January 14: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Danae Ashley served as a supply priest for St. Hilda St. Patrick. The Rev. Danae Ashley is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and Washington State. She is a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC and joined the Episcopal Church’s CREDO faculty in 2022. The sermon for January 14, 2024 was preached in response to John 1:43-51 based on the manuscript below.

Here we are in the season after the Epiphany. On Epiphany, the three magi symbolize other nations recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, affirming that Jesus was born for other people, not just the Jewish community. In our lectionary, the season after the Epiphany is the time where Jesus goes public – events describing Jesus’ divinity are revealed, such as the wedding at Cana, the calling of the disciples, various miracles, and the Transfiguration. 

If only it were this easy, right? Wouldn’t it be great if God just gave us a direct call by name like God did for Samuel in our Hebrew Scripture lesson or when Jesus found Philip in our Gospel today? What signs would make you believe that who you were hearing from was God? Another way of phrasing this would be “How do we discern God’s voice in our lives?”

The season after the Epiphany is about this very question. Our lectionary during this time is ripe with events describing Jesus’ divinity to both Jews and Gentiles. This year, we are in Year B of the lectionary (there are three years – A, B, & C) and hear the stories of God calling the prophets Jonah, Samuel, and Elisha in our various Hebrew Scripture lessons. How did they know they were hearing from God? In our lesson today, Samuel finds out from Eli that the voice he was hearing was actually God’s voice – so he learns from a faithful, discerning priest of the temple that God was speaking to him and he grows up to become a prophet – a vehicle through which God communicates with Israel. So, in this case, the call of God is heard by the person God is calling and confirmed by someone who has a deep faith and close connection with God. This is one way we can discern the voice of God in our lives.

In our Gospel today, the NRSV translates the call of Philip into discipleship as Jesus “found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” Jesus does this with Nathanael, too, although Nathanael is skeptical at first. Jesus finding Philip and Nathanael says something about discernment, too. To be found by Jesus has a breadth of implications with the most obvious and vital being that God knows us and seeks us out. There are certain things only we can do with our particular gifts, skills, and oftentimes weaknesses. When our lives intersect with the needs of the world in this way is when God taps us and says, “Follow me.” 

How do we know God is asking us to follow? I’ve had many conversations with people over the years and based on those experiences and my own knowledge of God in my life, this comes in a number of ways. I have heard a “Follow me” story primarily as: It come to us in a feeling we get – either out of the blue or in response to something that we hear, see, or do; or we may hear the same message from a variety of people over the course of a short period of time that signals we need to pay attention; and sometimes people have a dream or vision of some kind that gives them a particular message.

The magi that came to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem also experienced this type of discernment by observing the same message in the skies and following a star to where the king of the Jews lay where they were overwhelmed with joy. Then, after having a dream that warned them not to return to King Herod, they went home another way. 

These types of encounters with God’s call have been happening over and over again, across centuries and diverse cultures. In these modern times, we must consider the reality that God’s call to us is real and continues to happen. In the Gospel of John, the choice to become a disciple is intertwined with the conclusion one makes about Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Once we choose to pay attention to God’s call and believe in and follow Jesus, there are consequences. 

Several of the Hebrew scripture prophets, Jonah in particular, fled from God’s call to them, with dire consequences. Even our beloved, faithful, radical Jesus, who was God in the flesh – God with us – asked God to take the cup away from him in the dark moments of the Garden of Gethsemane. When God asks something of us, it is usually something uncomfortable that requires our trust in God and willingness to stretch ourselves in ways that are not usually how we want. When we say yes to God’s call and then get frightened, it is a perfectly natural human reaction. Yet, in all the stories we see in our Scriptures, God continues to pursue us like in the Francis Thompson poem, “Hound of Heaven” so that even if we run away, we can feel God’s call to us, maybe not as overtly as Samuel’s direct call, but in other ways. 

It is only when we succumb to the call that we get deep peace. I’m not talking about just one big call of our lives here, which is mainly to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, but in the many medium and smaller ways that Jesus says, “Follow me,” as well. We have different calls for different times and aspects of our lives. Just because you’re called to being a teacher or a postal worker or a competitive swimmer now, doesn’t mean God will call you to do that forever. Just because you’re called to sing in the choir or serve at the food bank now, doesn’t mean you will be forever. It also doesn’t mean you can’t serve forever if that is what God calls you to, but God is always doing something new and it is healthy to be in constant discernment around our current energy, gifts, skills, and time as we listen to where God wants us to intersect with the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is tomorrow and who certainly discerned and answered God’s call, changing American history, once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Discernment is about faith and discernment is about focus: what is the next step on that staircase that we need to focus on? 

In this new year and this season after the Epiphany, as we discern those places Jesus is asking us to follow him – I want to gift you with your own star to follow as you take your next step on the staircase of God’s call. During the next few minutes of quiet reflection time, I’m going to pass around a basket, and in it are “star words” – one word on each star that you can use as a spiritual focus for 2024. These words have been prayed over and I trust the Holy Spirit to move as you close your eyes and select a star at random. Once your star is chosen (or chooses you, as the Spirit would have it), bring it home and put it in a place where you can refer to it throughout the year—your refrigerator door, on a mirror, on your computer screen, in your prayer book or Bible, or whatever works. Look up its definition and see what strikes you. Notice your word in places and in conversations throughout the year. As you continue to reflect, it becomes a year-long conversation with God.

Like any other gift, this star gift can be received with joy and the open heart of opportunity, or it can be jammed at the bottom of a purse or put in the recycle bin and forgotten. It’s up to you. If you are social media inclined, you can post about your star word throughout the year with the hashtag #starword. Epiphany and the season after the Epiphany are the celebration of God’s light in the darkness and a reminder of our life-giving, loving God. May we receive all of God’s gifts with discernment and willingness of heart. 

[Star Words are passed out as the music director plays meditative music]


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