SJF • Epiphany 2a 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
Last week, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, and I spoke about the inauguration of his mission and ministry. It was at his baptism that Jesus began to undertake the task that the Father in heaven had sent him to accomplish, in the three short years that would end on Calvary and in the garden tomb from which God raised him victorious over death. His baptism marked the initiation of his mission, his response to the call from God.
But when did that call come? And what form did it take? And what about the calls that each of us receive from God to take up our own work for God’s purposes for us and for the kingdom?
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In one sense, God’s call to Christ was issued from before time and forever, within the eternal and everlasting communion of the Persons of the Holy Trinity itself. There was no time when the Son of God was not in perfect communion with the Father, from and of whom he was eternally begotten, God from God, light from light. And long before the creation of the world — even before there was such a thing as “being before” — the Son knew the mind of the Father, God’s will for the world, and God’s purpose for the Son of God, with a perfection of knowledge that is beyond our understanding.
So why is it that Jesus waited thirty years to answer that call? Let me remind us again as I did last week that apart from the account of the child Jesus left behind in the Temple at about the age of twelve, and his response to his parents that he needed to be about his father’s business, the Scriptures are silent as to what Jesus was doing during those years. We know nothing of him as a teenager, or as a young adult. Only about the age of thirty — getting very close to what the ancients would consider middle age — and believe me, the older I get the younger thirty sounds! — only then does Jesus step forward, as if responding to the call for the first time.
Many scholars have tried to fill in those missing years, with many interesting speculations — some of them hanging by a very slender thread. Some suggest that Jesus spent his youth as a zealot, or among the Essenes, or part of one of the other small groups of sectarians that emerged in that very difficult time of religious and political foment and struggle. Some suggest that Jesus was of a more traditional bent: a pupil of Jewish tradition, on his way to becoming a rabbi, a student in one of the schools of the Pharisees, and a Pharisee himself.
Don’t be so surprised! Not only would that explain why many Pharisees did become followers of Jesus, but also why many other Pharisees opposed him: there is nothing like the anger that a committed sect can express towards one of its own members when they part ways!
More than that, there is a verse in John’s Gospel that appears just before the passage we heard today. The Pharisees send to ask John the Baptist if he is the Messiah, and after denying it he says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And of course that turns out, in the following verses, to be Jesus. Suggestive? Yes; conclusive? No.
So, as I don’t want to speculate further than the Scripture allows or suggests, when it comes to the question of when and how Jesus heard the call of God, let me stick with the things that are abundantly clear. There are two things that Scripture tells or shows us about Jesus that help to explain how Jesus came to the point of acting on his call, and beginning the course that would take him to Jerusalem, to death on the cross, and rising from the grave.
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The first is the fact that Jesus lived and breathed Scripture: not so odd that the living Word of God should be familiar with the written word of God. But I’m not talking here of any kind of memories from before time, some innate familiarity with the Law and the Prophets. I’m suggesting that Jesus studied the Scripture as any young Jewish boy or young man of his time would have done —
— that he heard the prophets and the law expounded by the local rabbi; and at least once, in that precious episode from his late childhood, he spent a short time in the company of the most prestigious teachers of the law in Jerusalem, the rabbis, at precisely the time of life when a Jewish boy would enter manhood. Scripture doesn’t tell us so, but we know from historical accounts that this was when the great Rabbi Hillel was teaching, and there are clear echoes of that rabbi’s thought in the teaching of Jesus. (This is where it would have made sense that Jesus later spent some time as a pupil in the school of Rabbi Hillel, one of the two great Pharisee rabbinic schools that dominated Jerusalem in those years. And of course, what do John’s disciples call Jesus, when they first approach him, on our Gospel account today? “Rabbi!”) But I’m veering into speculation again — I’m sorry, but it is an attractive idea!
But let me stick with the fact that wherever Jesus learned the Scriptures, he knew them intimately, and his intimacy with those precious words, particularly the words of the prophets, spoke to him, and echoed in his mind and heart, playing their part in awakening the dormant call to his true identity, his true self as the chosen one of God, the Messiah.
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The second thing we know about Jesus is his close association with his cousin John the Baptist, six months his senior. This would not be the first time that the example of an older relative, a cousin or a brother, would inspire a young person to undertake a similar course of action — how many young people go into medicine, or the armed forces, or teaching, because an older relative has inspired them — a fact of which the elder may not even be aware? Jesus clearly saw something very special in John the Baptist, knowing what he would later say, acknowledging his greatness; just as John the Baptist clearly saw something very special in Jesus.
And that is where the internal call resting in Jesus’ heart was answered by an external call — a special kind of endorsement and ratification — from John the Baptist. The very person to whom Jesus has looked up and emulated turns and says those astounding words: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And he testifies about what happened at the baptism of Jesus, how the Spirit descends, in fulfillment of the promise, that he would one day see someone upon whom the Spirit would descend, and that this would be the Son of God! The light bulb went on in John the Baptist’s head and it all came together. And I have to note that when John, in today’s Gospel twice says that “I did not know him” it doesn’t mean he didn’t know Jesus, but that until that moment he didn’t know who he was. There is a big difference between, “I didn’t know who he was,” and “I didn’t know who he was.” Suddenly the light bulb goes on in John’s head, the prophecy comes true, and he realizes, “This is the Son of God.”
And it is at this moment that in Jesus’ mind as well the light shines — and he realizes as well who he is: the internal percolation of the prophecies he has studied for years suddenly mesh with the external proclamation of John: the realization that he is “the one who comes from before” — not just before John, but before everything; as Jesus would later proclaim, before Abraham; in a very real sense before Adam, before the worlds were born, Jesus rested in the eternal counsel of the great I AM. The words of Isaiah suddenly take on this powerful meaning, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” Jesus realizes that Isaiah is talking about him!
And with that realization, Jesus immediately begins his ministry: which also starts with calling — calling some of John’s disciples, and then through Andrew giving Peter a new name, and then finding Philip and through him Nathanael, and soon the apostles are at work and the Gospel is brought to light.
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And what I want to say to you today is that God’s call can be just the same — is just the same — for us. God has called each and every one of us. From before we were born, while we were still in our mother’s womb, God has a purpose and aim for each and every human being made in the image and likeness of God. As someone once very bluntly put it, “God don’t make trash.”
God has a goal for each person born, from before they are born, and the call is planted in every heart. And to awaken our awareness to that call, as we grow and learn and come to understand it, God gives us the Scriptures — the same Scriptures that nourished the boy Jesus and guided him into adulthood. And God also gives us examples: older brothers or sisters or aunts or uncles or cousins or parents or friends, who by their witness and their encouragement can help fan the spark into a full flame of glory as we answer the call that has lain dormant in our hearts for all those years.
And guess what: these two things come together in the church — where the words of God and the people of God are joined together in teaching and preaching and praying and praising. This is where this elements come together: word and sacrament together, vitally important to our lives as faithful people, and as a church, as we seek to answer — each of us — our own call. What does the old hymn say? “Let none stand idle” — let us answer the call. As Paul told the Corinthians, called as we are to be saints: The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among us, so that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift.
The call has been issued, God’s call to each and every one of us, he has given us the Scriptures and our fellow Christians old and young to guide us; he has give us gifts, each of us: gifts that the Spirit will spark to life if we allow God’s grace to work upon us. God is calling us. There is work to do. Are you ready?+