The Day of Pentecost
John 20: 19-23
Object: a balloon
Key verse(s): When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20: 2)
I hold in my hands, an empty balloon. In a way, you could say it is a “dead balloon.” A "dead balloon" -- has no life; it continues to lie wherever you put it. The balloon doesn't move; it has no power.
Take a "dead balloon" and do what Jesus did -- blow on/in it. What happens? It's full of air; but it is going nowhere until that power is released. [As an illustration, the "powered balloon" can be released.]
Under the "spirit's/breath's/wind's" power, the balloon can move. It goes out. However, when the wind power within the balloon is released, you don't know where the balloon is going to go; but you know it's going somewhere.
Full of air, releasing the power, this is no longer a “dead balloon.”
Speaking of “dead balloons,” in the gospel reading for today, Jesus enters a locked room and encounters 11 “dead balloons.”
This was the evening of the resurrection day, the first Easter Sunday. In the wee hours of the morning, some of the women had gone to the grave of Jesus, only to discover the empty tomb. The news spread quickly to the disciples, the inner circle; the body of Jesus was missing.
If they hadn’t done so to that point, the disciples of Jesus surely went into hiding. The disciples of Jesus had been hiding behind locked doors for fear that the Jewish leaders might hunt them down. This Jesus movement had all of a sudden, fallen apart and with the crucifixion of Jesus, they could have only imagined what other terrible things were to come their way.
The disciples of Jesus were deflated; they were “dead balloons.”
Jesus steps into this room of “dead balloons.” To those “dead balloons” Jesus first says, “Peace be with you.” He speaks what might be the most comforting words that they were ever likely to hear; they are words of calm and words of FORGIVENESS. What a joy and relief it must have been, to hear those words, ESPECIALLY at a time like that.
In the gospel, Jesus breathes upon his disciples to remind them that he is with them. God’s Holy Spirit is among them and because of that, the presence of Jesus is with them. His words, his teachings, his actions, are right there in front of them at all times. They are never alone, because the grace and forgiveness that came from God, that sent Jesus, that accompanied Jesus throughout his life, ministry, death and resurrection, THAT is with them also.
On the one hand, this is a wonderful experience and on the other, it presents a troubling future. The disciples who were fearful have had a great rush of joy as they encounter the risen Christ, but there is an instant DOWNER. SAFE AND SECURE, hidden away from a hostile world, they are now sent out to encounter that hostile world, a world that runs contrary to their beliefs.
Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you,” but immediately after that, he says, “As the Father has SENT ME, so I send YOU."
Now there will be no lounging around with Jesus, no keeping Jesus to themselves, no luxury of lingering with Jesus, no staying behind closed doors; no safety and security of staying within their closed circle of disciples, no hiding from the world. The world that they fear is the world into which Jesus sends them.
What happens to the balloon after it has "spent" its power? It seems dead again. All out of power. It's flat. There's no more "spirit/breath" within it.
On one hand we are not like that balloon. Jesus promises that the Spirit will be with us forever. We will never run out of the Spirit's power. The Spirit given to you in baptism remains forever.
On the other hand, over and over again in Acts, we read that certain disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. Their filling didn't just happen once, but over and over again. So we also need to be refilled. Weekly we return to church as a refilling station.
We receive Jesus again in the hearing of the word and in the sharing of sacrament and through the fellowship of the saints.
And full of the Spirit, Jesus propels us back out into that world.
Do you feel propelled?
If not, you are in luck; today is a PROPELING Sunday. Today is the Sunday of Pentecost, the day which has traditionally been celebrated as the beginning of the church, the birthday of the church.
Today is also an important day in our church, because traditionally we celebrate Confirmation, as these young people affirm their baptisms.
After two years of Confirmation classes with me, all of you may feel like “dead balloons.” You may feel like you have graduated from church that all the air inside of you has been spent and your “balloon” is done.
But that couldn’t be further from the case, on Confirmation Sunday.
Today is a propelling Sunday in which Jesus breathes upon you and into you and gives you the gift of the Holy Spirit. He breathes into you and then sends you out into the world to be his witnesses.
As you are propelled out into that world, you don’t know where it will send you, but God through Jesus will indeed send you.
But Jesus doesn’t just propel you Confirmands, he propels the rest of us too. God through Jesus continually breathes into you, the Holy Spirit and releases you. And when you are spent, God breathes the spirit into you again. And again.
We are reminded of this in our Confirmation ritual. At the end, we welcome you as our Confirmands and we invite you to join in the mission of the church, to speak and act out the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As you are filled with the spirit, as WE are filled with the spirit, we are released to do the work of God in this world. So we are going to CELEBRATE your Confirmation at that point, by joining you and filling up our balloons and releasing them.
Together, we are propelled out into this world. Jesus reminds us: “As the Father has SENT ME, so I send YOU."
Thanks be to God.
John 2: 1-11
Objects: some glass jars/pitchers; one ordinary jar, one fancy jar
Plastic container inside baptismal font
Welcome to “God’s a gonna trouble the waters,” Part II.
Last week during the sermon, while I talked about God troubling the waters, Shane mentioned that God troubled the waters when Jesus turned the water into wine.
So I thought about that; did God REALLY trouble the waters when Jesus turned the water into wine? If so, HOW? Yes indeed, God did trouble the waters.
One of the ways God troubled the waters was due to the fact that Jesus brought about something NEW. CHANGE always troubles the water. Change? :God’s a gonna trouble the waters.”
Change apparently was evident through the jars that were used as Jesus turned the water into wine. John tells us that the jars at the wedding were very important jars, they were jars used for Jewish purification rights.
These were not ordinary jars, they were fancy jars. See the two pitchers on the baptismal font? One pitcher is ordinary looking; you would probably find most jars like this in a home. But the other pitcher on the font is pretty fancy looking; you would probably find a fancy pitcher like this in the church. At church, we would not put water in an ordinary pitcher; we would have something special which would give the water poured, a sense of being special.
So here you have these fancy jars at the wedding and these fancy jars were jars used for religious reasons. People would go into the temple in Jerusalem and pour water from these purification jars and wash their hands. They thought that when the washed in a special way, it made them closer to God. In a way they thought they were washing with “holy water.” Water in jars at the temple. Holy water.
Jesus takes the holy water, RESERVED FOR THE TEMPLE and turns it into wine.
Excuse me? Jesus turns the HOLY WATER into wine? Does that seems a little sacreligious?
God’s a gonna trouble the waters.
Jesus is changing things.
Jesus uses the jars of purification, as a sign, pointing to a new order of things. Jesus takes these jars of purification, filled with holy water if you will and replaces them with himself. Big time change.
When Jesus does this, he is saying that you don’t have to wash your hands at all the right times and in the temple, in order to be good with God; that was the OLD way of doing things. Jesus tells them that HE will make you right with God, by suffering and dying on the cross. We are right with God through Jesus. That is the NEW way of doing things.
Jesus believed, his presence and his ministry, was meant to replace these institutions and rituals. Closeness and holiness in relationship to God, was no longer centered in performing the rituals, or being in the temple at the right time.
Closeness to God, greater knowledge of God, was centered in JESUS. Keeping the covenant with God no longer involved washing at the right time or in the right way. The old covenant was being replaced by Jesus, the new covenant. Holiness and righteousness was brought about through FAITH in Jesus.
Jesus is the completion, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises.
This is a huge change in the way these people thought of God. Jesus was the focus of that change.
God’s a gonna trouble the waters.
Change and renewal was not the only way that God was a gonna trouble the waters.
God was a gonna trouble the waters by unleashing the power of God through Jesus. This first miracle was a sign of things to come.
In the next 3 chapters that follow in the gospel of John, there will be other signs. These signs are meant to show people that God is embodied in Jesus in the fullest and most remarkable way. God’s reign is coming among them and they can see it taking place in these signs.
God’s a gonna trouble the waters.
The power of God unleashed through Jesus in this miracle and in others that followed, became a little more evident to me in a song that I heard recently. The song was written and performed by country music legend Johnny Cash and is entitled, “He Turned the Water Into Wine.” I have a video of that song and I would like you to listen to it. If you want to listen to it later, you can simply Google the following: johnny cash he turned the water into wine.
One of the reasons I like that song, is it appears that Johnny Cash is just reading along in his Bible; after Jesus turns the water into wine, other miracles follow. Jesus had come to inaugurate the kingdom of God, that the ways and will of God would be forever cemented in Israel’s life, that God would be THE ruler overall and that Israel’s faith in God would be vindicated.
The power of God is unleashed through Jesus.
God’s a gonna trouble the waters.
God began to trouble the waters in a lot of ways. Changing water into wine signaled that God was troubling the waters.
Though John the fourth evangelist accepts the reality of Christ’s miracle, it has for him, a further symbolic significance, pointing towards what Jesus was to accomplish on the cross. There, at the cross, the old order will be replaced by the new. Forgiveness, eternal life, God’s acceptance, unconditional acceptance of humanity will come about in the most unimaginable way. Jesus will die to show humanity the total love and dedication that God has for humanity. There will be no need to justify one’s self before God, there will be no need to try and measure up to human standards. God saves, God conquors sin and death and gives the gift of eternal life, in the act of sacrifice by Jesus.
The real and final epiphany, is the cross. This is what the changing of the water symbolizes.
So what does this mean for us?
The power of Jesus, the power of the resurrection is NEEDED in our lives. Change and renewal is present in Jesus and is promised in our lives. This speaks to us as individuals AND as a congregation.
Change, hope, renewal, the power of God through Jesus come in a wide variety of circumstances. This miracle takes place on the third day! Resurrection! Purity through faith in Jesus! It speaks of HOPE for a myriad of circumstances. I think about some of these circumstances:
- Family and personal struggles, from health, to relationships to finances…. one could go on and on.
- Considerations of change and renewal in congregational life. As WE look to the future, we wonder: “Where are we going? What is going to happen to us? What will our church look like?”
- The struggle of those in our community and society who are at a disadvantage.
In every one of these instances, the message for us is that the son of God, who has the power to change water into wine, will change our circumstances and renew us.
Christ is with us and we are given the hope that a better day will dawn.
Our witness to this comes through our own celebration of new wine AND new bread.
WE don’t change water into wine, but we recognize the new wine as it is presented to us in Holy Communion. We are given wine, we are given Christ, which moves us, motivates us, gives us a sense of God’s presence and lets us know that the power of the resurrection is alive and active in our midst.
With the bread and wine, we are given hope and strength for the future.
New wine for everybody! The power of God in us through Christ! Thanks be to God!
12th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15/Lectionary 20)
Proverbs 9: 21-6
John 6: 51-58
A 10 year old boy, whom we shall randomly name, Matthew, hollers from the family room, “Hey Dad! What’s for dinner?”
“Soup and buns!”, replies Dad.
“Soup and buns!”
“What kind of soup?”
“I made a soup out of all the leftovers in the fridge! It’s going to be great!”
“Dad, can we eat out?”
Sometimes, it seems, the meal that is offered at home is LESS than a big deal. The kids inquire about the meal, learn what it is and they visibly slump.
Sometimes the meal that is offered doesn’t seem too appetizing and yet, when you combine the quality of a good home-cooked meal, prepared with love, gathered around a table, it can be a very life-giving meal.
The human being hollers up to heaven,
“Hey God, what you got for dinner today?”
God replies, “A good, hot, heaping plate.... of wisdom!”
“What kind of wisdom?”
“God, can we eat out?”
What kind of meal is that? Wisdom? Yuck. Doesn’t seem like much of a meal at all.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, from Proverbs, God serves up a meal. The meal is prepared by a woman, whose name is Wisdom. Wisdom has prepared meat, bread and wine on the table and she has then flung open the doors to her home and invited everyone. She has invited the simple, the immature, those without any sense, to come and dine. Come to the table and dine. Have some wisdom!
I am sure that in some cultures, there very fact that there might be food on the table would be enough to heed the invitation and come and dine. But throughout the ages, even in biblical times, people didn’t always come right away. Before they would come to the table and dine, they wanted to know what the other choices of the day might be.
Is there anything else to dine on, other than the special of the day?
“What’s that? All you have is wisdom?”
“Well,” says God, “there is another choice. You can have a plate of folly.”
And there you have it. In the book of Proverbs, there are two meals on the menu: wisdom and folly and we are invited to choose. In fact, in the first 9 chapters of the book of Proverbs, the writer, whom we assume is King Solomon, urges people to choose wisdom.
If you think you know what the book of Proverbs is all about, you had better take another look. Most of us think that the book of Proverbs is a collection of sayings, one-liners if you will. Here are some that maybe are familiar:
Pr. 10: 8,
The wise of heart will heed commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble.
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
THOSE are the Proverbs, right? Of course they are, but there is so much more. Before you get to the sayings, to the one-liners, Solomon sets it up. Throughout those first 9 chapters, Solomon talks about wisdom and folly. He compares the two, extols the virtues of wisdom and condemns the characteristics of folly.
Of wisdom, Solomon says,
for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.”
“Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.”
Solomon urges the reader to choose wisdom, because it is obvious to him, that wisdom gives life. On the other hand, there is folly, foolishness. Solomon compares foolishness to robbers, vandals and thugs. He talks about people who go out and beat others, kill and vandalize; how senseless all of that is. Such activity is foolish and not only that, it destroys.
Solomon talks about relationships, how people seduce each other in a variety of ways. The destruction is far reaching; such behaviour, says Solomon, is foolish and it destroys.
So that, according to Solomon, is what is on the menu: wisdom and folly. Which meal will you choose? The meal which at first glance, appears humble? Or maybe the meal which carries some allure and excitement?
Solomon continually urges people to choose wisdom. Wisdom is the satisfying meal, satisfying because it is life-giving.
Life-giving, because it is from God.
King Solomon writes:
“For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; God stores up sound wisdom for the upright.”
For Solomon, God is grace, forgiving. God is inviting. God wishes to give the human being life. To have rich, abundant life, to have life eternal, it must be lived in God. God provides the richest meal of all and no matter who we are, no matter what we have done in the past, God continues to invite us to take part in this life-giving meal: Wisdom.
It doesn’t seem like a big meal deal, but it is a very life-giving meal.
“Hey Jesus, what’s for dinner?”
(Grumble, grumble) “Bread, that’s it?”
“Not just bread,” replies Jesus, “but living bread from heaven.”
The people who followed and listened to Jesus, were looking to be fed. They were looking for a good meal. Let’s see, how about a nice buffet: a smorgasbord of freedom from Roman oppression, temple worship that was missing the point, a chance to live in a free nation that can do anything it wants, exciting food that doesn’t always have to follow the ways of God.
That sounds like a nice spread.
On the other hand, Jesus is offering bread. (Slump) Bread? Boring! How lame!
The people who are following Jesus are not impressed and they begin to grumble. Bread seems very pedestrian, in fact is seems as if that was all that God ever offered them. The stories of the people of Israel, were chock full of bread, meals of bread. Did God ever offer their ancestors anything other than bread? Manna?
Jesus offers them bread, but the bread that he offers is different. It is living bread from heaven, it is his flesh; it is his sacrifice on the cross. His death will bring about life and with that they will be fed. They will have a rich abundant life in the future because death has been conquered and the promise of eternal life has been given. They will have a rich and abundant life in the today, because the sacrifice of Jesus will have given the promise of forgiveness of sins. They can live well, now.
Bread. It didn’t seem like a big meal deal, but it was. It was indeed.
“Hey Pastor, what’s there to eat today?”
“Holy Communion,” replies the Pastor.
“Bread and wine?”
“Could you maybe spice that up with.... Twinkies?”
“No, it will be bread and wine.”
Today, just like any other Sunday, we dine on a simple meal of bread and wine. It is a simple meal of course, but it is VERY life-giving.
We gather in community, eat at the table together in a very unique fellowship.
It is the meal that Jesus prepared for us; it is the meal to which Jesus INVITES us.
We eat, God through Jesus, within us. We eat and hear that the gift of FORGIVENESS and ETERNAL LIFE, are given to us; we are nourished with those gifts.
Fed and nourished, we can carry on in life, strengthened with hope and courage. Sometimes it may not seem like a big meal deal, but it is somehow life-giving, basic and reminds us of what we really need and what is really important.
Sure there are meals that are sumptuous and exciting; rich in quantity and quality. But there is something wonderful about that simple fare.
So, says Solomon, is wisdom. So, says Jesus, is the living bread from heaven.
Wisdom, from God, eternal life from Jesus. Very big meals indeed.
10th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13/Lectionary18)
John 6: 24-35
The smell of bread. Is there any aroma that is more familiar to us than the smell of bread baking in the oven? Or maybe the smell of bread is familiar when you take a piece, break it apart and bring it to your nose.
The smell of bread.
Not only is it familiar, but it brings all kinds of images and ideas to mind. When you smell that bread, what do you think of? What desires come to the surface?
I’ll tell you what I think. Ever since I can remember, I have loved the smell of fresh bread. The smell in the house, the smell as I cut a slice or bread open a loaf or bun. When I smell bread, I think of jam and butter. Homemade jam and butter. As a kid, as an adult, when I smell that bread, I don’t imagine eating it in any other way. Just jam and butter.
And right away I get hungry. The taste buds start twitching, the mouth starts watering. Even if I am not hungry, I get very hungry when I smell that bread. I imagine that when I sink my teeth into this fresh bread, my hunger will be satisfied, my taste buds will be sated, and I will be happy and content.
That is what the smell of bread does to me.
The smell of bread has that kind of an effect on people. The smell of bread certainly affected the people who were following Jesus around the countryside. The smell of bread had gotten to them, Jesus had just finished feeding a multitude of people and so the crowds followed him around, hoping for more.
Bread is the staff of life, the stuff of life and so the crowds imagined that there was more stuff to be had. They had a physical hunger and they wanted that hunger satisfied, they wanted to have full bellies.
Fresh bread? I’d like some more please. That is what the smell of bread did to them.
But Jesus does something very unexpected to these people. He tells them to take another whiff of that fresh bread. He tells them to smell and then imagine; he wants them to think beyond their empty bellies. There is something else going on here. They need to smell that bread again.
Jesus awakens them to his higher purpose. Jesus tells them that he is the bread of life; he will feed them, but he will feed them in a way that they will not expect. He tells them that while they might be hungry physically, they are also hungry spiritually. Their growling stomachs are hiding another reality. They have spiritual needs, desires and hungers. They ache in a different way. They need to be fed spiritually.
Jesus tells the crowds that he will feed them spiritually.
Jesus says that he is the bread of life, the staff of life, the stuff of life. He provides the basic necessity for living. Jesus will introduce them to God, teach them about God; provide them an access to God in a way that they would have never imagined. As this bread of life, Jesus will give them a vision and purpose for life that goes beyond anything that a slice of fresh bread could ever hope to do.
Jesus invites them to smell the bread again, close their eyes and imagine in a different way. Look beyond the stomach and look to the heart, look to the mind. Is there a hunger there?
The smell of bread can do that.
Smell the bread again. If you need to close your eyes and take a good whiff, do that. Imagine. Go beyond the stomach, to the heart, to the mind. Do you have a SPIRITUAL hunger?
Imagine that when you smell this bread, it reawakens, not your physical hunger and your physical yearning, but it awakens your spiritual yearning
In what way are you spiritually hungry? What is the ache and emptiness, not of the stomach, but of your heart? What are the needs, desires and wants? What is the void that needs to be filled?
Jesus tells us that he fills our void. Jesus is the bread of life. He tells us that he satisfies hunger, he provides something that fills and fulfills our lives. He provides himself, he provides his wisdom, his peace, his comfort, his compassion. He provides contact and a relationship with God that fills the void. He provides himself upon the cross.
As Jesus does that, he supplants that spiritual hunger; he has an answer for the addictions of our lives that bring the hunger pangs.
Jesus is the bread of life, a plain and simple food that fills; the very thing we need. He is a food that addresses all the hunger, all the aches and pains of our lives and he fills that void.
Smell the bread again for this, you see, is the sacraments. Communion and baptism are God’s external and objective words of love and forgiveness, given in a form which we can receive; the sacraments are God’s physical, visible words for God’s physical, visible people.
The sacraments of Communion and Baptism are the new and surprising aroma of this bread of life.
For our God is a God of surprises, of upheavals, of reversals. And so rather than do what God is supposed to do, God does the unexpected: instead of pronouncing judgment in the face of our sin and selfishness, God offers mercy; instead of justice, love; instead of condemnation, forgiveness; instead of coming in power, God came in weakness; and instead of giving us a miracle, God gives us God’s own self.
For as Martin Luther would remind us, the whole of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are summed up both succinctly and eloquently in the two words we hear when coming to the Table: “for you.” This is Christ’s body, given for you. This is Christ’s blood, shed for you.
This is the heart of the faith: that the Eternal Word who was with God and is God from the beginning and participated in the creation of the heavens and the earth is the same Lord who cares so desperately for us that he gave his life for ours on the cross and gives himself still in the bread and wine.
Smell the bread again for it contains in its aroma, a surprising, and startling, life-giving promise. Smell the bread again and sense God’s unexpected word of forgiveness and mercy. As you smell the bread again, take and eat it and once again receive the gift of life, the bread of life; forgiveness and mercy.
For those who come to Christ will never be hungry, and those who believe in Christ will not thirst.
Acts 10: 44-48
1 John 5: 1-6
John 15: 9-17
Three years ago, as Mother's Day was fast approaching, an ad agency in the United States created a fictitious organization which was designed to help you calculate what you owed your mother. The “Mother New York” ad agency, created an online tool to help you figure out exactly how much you owed your mother for giving birth to you, using very precise criteria.
The calculator factored in the amount of time your mother spent in labor, the amount of weight she gained carrying you, the number of alcoholic beverages she missed out on, and the stretch marks she incurred, and even gave you an 80 percent deduction from the total amount if you turned out to be a good child.
Three years ago, a lot of people found the fake campaign hilarious and many enjoyed trying to calculate how much they “owed” their mothers. Some people however, took it more seriously and even went so far as to suggest on-line that it is "our duty" to repay mothers for their pain and suffering.
How much do you owe your mother? How much should you pay her for giving you birth? How much should you pay her for the time she has spent raising you? Hey all you who are mothers, on this Mother’s Day, how much are you owed?
A country and western singer by the name of Paul Overstreet wrote a song, entitled, “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love.” Some of the lyrics go like this:
“How much do I owe you?" to the mother said the son.
For all that you have taught me in the days that I was young.
Shall I bring expensive blankets to cast upon your bed?
And a pillow for to rest your weary head."
“And the mother said: "I won't take less than your love, sweet love.
No, I won't take less than your love.
All the comforts of the world could never be enough,
And I won't take less than your love."
Mothers do not ask for repayment; they simply love and hope to be loved in return; after all, you can’t repay love. Love and repayment cannot exist in the same sentence and this is one of the key features in our Scripture readings for today.
Our Scripture readings for today feature the word LOVE, but we need to ask the following question: What KIND of love? In the English language there is one word for love and of course, that is LOVE. In the ancient Greek language there were FOUR words used for love: eros, storge, philia and agape.
Eros was the word used for intimate love or romantic love. Storge was the word used for family or familial love. Philia was the word used for brotherly love or more specifically, love between friends. The word that John the Fourth Evangelist uses for love is the word AGAPE.
Agape love refers to SELF-LESS love. Agape is the word that has been used to describe: 1. Jesus' love (v. 9, 10)
2. The love of God the Father (v. 10)
3. Human (Jesus') love that lays down one's life for another (v. 13) commandment
As well, there is another layer to this word AGAPE. “Agape,” is love for people who can’t pay a person back. This “agape love” is like grace, a free gift for others which is undeserved or unearned or unmerited. Agape love is a free gift for those in need and you CAN’T pay it back.
It is pretty easy to see why John the 4th Evangelist used the word AGAPE in his gospel. How do you pay God back for granting life? How do you pay God back for sacrificing God’s son on the cross, to suffer and die? How do you repay God for the resurrection of Christ? How do you repay God for the GIFTS of forgiveness and eternal life?
You can’t. Too often though, we THINK we should be paying God back. We wonder what we can do to keep God happy, to make sure our names are written in the good book; we want to be on God’s good side. Sometimes when things go wrong we wonder what we have done to incur God’s wrath. How can we make it up to God so that God will reverse our misfortune? We try to make deals with God, negotiate with God. If God will only do just one particular thing for us, then we promise….. we will pay God back somehow.
But we cannot repay God for those things which God has granted us: forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And God does not want repayment; God wants us to express our love through obedience.
The writer of the epistle reading in 1 John says:
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
God also wants us to express our love through service and love towards other human beings. John the 4th Evangelist says in the gospel reading:
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
In the next 2 verses of his song, “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love,” Paul Overstreet has the following lyrics:
"How much do I owe you?" said the man to his Lord.
For giving me this day and every day that's gone before.
Shall I build a temple, shall I make a sacrifice?
Tell me Lord and I will pay the price."
“And the Lord said: "I won't take less than your love, sweet love.
No, I won't take less than your love.
All the treasures of the world could never be enough,
And I won't take less than your love."
Paul Overstreet’s song eventually talks about the AGAPE type love of God; God will not be repaid for God’s love. God wants love in return. But before Paul Overstreet speaks of God, he speaks of the AGAPE love of a mother. A mother’s love cannot be repaid.
I like the progression of his song, from mothers, to God.
The reason for this is the possibility that mothers can be our picture of God today. I believe that God gives the gift of human life and the gift of one human being relating to another. So God gives us the gift of each other, and it is through our human traits that we can get a sense of what God is like.
We don’t know what God is like, but through our human relationships we can get a sense of the personality and the character of God. God is love, unconditional love, agape love. Just like our mother’s. Thanks be to God.
1 John 3: 16-24
John 10: 11-18
Brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to show you a You-tube video. (To see the video clip watched by the congregation during the Sermon, please click on the link below)
What did you notice?
First of all, with regards to the video: A turtle is lying on its back and can’t flip over onto its feet; it is helpless. Another turtle comes along and helps the immobilized turtle back on its feet; the second turtle did not walk away, did not turn his shell (or back) on the helpless one.
What did you think? Any reflections you might want to share?
Lots of things might go through our minds. For one thing, you would be tempted to think that of course the one turtle would help the other. Why not? In fact that was the reaction of a lot of viewers. After I had watched the video clip, I scrolled down and read some of the comments provided by the viewers who were all busy blogging.
Some of the viewers commented that it was heartwarming to see such assistance in the animal kingdom and while they marveled how one turtle would help the other, they weren’t necessarily surprised. One animal helping the other seems like such a natural thing.
However, most bloggers did not stop there; many began to reflect on the human condition. Here is a snippet of some of the things they said:
If only people did this for one another
We should all be turtles, helping and loving our brother this way!
If only every human being on earth treated every one like that, there'd be no wars
It's sad animals will help one another more than humans.
Even Turtles help one and other, a trait we all should practice.
Those comments made me stop and think. Why can’t we human beings act like that one turtle? After all, are we the ones who have evolved?
As I continued to read the blogs, I saw another interesting comment. A blogger said: And God even sends help to the TORTOISES!!!!
That made me thing even further. If God sends help to the turtles, even though the turtles maybe don’t know it, shouldn’t WE know it? We human beings who seem to have a knowledge of God, should know that God sends help to us through other humans and that God calls us to serve and help others in need.
Shouldn’t we know this? Shouldn’t we do this?
As I was reading the Scripture passages for today, there was a line in the reading from 1 John that caught my attention. The writer of 1 John says: How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Good question! How could anyone turn away? If you believe in God, if you hope and pray that God’s love can abide in human beings, you wonder how anyone could turn away. And yet….. we humans often turn away.
I don’t know about you, but that line made me feel guilty. Do I always flip someone over, back onto their feet? Do I always help? Does God’s love abide in me? Or not?
Those are some pretty heavy questions; they are questions that may make us feel guilty at best. While we may wrestle with the human condition, and our complicity in that, the writer from 1 John had something important to say to me at the very least:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we OUGHT to lay down our lives for one another.
Notice the word OUGHT. I think the writer of 1 John knows how we are feeling, what we are thinking; we SHOULD be doing this. However, the writer of 1 John does not linger on the OUGHT. He says further:
And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
What that says to me is, when we are struggling with the human condition, OUR part in the human condition, when we are failing to live up to God’s standards of love, when we are condemning ourselves and beating ourselves up, God’s heart is greater than our hearts. God wishes that we follow God’s commands, that we love one another, that we flip each other, back onto our feet. God wants that, God desires it, God even commands it. Even though we might struggle with God’s commands, God refuses to leave us, refuses to leave us alone, refuses to abandon us. The writer of 1 John tells us that God ABIDES in us, DWELLS in us, RESTS in us. God’s spirit REMAINS in us, even when we don’t do the things we OUGHT to do. This is the heart of God that abides with us, even when we struggle to abide with God.
As a reminder of that abiding, dwelling, resting, remaining, we have the life, the ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus. The writer of 1 John reminds us that we have our example of love from Jesus, the one who laid his life down for us. The writer of the gospel of John says the same thing; the Fourth Evangelist puts such an understanding in the context of the Good Shepherd.
In the gospel of John, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays his life down for the sheep; he claims the sheep, owns them, loves them and cares for them. The good shepherd is not like the hired hand; the hired hand knows what he OUGHT to do, but doesn’t necessarily do it because he doesn’t have the same love, the same ownership, the same commitment as the good shepherd.
No matter. The HEART of the Good Shepherd, is the heart of God and it is bigger than the hearts of the sheep, the hired hand. The sheep may not always follow the way they are supposed to, and at times it might be hard to shepherd them, yet the good shepherd calls them and somehow they follow. The hired hand may not always do what is required, but will probably get hired back anyway.
The heart of God is bigger than them all. Amen
John 20: 19-31
I want you to imagine that you are 7 years old and you are talking to your mother who is in the kitchen, doing something at the cupboards. You say to your mother, “Is there REALLY a heaven? I mean, really?”
What kind of a reaction do you think you would get from your mother?
(be quiet, go and play, go ask you father, don’t be silly)
Imagine that your mother freaks out. She calls for your father who comes into the kitchen totally confused. He says, “What’s the matter?” Your mother points at you and says, “HE/SHE does not believe in heaven!”
At this point, what is going through your mind? (You may feel ashamed, embarrassed, afraid, stupid or something less than)
If a 7 year old can have questions about their faith or question some of the basic beliefs of their faith system, it is possible that an adult can have questions? Can adults have doubts?
DO adults have doubts about their faith in this day and age?
Of course they do. Adults may look around at their circumstances in life and they may begin to wonder. They may or may not wonder if there really is a god. If they still believe in God, they may wonder what God is up to and what God is thinking. They may look at their lives and wonder what God is doing and why God does not pour out God’s favour upon them. People who may not necessarily have difficult circumstances in their lives, may be looking at the world around them and wondering what is up. If there is a god, why is that God allowing the world to spin out of control in such a way?
Adults can have doubts about their faith, even to the extent of not believing anymore.
Is this a new phenomenon? I don’t think so, in fact, I think our gospel reading for today, gives us some insight into first century Christianity and the individuals therein. John the 4th Evangelist writes a gospel to a first century Christian community that is living in a world of doubt. Thomas, is the poster boy.
Consider the poster boy.
Thomas was a sincere and devoted follower of Jesus. This wasn’t a guy who was some run of the mill fellow on the street. This was a believer. We encounter him in the gospel of John earlier, when Thomas says, "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16). Thomas has been zealous for Jesus and like the rest of the disciples, he may have resisted the idea of Jesus going to Jerusalem to die. But it is obvious from his statement, that eventually, Thomas DID understand that Jesus had to go to Jerusalem to die and Thomas did not shrink from it. It appears that he was quite willing to die with Jesus.
But, the crucifixion of Jesus broke Thomas’ heart.
We have all heard the phrase, “once bitten, twice shy.” And in a way, that might describe Thomas. Thomas had believed in Jesus, but his belief had been betrayed. All his hopes and
Don’t forget, Thomas was the poster boy.
Is it possible that there were other Christians who were struggling with their faith? I think that is probably the case.
So if Thomas was the poster boy for faith struggles and doubts, what happened? The gospel story, the gospel message, was that Christ had risen from the grave.
The other disciples had experienced the risen Jesus and they were telling others. But that was the point; THEY experienced Jesus, others like Thomas did not. The fact that the other disciples have encountered the risen Jesus, has not affected his unbelief, his doubts. In order to believe again, he must encounter the risen Jesus.
Which is exactly what happens. Broken hearted Thomas encounters the risen Jesus and the experience is exactly what he needs. What WAS that experience?
Jesus does not condemn Thomas for his failure to believe, but gives him that which enables him to believe (v. 27). Thomas has demanded to see and touch the risen Lord, and Jesus allows him to do that. There is no indication that Thomas actually touches Jesus' wounds -- seeing the wounded, resurrected Christ is enough.
So Thomas encounters the resurrected Jesus, and he is moved to believe. His broken heart is healed; he makes his confession that Jesus really is his lord and God. He is forgiven, he is accepted; his unbelief has been put to the side.
Broken hearted Thomas has been healed by the risen Jesus. How does Jesus heal the broken hearted Thomas? Forgiveness, sharing of the peace, acceptance. Jesus died for him and Jesus reminds Thomas of that.
Despite the behaviour of the disciples, J forgives them. It is a word that we need to hear and it is a word that we need to proclaim to others. Guilt is the number one thing that people expect from the church, but it is not the number one thing in the mission of the church given by Jesus. Forgiveness is the number one thing.
This is a significant story in the gospel of John, a story that the early church took to heart.
Vs. 21 forms the heart of the passage. God has sent the son to reveal the Father, so the Son sends his church to witness to him throughout the world. The church is now given its mission. And the purpose of the sending is very clear. The church is to witness to Jesus in order that others may believe in him through their word and thus have eternal life. This was to be the original purpose of the 4th gospel - that others might believe and thus have life - and so too it is the purpose for which the church is sent out.
The early church understood that the broken hearted needed to encounter the resurrected Jesus. They needed to feel and share in the forgiveness and acceptance of Jesus because there were a lot of folks out there who were struggling with their faith.
If a 7 year old boy learns that it is not kosher to express your doubts, what do you think an adult is going to do? Tell somebody?
So what do we take away from today’s gospel reading?
First of all, struggling with faith issues is nothing new.
Second, even the most devout people have doubts.
Third, it is not only the non-Christian who struggles with their faith issues.
Fourth, people need to be handled with the same grace and understanding as Jesus gave.
Fifth, people need to see the resurrected Jesus.
Sixth, one of the ways we meet Jesus is through forgiveness and companionship.
Seventh, we need to be always open and receptive to those who are struggling with faith.
Eighth, we need not shy away, but create opportunities for people to air their struggles.
Nine, this is the mission of the church.
As a church, we are called to introduce people to the resurrected Jesus. We are to introduce the broken hearted to the resurrected Jesus. HOW?
Forgiveness, companionship, sharing the peace and through a host of other avenues.
This is the way of Jesus.
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
Years ago, a young woman who was a member of my congregation died from cancer after 3 long years of living with the illness. Prior to her death, she dictated letters to the hospital staff, addressed to each of her children. I don’t know exactly what was in those letters, but I can imagine that there were words of love and encouragement and I would also expect, words of instruction, on how to get along without her. In addition to the letters, she also had strong words of encouragement for her husband and words of instruction and expectation, about how she felt her children needed to be raised.
Only 5 years ago, I learned of a woman who died in the hospice house and while she did not write letters, she left her family a video-taped message. Her video tape also laid out some of her hopes and dreams for her children, and some thoughts on how they would continue their lives without her.
I guess you could say that each woman communicated some form of gentle command, for those whom they loved, commands on how to go on living and being. Letters and videotapes were not just commands, but an essential way for those children to remember their mothers, what their mothers stood for and who they were and what they expected, even in death.
Nowadays, people are somewhat creative in the way that they leave behind such memories, such commands and expectations. Video tapes which are now a thing of the past, or in recent times, CD’s, are evidence of that, but letters have often been used to communicate such things. On top of that, I find that there are some sort of verbal reminders left behind, the verbal commands. When I am helping a family prepare for a funeral, our conversation about that loved one, will often contain thoughts about the legacy left behind. What were some of the essential truths that mom or dad taught me? What did he or she stand for and how did they communicate that? People often talk like that as they reflect upon the past and the memories of their loved ones.
I imagine, if that were you or me and our time on this earth was coming to a close, we might begin to think in terms of leaving something of us behind. What would we want our loved ones to remember about us? Is there something essential about us, that we would never want them to forget? What kinds of hopes and dreams would we lay out for them, what kind of expectations would we have of them in our absence? How would we communicate that?
Tonight is kind of like that for me. This worship service tonight, is not a funeral preparation, but it does carry for me, some overtones of preparing for life “without,” of expectations, of remembering essential things.
Certainly it was preparation time for the disciples, although they struggled with that thought and denied its existence. For quite a while, Jesus had begun to prepare his disciples for “life without him.” The night before his death, was the culmination of that preparation.
The disciples of Jesus gathered in the upper room, to celebrate the Passover meal, a meal that was very common for the religious pilgrims congregating in Jerusalem that day. They celebrated the Passover, they shared in a meal to remember how God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. This was a story that was essential to their history, to their living and being in the present and essential to their future; it was the most important story in Israel’s history.
That story reminded them of their past, that God had delivered their ancestors from a horrible existence. It reminded them that they were free people in god’s eyes and they could live in the promise, that god would never abandon them. It gave them a glimpse into their futures, that God would always be with them and would always take them to God’s-self.
So Jesus and his disciples gather like any other Jewish believer on that Passover night, to celebrate on THAT basis, but Jesus turns this night into something else. Jesus is about to be arrested, tortured and put to death. His time has come and so he makes use of this meal for a different, albeit related purpose.
Jesus uses this meal to remind them of God’s saving past, of God’s continued presence and God’s promises for the future. However, Jesus is the NEW COVENANT, supplanting the old covenant that God had established with Israel’s founders. As the son of God, Jesus puts himself into that picture.
Beyond THAT however, Jesus does something else, he creates that video tape, that CD, that letter, given to his disciples as he prepares to die. Jesus gives them his story that they will relate to others. This story is in the form of a command, a story that talks about his essence. As he prepares to die, he leaves them with the essentials of who he is, how they can remember him and how they can faithfully act out the essentials that he has passed on to them. They have the legacy of Jesus, his story and his command.
What was the story and what was the command?
During this passover meal, Jesus gets up from the table and apparently does the unthinkable. He takes on the menial role of a servant or slave and washes the feet of his disciples. He tends to them, not as a master, but as a slave and it offends their sensibilities. The story of Jesus is a story of servanthood.
At the conclusion of this act of servant hood, Jesus gives his disciples a little test. “After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?”
Well.... good question. What has he done for them? What is the legacy, what is the expectation? “You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’”
That is who Jesus is, that is his legacy to them; that is his example, his teaching and values that he will leave behind.
Jesus then hammers it home in the form of the command.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”
This is how Jesus expects them to live in relationship to each other, in relationship with the rest of the world. Jesus reminds them of his love for them and this love will be underlined or magnified the next day when he is crucified, and then 2 days later, when he is resurrected form the grave. At that point, they will see, just how great the love of Jesus is for them and for all of humanity. That love will be put into action and that action demands a response. Jesus expects that his disciples will respond, not to the harshness of law, or of punishment, but that they will respond to grace and love. Jesus expects that they will respond and this is how he wants them to live in his absence.
There was the crux for the disciples of Jesus. They heard his story, they heard his commands; they heard how Jesus wanted them to respond to his love and grace.
Response is a very important consideration.
Sometimes when people are sitting at their kitchen table, or in their living room and they are reflecting upon the life of the loved one who has died, they talk about response. They understand what that person stood for, and they often talk about how that has touched them. They compare what they have learned from the person who has died, to how much they have understood and lived that out.
“In what ways did they expect me to live that out and HOW DID I live that out? How have I been faithful to the values that they passed on to me?” People begin to talk about that, they begin to talk about how they have incorporated such teachings into their lives.
The disciples of Jesus knew the score and they could figure out the response, but it wasn’t easy. To some degree, this story, this legacy and command offended their sensibilities. Sure they had heard him several times before, tell them that he was going to die, but it appears that they never really paid attention. They also probably never understood that THEY were going to have to carry the ball, THEY were going to have to embody the legacy and the commands.
NOW, it was hitting home. Jesus really was going to die and he had some expectations of how he wanted them to carry on. The final demonstration, laid it all out. As he dressed after washing their feet, the image of servanthood was unmistakable. They were to be servants, to each other, to the communities in which they lived and worshiped. This was not what they had signed up for at the start, but this was the command they were left with; servanthood, living for the other, loving the other.
This is how Jesus expects US to live and respond to his love for us. Today as we prepare for his crucifixion, his burial and eventual resurrection, we are reminded of just how much Christ loves us and just how much he expects of us. The story has been imprinted upon us, the values have been given and we remember.
Now comes our response. Just like the disciples of Jesus in the upper room, we can imagine that it is not easy and in some respects, if offends the sensibilities. How HAVE we been faithful to the values, the story, the expectation of Jesus? How will we live this out?
John 12: 20-33
I will never forget the first time I learned about “winter wheat.” I learned about “winter wheat” from my Dad, who managed grain elevators for a significant part of his working life. My Dad would “buy” grain from the farmers on behalf of his grain company and then the grain company would sell it to their customers and ship it to countries around the world.
Anyway, back to “winter wheat.” Farmers usually plant their crops in the spring, then harvest in the late summer, or early fall. But in many parts of the Canadian prairies, especially in the northern portions, the growing season is very short, so the farmers in those areas get a “jump” on the growing season, by planting “winter wheat.”
In the fall, after the harvest, farmers will plant their wheat, rather than planting in the spring. Early in the year, with the spring runoff providing moisture, the wheat which has resided in the frozen ground, begins to “come to life.” Farmers don’t have to wait for the land to dry, so that they can get on the fields and work the ground. That extra growing time can be pretty valuable, and “winter wheat” usually flourishes.
It is amazing to stand on the edge of a field, and see the “winter wheat,” coming up. It is amazing to think that the seed may have been planted as much as 6 months before then, sitting in the cold, hard ground for that long. Amazingly, that seed “comes to life,” and out of nowhere, it seems, the green foliage of the wheat, begins to poke through the ground, soaking up the sunlight. In a few months, those fields are transformed, to golden waves of grain.
“Winter wheat seems like a miracle, but in reality, “winter wheat” is a fact of life, a fact of NATURE. The only way that “winter wheat” will produce those golden sheaves, is if the seed is buried into the ground.
It is the mystery of life, life through death and it is an inescapable reality. JESUS understood that reality.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is approached by some Greek men, men who wish to “see” Jesus. Whatever these individuals hoped to “see” when they met Jesus, we are not sure, but there is no doubt, that John, the 4th Evangelist, had a definite opinion of what they hoped to see. John understood that these men were looking for the Messiah, and as a consequence, they were looking for their salvation; they wished to experience the salvation offered by the Messiah. These Greek fellows, like many others around them, had been watching and observing the ministry and work of Jesus. As they watched him, they all felt that they were seeing signs of the Messiah. All the acts of mercy and compassion, gave them the sense that Jesus might indeed be the promised Messiah.
They understood that the Messiah offered salvation and deliverance. So if Jesus was indeed the Messiah, what SHOULD they see? HOW should they EXPERIENCE this salvation offered by the Messiah?
Jesus knew how.
So we have this account, where Jesus uses the occasion to talk about the mystery of life, that inescapable reality. You see, there is this law in nature that something has to die, in order for life to take place. The only way that these people could experience the miracle of life, of salvation of change in their lives, was through death.
The only way that these individuals could be drawn into the presence of God, to experience all the life-giving grace and mercy of God, was through death. A seed of some sort had to go into the ground, much like the winter wheat, or any other seed for that matter, so that growth and change and salvation and life, could take place.
That seed, the son of Man, had to go into the ground, had to be lifted up on the cross, had to die, had to be planted into the ground, in order for life to take place. The life, the growth, the fruitfulness, in the lives of those Greek men, in the lives of the disciples of Jesus, could only take place, if the Messiah was lifted up and died for them.
It is the mystery of life, through death and it is an inescapable reality. It was an inescapable reality for Jesus.
Think about THAT for a second. It was an inescapable reality for Jesus. NOT EVEN the Son of God, could escape that reality. In order for life to take place, in order for OUR eternal life to take root, in order for us to live lives of grace and mercy, that inescapable reality had to take place. The agent of nature’s creation, the one who was with God from the beginning, the one who was the master of the disciples, was not exempt from this principle of death and life.
And don’t think that Jesus was not aware of it all. Undoubtedly there were some who responded negatively to the message of Jesus. There is no doubt that the disciples of Jesus were alarmed at this kind of talk and could not imagine that the Messiah must die.
Jesus responds to such concerns with these words in our gospel reading: “"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--' Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
Jesus had to die, in order that we might live, both eternally and in the present. Life can only be achieved through death.
The disciples of Jesus eventually came to understand that death brought about life. They began to understand the principle of nature that Jesus talked about, that the seed must be buried into the ground and die, before it can give life.
WHEN did the disciples of Jesus “see” this? It was only when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, that they began to “see.” What they saw was a powerful lesson and model for them. The disciples of Jesus understood that in order to follow Jesus, they had to partake in his death and resurrection in a very real way; it became a model and a practise of their Christian community.
When Christ died and rose again, the Father was present.
When the Christian served and died to self, Christ was present; if Christ was present, so was the Father. THIS understanding was not some “ivory tower” observation, this was not purely symbolic, this was reality. Life can only be achieved through death.
Because Jesus was lifted up for them and all humanity, because the death of Jesus gave them forgiveness of sins and eternal life, they could live and serve in joy. They knew that God was truly present in their acts of unselfishness.
They were drawn into the love and grace of God, through the death of Christ. New life, true life, true humanity was theirs’ each and every day, even unto eternity.
They were fed with the “gift of life.” Because they were fed so graciously by God through Christ, they walked out into their communities to feed others with that wonderful life-giving substance of Jesus Christ.
It was the mystery of life, through death, an inescapable reality. It still IS an inescapable reality. OUR ministry to others, the denial of ourselves for the sake of others, done in the name of Jesus Christ, is indeed, the “gift of life.”
The Isenheim Altarpiece has two sets of wings, displaying three configurations.
Here is the first configuration, with the wings closed, displaying The Crucifixion of Christ, framed by a couple of saints.
This is the second configuration with the outer wings opened, featuring the Virgin Mary.
Finally the third configuration with the inner wings opened which has many things, notably saints, demons, desert and things like that.
But, back to the first configuration, featuring the Crucifixion. Notice the figure on our right.
I don’t know if can see the figure portrayed, so here is a close-up.
This is the artists’ depiction of John the Baptist. What is John the Baptist doing in this painting? He is pointing to Jesus, to Christ on the cross. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here is God’s Messiah, God’s Chosen One who has died in order to reconcile the world to God.
This piece of artwork, the Isenheim Altarpiece, is a wonderful illustration of who John the Baptist was and what he did. This identity and purpose regarding John the Baptist, is a central part of our gospel reading today.
WHO was John the Baptist? At times, we regard John as a long-haired weirdo who had been part of a sect of hermits who lived out in the desert. Yes, John ate bugs. Yes, John looked a little crazy, and he was getting his fellow countrymen to do some crazy things: like preparing for a Messiah by jumping into the river to Awash themselves of their sins.@
However, there is something you have to know about John the Baptist; he was very well known and very popular. When John the Baptist came out of the caves of Qumran, a hermit hideaway in the Israeli desert, he had a message for the nation of Israel which was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
We know from our reading of Scripture that John had developed a large group of followers. He had disciples.
We also know that the disciples of John had taken his message far and wide and there were many situations where early Christian evangelists would move into a community to spread the message of Jesus, and find that the disciples of John had already been there and had established religious communities.
We know that John was a very devout person; he was a person who had an influential prayer life.
We know that John the Baptist also exerted a great political influence upon his homeland.
John the Baptist was no lightweight, in fact, he was a religious heavyweight in the land of Israel, even during the ministry of Jesus.
John was such a major factor in the nation of Israel that people began to wonder WHO John the Baptist REALLY was.
So they begin to ask John about the essence of his identity and you notice from our gospel reading, the tags they were placing on John.
Was John really the Messiah? Was John actually this great person who had been promised for centuries? Was John this great warrior that they had read about in the bible, THE person who would deliver them from oppression, GODS chosen One, GODS anointed one,?
Hey John, are you the Messiah? NOPE.
Or.... was John really the great prophet Elijah? The people of Israel believed that the great prophet Elijah had never died. They believed that Elijah had been taken up to heaven by God, in a chariot of fire. They believed that Elijah would return some day, to deliver them from their troubles and lead them in Gods direction.
Hey John, are you the prophet Elijah? NOPE.
Or.... was John really the prophet who would accompany the Messiah? In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, it predicts that a great prophet would rise up and would be associated with the coming Messiah. Hey John, are you THE prophet? NOPE.
So.... WHO are YOU John?
His response, I am a voice crying in the wilderness.
John is a lone voice, someone standing out in the middle of nowhere, making an announcement. John is simply a messenger, a messenger who does not bring any fame or notoriety to himself, but points to something else.
Amazingly, John casts aside fame and glory and takes on the posture of service and humility. NO.... he is not any of these noteworthy or famous characters, he is someone far different. John is a messenger, John is pointing to someone else. In fact he is so far down the totem pole of importance that he portrays himself in a less than flattering role.
To give them what his station is life is all about, John gives them an illustration. He is in a position of being less than a slave. In fact, a slave would be required to do the humiliating and demeaning jobs like tying shoe laces for their wealthy owners. John does not even see himself on a par with that.
John is the messenger, he points to one who is greater than he, to one who is coming after him. John is not simply a person baptizing and meeting personal religious needs, he is now a pointer, a witness, to the light of God, the word of God at the center of all that exists.
So that is WHO John the baptist was. But what was Johns PURPOSE in life? His purpose was his identity as well, John is the messenger. Johns purpose was to point to Jesus. He points to the one who is coming who is more powerful than he is. Johns purpose was not to grab the headlines, but to tell people that Jesus was coming.
For this reason, John continued to baptize. He told the people that he was baptizing them as a national sign of repentance, but in the act of baptism, he was reminding them that there was more to come. He was reminding them of the coming One. Thats WHO he was, that is WHAT he was here for.
WHO are YOU? WHY are you HERE? What is your identity? For what purpose have you been put on this earth? Those are huge questions, questions that at one time or another, preoccupy our thoughts. They are often questions that people struggle with in this hustle and bustle world. Our identities and our purposes in life often get muddled, or we are overwhelmed with them.
These are cosmic questions; questions for which we don't always have answers.
John the Baptist was confronted with those “cosmic” questions in our gospel reading for today and we learn of his identity and purpose; he is the messenger, pointing to Jesus.
WHO are YOU? WHAT are you HERE for?
What is your identity? For what purpose have you been put on this earth?
Today, we hear from John the Baptist and then later on, we are going to baptize Stella. Both are significant in reminding us of WHO we are, and WHY God created us.
We are reminded that we are witnesses, we are pointers. We are not defined by our jobs, by what we wear, by what we eat; we are defined by whom we belong to.
We are children of God, God's creation, inheritors of eternal life, we belong to God. We are witnesses and pointers, but we do not point alone, we are sons and daughters of God, who live in relationship with God and with each other. We belong to a group of people, to a fellowship, a church, who together, points to the coming One.
With the promise of eternal life, the gift of heaven, with our futures secure, we are freed to go out into the world, to be messengers, pointers.
We are here to point to something other than ourselves. We are here to point to the coming One, we are here to point to Jesus. When we worship, when we serve, when we tell others the good news, our religious story, we are pointing to Jesus. When we baptize, we point to Jesus. We are witnesses to the light and as we let our lights shine, we give praise and glory to God and we serve and help as individuals, and as a group of believers.
As we point to Jesus, the life, the forgiveness, the future that is ours in baptism, is given to others. We are truly blessed, to be messengers, pointers, giving witness to Jesus.