Isaiah 49:1-7 – And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him… “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Psalm 40:1-11 – I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God…

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God in Corinth… I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ…

John 1:29-42 – John the Baptist encounters Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Then, John’s version of the call of Andrew and Peter, in Bethany.

January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

¿Qué buscas?

As noted above, January 18 begins the week of prayer for Christian unity. Take some time to reach out to Christian leaders of other denominations. Take a priest pastor out to lunch. Look for events in your community scheduled for this week.

Here’s the text, John 1:29-42:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “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.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Every time we read a text, we hear something new. Also when we read it with others, they see and hear things that we don’t. This is because we each hear the text from our current context, time, and place. We don’t hear these texts as a tabula rasa (Latin: “blank slate”). They come to us in the midst of our joys, challenges, work life, family life, wealth, poverty, race, creed, and so forth. This is why it is so important to read Scripture in community, a small group community that can discuss the meaning and implications of the words we hear.

Today, this is what jumped out at me, as a pastor and bishop:

I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.

Usually I hear the “come and see” portion of the text, as one who is passionate about evangelism. Today, however, I heard “that Christ might be revealed.” I would like to be remembered and be able to say of all my calls as a parish pastor, “I came baptizing for this reason: That Christ might be revealed.

The church is a community gathered around Jesus of Nazareth. There is no getting around it. Christ is at the center of the Christian faith – not the law, not the church, but Christ. If we are obsessed about anything, it is this: The way of Jesus of Nazareth is the only hope for the world in which we live. Everything else we do revolves around making Christ known. Our sermons, our congregations’ public ministries, our blog posts, our tweets, our newsletter articles – everything revolves around making Christ known. Or at least it should. I confess, too often things revolved around congregational survival. Sometimes things revolved around me winning a battle. I ask God’s forgiveness. On my best days, I want every sermon, every deed to be revealing the Christ, the hope of the world. That’s what I heard today.

That’s just me. I’m sure you heard other nuances to the text. And, more importantly, your people will hear something else altogether. A midweek Bible study, the smaller the better is an excellent tool for pastors, if for no other reason than this: You will hear what your people hear in the text. Don’t ignore what you hear, but be sure to be aware of and responsive to the things that your people hear.

Elizabeth Gareca Gareca, Profesora de Biblia at ISEAT (Instituto Superior Ecuménico Andino de Teología) in La Paz, Bolivia hears other things in this text. She points out the two-day division in John’s text. Above, I divided the text accordingly. The first day is John’s proclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Garcea reminds us that John 1:29 ultimately became a beloved hymn, and a permanent part of the liturgy, the Agnus Dei, sung after the Words of Institution and the Lord’s Prayer, during the fraction of the host: “Cordero de Dios, que quita el pecado del mundo.” “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John says he does not know Jesus; this is revealed to him when he sees the Holy Spirit coming down upon him. This is one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

On day two, “the next day,” in the second paragraph of this text, we have the call of the disciples. Richard Swanson, Professor of Religion/Philosophy/Classics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. agonizes over some of the complexities in this text. Whence cometh the symbolism of the lamb? The lion and the lamb? Isaac? Passover?

the-isenheim-altarpieceFor my money, John the Baptist is alluding to Genesis 22, the lamb that God provides to Abraham for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. Not the Passover lamb. Abraham says to Isaac, “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8) Swanson helpfully channels Everett Fox: “…a translator might choose to use a dash rather than a comma at this point (‘God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering – my son’) to capture in English the irony of the Hebrew sentence.”

Abraham and Isaac no doubt eat the sacrificial lamb. Preachers of the three-year lectionary are all too aware of how many times Jesus tells his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood in John chapter 6 (a very un-Jewish image by the way, as drinking blood is unclean in the Torah). Every three years these “bread texts” take up to five weeks at the end of the summer. (Don’t worry, not this year. Next year: Year B.) In any case, it seems that from the very first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus’ crucifixion is referenced, front and center, and understood sacrificially. John’s Jesus gives his life for the world.

crucifixion

crucifixion-ii

Literalistic readers will struggle with the marked differences between John’s story and the synoptic accounts. For example, John the Baptist claims to not know Jesus in John’s gospel, whereas Luke says they are cousins. Another example: John has Jesus meeting Andrew and Peter down south in Bethany in Judea, and later taking them up north to Galilee. Matthew, however, has Jesus returning to Galilee after his baptism and encountering Peter and Andrew with their boat up north in the Sea of Galilee. These anomalies won’t bother those who understand the gospels as proclamation of the good news and not history books, but many modern readers jump to one of two poles. Some demand on inerrant literal reading and thus try to absurdly harmonize the accounts. Others will discount the gospels as fables. Hopefully, the deft preacher can enjoy the middle of the road, seeing the texts as stories about Jesus of Nazareth, revealing actual events from different perspectives.

So what is your preaching angle? Audrey West, Associate Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago likes John’s “It’s not about me” approach. “It’s not about me; it’s about him,” John says. John points to Jesus, like Matthias Grünewald’s altar piece in Isenheim. John’s oversized finger points to Jesus. The same can be seen in Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Luther preaching and pointing to the cross. It’s about him. I came to make Christ known.

It’s not about you. In an egocentric age, this is a counter-cultural message. It’s not about you. People often don’t get this until they’re on their deathbed. It is only then that many struggle with meaning. When we are stripped of our mortality, then we can wrestle with what life ultimately means. West says something to the effect of this.

If John the Baptist had a Facebook page, it would have pictures of Jesus, not selfies. I’m paraphrasing. “What’s On Your Facebook Page?” could be an awesome sermon title. You may have to interpret this for folks who are not on Facebook.

Or, here’s another preaching hook: I’m intrigued by Jesus’ question in 1:38: “¿Qué buscas? [What are you looking for?]” This is a fundamental question. What are you looking for in life? What are you going for? Where is your life headed? What is your fundamental orientation? What are your goals? What are your hopes and dreams? What do you really want in life?

So much of our lives seems to be about either survival or acquisition of wealth – extensions of our survival instinct. My seminary professor of systematic theology, Walt Bouman said, “Sin is about mortality not morality.” Life becomes about saving our skin. When life is about saving your skin, meaning gets lost. This is why Jesus calls us to come and die. Emptying ourselves, dying to ourselves, are the ways to find Life. The resurrection is not about pie in the sky when you die. It’s a window into the world beyond the narrow confines of our lives. It’s the big picture. “Now that you know that death is not final,” says Bouman, “there’s more to do with your life than try to preserve it.” (Quoted from Dr. Anna Madsen, at the 1/14 Bishops’ Academy).

So what are you looking for? ¿Qué buscas?

Jesus invites you to join him in the adventure of your life. Gareca points us to Jesus’ invitation in 1:39: “Venid y ved.” [Come and see]. Jump in. Brian Stoffregen notices we hear these words twice: 1:39, and just after our text in 1:46. We cannot stand on the sidelines and understand what this is about. The only way to know is to jump in.

The preacher can help people imagine what jumping in means. Give them some ways to jump in this week. Then give them some ways to jump in this month, by sharing some things your congregation is doing to be Christ in your community. Things that will help your people find joy and life by giving it away. Lead the way. Invite people to encounter Christ by encountering the other. In so doing, they will encounter the God who gives life, raises the dead, orders the cosmos, and lifts us up out of the miry clay, to set our feet on solid ground. Invite them into something exciting: to be a part of what this God is doing in the world.

So, what is God up to?