(a sermon for January 26, 2020, the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, based on Matthew 4:12-23)
It’s probably safe to say that at heart most of us are seekers. Whether it’s for something tangible like, say, financial security or personal achievement; or that which is a little more difficult to define – matters of purpose and truth – on some level or another that we’re all looking for something. And the truth is that many of us are pretty intense about that search.
I’m reminded, for instance, of a young man I knew back in college: his name was Steve, and he was actually one of the editors of the student newspaper where I worked for a couple of years. A really nice guy, as I recall, and very bright; but in fact, what I remember the most about Steve is that he was the quintessential seeker! Steve, you see, had the tendency to choose philosophies the way other people choose between melons in the produce aisle of the supermarket! He would take some idea or another; squeeze it, poke it, thump it and hold it up to the light; weighing it against other ideas and literally cataloging all of its particular virtues and drawbacks before setting it aside and then moving on to the next idea or proposition, which in turn would undergo the same kind of intensive scrutiny.
But the thing was that whatever philosophy Steve happened to be exploring at a given time, he was totally into that philosophy, talking to anyone and everyone who would listen about this incredible new truth he’d found. And this would go on for a week or two, until he’d discover some new “truth” that, interestingly enough, would often be radically different than the one before! No matter whether the subject was politics, religion, science or “Star Wars vs. Star Trek,” it was all the same: Steve was actually one of the few people I’ve ever met who moved from being a Republican to a Democrat to a Libertarian and all the way back again (!), and did so all in the course of a single semester!
Of course, thinking back on it, I realize that like so many others in their young adult years, Steve was firmly engaged in the search for some ultimate meaning in life and moreover, for some group or cause or community that embodied that meaning and to which he could belong; though I’m not sure – at least in the short time that I knew him – that after all was said and done he ever found it. In the end, I suspect he became rather disenchanted with all those philosophies he’d disseminated; in fact, I remember at one point him saying to me, “You know what, I’ve decided something: I’ve decided that all life really amounts to are people getting together in little bunches so each bunch can say, ‘Here we are, and ain’t we somethin’!’”
You see, that’s the thing about being a seeker: a whole lot of the time you’re groping about in the darkness for that which you can’t begin to name, and even if from time to time you’re able to grab hold of somethingthat might seem great at the moment, oft times it turns out to be far less of a beacon of light than it first appeared. And so you end up back on the search…seeking something else, something more, something you know that’s out there… somewhere.
And like I said before, at heart we’re all seekers. So isn’t it interesting then that even as we’re out there seeking, it turns out ours is a God who is also seeking… and the good news is that God is searching… for you and for me!
Now, this is a truth that in all honesty, we don’t often consider; most of the time we tend to think of a search for the spiritual in terms of our own journeys of faith; and truly, scripture does sort of bear this out. After all, along with it serving as our singular account of God’s action amongst his people, the Bible is also the story of how those people sought out, responded to and entered into relationship with God, up to and including the followers of Jesus himself! But that said, writes William Willimon, it still remains that “the Bible is [ultimately] not so much a long record of our search for God; rather, it is the amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us.”
For instance, consider the Christmas story: it’s interesting to note that for all our advent waiting and watching for the coming of a Messiah, in the end as that story unfolds it’s not so much about our seeking out and finding this Holy Child as it is God setting everything in heaven and on earth in motion so that he would be discovered! The star at its rising, the angel’s announcement to Mary, Joseph’s divinely inspired dream, the heavenly host who proclaimed the good news that had come into the world: all of it came about by God’s intent and action. It was not, you see, that we were seeking and found God, but rather that God, by God’s own choosing, sought and found us! It’s no coincidence, I think, that when John begins his gospel, he starts by talking about light that shines in the very darkness in which we were blindly groping for God: “the true light that gives light to every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9)
And it’s that story that continues in our text for this morning, Matthew’s account of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry and the calling of the first disciples. Now, what’s interesting about this particular version of the story is how immediately and intentionally it all unfolds. In other words, once that ministry has begun, Jesus doesn’t sit back and wait for word to spread about him or his preaching, nor does he hang out a shingle and wait for followers to stumble upon him: Jesus goes forth, he seeks out and calls out to these local fishermen, Simon and Andrew, and later on, James and John, saying to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
And of course, you know the story: no sooner than these four had dropped their nets to go with him, Jesus went throughout Galilee, wasting no time to “[proclaim] the good news of the kingdom,” teaching the people and healing the sick. And what we find is that, from the very beginning, with Jesus’ every word and act and touch, more and more people joined in the following; and not so much because they were searching (although that was part of it, I suppose; because again, like all of us, they also had to have been searching for something meaningful for their lives), but even more likely because, suddenly and without warning, they’d been found! Somehow, there was this man Jesus who had found the way to bring these people out of the darkness in which they’d so long been mired, bringing them into the good and warm light that is life, a life full and meaningful and abundant… and eternal.
But then, this is the whole reason why Jesus came, isn’t it; for he is the savior, the very embodiment of God, the one sent to seek and to save the lost. Why do you think that Jesus told that story about the shepherd who went to great lengths out in the wilderness to find just one… one sheep, by the way, out of a hundred! Why else would Jesus compare the Kingdom of God to a woman who literally tore her house apart in the search for one… single… lost… coin? In the Jesus of the Gospels, we encounter a God who constantly seeks us out, who reaches in to the dark places where we dwell and grabs us, pulls us up and puts our feet on a new pathway. What we have here, friends, is the God who will not relent in his search until we are found!
And I don’t know about you, but as I continue muddling about in this life (!), I’m very grateful for that.
Sometimes I feel a whole lot like Charlie Brown, you know? There was a Peanuts comic strip from years ago in which Charlie Brown was sitting at Lucy’s ever-present five-cent psychology booth. “Life is like a deck chair, Charlie Brown,” says Lucy. “On the cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been. Others place their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they’re going.” At this point, “Dr. Lucy” looks squarely at a puzzled Charlie Brown and asks, “Which way is your deck chair facing?” Without hesitation, Charlie sighs and replies glumly, “I can’t even get my deck chair unfolded!”
Gotta tell ya, folks… there are times when I know exactly how that feels, and I suspect that you do, too! There are a whole lot of times and circumstances when life is rich and rewarding for us in so many ways; you know, all’s for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds! But then, there are also moments when life for us ends up feeling flat, and empty and lacking. Maybe those things in which we have placed so much of our time and energy and spirit have not yielded the sense of fulfillment we were longing for; or perhaps the difficulties and challenges that life brings have confused and complicated the issue of what it all means for us. Truth be told, maybe we’re in a place in our lives where nothing makes any kind of sense to us at all! So once again, we find ourselves searching for that ultimate meaning in our lives, but without any real success. It could even be that you’ve come here to church this morning hoping that something will be said or sung or done here that might just help you find what you’re looking for… something that looks, and sounds and feels… like God!
Well, I’m here to tell you this morning even as we’re desperately figuring out where to look, we can rejoice because even as we’re desperately seeking God, it turns out that God has just as intently been seeking us, and what’s more God has already found us. The problem for so many of us, friends, is that we just haven’t realized we’re found! All the signs are there, and we’ve already been called; it’s just that for whatever reason we just that we haven’t noticed!
The fact is, we do need to pay attention. Who’s to say, after all, that the very fact you’re here on this particular rainy winter morning ended up being about more than the fact there’s an annual meeting (or a potluck dinner!) happening today. Who’s to say that it wasn’t because God was calling you here; pushing you, needling you, coaxing you out of a warm bed this morning! It could be that at this very moment God’s trying to get through to you! William Willimon again: “Notice those little coincidences in your life,” he says. “those strange happenings, and those thoughts that you find you have difficulty putting into the context of other thoughts. Perhaps all of this is part of God’s continuing attempts at enticement.”
“So keep looking over your shoulder as you go through life,” Willimon concludes. “Keep being attentive to the strange little things, the odd, glorious things that happen to you.” It could be that God’s long search is over… because you’ve been found!
One night some years ago, I happened to be on an errand at our friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart, and as I was searching for my item, I hear a bellowing voice coming from the center aisle: “HEY! YOU GUYS! WHERE ARE YOU?” Now, that made me look up and take notice, and when I turned to see where the voice was coming from, I discovered that its source was a tiny, four-year boy with very powerful lungs! And over and over again he yelled so that someone special would hear: “HEY! YOU GUYS! WHERE’D YOU GO? WHERE ARE YOU?” I was just about to go and ask if I could help when one of the store employees came right over to do just that; and when the boy explained that he was looking for his mother and father, what this woman said in response really struck a chord with me. She said, “You’d better come with me, then, because I have a feeling that your Mom and Dad are busy looking for you!”
Let me ask you something today, beloved: are you looking for God? Have you been searching for the kind meaning and purpose in life that only God can provide, and have you been crying out for an answer? Because if you are, I want you to know that God’s busy looking for you, too. Because right now, our God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is actively seeking to bring you into his warm embrace, calling you o’er the tumult of life’s wild restless sea, calling your forth so you might follow him where he goes.
God is searching for you… and he’s searching for me, too. But maybe this is the day… if we truly, sincerely and prayerfully take notice, we’ll be found.
I hope and pray that God’s search for you this day will be fruitful.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry