It’s tempting–especially when tensions are high in the culture around us and the news is all people seem to talk about–to expect sermons to be ripped from the headlines. It’s tempting to expect a sermon to tell us what to speak directly to the news of the day.
I do pray that God’s Word today will be relevant, challenging, and helpful to you, but perhaps it will not be direct in the way that you expect. In today’s reading, I see a theme that is appropriate for today. It’s a theme that is not just for today or for this week, and it’s not unique to this story. This theme comes to us again and again in Scripture. We are told to trust God, and to follow, and to do so one day at a time.
In the past year, taking things one day at a time has taken on new meaning. We wonder when school or church will return to normal. We wonder when folks in senior living communities will again be able to move about freely. We wonder about any number of normal activities. And many of us have learned to stop trying to predict what things will be like six months or even one month from now, but to take things a day at a time.
We’ve learned a lot about this in the past year, but the reality is that life has always been just as uncertain. A year ago, in January, most of us were confident about what 2020 was going to look like, and we could not have been more wrong. The control we thought we had over our lives and our schedules was revealed to be an illusion. Optimistically, I hope that one of the life lessons we are learning is to be more realistic about how much we can control. In recognizing the limits of our control, we might learn to trust God more deeply.
So, with that as a backdrop, I invite you to reflect with me today on this story from the Gospel of John, and its lesson: to trust God, and to follow, one day at a time. Let’s take a close look into the words of this story.
The Gospel of John begins quite differently than the stories of Jesus told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John tells no story of Jesus’ birth or childhood. No Mary and Joseph, no shepherds or wise men, no manger or star. John starts in much more cosmic fashion with this grand philosophical statement: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
When John introduces Jesus, he wants his reader to know right away who we are dealing with: in Jesus, God’s eternal wisdom is made available to us ordinary people. This powerful revelatory statement will be followed again and again in John’s Gospel by miraculous actions, and the holy, life-changing presence that Jesus has in the lives of people who follow him.
So, the question, in the first chapters of John, seems to be: how does a regular person get in on the amazing life of Jesus? And that’s what’s we get to see in today’s story: Jesus calls his disciples, and we get to see how regular people get in on his amazing life and divine wisdom.
In the story we meet John the Baptist, followed by four other disciples: Peter and Andrew, Philip and Nathanael. John we’ve talked about before; he’s exceptional in the Gospels because he really understands who Jesus is. He gets it. The other four are more like most of us. They come along to faith step by step and they have their doubts.
Here’s the phrase I’m hoping you’ll remember from today’s sermon; some of you might have noticed it in the sermon title: there’s a thing Jesus says to the disciples he calls; he says it more than once when they ask him questions about what he is up to, he in invites them to follow: he does that by saying, “Come and see.”
Jesus issues an open invitation to people who show an interest in what he’s doing. This is what he does with these four disciples. Andrew, from a little town called Bethsaida, hears John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and goes to tell his brother, Simon Peter. The two of them start to walk along behind Jesus, and Jesus turns and simply asks, “What are you looking for?” Curious, maybe wanting to know more about this man who is a mystery to them, they ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus’ answer is a simple invitation: “Come and see.”
The next day, Jesus continues to a new place, to Galilee, the country outside of Nazareth. A man named Philip, also from Bethsaida, meets Jesus who gives him an invitation: “Follow me.” Philip goes to get his friend Nathanael, he tells him that they must follow this man Jesus from Nazareth, he seems to be the one Moses spoke about, the Savior we need. Philip is skeptical; he doesn’t believe a real Savior could be from a some little nowhere town, and he asks Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And Philip simply extends Jesus’ invitation to Nathanael; he says, “Come and see.”
Come and see. It’s a brave invitation, because Jesus is taking a chance. There’s no savvy marketing or persuasive arm twisting. People might follow Jesus and decide that they don’t need what he’s offering. And on top of that, he’s fully transparent. He’s not going to make discipleship sound any less challenging than it really is; he just wants them to come and see, and whether they decide to join him or not, well, that’s up to them.
The other thing I see in this “come and see” strategy is that it will happen one day at a time. When Jesus asks these disciples to follow him, there is no promise of future greatness, there is no timeline for success, there isn’t a clearly defined goal or a mission statement, there’s just, “come and see.” One day at a time, they will follow him. Each day, they might have to ask the question over again, “do I really want to follow this Jesus?” And each day his answer will again be the same. “Come and see.”
The reason Jesus’ strategy works is because following him is the right place to be. At every turn along the way, they will see in Jesus human life lived to its absolute fullness. They will see the lame walk and the blind see, they will see the hungry fed and powerless treated with the dignity they deserve, and they will see the privileged told not to turn a blind eye to the needs of others. They will see Jesus treat every person he meets as a child of God, for that is who they are. His strategy of “Come and see” will never fail in its integrity.
It is important to note that this is not a passive strategy. The disciples are not invited just to be onlookers but to participate, to join in the work. When he asks them to come and see, he sends them out; he gives them the power to do the things that he does, and he acknowledges that it won’t always be easy. He says that sometimes they will be rejected by people who don’t get it, but when that happens, they’ve got to shake the dust off their feet and move on. One day at a time, they’ve got to keep on moving.
One of the best models of this kind of living is the man we celebrate this weekend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To be sure, his life and ministry was marked by a mission that he had to take on one day at a time, and it involved as many setbacks as victories.
In the last Sunday sermon Dr. King ever preached, he talked about his work and its relationship with time. He talked about the many people who entreated him to be more patient, who said that in time people would change their hearts and that things would get better. He replied clearly that the work of faithful people is not to be passive in the face of time, but to realize that time can be used either constructively or destructively, but time is never neutral. We must keep committing to make the most of each and every day.
Here are some of his own words about it:
“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be coworkers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” (King, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, March 31, 1968)
I began this sermon by indicating that today’s story offers us this timeless wisdom, which is certainly true enough today: trust God. Follow. And do so one day at a time.
The invitation to trust God may sound at first like an invitation to passivity, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It is an invitiation to action, vigilance and endurance—to keep struggling for better life for all of God’s people.
It’s an invitation that is honestly challenging, but that tells us to never get discouraged. God invites us to come and see, one day at a time.
It’s an invitation to participate—to be a part of what God is doing in the world.
How will that invitation shape your life this day?