Witnessing – Crossing the Line

A sermon for Advent 3: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8,19-28 (extended to 31).

Yes, I expanded this morning’s Gospel reading a few verses to include the phrase Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) In John’s Gospel story John the Baptist’s the main role is to witness to who Jesus is. He never misses an opportunity to announce, “Look” (Lewis; Gaventa and Petersen). It is a role he claims for himself through the words of Isaiah (Harrelson). a voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isa 40:3) Even telling the priests and Levites Among you stands one whom you do not know, (John 1:26) is a form of witnessing (Hoezee). The title “Lamb of God” connects Jesus with the rich symbolism of the Passover lamb; but at this point, we do not know what John means when he calls Jesus “Lamb of God.” (Gaventa and Petersen).

For Karen Lewis, being a witness is a central Advent task (Lewis). To be a witness involves wrestling with Isaiah’s question “Who am I?” His answer is to go out and bring healing (shalom) to our broken world. In Advent language I am – is one who leads people to Jesus, is one who witnesses to Jesus (Carvalho). Witnessing is not easy. It calls us to break the silence that allows abuse, oppression, and injustice to continue in the shadows. Lewis reminds us that our Advent texts tell us how expecting the birth of Jesus calls us to be witnesses (Lewis).

It may help lower our anxiety, just a bit, to revise ‘being a witness’, to ‘being a storyteller’. John shares the stories of his experiences. We are simply asked to share the stories of our experiences with Jesus. And we all have stories to share (Rippentrop).

Storytelling involves a certain amount of humility. We hear Jesus called the Lamb of God (John 1:29). It is the first in a long line of titles Jesus is given just in John’s Gospel. There are so many because every follower sees something different in Jesus, every follower responds to something different when they meet Jesus. No single title reveals all there is to know about Jesus. And there is no limit to the number of titles Jesus can be given, and there are new titles that might be bestowed at any time; we should keep our eyes, ears and our hearts open. And we should be self-aware so that we do not greet new titles with suspicion or hostility, as they often are (O’Day).

 It is Advent; a time when we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ birth. It is also a time when we look forward to Jesus’ return. Of all titles that Jesus may carry, the one associated with his return most often is King. It makes sense in all sorts of ways. He is a descendent of the house of David, the model King of Israel. Jesus is also known as the great shepherd; and you know that shepherd is an Old Testament metaphor for Israel’s Kings. It may have been a moment of inspiration that hearing Jesus called “the Lamb of God” sounded very different to me this past week, I mentioned this title fits nicely with the Exodus Passover sacrificial lamb, but, we cannot what it implies. The inspiration I had was a kind of reversal. If ‘shepherd’ is a metaphor for king, could ‘lamb’ be a metaphor for ‘the people’? Can the incarnate Jesus be the perfection of humanity as the image of God?

This has a couple of implications. One is that when we witness does our story point people to see Jesus towards the regents of our day? To the modern equivalent of the kings / bishop s/ priests and prophets? Or do our stories point people to see Jesus in the everyday ordinary working people? In spite of all the regal imagery we associate with Jesus all the Gospel stories place Jesus in everyday places, among everyday people, struggling to get through life on an everyday basis. Even the story of his birth, we are so eagerly waiting to celebrate, is in a very merger setting. From our stories what does our audience expect Jesus to look like: a king a bishop, a priest, a prophet, a faithful lay servant, a wealthy philanthropist, or the one sitting next to you in traffic delayed by the construction on 18 near Big Lake? Where does our audience expect Jesus be: in a palace, a cathedral, or among poor huddled masses, with the Cratchit family, or among the Muslim Rohingya fleeing Myanmar?

A second implication defines our relationship with those we share our stories with, those we witness to. There is an element of being a prophet when we are a witness to Jesus. Both involve radical truth telling. And as Isaiah shows us a prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless … a prophet is the voice of a voiceless God here on earth (Whitley). The implication is that being a witness to Jesus means to stand with the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, to be a voice for the silenced, to be a voice for God here on earth (Whitley).

In today’s world standing in solidarity with the invisible and giving voice to the silenced requires us to cross the line. In his opinion piece, published Friday, Spencer Platt writes: Americans are a generous people — so it is always said. But our generosity comes with moral judgments: There’s a thin line, in the minds of many, between the poor who deserve help and those who should get off their butts (Platt). He goes on to note that these are old arguments, dating to Dickens’s heartless Ebenezer Scrooge and the noble Cratchit family. The line our story sharing prophecy crosses is the one of judgement.

In a few chapters Jesus will answer his disciples question about a man born blind, who could have just as easily have been a man born poor,

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him (John 9:3).

It can be translated

Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. Now we must work the works God has given us to work.

The point is for Jesus there is no judgement, there is only restoring all god’s people to shalom or wholeness of life. The story John witnessed to is the story of the presence of one you do not see who is restoring all people to shalom. We all have our experience of God/Jesus/Spirit’s restoring shalom that we are called to share those stories.

Stir up your power, O Lord, that we may witness, without ceasing, and in all circumstances, to the one who is not known, yet is the Lamb of God who restores

  • good news,
  • liberty,
  • divine favor,
  • provision,
  • gladness,
  • righteousness, and
  • who brings shalom to the world.

 

 

References

Bratt, Doug. Advent 3B Isaiah 61:1-4, . 17 12 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Carvalho, Corrine. “Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.” 17 12 2017. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3020&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 17 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 3:1-17 . 12 3 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Witnessing. 17 12 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Platt, Spencer. The Deserving Rich and the Deserving Poor. 12 12 20107. <nytimes.com/2017/12/15/opinion/class-rich-poor-americans.html>.

Rippentrop, Jan Schnell. Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28. 17 12 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Whitley, Katerina. “Do Not Despise the Words of Prophets.” 17 12 2017. Sermons that Work.

 

There he is!

A sermon for Epiphany 2; Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

John has everyone’s attention; the Jewish leaders; and the people’s. He has a group of followers, disciples, people who are committed to his different teachings and expectations. We expect disciples to be dedicated and committed to their teacher or leader. We also expect the teacher or leader to expect their followers to, well, follow.

So, the other day, John is in a town near the Jordan river and has an encounter with Jewish leaders from Jerusalem, who want to know who he is. He says he is not who they think he is. His tell them someone else is coming.

The next day John is walking through town and shouts out “There he is! ‘The Lamb of God.’ The one who will take away the world’s sin!” He shares the story of Jesus’ baptism. It is a testimony to who Jesus is.

A day later John and a couple of his disciples are walking through town. John sees Jesus again and shouts out “There he is again.” The disciples may have made a curious face as John calls this unknown person the Lamb of God, which is a new title. Whatever their faces may have revealed, their action is unexpected. They give up their relationship with John and turn and follow Jesus. It’s almost like someone giving up their loyal following of the Hogs and becoming a fanatic Boll Weevil follower; it is unimaginable.

Jesus notices they are following him, and turns and asks them “What do you want?” They ask him “Where are you staying?” Jesus tells them “Come and see.” They followed Jesus till late in the day. Then Andrew went to find his brother, and tells him about their unusual day; and then claims to have found the Messiah, another new title for Jesus. Simon follows his brother to meet Jesus, who on first sight calls him by name and then renames him, Peter. It is such a simple story. But not really.

To begin with, ‘The Lamb of God’ is a completely new term, it has never heard anywhere before, and is not used anywhere else in the bible (Hoezee; Gaventa and Petersen). It is a reference to multiple ways God is present to Israel:

  • their liberation from slavery in Egypt
  • the sacrifice of Isaac
  • the Temple cultic sacrificial system and
  • the suffering servants from Isaiah (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson; Boring).

John says Jesus will take away the sin – singular – the sin of the world. Jesus’ purpose in not individual, it is universal. It is not about our specific moral misconduct. It is about the consequences of any action that

  •  creates distance in our relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner)
  •  contributes to alienation and darkness or (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson;
  •  the world’s collective brokenness (Boring; Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson).

So, this is not about me, or you, or even us. This is about everyone, the entire world, all the cosmos.

Secondly, the conversation between Jesus and John’s two disciples is simple. And not so much so. Jesus asks “What are you looking for?” But, because this is a bible story and because Jesus is asking a question, we know Jesus does not think these two strangers have lost their keys or its 1st century like thing. Jesus is inviting them to share from the depths of their hearts

  •  what are they seeking (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner)
  •  what they are longing for most hope for (Lose) and
  •  what motivates them (West).

The disciples’ answer is another question “Where are you staying?” Now, it is not unusual for a teacher to answer a student’s or follower’s question with a question. It is unusual the other way around. So, we know something is up which is that ‘staying’ is not reference to Jesus’ Inn number. What they want to know is where Jesus abides. (Clavier; Gaventa and Petersen). Later we will hear Jesus say:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (John 15:4.)

and a little later

… Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, … (John 15:5)

and just a bit further

and If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)

All of which is about our relationship with Jesus, which reflects Jesus’ relationship with God. The disciples want to know about Jesus’ relationship with God (Boring). It also is their way of saying “We want to stay with you.” which really means “We want to follow you (Lose).” “We want to be your disciples.” There are also implications that they are also seeking some stability, some purpose in life (West; Boring).

Jesus’ answer “Come and see.” sounds equally ordinary, but as the question is more than it sounds so is Jesus reply. “Come and see” is an invitation, but an invitation to what (Clavier)? Well, invitations usually have some sort of relationship feature (Lose). Here it is an offer to come to know Jesus through the eyes of faith (Boring).

The structure of the story also teaches us something about Jesus’ invitation to “Come and see.” We know the disciples spend a good deal of the day with Jesus. The next thing that happens is? Well – what does Andrew do? That’s right, He goes and tells his brother, Simon, they have found the messiah. The invitation to come and see Jesus is evangelism (Lose).

And here the story links back to John. John’s witness leads to his disciples becoming Jesus’ disciples (Harrelson). Their story of hearing John’s witness, and moving into Jesus’ presence is not complete until they witness to someone else (Harrelson; Boring). We cannot see it in English, but the form of ‘see’ is a completed past action whose effect continues into the present (Boring). So, just as John’s witness of Jesus’ baptism is not complete until he witnesses to his disciples, and the disciples’ witness is not complete until they witness to someone our witness of their witness, which we experience by reading and hearing scripture, is not complete until we invite someone else to “Come and see.”

A final observation. In the other Gospels, the disciples give up a way of life to follow Jesus. This morning, John’s disciples give up their previous religious commitment as disciples of John to become disciples of Jesus (Boring). Together with the new title of “Lamb of God” this is a reminder for us not to limit God/Jesus/Sprit to our preconceived ideas, and to always be open to new images or metaphors for understanding and experiencing different relationships to the faith community (Boring).

God/Jesus/Spirit does not change; however, the world, the time and space we live in does change (Lewis). This means the nature of our relationships with each other and the universe changes, and so the way others encounter God/Jesus/Spirit will be different, and the way, the language others can receive our witness to our experience of God/Jesus/Spirit changes. Which mean to be open to new expressions of the presence of God is to be faithful to God’s presence right here, right now. It means that you are free to witness, share, your new experience of God/Jesus/Spirit as you dive deep into what in life you are looking for.


References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.
Clavier, Anthony. “There Goes a Lamb, Epiphany 2(A).” 15 1 2017. Sermons that Work.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 8 1 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 15 1 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 1:29-42. 15 1 2017.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.
Lewis, Karoline. Timely Matters. 15 1 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lose, David. Epiphany 2 A: A Question, Invitation, and Promise. 15 1 2017.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
West, Audrey. Commentary on John 1:2942. 15 1 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lamb of God

O lamb of God, that takest away the sin to the world, 
have mercy on us.

I have heard, spoken and sung this versical for years beyond reckoning.  For decades I have known their source as John’s Gospel. I have never thought about what it means. It is self-evident: it’s a request for Jesus, the lamb of God, to take away the world’s sins, and oh yes, mine while you are at it. Straight forward; right? 

Well, maybe not. Scott Hoezee [i] and Richard Swanson [ii] both ask, and then seek to answer what John means when he names Jesus lamb of God and his purpose to take away the sins of the world. It turns out to be far more complex than you’d think. 

To begin with the phrase lamb of God appears only here, there are other references to Jesus as lamb, but this exact phrase is used only here. [iii]  If Jesus is a Passover lamb, there are image difficulties arising from the understanding of God joining the meal, and eating …. If Jesus is a sacrificial lamb, well sacrificial lambs are female, and while male goats are included, male lambs are left out!  [iv] Additionally, lambs are typically a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability not exactly a model for a messiah. 

Okay, let’s not get drawn overly deep into the lamb bit, let’s just focus on the core phrase, who takes away the sins of the world. How?  Let’s begin with take away which is rooted in the Greek lift up, which may imply lifting up sins so everyone can see them. Or it may refer to the firey serpent episode in Numbers with the bronze snake lifted to so those bitten can be healed. Or perhaps it’s a reference to being lifted up during crucifixion. We might even consider the sacrifice of Isaac, when God provide the lamb, but again there are translation difficulties. [v] 

From this mess of ancient sacrificial practices, and translation question an image emerges that is helpful, God provides for the healing of God’s people. Yes, we have our obligations to meet, nonetheless, the healing and redemption is accomplished through God in Jesus’s birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension.  All this being said, knowing the Lamb (sheep, sacrifice) of God, takes away (lifts up) the sin of the world, has mercy on us all the time, for all time, illumines lives. 


[i] Scott Hoezee, The Lectionary Gospel Text is: John 1:29-42, ep.calvinseminary.edu http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php, January 19, 2014

[ii] Richard Swanson, Commentary on John 1:29-42, Working Preacher, WorkingPreacher.org, January 19, 2014

[iii] Hoezee

[iv] Swanson

[v] ibib, and Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary.