
No, Jesus was sent to be a sign of God’s reign.
A foretaste of the kingdom.
A witness to what God was doing in the cosmos.

And the best way to do that,
was catch people’s attention
somewhere other than in their gray matter,
on the left side of their brain.
The Gospel is not entirely rational.
We need to be willing to be seized by the Gospel.
To open up our defenses,
to let ourselves be knocked off our feet by God’s glory.

Glory is what moves us.
Glory and good sense both have a place.
But if we want movement, and motivation,
all-out commitment, and risk-taking sacrifice,
I’ll put my money on “glorious,” more than “sensible.”

Why do we all get a little giddy at the sight of new-fallen snow?
or run to the porch every time a rainbow appears?
or hike up a mountain to the same overlook,
sometimes week after week, year after year?

No, not because we’ve finally figured out
how snowflakes form in the atmosphere and stick to branches,
how sun rays gets bent by water droplets and separate into colors,
or how the layout of the valley can be plotted on a map.

We do those things because they put us in touch with Glory!
Glory grabs us by the heart, and moves us!
We can’t help but smile at the snowscape,
run to see the rainbow,
and pound our body into submission to make it to the peak,
because the reward is, simply . . . glorious.

This story in John 2 ends by saying what the miracle did.
It “revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
A few had already begun to follow Jesus around,
with curiosity, with an open mind,
hoping Jesus might fulfill their expectations of a Messiah.

But this miracle at the wedding threw them off balance.
This irrational, unexplainable, superfluous, and extravagant
demonstration of the power of God,
hit them like . . . well, like 180 gallons of wine.
God was doing something beyond their ability to imagine.
It called their assumptions into question.
And at the same time, it made them say to Jesus, “We’re in!”

That’s what God’s glory will do to us when it shows up.
It knocks us off balance.
It makes us take notice.
It makes us believe something
we previously wouldn’t have dared to believe.

Maybe some nonsense, like we find in this story,
is how we get to see glory,
how we sit up and take notice,
how we realize that the world as it is,
is not necessarily the world as it can be
when we throw our lot in with Jesus.

With Jesus, we need not settle for “the way things are.”
We need not look around and say “This must be as good as it gets.”

This gospel story is good news for everyone in this world
for whom the wine has run out, so to speak.
It’s good news for anyone suffering from “the way things are.”
Those grieving loss of loved ones.
Those hanging on to the edge of exhaustion.
Those who feel alone in the world.
Those who believe their fate is sealed and nothing will change.
Those afraid to walk away from an abusive relationship.
You name the way your wine has run out.

Here in John 2, we meet, in Jesus, the God of Glory,
the God who does the unexpectedly beautiful thing.

Mother Mary was not expecting what Jesus actually did.
I suspect Mary wanted Jesus to do a “little something”
to help the host save face,
to make things stretch till the party winded down.
A little extra cheap wine in the vats would have been perfect.

What happened instead was a bit of non-sense,
over-the-top, extravagant, excessive, beautiful, and glorious.
It caused the first disciples
to move from the curious to the committed.
May God’s glory today, wherever it shows up,
do the same for us.

—Phil Kniss, January 9, 2022

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Sunday, January 2, 2022

Phil Kniss: Searching in the dark

Epiphany Sunday: Who are you looking for?
Matthew 2:1-12; John 1:19-51

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Last Sunday, we read the poetic prologue to the Gospel of John:
The Word became flesh, and lived among us,
full of grace and truth.
And in him was life. And this life was the light for all people.

Right after the poetry, John tells a story.
A story of a search—
John the Baptist was searching,
the whole Jewish community was searching—
Galileean fisherfolk, farmers,
the religious elite and blind beggars.
Everyone was searching for the Messiah.

The people lived in darkness and despair.
As a nation they were small and powerless,
occupied by a brutal foreign power.
King Herod built four different palaces,
had military headquarters scattered everywhere,
and streets crawled with Roman soldiers.
Just in case that didn’t remind people every day
who was in charge,
Herod terrorized the people
with harassment, torture, and crucifixion.

So everyone was searching for the Messiah—
this religious and political liberator they were promised,
who would rid them of Herod,
restore the throne to David’s line,
and return self-rule to the people of Judah.

John 1 brings that search immediately into focus.
But hold that thought, and hold your finger in John 1, so to speak,
and turn back three Gospels, to Matthew chapter 2,
for today’s other search story.

30 years earlier
many miles and cultures away from Judea,
another group of searchers was at work.
The magi. Stargazers.

Let’s be clear about this colorful Christmas story.
This is not a mysterious and mystical and magical tale.
We have made it so,
in song, art, and nativity scenes.
Half our Christmas cards have camel-riding kings, in silhouette,
and a stylized pointed star,
with a tail reaching down to the earth, like ours,
All because of what we have done to Matthew 2.

Sentimental legend is great. I enjoy it, and I love this star.
But the real biblical story is not mystical.
It’s political, and makes logical sense.
In the world view of the magi and their culture,
the movement of stars, and earthly events, were connected.
The magi worked the night shift,
studying the skies carefully,
to understand what was happening, or about to happen,
in their world, and then act on it.

They understood that a new rising star meant a royal birth.
It was logical, not magical,
to pack up the camels and trek across the desert
to investigate who the new king was,
and take him gifts fitting for royalty.

Their long-distance search in the dark, was predictable,
given their understanding of the world.
Of course, King Herod’s response was also predictable,
given he was a tyrant with absolute power.
He took it as a threat,
that the heavens were pointing toward a new Jewish king.
There was only one king in Judea.
And Herod wanted to keep it that way.
Thankfully, the magi were warned in a dream,
and did not return to Herod with the intelligence briefing.

So that’s Matthew’s “search in the dark” story.

Returning to John 1,
here that baby king sought by the magi, and by Herod,
is now an adult, emerging on the public scene in Judea.
Jesus is starting to move about and do what he was sent to do.
But just like in Matthew 2,
people all around are still searching for the Messiah,
and the powers that be are still threatened by the search.

John the Baptist is at the center of this search.
He offers a new baptism, for repentance,
to prepare and purify the people for the coming of the liberator.
People flock to him from all over—hungry for liberation.
It’s now a movement. A troubling movement.
Noticed first by religious authorities,
they worried that John was going to claim to be Messiah.
So they sent agents to question John.
“Who are you?” they asked.
John knew what they were really asking.
“I am not the Messiah,” he said,
“I’m only preparing the way.”
He quoted Isaiah.
John believed that any day the Messiah would appear.

See, everyone, religious authorities included,
was searching for Messiah.
All with their own motivations and assumptions.
Many of them mistaken.

For me, the thread connecting all these search stories,
is that even when we search in the dark,
even when we’re not entirely clear what we’re searching for,
even when we come up empty-handed at first,
the act of searching, in itself, gets us a bit closer to the truth.
Every empty lead narrows the search.

I’m especially moved by this story in John 1,
where Jesus’ first disciples almost accidentally run into Jesus,
and aren’t quite sure what they found.

Two of John the Baptist’s disciples,
standing along the road with their teacher,
watch Jesus go by, and John makes the now famous declaration,
“Behold, the Lamb of God!”

And the two men just start tailing along behind Jesus.
Out of curiosity.
At what they thought was a safe distance.
But Jesus stops, turns around,
and asks the most poignant question,
“What are you searching for?”

I like to read that as an existential question.
“What are you searching for . . . in life?”
I like to think Jesus meant,
What is your aim?
How is walking behind me, curiously,
helping you fulfill that aim?
And what is your next step?
I bet John’s disciples were caught off guard
by this deep and simple question, “What are you searching for?”

Maybe they stammered, before they answered,
“Uh . . . R-r-rabbi . . . Wh-where are you staying?”
Now, what were they really asking—“where are you staying?”
Did they just want to know how to find Jesus later?
Or was it, perhaps, a question that dawned on them
only as it came out of their mouths?
May we come stay where you stay?
May we begin studying at your feet?
John prepared us for this. Will you have us?

Jesus’ answer to the question, “Where are you staying?”
was just as simple and profound,
“Come and see.”
That’s how Jesus opened the door for these two to become disciples.
No demand.
No conditions.
Not even a real ask.
Just words of permission.
“Come and see.”
Find out as you go.
Discover whether you are willing to stay where I stay
and walk in my shoes.

Jesus didn’t give the answer. He encouraged the search.

Jesus did not, at that moment,
offer a 7-point summary of what discipleship would mean.
They had to search.
They had to put themselves in a position to find,
even if they didn’t know, yet, what they were looking for,
even if they weren’t sure they were in the right place,
even if the night was still dark.

There is the good news, dear friends,
for us who live in a world divided, broken,
and shrouded in darkness.
We are invited by the God of light and life,
to join the search,
even if we aren’t entirely clear what we’re searching for,
or where to find it.

There are too many people today, who,
like Herod, and like the religious elites,
prefer their reality to be completely settled, secure, and sure.

We would not be in the situation we are in today—
with regard to COVID, with regard to political chaos,
to spikes in violence,
to threats of climate change,
to you name it—
if it weren’t the sad reality that we all tend to assume
that our truth is settled, secure, contained, and watertight.
How would our social discourse and daily lives change,
if we all . . . all acknowledged what we don’t know,
and embraced the search.

Yes, John’s Gospel makes a number of clear declarations,
which we happily stand on.
But at the heart of this Gospel
is an invitation to stick close to Jesus,
to “come and see,”
to abide . . . and to go.
We will find what we are looking for.
The proof will be in the journey.

—Phil Kniss, January 2, 2022

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