In the Church’s liturgical calendar, we are in the season of Epiphany. We are in a time during which we are in a heightened alert for Holy “ah-ha’s” breaking forth, moments in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary. And so we read and remember Biblical stories over the next few weeks which retell people’s encounters with God. Tales in which the boundary between heaven and earth thins. These are ancient stories. These are our stories. These are living stories.
So gather round. Look. Watch. Get ready. Today we are given a charge. A task. The responsibility to not only listen to God’s Word and Holy Scripture, but also to respond. To tell our own stories. Share our narratives of lived encounters with God. Our relationship with Jesus. It is our turn to proclaim the places into which the Spirit is leading us.
Isaiah preps us for this Big Thing. He challenges us to stretch our imaginations. God… tells us to stretch our imaginations. God speaks. God begins by saying that our understanding of the Divine responsibility given to us “…is too light a thing.” We have a too light, too narrow expectation of God’s hope for us. We can’t keep God in a tidy little box.
Instead, we are called to a Holy reaching out. A God Thing to be told here and beyond, to the ends of the earth. Through the prophet Isaiah, God sets the stage for a small band of people from Jerusalem to be “as a light for the nation so that my salvation becomes global!” (Isaiah 49:6, The Message).
The story in Isaiah is set in Babylon around 540 BCE. Susan Ackerman writes, “The people of this time had witnessed a calamity of almost incomprehensible proportions: the fall of Judah and Jerusalem… at the hands of the Babylonian empire… Isaiah (is speaking) to a group in exile… This audience surely had doubts concerning its status as God’s chosen people and even the existence of God…” Now living in Babylon, this was as near to the “end of the earth” as they could imagine. How could being in Babylonbe any sort of good news?
This is a narrative about a community and its relationship with God. Isaiah points to the ways in which God breaks in even when we find ourselves in places of turmoil. Held captive by Empire. Isaiah proclaims that the Holy is still present, and not in far Jerusalem far, far away.
However you prefer to label the time into which we are living, whether you use the terms post-modern, or post-Christian, the technology age, the Global age, or something else, I believe we are in a time during which Holy Ah-ah’s continue to break forth. God is not done yet! I also believe these Holy moments necessitate our participation. Our ability to recognize that Jesus is still showing up. Here—in Fitchburg, Oregon, Verona, Stoughton, and Madison. Here, and to the ends of the earth.
That is what happens in the story from John. Jesus shows up. Or rather, Jesus walks by. The writer of John reports, “These conversations took place in Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing at the time” (John 1:28, The Message). This day, the next day… and the next. Jesus shows up.
Encounters with God… Jesus… Spirit. Keep happening. From Jerusalem to Babylon, to the shores of the Jordan River… and Dane County, Wisconsin. What is our response? How do we share the Holy Narratives, the big ones, small ones, God charges us to tell? We have one example in how to tell the Good News in John as he models his own account of encountering Jesus:
“John clinched his witness with this: “I watched the Spirit, like a dove flying down out of the sky… That’s exactly what I saw happen, and I’m telling you, there’s no question about it: This is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34, The Message).
Witnessing the Holy. Do these moments still happen in the 21st century? I believe that they do… even if we do not always recognize them. So watch. A God story might just happen right in front of you…
We are all living into God’s Story, in ways big and small. Over the upcoming months, on the third Sunday, I invite you to consider sharing your story in worship. A brief “this is where I’ve encountered God in my life” moment. In the United Church of Christ, we proclaim that God is Still Speaking. How is God speaking to you? In what ways, and where, do you encounter God in your day-to-day life? These are stories that have been told through the millennia, from Isaiah, to John, to us. Later in worship, Rebecca Malke will be sharing hers. If you would like to offer your faith story, there is a sign-up sheet in the niche in the gathering space.
As we near the end of the reflection, I have three stories I would like to tell. The first happened recently as I talked to Erin Barnard, the director of Music Makers. This is the third year Memorial UCC has shared its building each Saturday with Music Makers, a branch of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra. Music Makers provides instruments and music lessons to 85 students who would not be able to afford them.
Erin told me about a youth she picks up each week on her way to Memorial. The student lives in one of the three Fitchburg neighborhoods which are targeted through city grants for “strengthening and enhancing.” The neighborhoods include west of Verona Road, the Belmar/Renaissance on the Park area, and the region along north Fish Hatchery Road. The youth stated that they appreciated being able to be at Memorial each Saturday, because they could tell this is a caring, welcoming church, and that the student feels safe here. They told Erin that it is nice to know that there are good people at Memorial who care about them.
That is a Living Story. A God-revealed moment of sanctuary. Can you see Jesus in the story?
The second narrative happened last semester. A University of Wisconsin-Madison student reached out to me. She was taking a course on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality. A requirement of the class was to connect with a faith community, worship with them, interview the pastor, and then give a presentation on the ways in which the congregation lived into its understanding of gender roles and sexuality in their context. She selected Memorial because she had driven past the building several times. She had noticed the large, rainbow banner out front. She then checked out the church’ website. And she was intrigued.
The afternoon she interviewed me for the presentation she commented, “I used to go to church a lot, but go turned off by their exclusion of women pastors and people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and/or transgender. Recently, started thinking I might want to go back to church. Now that I’ve learned there are faith communities like Memorial, I will definitely look for a church like yours.”
Another Living Story. A transformational revelation of hospitality. In this case, Jesus has been hanging out on the street along Lacy Road, in a rainbow-colored banner in front of the church.
The third story I will leave you with is from Martin Luther King, Jr. These words are from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967. Responding to the intersections between racism, a military economy, and war, King wrote:
“We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace… and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
God calls on us to tell that story. To speak. Act. In 2020 it is our turn. Let us stretch our imaginations. I encourage you to watch for moments in which you glimpse the Holy. Reimagine the places where you might just be seeing Jesus walking by. Even in Fitchburg.
For we are in a time during which Holy “ah-ha’s” break forth. Moments in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the world is changed. WE are changed. This is good news which necessitates our participation.
This is the story we are charged to tell.
Are you ready? I think we are!
Reflection on Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42 offered January 19, 2020
 Ackerman, Susan. Isaiah, in Women’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Carol Ann. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Louisville, Ky: Westminster / John Knox, 1998. 173.
 “Healthy Neighborhoods Grant Program: Fitchburg, WI – Official Website.” Healthy Neighborhoods Grant Program | Fitchburg, WI – Official Website. Accessed January 18, 2020. https://www.fitchburgwi.gov/2571/Programs.
 King, Jr, Martin Luther. “Featured Documents.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, January 15, 1929. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietna.