So these four or five Sundays every year in the interval between the great 12 Days of Christmas and the beginning of the pre-Lenten season on Septuagesima give us a bit of space liturgically and devotionally in the calendar of the church year and in our own personal lives of reflection and prayer, to pause, step back, and to continue to digest the meaning of the word first spoken to the shepherds by the heavenly angels: “Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”
We remember that there are two steps in the story. First the angels sang that good news to the shepherds, and then, hearing the news, the shepherds replied, Let us go now even unto Bethlehem, to see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known to us. The Angels announce; the Shepherds respond. They get up and go! A pattern that will be repeated again and again through the gospel, in the life of the early church, and in every generation.
There is a saying about the character and nature of Christian life: Jesus meets us where we are, but he doesn’t leave us there. Jesus accepts us as we are, but he never leaves us as he found us. The key word in the first sermons recorded from both John the Baptism and Jesus, “metanoiete.”
The literal Greek means “have another thought, change your way of thinking” but the word is used consistently in Greek to translate the Hebrew shuv, which means change your direction. It’s not simply about some kind of mental action. It’s the word you use when you call out when you see them turning the wrong way down a one-way street. Turn around!
In the beautiful candlelight, midnight of Christmas Eve every year the story flows like a gentle river to cover the rough places of our hearts and to sooth our troubled minds and to refresh our spirits. But as the calendar pages continue to turn, that sacred stream seems to begin to run dry. “Real life” reasserts itself, with all its hard edges. The birth of a savior certainly sounds like it ought to be good news 24/7/365--really good news. But the sun comes up on the 26th of December or maybe the 6th of January, and so often really it’s all just a fading sentimental memory. We find ourselves in our day to day lives just exactly where we were and doing pretty much the same thing, headed in the same direction we were headed before Christmas happened.
So the Bethlehem shepherds in Luke chapter two, and this morning, the disciples of John the Baptist. They come to us early in this New Year as examples, mentors, guides.
Like the shepherds when the angels spoke to them, the disciples hear John’s word about Jesus, Behold, the Lamb of God, and at once they get moving--they set out to see what he’s talking about. And I love this first interchange, as it certainly reinforces the point. The question the disciples ask Jesus: Rabbi, where are you staying? And instead of answering that question, Jesus extends an invitation. Maybe more of a challenge. Come, and see. He knew that what they were asking wasn’t really what they were asking. The point isn’t for Jesus to tell them his postal address. “We want to know if you just might be the real deal, the one we’re looking for. Israel’s hope and consolation, joy of all the world . . . ; dear desire of every nation; joy of every longing heart. Is that you, Jesus? Not just the question of disciples and shepherds, but deep down in all our hearts year by year by year as we sing the Advent hymn. Are you the “long-expected Jesus?” The Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world? Are you the one I’ve been waiting for? The one who is going to make a difference in my life. And Jesus answers, Come and see. Come and see. Because that’s the only way we’ll ever know.
And again, this interval between Epiphany and Septuagesima, a time to consider just what to do with this invitation. The sleepy shepherds didn’t just roll over and go back to sleep when the angels departed.
The disciples didn’t hear the word of John the Baptist and say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and then continue on with whatever they were doing before.
A moment for us: to rush to the manger, to come and see where Jesus is staying, what he is about, what he might be for us, in our lives. We’re all here this morning as a part of that response. However we got here, whatever the presenting occasion or stated motive. Simply to begin to puzzle through that question, is it really possible that what happened at Christmas can have anything to do with me? Can it make a difference?
There is a saying sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein, of all people, though with a question mark. Somebody said, anyway: “A definition of insanity is to do the same thing but to expect a different result.” January is a season of New Year’s Resolutions, and if we want to take this opportunity at turn of another year and in the space of this Epiphany to think about a resolution to take the question about Christmas seriously this year in our lives, we maybe can begin by doing some different things. Metanoite, repent, change direction!
And here on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, just three simple thoughts. Not a complete list of possibilities by any stretch of the imagination, and perhaps you’ll be prompted in a different direction. But just by way of suggestion.
One would be to hear the words of Jesus, “Come and see,” as an invitation to a New Year’s resolution to engage in a fresh way and a deeper way with the Bible. I think I mentioned before the image I saw once in a German stained glass window of the Bible resting on a bed of straw in the Bethlehem manger. Maybe that’s an image to keep in mind if we imagine ourselves as following the shepherds. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Whether we’re already regular and daily Bible readers, or whether the most Bible we get most of the time comes in the snippets of the lectionary on Sunday mornings. Maybe “come and see” could be an invitation to a renewed or extended or expanded practice of prayerful reading, daily or at set times through the week. Alone is fine, though I always find the opportunity to share the process of reading and reflection with others. Reading, studying, praying together, discussing, seeking to hear what God has to say to us. My small group Bible Study meets at 7:30 in the morning at the Oakland Panera, and it’s not the only one going on in that Panera at that hour on Tuesdays, which is kind of neat to see.
Or perhaps the Sunday morning 10 a.m. Bible Study over in the Old Rectory Parlor would be a helpful support. In this New Year they’re just beginning to read and discuss the New Testament Letter of James, so this would be a great time to start. Or maybe you’d be interested in joining my new Facebook Group for Rector’s Bible Study—an invitation to spend a little time reading and praying about and discussing the readings for the next Sunday. We’re just getting that started this week, and it’s kind of experimental to use that format. If you’re interested, let me know. Anyway, there are lots of resources out there, lots of opportunities, groups, classes, study guides--but the important thing I guess would be just to get started.
A second way we might begin to “come and see” would be to resolve for each of us a deeper commitment to private prayer. We have this wonderfully rich contemplative prayer group of course that meets on Wednesday evening for Centering Prayer, and I know they also would be delighted to have more folks join them. But perhaps this kind of a resolution would simply be about finding a few quiet moments two or three times a day, maybe just five minutes at a time, to step back, close our eyes if that’s helpful. Perhaps to say the Lord’s Prayer slowly and inwardly, and to lift before God’s presence the concerns of our hearts.
Perhaps simply to say the words of the Manger hymn: “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray.” If you have a prayer book at home, perhaps to find the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and to pray one or two of the Collects slowly, meditating on a word or phrase that seems to catch your attention. Perhaps to take home each week our Sunday morning service leaflet and to turn to the pages with our parish prayer requests, to take five minutes or so every morning or a few times a week to say a prayer and then to read through that long list of names. We don’t always know why they’re on the list, but we know that they or someone who loves them have asked us as a congregation to lift them up in God’s attention and care.
And a third way we might respond to this invitation to “come and see” in this New Year would be to renew and refresh our commitment to the worship of the church. I know I’m speaking to the choir here! Those who come to church on a winter, Steeler Playoff Game Sunday! But even if we are already coming to church every Sunday, or most Sundays, whatever the weather, whatever the alternatives on offer around us—this renewing and refreshing may be more about what’s going in on us when we enter these doors on Hampton Street. Not simply to say, “I’m going to church this morning” as a matter of routine. But to expect to meet him, to expect to change, to expect to be sent out in a new direction. Enter his gates with thanksgiving. Come into his courts with praise. To make that a prayer, to have that intention, when we sit down in our pew Sunday mornings a few minutes before 11.
Christmas is over now, for another year, but the New Year’s Resolution of the Shepherds is still here for us: Let us go now even unto Bethlehem, to see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known to us. It has been two thousand years since the disciples first met Jesus out there by the Jordan River, but his invitation to them are still here for us: Come and see.