Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Has this ever happened to you?
I’ll be sitting in my living room, reading a magazine, when all of a sudden, I’ll get up out of my chair, march out to the kitchen and stand there. I’ll stand there, because I know that there was some reason I went to the kitchen, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what I’m looking for.
What are we looking for? That’s the question that Jesus asks. What are we aiming for? When the YMCA was founded over a hundred years ago, its aim was to evangelize boys and young men. When it was first organized, the YMCA—the Young Men’s Christian Association—looked to go into the big cities across the country and share the Christian message with the young males who lived there, who for the most part were not being reached by the churches of that day.
But somewhere along the way the YMCA changed its focus. After all, if you were to walk into a typical YMCA today, you’d probably find more girls and women there than young men. In the past, I belonged to a Y for 8 years. But in that whole time, I don’t remember any activity being offered that had even a remote Christian emphasis to it. Today, when most people think of the Y, they don’t think of it as a place to go and meet Jesus. They think of it as a place to go and work out.
“What are we looking for?” Jesus asks. What is our goal? That’s an important question that Jesus asks us, because over time our tendency is to start out saying we’re about one thing, but we gradually drift into something else.
It’s like a church I know that has a Young Married Couples Sunday School class. When that class was formed, the church felt it was important for there to be a setting where young married people could be together. The only problem is that that class was formed about 60 years ago. So today, those that attend the Young Married Couples class have an average age of about 85. But they’re still called the Young Married Couples class. We often start out in one direction, but over time we end up someplace else. So that’s why Jesus comes along and asks us, “Do we know what we’re looking for? Do we know where we’re headed?”
Several years ago, I was reading the local newspaper, and I was scanning the announcements on the church page. One church had an article encouraging people to attend the car wash they were sponsoring. Another church was inviting people to come and eat at their strawberry festival. But alongside those articles was an announcement from another church that said, “If you want to find out about eternal life, come to our church Tuesday at 7.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with car washes or strawberry festivals, unless we allow those kinds of things to steer us away from where we’re really supposed to be headed—and that’s helping people look for the eternal life that comes through Jesus Christ.
When it comes to Jesus, what we do we really want? Jesus wants to change our lives and guide us in the way that leads to eternal life. Is that what we want from Jesus?
The truth is that a lot of the time that’s not what people want from Jesus. No, I think that many times people look at Jesus as being like a plumber. When you’re having a particular kind of problem, you call the plumber, and the plumber comes and does his thing, fixes your problem, and then he’s gone. The plumber doesn’t try to hang around and give you advice about other aspects of your life. Plumbers don’t butt in like that. And that’s the way we often wish Jesus would be. We wish that he’d be there for us when we’re having some problem. But then, when the problem is solved, we’d just as soon that Jesus be on his way, so that we can be left to live our lives the way that we see fit.
But that’s not what Jesus wants to have happen. Instead of just leaving us to steer our lives in the direction that we want, Jesus motions to us and says, “Come here. Come and see what I have in mind for you. Come and see the truth.”
Getting people interested in learning the truth isn’t exactly an easy task. One way that Jesus tries to convey the truth to us is through the Bible. But even though most houses today have three or more Bibles in them, many of those Bibles aren’t exactly being worn out from overuse.
As a result, a publisher in England is trying to do something about that. The publisher has put together a new Bible, called the Illuminated Bible, that will have pictures in it. You might be thinking: What’s the big deal about that? Lots of Bibles have pictures in them. For this Bible, though, the publisher recruited some of the leading models from around the world to pose as the biblical characters. They’re hoping that with those pictures, more people are going to be interested in reading the story about the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis if they can get to see pictures of some firm young bodies running around wearing nothing but fig leaves. Will something like that bring back Bible reading?
During World War II, Albert Speer was Hitler’s main architect. Following the war, his daughter asked him how someone as bright and intelligent as he was had been so blind to the truth of what the Nazis were doing. Speer said that when Hitler told him to go ahead and design the kinds of buildings that hadn’t been seen on the face of the earth for 2000 years, as an architect, he said the idea of doing that was just too much. He wanted to pursue that dream, and so he didn’t want to find out the truth about what was really going on, for fear that the truth might keep him back from doing what he really wanted to do.
It’s like in the movie A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson plays a Marine Corps colonel at Guantanamo Bay, and he bellows out, “You can’t handle the truth!” All too often that’s the way it is. We don’t want to hear the truth, because we can’t handle it. We can’t handle the kinds of changes that the truth is going to force us to make.
It’s like the old story about three blind men who walked up to an elephant. One grabbed hold of the elephant’s tail and insisted that what was in front of hem was a huge piece of rope. The second blind man felt the elephant’s leg, and he insisted that what was in front of them was a tree. The third blind man took hold of the elephant’s ear and insisted that what was in front of them was a huge fan. Each of those men was so sure that he had the entire truth that it didn’t even occur to them that maybe the real truth was something bigger than what any one of them along thought they had.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus says, “Seek, and you will find.” What is it that we’re seeking? What is it that we’re looking for? Jesus wants us to come and seek the truth, the truth that leads to eternal life. Maybe at times that truth isn’t going to be what we want to hear. But don’t settle for anything less.
Here we come to the second day of this momentous week in the life of Jesus. By this time, his baptism and his temptations were past, and he was about to set his hand to the work which he came into the world to do. Once again, the Fourth Gospel shows us John paying spontaneous tribute to Jesus. He calls him by that tremendous title which has become woven into the very language of devotion—The Lamb of God. What was in John’s mind when he used that title? There are at least four pictures which may well contribute something to it.
It may well have been that John was thinking of the Passover lamb. The Passover Feast was not very far away (John 2:13). The old story of the Passover was that it was the blood of the slain lamb which protected the houses of the Israelites on the night when they left Egypt (Exodus 12:11–13). On that night when the Angel of Death walked abroad and slew the ﬁrst-born of the Egyptians, the Israelites were to smear their doorposts with the blood of the slain lamb, and the angel, seeing it, would pass over that house. The blood of the lamb delivered them from destruction. It has been suggested that even as John the Baptist saw Jesus, there passed by ﬂocks of lambs, being driven up to Jerusalem from the country districts to serve as sacriﬁces for the Passover Feast. The blood of the Passover lamb delivered the Israelites in Egypt from death; and it may be that John was saying: ‘There is the one true sacriﬁce who can deliver you from death.’ Paul too thought of Jesus as the Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). There is a deliverance that only Jesus Christ can win for us.
John was the son of a priest. He would know all the ritual of the Temple and its sacriﬁces. Every morning and every evening, a lamb was sacriﬁced in the Temple for the sins of the people (Exodus 29:38–42). So long as the Temple stood, this daily sacriﬁce was made. Even when the people were starving in war and in siege, they never omitted to offer the lamb until in AD 70 the Temple was destroyed. It may be that John is saying: ‘In the Temple, a lamb is offered every night and every morning for the sins of the people; but in this Jesus is the only sacriﬁce that can deliver men and women from sin.’
There are two great pictures of the lamb in the prophets. Jeremiah writes: ‘But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter’ (Jeremiah 11:19). And Isaiah has the great picture of the one who was brought ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’ (cf. Isaiah 53:7). Both these great prophets had the vision of one who by his sufferings and his sacriﬁce, meekly and lovingly borne, would redeem his people. Maybe John is saying: ‘Your prophets dreamed of the one who was to love and suffer and die for the people; that one has come.’ It is certainly true that in later times the picture of Isaiah 53 became to the Church one of the most precious forecasts of Jesus in all the Old Testament. It may be that John the Baptist was the ﬁrst to see it in this way.
(4) There is a fourth picture which would be very familiar to the Jews, although very strange to us. Between the Old and New Testaments there were the days of the great struggles of the Maccabees. In those days the lamb, and especially the horned lamb, was the symbol of a great conqueror. Judas Maccabaeus is so described, as are Samuel and David and Solomon. The lamb—strange as it may sound to us—stood for the conquering champion of God. It may well be that this is no picture of gentle and helpless weakness, but rather a picture of conquering majesty and power. Jesus was the champion of God who fought against sin and mastered it in single contest.
There is sheer wonder in this phrase, the Lamb of God. It haunted the writer of the Revelation. Twenty-nine times he used it. It becomes one of the most precious titles of Christ. In one word it sums up the love, the sacriﬁce, the suffering and the triumph of Christ.
John says that he did not know Jesus. Now John was a relative of Jesus (Luke 1:36), and he must have been acquainted with him. What John is saying is not that he did not know who Jesus was, but that he did not know what Jesus was. It had suddenly been revealed to him that Jesus was none other than the Son of God.
Once again, John makes clear what his only function was. It was to point others to Christ. He was nothing and Christ was everything. He claimed no greatness and no place for himself; he was only the man who, as it were, drew back the curtain and left Jesus occupying the lonely center of the stage.(Barclay, W. The Gospel of John [2001, Edinburgh] Vol. 1, pp. 94–96)
‘What I want to know is—what’s that sheep doing there?’
The student had been sick for several days, and I went to visit him. He was in his first year at university, and the whole world of cultural and intellectual enquiry was opening up in front of him like an Aladdin’s cave. His girlfriend had brought him a history of Western art, to help him pass the time until he was well enough to study again. And for the first time he was thinking about what the paintings meant.
He had come to a painting of John the Baptist. For many centuries it was the rule that in the picture, beside John, there would be a lamb. Sometimes John is pointing to it; sometimes it’s simply sitting there looking thoughtful. Sometimes the point is made more obvious by blood pouring from its side, perhaps being caught in a chalice. I can’t remember which picture it was the student was looking at, but I presume there was simply what looked like a healthy sheep standing beside the great bearded prophet.
I explained. John the Baptist is famous for many things, but the central and most important role he has in the New Testament is to point away from himself and towards Jesus. In particular, here in John’s gospel, he points him out as ‘God’s lamb’. And with that he indicates, at the very start of the gospel story, how things are going to end, and why. Jesus is to die a sacrificial death for the sins of the world.
By the end of the story, John (the gospel-writer, not the Baptist) has made the meaning clear. The death of Jesus takes place, in this gospel, on the afternoon when the Passover lambs were being killed in the Temple. Jesus is the true Passover lamb. John, like many New Testament writers but in his own particular way, wants us to understand the events concerning Jesus as a new, and better, Exodus story. Just as God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, so God was now bringing a new people out of an even older and darker slavery.
But who is this new people? In the original Exodus story, Israel is rescued from the dark powers of the world, which in that case meant the Egyptians under Pharaoh. But now, according to John, God’s lamb is going to take away the sin of the world itself. This can only mean that God’s rescue operation is moving out, wider than just Israel, to embrace the whole of creation.
This has already been hinted in the Prologue (1:12–13). Everybody who receives the Word, who believes in his name, can become a newborn child of God. Everybody—not just those with a particular pedigree or certificate of achievement. Again and again in John’s gospel we will see the ancient people of God, not least their rulers and self-appointed guardians of tradition, missing the meaning of what Jesus is doing, while people on the edges, outside the boundaries, get the point and find themselves forgiven, healed, brought in by God’s transforming love. This is what we are to understand when John the Baptist points Jesus out as ‘God’s lamb, taking away the world’s sin’.
How did John know this? He tells us himself. It was something that happened at Jesus’ baptism.
The actual baptism of Jesus isn’t described in this gospel (nor, for that matter, is the Last Supper). The writer seems to assume that we know about it. In fact, throughout this first chapter he seems to assume that his readers are already familiar with a certain amount of the story of Jesus. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s writing after the other gospels were written; the stories were well known in the early church long before they reached their present written form. But here, and frequently, John has in mind the larger scene which we know from elsewhere. He doesn’t bother repeating it, because he is keen to draw our attention to its meaning.
Here we have the heart of John’s ‘evidence’: Jesus is the one upon whom God’s spirit comes down and rests. And this means that he is the one who will baptize not just with water, like John, but with the holy spirit.
Once again, then, John the Baptist points to one of the key things Jesus has come to do. Like Jesus’ death, this will be fulfilled in the last pages of the story. We hear about the spirit intermittently in this gospel, particularly in the remarkable passage 7:37–39, and in the great ‘farewell discourses’ of chapters 14–16. But it’s only in the final scenes that the spirit is given to Jesus’ followers. Only when the lamb has been killed for the world’s sins can the spirit of the living God be poured out on his people. Only when the Temple has been made clean and ready—the Temple of human hearts, polluted by sin and rebellion—can the presence of God come and live there. So, on the evening of the first Easter Day, Jesus breathes on his disciples, giving them his own spirit, his own breath, to be theirs (20:21–23).
When John the Baptist declares, on the basis of this evidence, that Jesus is ‘the son of God’, the first and most obvious meaning this deep and rich phrase would have is ‘the Messiah’. We, reading the gospel, know there is more to it than that, because the Prologue has already told us that Jesus is ‘the only-begotten God’ (1:18)—an extraordinary and unique phrase, saying simultaneously that Jesus is one with the father and yet to be distinguished from him. He is, in fact, the Word who was always with God, who was always God, yet who has now become flesh. But when we put ourselves back into the minds of the eager Galileans and Judaeans coming to John for baptism, we realize that they would understand the phrase to mean that Jesus was the Messiah, the true king, who would free Israel from pagan domination.
The next two sections confirm that this is indeed what they had in mind—while constantly hinting to us, as we read their story, that there was much, much more going on. If we are to read John’s gospel for all it’s worth, we have to learn to hold two strands side by side in our minds, and then, as we get used to that, three or four, or even more. Like someone learning to listen to music, we have to be able to hear the different parts as well as the glorious harmony that they produce when put together. And the music of this gospel is, we may suspect, the sort that makes the angels themselves want to join in. (Wright, T. John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10 [2004, London] pp. 10–13)
The text for this Sunday follows Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism, which is the lection for the preceding Sunday. The movement from the baptismal story in Matthew to John 1:29–42 is interesting. Both texts clearly have elements of epiphanies; in both something about the identity of Jesus is revealed, which is appropriate for the Sundays following Epiphany. In John’s text, however, there is no voice from heaven announcing to the crowds, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Rather we have a series of human actions. The revelation of Jesus’ identity depends not on a voice from heaven, but on the testimony of John and the discipleship of those who follow Jesus. Rather than a direct revelation from heaven, the emphasis shifts to the human testimony, faith, and discipleship through which the identity of Jesus Christ is embodied and made known in the world.
The text opens with the testimony of John. At this point there seems to be nothing really special about Jesus: “The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him.” Jesus is apparently just a guy walking around Bethany—no great credentials, no “signs and wonders,” nothing to make him stand out from the crowd. But then John begins to testify to what he has seen and heard. Everything here depends on the witness. As Walter Brueggemann has put it, the new reality is not really available until it is uttered (“Testimony as a Decentered Mode of Preaching,” in Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997], p. 44). Jesus’ identity is spoken into the world through the testimony of John.
And what a testimony it is. John piles up image upon image, title upon title, mystery upon mystery, as if he can’t fully capture what he has to say in words: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ” Here is the one on whom I saw the Spirit descend like a dove. Here is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. “And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.” It is difficult to capture the richness of John’s testimony. Jesus draws to himself the most central and powerful imagery and titles in Scripture: Jesus is the Passover lamb of the exodus as well as the eschatological “lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5); he is the Word who was with God and was God “in the beginning,” long before John arrived on the scene (John 1:1); he is the one on whom the Holy Spirit of God—the Spirit of the prophets and the new creation—descends and remains, the one who embodies that new creation and breathes that Spirit on others (John 20:22); he is, indeed, the very Son of God. John testifies that Jesus not only embodies and continues the story of Israel, but in fact is the Alpha and the Omega, the one who was with God at the beginning and will be with God at the end.
Everything swirls around the identity of Jesus. But at this point the revelation of that identity relies not on a definitive voice from heaven, but on John’s fragile and vulnerable testimony. That’s the way of testimony. It is always a risky venture, which can offer no “proofs” beyond what the witness has seen and heard. The witness always testifies before a “jury” judging his or her words. All the witness can do is invite others to accept or reject the testimony based on the integrity and faithfulness of the witness’s words and life. (I am indebted to my colleagues, Walter Brueggemann and Anna Carter Florence, for these insights into the character of testimony. See, e.g., Brueggemann, pp. 38–56.) Not surprisingly, John’s own disciples, those who know him and trust him, are the first ones to follow Jesus.
The initial encounter between these disciples and Jesus keeps the issue of Jesus’ identity at the forefront and introduces the role of discipleship. When Jesus notices these disciples following him, he speaks his first words in the Gospel of John—a question posed not only to the characters in the story but to all of us who would follow him: “What are you looking for?” Or better, “What are you seeking?” At first glance the disciples’ response seems strange: “Where are you staying?” Asked a momentous, life-challenging question by the one proclaimed as the Son of God, the followers reply by asking for Jesus’ address. One might have expected a more profound response: “I’m seeking the meaning of life” or “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” Those would seem to be worthy responses to Jesus’ question. Instead, the “seekers” simply reply, “Where are you staying?”
As strange as it may seem, however, the question is the right one. John’s former disciples are not seeking answers to abstract questions or theoretical speculations. Rather, they are seeking Jesus—to be with him, to know him, and to follow him. So they must know where he is staying; that is the most important thing. Their simple question challenges the church today to examine what we are seeking—Jesus or something else.
Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ request is an excellent example of the Gospel of John’s multilayered meanings. At one level Jesus’ reply, “Come and see,” may simply invite the followers to come with him and see where he is staying. At a deeper level, however, these words are a call to discipleship. “Come and see” is the Gospel of John’s equivalent to Jesus’ invitation in the synoptic Gospels: “Follow me.” And what is most interesting about this particular invitation—“Come and see”—is the order of the words. When many of us think of discipleship, we often think that we must believe in Jesus and know who he is (“see”) before we can follow (“come”). But here the order is reversed. First, we follow Jesus along the path of discipleship, and then along the way we come more fully to believe and understand who he is.
Certainly, this will be the case in the Gospel of John. At this point all the disciples have is a set of titles and images, given them by John, which define Jesus’ identity. As the story progresses, however, Jesus will himself flesh out the meaning of these titles and images, as well as redefine them and add to them; Jesus himself will provide the content for any titles or images he assumes. Only along the path of discipleship can the followers of Jesus come fully to believe in him and understand who he is. (The same thing is true in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus first calls the disciples to follow him. They can come to know Jesus and believe in him only along the path of discipleship.)
So the disciples do as Jesus says. They go to where Jesus is staying, and they remain with him. And they discover that Jesus’ words—“Come and see”—are not just an invitation but a promise. While the disciples are with Jesus, something happens to them; they do indeed begin to “see.” And the next thing we know, these new disciples have themselves become bold witnesses. They take the place of John, who disappears after giving his testimony. Now these disciples are the ones testifying to Jesus. “Come and see,” they tell everyone they know. “Come and see. We have found the Messiah” (yet another title that Jesus will fill with content as the story progresses). The story moves forward through the pattern of testimony, discipleship, and further testimony.
And that is the way the story continues through the life and witness of the church today. The church is the community of disciples that bears witness to Jesus. The church is now the community that is called to follow Jesus and invite others to “come and see.” God depends on the church to make Jesus known in the world through its life and witness. We’re not given any ways to prove who Jesus is—no voices from heaven. Rather, just as God depended on John to speak the reality of Jesus into the world, so God depends on the church to make Jesus known. In the power of the Spirit, which Jesus has breathed upon us, we offer our fragile and vulnerable testimony to Jesus, backed up by the faithfulness and integrity of our life together.
At a time when the church is tempted to become just another appealing commodity for middle-class consumers, the text from John poses a significant challenge to our communities of faith: Do our words and deeds bear witness to Jesus? And when we invite people to “come,” will they be able to “see” Jesus in our congregations? Will they be able to say, “Yes, Jesus stays here; yes, the Spirit that rested on Jesus is at work here”? (Campbell, C. L. R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids] Vol 3 pp. 482–485)
Who is Jesus depending upon many things? Jesus was many things to many people. The underlying point was that Jesus is our friend and so so much more.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
What a friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to bear
And what a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer
Oh, what peace we often forfeit
Oh, what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged
Take it to God in prayer
Joseph Scriven was born in Ireland in 1820. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin and was engaged to be married. The evening before their wedding, Scriven's fiancé drowned. This tragedy coupled with difficult family relationships, caused Joseph to begin following the practices and teaches of the Plymouth Brethren. Shortly after moving to Canada to become a teacher, Scriven became engaged to Eliza Roche. Tragedy struck again and Eliza passed away from illness shortly before marriage.
Joseph used the tragedies and hardships in life to empathize with the elderly and poor. Scriven used his time to saw wood for the stoves of those who were handicapped or elderly.
Joseph wrote his famous hymn in 1855 to comfort his mother who still lived in Ireland. He did not seek to be noticed for it, and his authorship was only discovered by accident shortly before his death.
Scriven himself began to experience poor health, financial struggles and depression his last years of life. To this day, no one knows for sure if Joseph Scriven's death was accident or suicide. He was in serious depression at the time. A friend reported, "We left him about midnight. I withdrew to an adjoining room, not to sleep, but to watch and wait. You may imagine my surprise and dismay when on visiting the room I found it empty. All search failed to find a trace of the missing man, until a little after noon the body was discovered in the water nearby, lifeless and cold in death." (https://www.godtube.com/popular-hymns/what-a-friend-we-have-in-jesus/)
Richard Wightman Fox notes a story that was told by Thomas Hooker, a leading Puritan minister, regarding the intimate relationship a believer should desire to have with Jesus. Hooker told a parable about two sick women. The first indicated that she wanted a physician, so that she could be healed by him. The other woman stated that she wanted a physician, not so much to be healed, but in order to marry him. Hooker declared that Christians should seek Christ not just for the healing he can bring. Rather they should seek the Lord in order to enter into a lasting, intimate relationship with him. (Richard Wightman Fox, Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession [San Francisco, 2004], p 95)
Right up front, Jesus asks his would-be followers, “What are you looking for?” Jesus recognized that if we don’t know what our goal is, we’ll never know if we’ve arrived at it. Rick Warren describes a certain Peanuts comic strip. Charlie Brown was practicing archery in his backyard. But instead of aiming at a target, he would shoot an arrow at his fence and then walk over and draw a target around wherever the arrow stuck. Lucy approached him and asked, “Why are you doing this, Charlie Brown?” He answered, “This way I never miss!” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], p 155)
Jesus was trying to inquire whether those potential disciples were interested in learning the truth. From experience, though, we realize that the truth is not always easy to identify. If you listen to the radio, you are probably familiar with the announcers’ rapid-fire list of disclaimers at the end of many commercials. That quick buzz of words leaves you puzzled about what you can believe about the commercial you just listened to. In the Boston Globe (11/3/03), staff writer David Mehegan poked fun at that deceptive legalese. He suggested that if you slowed down the disclaimer about a recent ad for low-cost airfare to Europe, you’d find this being said: “Must fly between 12:01 and 3 a.m. Dec, 25, 2003....Luggage limited to one bag not to exceed 10 x 12 inches. Intermediate stops in Rochester, New York; Columbus, Ohio; Flint Michigan; and Logan, Utah....Seat-sharing may be necessary....” Likewise, in a parody of an ad for a cut-rate deal on SUV’s, the reporter suggested that the fine print declares: “Offer not valid in areas above elevation 2,500 or below elevation 1,000 feet. Customers must trade comparably equipped vehicle. Customers must pay 48 monthly payments over first 12 months. Failure to make payments will result in repossession of vehicle, house, wife, and children....”
When we approach Jesus, he wants to know whether we’re ready to put all of our trust in him. A British man recently took a leap of faith, but he didn’t look to Jesus. According to Reuters (4/8/04), Ashley Revell, a 32-year-old fellow from London, decided to sell everything he owned and bet it all on a roulette spin in Las Vegas. His wager ended up amounting to approximately $138,000. He said that if he lost, all he would have left in the world would be the clothes on his back. In the end, he ended up winning his wager. What would it be like if people were willing to take that kind of risk and put their lives and wealth into Jesus’ hands?
The disciples who went with Jesus dared to share in his dreams for how the world could be. In the same kind of way, as we approach the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday this week, we have the opportunity to remember those who had the courage to share in Dr. King’s vision for the world. Peter Gomes observes that when King was assassinated, we learned once again the reality of those words of Joseph’s brothers: “Here comes this dreamer: let us slay him, and then we shall see what will become of his dreams.” (Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living [San Francisco: 1998], p 46)
Of all places, Ireland is beginning to experience a shortage of people who are willing to go and follow Jesus by becoming priests. As The New York Times (7/11/04) reported, for centuries Ireland produced such an abundance of Roman Catholic clergy, they were able to export priests throughout the world. But now, as more older priests are retiring and dying, Ireland is finding that they don’t have enough men to take their places. Only eight Roman Catholic clerical students are expected to be ordained in 2004 in all of Ireland. The Diocese of Dublin, the largest diocese in the nation, has no planned ordinations at all this year. In 1970, 750 people in Ireland were seeking to become priests. Last year the number stood at just 39.
Although many Americans today don’t seem to be interested in discovering the truth that Jesus offers, in comparison to many other developed countries, things aren’t as bad in the United States as they could be. U.S. News & World Report (6/28/04) cites a poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. One of the questions asked people in various nations whether religions plays a very important role in their lives. In the United States, 59% responded “Yes.” That compares to Britain ; Canada ; Italy ; Russia ; Japan ; and France .
We need to be receptive to the truth, no matter who disconcerting we may find it to be: “It is obvious that to be in earnest in seeking the truth is an indispensable requisite for finding it.” (John Henry Newman)
Often the only truth we are interested in is the kind of truth that reinforces what we already believe: “We are more likely to catch glimpses of truth when we allow what we think and believe to be tested.” (Choan-Seng Song)
From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus sought not only to recruit individual believers, but to form a community of faithful disciples. No doubt Jesus understood that much more can be accomplished by working together than by working in isolation. For instance, recent research on the Holocaust indicates that for every Jew in Berlin who was saved from being deported to a concentration camp during the 1940s, it took an average of twelve Gentile Berliners to help. (Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002], p 210)
It is interesting to note that the very first request that Andrew and the other disciple put to Jesus was to see Jesus’ house. Were they expecting some spectacular mansion that would be befitting such an outstanding religious leader? Although we are not given any information about what they saw, chances are they were surprised by how simple and basic it was. However, simple and basic is not what many people are accustomed to today. New homes that were built in the United States in 2000 averaged 2,265 square feet of living area. That means that the average new home today is more than twice as large as the typical 983-square-foot home that was constructed in 1950. (National Association of Home Builders, Housing Facts, Figures and Trends [Washington: NAHB, 2001], p 14)
Jesus, it could be argued, was the founder of the house church movement, a movement that is still quite alive today. In Boston, worshipers gather in the home of Reverend Caiazzo twice a week for prayer and worship. They call his residence The House of Grace. In Austin, worshipers assemble every other week in the home of an internist to talk about God. In some instances, the house meetings are simply the initial step toward forming a traditional congregation. In other cases, though, the informality of the gatherings in people’s homes is the essence of the groups’ identity, and they have no desire to change. The Gallup Poll has found that about half of the nation’s observant Christians participate in some form of small group ministry either at church or in someone’s home. In some places, home meetings are intended to supplement the formal Sunday gathering at church. Park Street Church in downtown Boston, for example, encourages suburban members to get together with other members in their homes to discuss sermon-based questions that are found on the church’s website. Sometimes, though, the house meetings are a replacement for the traditional worship services. In Boston during the past 30 years, at least 15 Jewish fellowship gatherings have developed into independent congregations. Some Christians pursue the home church movement as a way to protest against the organized denominations. Paul Pappas formed a church in his living room in Methuen, Massachusetts, after he became disgruntled with the teachings of the Greek Orthodox, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Pentecostals. His assembly’s position is that “people can believe however they’re led as long as they don’t insist that only their understanding is right.” More and more people are looking for God in their living rooms. Today’s denominations are left to ponder whether that is a challenge or an opportunity (“More Americans seek God on their terms, and in their homes,” The Christian Science Monitor, 7/21/04).
Hudson Taylor believed that in order to bring new disciples to Jesus in China, it was absolutely necessary to live among those whom he wished to reach. Taylor, who lived from 1832-1905, is perhaps the most famous and effective missionary to have ever served in that Asian land. At the age of twenty-one he set sail from Liverpool, England, to travel to Shanghai under the auspices of the Chinese Evangelization Society. Right from the start, though, Taylor did not fit into the mold of the typical missionary of that time. Among other things, he insisted on dressing and eating like a Chinese person. In addition, he disliked the way that other missionaries tended to be clannish and avoided contact much of the time with the general populace. So Taylor went out of his way to live among the Chinese whenever that was possible. His different approach to evangelism caused him to become estranged from most of his fellow missionaries and expatriates. But Taylor’s effort bore much fruit as he sought to serve not only in the “safe” port cities, but also in the largely unreached inland areas (David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power [Washington: Regnery, 2003], pp. 39-40).
The sad fact is that while inviting people to come and meet Jesus is perfectly legal in the United States, many Christians do not exercise that freedom to do so. At first glance, China’s most recent constitution, written in 1982, appears to grant freedom of religion to the citizens of that land: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion....” But as you read on in the constitution, you come across some fine print which stipulates that “all normal religious activities held at special sites for religious activities or in believers’ homes according to religious custom shall be managed by religious organizations and believers, and shall be protected....” The problem is that “normal religious activities” does not include Christian evangelism as it is commonly understood in most other nations. In other words, Christianity is sanctioned in China largely to the extent that it remains an activity that keeps itself confined within the four walls of a church building (David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power [Washington: Regnery, 2003], pp. 227-28).
Andrew and the other unnamed disciple demonstrated that they had a desire to enter into the sphere where Jesus lived. In essence, they wanted to enter Jesus’ biosphere. In contrast, Thomas Hine suggests that most people today live out their days in the “buyosphere.” For countless people, buying and shopping are at the heart of their existence (Thomas Hine, I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers [New York: HarperCollins, 2002], p. xiv).
Many people today aren’t apparently interested in entering into a deep relationship with Jesus. One way that is obvious is through the decline of Sabbath observance. According to Reuters (3/29/04), Pope John Paul II lamented about how Sunday has become less a day for God and more a day for secular diversions like sports and entertainment. The pontiff noted how Sunday is no longer thought of as the Sabbath; rather Sunday has been swallowed up by the non-religious concept of “weekend,” which for many people simply means the period of the week where they have the right and duty to pursue their own wants and desires. The pope decried the way that many have locked their vision into such a narrow view of what life is all about that they are no longer able to behold the heavenly dimension of existence. John Paul criticized what he called the “culture of here and now.”
Although God certainly could act in the world without our involvement, God chooses to invite us to participate in what God is doing. That partnership is referred to in Hebrew as tikun olam, which means “mending the world” (Charles Kroloff, Tikun Olam: Mending the World” in Just Preaching: Prophetic Voices for Economic Justice, ed. Andre Resner [St. Louis: Chalice, 2003], p 103)
Often it seems to be the case that we’re willing to accept the truth as long as it corresponds to our vision of what the truth should be: “Truth is always in danger of being sacrificed on the altars of good taste and social stability” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], p 35)
Andrew and the other disciple indicated that they were looking for a direction for their lives: “The man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder—a waif, a nothing, a no man” (Thomas Carlyle).
When the disciples approached Jesus, he gave them not just something to think about, but a new way of life: “Truth is given, not to be contemplated, but to be done. Life is an action, not a thought.” (Frederick William Robertson)
The followers of Jesus came to realize that the pursuit of the truth is a lifelong endeavor: “No generation can claim to have plumbed to the depths the unfathomable riches of Christ. The Holy Spirit has promised to lead us step by step into the fulness of truth.” (Leon Joseph Suenens)
I regularly remind my congregation about the invisible sign on the front of the church: “Sinners Welcome!” The elaboration of this invitation reads like this: we’re a hospital for the wounded, a school house for the confused, a family for the lonely and a fortress for the frightened.
Sister Prejean is a good stand-in for Jesus in Dead Man Walking as she slowly leads condemned prisoner Matthew Poncelet into the truth. Condemned to die for participating in the murder of a young couple in a lover’s lane, the killer shows little remorse at first, and no sense of responsibility. Refusing to accept his excuses, Sister Prejean, who has accepted the task of being Matthew’s spiritual advisor, keeps making him face the facts. As they become better acquainted, he weakens, but tries to get her to believe that his newfound faith has “squared him with God.” The nun will not accept that, hammering away at his religiosity. It is only on the last night, a short while before his death, that Matthew breaks down into tears and admits his guilt. The nun then, and only then, declares to him God’s grace, calling him a “son of God.” He has come to know the Truth, and the Truth sets him free, even at the hour of death.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Wait patiently for the Lord! God hears our prayers!
People: Happy are all who put their trust in the Lord!
Leader: God’s blessings to us are more than we can number!
People: May God’s steadfast love rest upon us now and forevermore!
Lord God, You are the source of all truth. But instead of listening to Your voice, we often prefer to listen to our own voices instead. We substitute our opinions for Your commandments. We convince ourselves that Your laws do not really apply to us. Gracious Lord forgive us for the way we resist following in the way of Your truth. By the gift of Your Spirit, help us to discover that Your ways are not a burden, but are the pathways that lead to eternal life. We ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.
God of truth and goodness, so often we use the gifts You have given us to pursue our own goals. As we gather here today, we bring these gifts before You as a sign of our desire to pursue the goals that You have in mind for us. Bless our offerings and bless us as we strive to be instruments of Your truth in the world. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
Righteous Lord, we live in an age where many people believe there is no truth. We live in an age where our society so often seems to be governed by opinion polls, where all that seems to matter is what the majority thinks, regardless of whether that opinion is good or just. Yet in the midst of that kind of environment, help us, O God, to remain focused upon You. For amid all the voices that call out to us from the television, the radio, the newspaper, the Internet, and the billboards, enable us to never forget to concentrate upon Your voice, because it alone provides us with the truth and direction that we seek.
Especially this week we pray for our leaders (the president as he is inaugurated). Give to our leaders Your wisdom and counsel that he may govern justly and fairly, seeking not just partisan political triumphs, but seeking to accomplish Your will for all the people of this land. We pray as well for leaders throughout the world as they govern their nations. For all those who rule and are in positions of authority over others, keep them ever focused upon the way they should be going, the way that leads to peace and life for all Your people. In the name of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.