Last Sunday was Youth Sunday, so one of the young people of our congregation, Jack Ireland, was our preacher at both services. I’ve thought about what Jack had to say last Sunday. A lot. If you weren’t able to be here, Jack began his sermon by wondering aloud, ‘what is my purpose?’ Someone that age is looking and looking hard at the question of ‘what will I do with my life?’ That is part of what I admire so much about people that age. They are wondering, ‘what is worth giving my life to?’ I think that’s what Jack’s question, ‘what is my purpose?’ was all about.
The word purpose has its roots in the Greek word telos which does mean purpose, but purpose in a special sense. For example, the telos, the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree. Its purpose is built right into it, into its very being. Unless something intervenes – like a squirrel or bad growing conditions – it will become an oak tree. It can’t help it.
But when it comes to people, it’s not so clear cut. What is the purpose of a person? The sciences might tell us that our purpose is to survive, physically, and to procreate to ensure the survival of our species and leave it at that. And as far as it goes, I guess, that’s not wrong. But that’s not what Jack was talking about.
To go a step further, we sometimes find a sense of purpose in what we decide to do with our lives as our work. We decide to be a teacher, or an artist, or an IT cyber security threat specialist. Certainly, the work we do can be an important part of the answer to the question of what is our purpose. But what of the vast majority of folks for whom a job is just a job, little more than a paycheck?
So, the work we do probably can’t fully answer Jack’s question. I think his question is one that all of us – whether we’re just surviving or just making a paycheck or even when our work is deeply fulfilling – come back to again and again: what is worth giving my life to?
One of the things I remember pretty clearly from when I was a kid was how we picked teams to play kickball or dodgeball or some other game. It was a pretty regular occurrence either at recess at school or in my neighborhood. You might remember something like this. Two of the kids out of the pack of kids were the captains of their team. I don’t really remember how that got figured out. It just did. And then one by one, they would pick someone for their team. I usually got picked in the middle of the pack, which was aok with me. I was never one of the first to get picked. So, I didn’t really expect it. But occasionally – depending on who was there – I did end up being one of the last ones picked. And in the slightly ‘dog eat dog’ world of childhood, that could make for kind of a tough day.
I guess, in some way, we were learning a lesson about how things work. It’s a competitive world so you might as well start getting used to that. We were learning the ropes. Life can be tough, so it pays to toughen up some too. So if you don’t like getting picked last, well then maybe you could try to do something about that.
But if you’re not careful, you could see what happens in today’s gospel through the same lense. Of course, Jesus picked Peter and his brother Andrew and then James and John first. It was like Jesus had a great eye for talent and saw Ted Williams when he was a kid swinging the bat and an 18-year-old Willie Mayes gliding in the outfield and signed them up on the spot. Of course, that’s how it happened. They were special. Jesus saw that.
A flyer came in the mail at home yesterday. Before I tossed it into the recycling, I took a look. On one side it read, ‘This piece of mail could change your life forever’. I flipped it over and saw pictures of sincere, happy faces along with the promise that you’d experience ‘friendly people, engaging music, relevant and practical messages and fun for kids.’ It’s an announcement of the start of a new church that the flier says will be ‘full of real people, living in a real world, serving a real God’. The flier feels a little prepackaged and glitzy to me. But my guess is that the people who are starting this new church are sincere and passionate. What they’re trying to do isn’t easy. There’s a lot of competition out there for peoples’ time and attention so who can blame them for trying to grab your eye and to turn a few heads with their flier. So, God bless them, I say. Making a new beginning is hard. It’s a big risk. It takes heart and hope and determination.
I think the reason I found myself lingering over this flier is that, as Bob Hetherington reminded us last Sunday, the season of Epiphany is the season of a new beginning. In Epiphany we remember how the love of God in the face of Jesus and the world met each other for the first time as Jesus began his public ministry. And it seems to begin on a wing and a prayer at best. There was no big roll out, no angel choirs, no big opening event. He just, begins. When two people find their feet following him for reasons they would probably have been hard pressed to explain. As John tells it, Jesus was just walking by and John the Baptist says, ‘behold, the Lamb of God’, and two of those who’d been following John follow Jesus. Jesus turns and sees them. And the first words out of his mouth to them are, ‘what are you looking for?’ Which you can hear as either a really, really deep question or something a little more straight forward. And the two men took the more straight forward approach with a question of their own, ‘where are you staying?’ And Jesus simply replies, ‘come and see’. You have to decide for ourself.
Which for all the pizzazz of the glossy flier for the new church is probably all they’re saying too, ‘come and see’.
It is so good to be together in this beautiful place with friends and family, with people you’ve known for ever and a day, and with people you’ve never seen before. And every one of you with your own story and with all of its twists and turns that have brought each of us and all of us together tonight. This is probably the first time ever that this particular group of us have ever been together in exactly this way. And I suspect it is also the very last time that we will ever be together like this. So give thanks for this time that we get to be together.
And it is good for us to be here in our church. It is warm and neat as a pin. The lights of the candles are glowing. The altar guild has shined and pressed and arranged everything for us tonight to be a feast for our eyes. The choir is rehearsed and has tuned their voices to their hearts to inspire our own hearts to sing out with them and with the angels.
In this warm comforting happy place, this night, we are here for something so important. We are joining together on this night with the Church all over the world to hear again the story of the birth of Jesus. It is the story that tells all that we can say that is most true about God and what is also most true about each of us. On this night, a night just like this, heaven and earth are joined and the heart of God and God’s desire and purpose for this world find perfect expression in the face of a new born baby. And with this birth is the holy promise that God has, and is, and will be working his purposes out, and at every moment that purpose is to heal the whole human family. The whole human family. Grace by grace. Christ is born for this, even on this very night, God is working his purposes out. So, we are here ‘go even unto Bethlehem to see this great thing’.
Last Sunday and again today John the Baptist is front and center calling for God’s people to, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’, and to ‘make straight his path in the wilderness’. And you know – maybe I’m hopelessly hopeful or sadly naïve – but I think we would, truly, if we knew what that meant for us and how to do it. If we could only hear, in the cacophony and contentiousness and wilderness of this world we’re living, if we could only hear this one voice calling.
When I was little and my family was heading to North Carolina or West Virginia to visit our grandparents, we four children and my parents crammed into a station wagon with all our bags and sometimes pets and headed off on what was usually a five hour drive. Before driving off, we often got lined up outside the car for a little talking to. My mother usually took the lead and would say things like, ‘look, no fighting, keeps your hands to yourself and no picking on each other’. And then she or my Dad would add, ‘if we have to pull over to straighten you all out, it will be a ‘reign of terror’ I promise you’.
Of course, there was no way we could make it five hours in a car like that as little angels. Inevitably, at some point flying down the road in the middle of some fracas or brouhaha in the back seat, we’d sense that the car was abruptly slowing down, the blinker was on and we were pulling off the road. This brought a sudden hush to we four kids and one or the other of us would say, ‘uh oh, reign of terror’.