John 1:1-9

Reading: John 1:1-9

How do you tell the story of Jesus — where do you start the story? What are the important points to cover? This question has been considered more times than any of us can count. It has been explored in books, in movies (such as The Greatest Story ever told), in music (such as Hadel’s Messiah), in Christmas and Easter pageants, in plays, and of course in sermons. In scripture, we have four gospels which each try to tell the story of Jesus in their own way; three of them are remarkably similar, and the other one is John, which we will study.

Matthew begins with listing Jesus’ ancestors while Mark and John do not find this necessary. Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, and every Gospel, including John, follows this pattern. Luke begins with the prediction that John the Baptist will be born, and John begins with a statement that the Word was there from the time of creation, is God, and then goes on to make it clear that this “Word” is Jesus.

The opening of John’s gospel makes sure that the reader knows that Jesus is eternal, Divine, and had a hand in creation while John the Baptist was a divinely called prophet, but while his mission was divine, he was a mere human. Before John begins his narrative with John the Baptist preaching and Baptizing, he thinks it is important to clarify that John the Baptist isn’t the main character, but merely introduces and reflects the main character.

Whenever I begin to read the gospels, John the Baptist’s place right at the start of the story always stands out to me. Every gospel introduces the adult John before they introduce the adult Jesus. Luke’s gospel goes so far as to giving John’s birth narrative before Jesus’ birth narrative; and while John’s birth narrative is quite abstract, and less than a narrative, it does talk about the man sent from God named John before it mentions the Word becoming flesh. You might know that John’s gospel is different than the others; Matthew and Luke closely follow Mark with their own additions, while John makes no apparent attempt to follow the others — whenever John feels it is important to say something in a similar way to the other gospels, it must be important.

One likely reason for this was suggested by my friend and fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom who said:

I think there’s a theme or thread that no teacher stands on their own in rabbinical circles. That was why everyone was quoting, this rabbi says this and that rabbi says that, who do you agree with and walked away stunned because Jesus have his own answer. Standing on your own is suspect, even today.

Jesus’ message was in many ways counter-intuitive and counter cultural. What Jesus taught challenged the way people saw the world, and it even challenged the way that the most religious people worshiped God. It was important that Jesus and his ideas be introduced because otherwise he would be dismissed right away as a madman. Jesus continued with many of the same themes as John the Baptist when John’s ministry ended. As hard as Jesus’ teachings were, they were not without precedent — John the Baptist prepared the crowds to receive Jesus’ teachings — and when John endorsed Jesus, those who understood that John was a reliable prophet knew that John regarded Jesus as his superior.

While this makes it clear why John the Baptist was important, it does not quite tell me why every gospel writer finds this to be important to introduce John first. Even if I say that the point of introducing John is so that we can see the divinity of Jesus at the time John Baptizes Jesus; as John’s gospel starts by explicitly stating that Jesus is divine, the narrative no longer demonstrates Christ’s nature to the reader; there must be another reason.

Recently, I thought about how I respond to stories — I tend to identify with a character; most often the most important character in the story. While I read or listen to the story, I empathize with that one character above all others, and that character is a lens to the rest of the story. Storytellers know that people do this, and they often choose which character this will be. I think it is possible that John is introduced before Jesus because he is a better character for us to identify with.

Jesus is unique. John’s gospel starts by telling us that Jesus is eternal and the God of creation. I might have a good imagination, but I cannot imagine nor identify with the Eternal. John 1 contrasts John the Baptist with Jesus by telling us that one is the Light that enlightens the world, the other bears witness to the Light. I cannot aspire to be the Light, but I can aspire to bear witness to that Light.

I like the idea of John as a positive example; the disciples are not so much positive examples as they are dunderheads. They have a great deal of passion, but it takes an act of God to get even the simplest of Jesus’ teachings through their think skulls. John God the core of Jesus’ teachings before Jesus even started teaching — if Jesus were merely a great teacher, he would be John the Baptist’s disciple; but the point is that Jesus is something greater. John is what, with God’s help, one of us mortals could aspire to be; as far as I can tell, John was as perfect as humanly possible.

One thing I learned when I was worshiping with Arab Christians is that John the Baptist is, in Eastern Icons, depicted with angel wings and is described as the “Angel of the desert”. This is because John was announced Jesus — he did the work of an angel. The remarkable thing is that if we follow what Jesus teaches his disciples to the very end, they are also called to do the work of angels — to announce God’s message to the world. John was, as Jesus said, the best of humanity.

If John the Baptist is an example for me as a witness to the Light, and as to the relationship I should have with Jesus, then this tells me something about the Christian life and the life of a minister. John pointed people to Jesus, and when people followed Jesus and paid less attention to John, he simply said: “He must increase, I must decrease.” As much as I like to be recognized, my job is to point to Jesus and to hope that people see Christ; my highest goal should be to never get in the way.

Of course, another possibility is that this has always been about Christology. Many people focus on the teaching of Jesus, and not the uniqueness nature of Jesus. It is, of course, right to pay attention to what Jesus taught, we are, as Christians, to obey Jesus, but, Christianity is not just about following a teacher, it is about the incarnation of God, and God living among us as a human being. John taught the same things Jesus taught, before Jesus taught them, but John was not divine, merely a prophet. Perhaps the gospels introduce John to show us there is something special about Jesus beyond what he taught. Perhaps we were introduced to a good teacher to show that Jesus was far more than the Good Teacher; if you will, John serves as a contrast between the best of Humanity and the Word made flesh.

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Luke 3: John’s ministry

Reading: Luke 3:1-20

John the Baptist is a rather amazing figure. The people of Judah believe that he is a prophet, and crowds come to him, they repent, and they are baptized. The people who come to hear him preach are of every social class, they are not only of every social class, but they are diverse politically: Herod’s brother Philip comes, Pharisees come, even soldiers and tax collectors come to hear John preach and to be baptized by John. If we jump forward to Luke 20, Jesus answers a question about his authority to preach with a question about John’s baptism, asking whether John’s baptism was of God or a personal whim. Those who asked him this question refused to answer because that question was just as much a trap as the question they asked Jesus — even though John had been executed, the people remembered him as God’s prophet.

There is something about John’s story that is difficult for me to understand — why was John popular? Why did people listen to him preach, why did they seek his advice on how to live their lives? Why did they repent and seek to be baptized? Why did both the leaders of society and the people at the bottom both go to hear him? Why did not only Jews but also Roman soldiers seek his advice?

This is even more confusing when you consider his ministry model; he went out to the wilderness to preach. John preached where the people were not, and where they would have to make a special effort to come to him. None of the gospel accounts gives me a hint as to how people even knew to go out into the wilderness to hear John. When people came to hear his preaching, he wasn’t exactly welcoming, but basically said: “Who invited you?” and proceeded to insult the people who came to him.

Add to this that he was a popular prophet, seen in the same light as the Old Testament prophets, even though when Tax collectors asked him what they should do, he did not suggest they stop collecting taxes, only that they don’t cheat by collecting extra and stealing it for themselves. Not only that, he advised Roman soldiers, the occupying army, not to seek bribes; but he did not condemn them for occupying Judea. John was far more generous to his people’s enemies than he was to the people themselves, yet they still came, listened to him preaching, sought his advice, repented and were Baptized.

To understand why this is confusing to me, imagine if we want to plant a church. Would we choose the strategy of sending a single person to go to Hoosier National forest, send him deep into the trees, have him eating bugs and do nothing to promote his message? If people came to hear him preach, would we suggest that instead of giving a welcome and a blessing, that he say: “who invited you?” as if new people are unwelcome? Would we have him insult the local population? Would we have him treating our national enemies if they could keep their affiliations, and would still be just as acceptable as the rest of us?

If somebody tried that strategy, my first expectation is that nobody would know where to find him; he would preach to the trees. Even if people knew where to find him, and there was a great number of people eager to go and see the forest madman, it is hard to imagine that he could keep a following when he makes the people who come feel unwelcome. “Who invited you?” isn’t something that I would dare say if we found new people sitting in the pews.

As little as this model makes sense, the thing is, it worked. A great crowd of people went to John, and many were baptized. John recognized Jesus, and he introduced Jesus to the crowds. Even though none of the things he did make any sense in my eyes, people heard God’s message, people repented, and people were pointed to Jesus. John accomplished his ministry to the point that we still speak of him even today. How can you get lasting results when you do everything wrong?

Now, I don’t know much about John’s ministry; I really only know what scripture tells me. John didn’t write a spiritual autobiography, and there are many details that the Gospels do not choose to tell us. As much as we remember John, he isn’t exactly the main character; he’s one of the characters who’s role ends in Act 1. If I speculate about John’s prayer life, or I speak of a mystical experience he might have had — I am merely speculating. I know he preached repentance, the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and the coming of Someone bigger than himself; but any question of John’s motivation is pure speculation.

Instead of completely blind speculation, I will do the best I can, and tell the story of a preacher who did something that made absolutely no sense, and yet somehow what he did worked.

How many of you know who Stephen Grellet was? Grellet was born in France in 1773, he was a member of the French Royal guard, but at the time of the French revolution, he was sentenced to death. Grellet became a refugee and immigrated to the United States in 1795.

In 1796, Grellet joined with the Society of Friends and would become one of our most prominent ministers. He preached throughout America, and he also traveled to most of the countries in Europe. He became so well known that he was granted a personal audience with a number of foreign dignitaries including Czar Alexander I and Pope Pius VII. Unlike John the Baptist, his Grellet’s journals were edited together to form an account of his life and ministry after he died; we do have a window into his motivations and life.

Now, the one part of Grellet’s ministry that makes no sense was when he felt that God called him to preach at a logging camp in Pennsylvania. This logging camp was a three-day journey away from him, but he felt God had a message for that place, so he traveled for three days. When he got to the place where he felt God called him nobody was there. There were no tents, only a single log cabin and it appeared that the workers had not used the building for several days. Grellet, after making this journey just to find nobody was there prayed and asked God what he should do. He felt that God told him to preach in the empty building, that it was God’s message and not his.

Grellet responded by walking into the building, and according to the memoir of his ministry, he spoke to the empty room as if there were 200 people in there to hear his message. The sermon was about how sin is a wall, but Jesus tears down that wall and has come to be with us. He then prayed for the lumberjacks, and when he was finished he emotionally collapsed. He looked around, saw that he preached a sermon to an empty room. He saw the dishes that the lumberjacks left behind, and felt like a complete idiot because he traveled three days, one way, to give a sermon to an empty room. He knew what he did made no sense, and was a complete waste of a week, but he took comfort in that he was obedient.

Six years later Stephen Grellet was on a trip to London, and he had a chance meeting with an American out in the streets of London. This American recognized Stephen Grellet as somebody who was influential in his life, even though Stephen didn’t recognize the man. It turns out that this man was a lumberjack, and had gone back to the camp for a tool. When he got there, there was this crazy guy preaching to an empty room. The lumberjack waited until the crazy man had gone before fetching his tool, but while he waited he heard the sermon. He heard about sin’s wall and how Jesus tears it down. Something about this sermon worked on his heart, and he got a Bible. When he got the Bible, he read, and he read about Jesus coming for the one lost sheep and he felt that he was that one sheep. This lumberjack shared his testimony with his lumber-camp, and the whole lumber-camp heard the message that the one lumberjack brought them, and many were inspired by this message.

There were a number of things about Grellet’s journey that makes little sense: he made no appointment, he just spent a week traveling to and from a camp that might not bother to listen to him; when he got there, he found the camp empty and he preached anyways. This seems like a waste of time and energy. It seems a poor strategy. There is a reason that Stephen Grellet felt a fool after preaching his sermon but the important thing is that he was obedient and God worked in ways that Stephen could not see. Somehow God brought the message and the person who needed to hear the message together.

Now, after this story, I still can’t do much more than speculate on John’s motivation, but I have a direction in which to speculate. Our God is a God of miracles. Our best plans will never be as good as obedience. Our best strategies will never succeed better than God’s providence. Sermons in the wilderness can have a very real audience and exactly the audience that needs to hear. John’s sermon is one that we still hear today, “repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”

John the Miricle-Baby: Luke 1:5-25

Reading: Luke 1:5-25

The first thought I had when I looked at this passage was: “The gospels always start with John the Baptist;” so, I decided to look through old sermons and I saw that I focused on that about a year ago. Reading my old sermon, I see that I observed that John’s life has some parallels to Jesus’ life, and thus we get hints about where the Jesus story is going by remembering John’s story. I also quoted my fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom, who pointed out that you can’t have a completely original teacher, somebody needs to say it first; as she said: “Standing on your own is suspect, even today.”

I think that this is important enough to mention again; we need John, because without John we wouldn’t be ready to hear Jesus. We not only needed John, but we also needed the law, and generations of prophets who interpreted the law. God had been working in the world for hundreds of generations before the time was right for Jesus; God not only sent John, but God also sent Moses and Isaiah and others.

This is one thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about this year — how there are a number of tropes in scripture. When we were going through Genesis, we heard similar stories told generation after generation. Abraham called his wife sister, and his son Isaac did the same with Rebekah. Abraham favored Isaac, Isaac favored Esau while Rebekah favored Jacob, and Jacob favored Joseph over all his other sons. Brothers fought; Cain and Abel fought, Esau and Jacob fought, and Joseph and his brothers fought.

The trope I see here that is repeated in scripture is the story of a woman who has given up on the hope of having a child. We see this happening with Sarah. Sarah goes so far as to try to get a son through her servant Hagar. Rachel, when she can’t have a child tries to get one through Bilhah, of course, another woman having a child really isn’t a successful strategy, and it is not the strategy that Elizabeth used.

There are a number of women in scripture who were concerned that they didn’t have children, and either prayed for a child or just gave up on the possibility. Isaac prayed that Rebekah would have children, because she had none — and Rebekah had twins. Manoah’s wife was barren, and an angel Manoah and his wife and told them that they would have a son — that son’s name would be Sampson. Hannah prayed for years that she would have a son — her prayers eventually became so desperate that she was thrown out of the place of worship for being drunk, but she shared with the priest Eli why she was praying and he blessed her saying: “may God grant you what you asked.” She gave birth to the prophet Samuel, the prophet who anointed both king Saul and King David. There are a number of miracle babies throughout scripture. Elizabeth and Zechariah were one of many who had a miracle baby.

Why is there a trope of miracle babies? In the case of Abraham, he needed a miracle because without one, everything that he had and worked for would go to one of his employees and his family line would die with him. With everything that was promised, and apparently everything that was expected of him (Abram, meaning exalted father, implies that something was expected of him); clearly a miracle was needed. In the case of Rebekah, Isaac prayed on behalf of his wife. In the case of Manoah and his wife, Sampson was a bit of a savior to the people of Israel — he saved them from the Philistines. In the case of Hannah, her son was one of the greatest prophets — the prophet who made messiah-kings; the prophet who created David’s royal line.

One reason for this is that having babies is important, especially in ancient societies. Even ordinary farmers with a bit of land and migrant herdsmen need somebody who will inherit and take on the work. There is a sense that through children, our place in the world is bigger than ourselves and the world will grow.

Another reason is as simple as shame. Women were expected to marry and have children. When things don’t go as expected – especially when it is an expectation of society, people do suffer shame. Unfortunately, it can go beyond personal shame, people say things. I once spoke with a woman who miscarried, and the idea of where to place blame came up. Even though there was nobody to blame, it is how we often react when things don’t go as expected.

In a case such as Elizabeth and Zechariah, there was another thing that was a bit significant. Zechariah was a temple priest; he served in the Holy place. You know that priests are Levites, and the inheritance of the Levites is positions between the religious and government bureaucracies. Priests were not just Levites — they were a single family within the Levite tribe. Not having a child meant that Zechariah would know that when he retired from his position, it would be given to a nephew or a younger cousin. His name would never be mentioned when people listed their male ancestors from their father all the way to Aaron the brother of Moses.

With all these social pressures, it is no doubt that Elizabeth would be absolutely devastated when she admitted to herself that there would be no son. But, like all these other stories, before there is a miracle baby, an angel makes a special visit — in this case Gabriel appears to Zechariah. When Elizabeth is pregnant, she says: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25 NRSV)

The older story that this is most similar to is that of Hannah, where the priest Eli blesses her at the place of worship, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel. It is similar, not only because it included a message from God at a place of worship, but because John and Samuel are similar. Samuel is special, because it is Samuel who creates the monarchy, and establishes David as king. Samuel is the man who introduces David to the world. John is special, because he preaches the gospel of repentance before Jesus appears on the scene — John baptizes Jesus and announces what Jesus is to the world.

The most important thing though is that David and Jesus established a kingdom; a kingdom that is supposed to be something different, something righteous. A kingdom where the people try to follow God’s law, and are governed by God’s principles. David’s kingdom of course failed in many ways; he is honored because he built something great, but he didn’t quite live up to the standard of Righteousness found in the Torah. David’s descendants, with a precious few exceptions didn’t even try. For all the good intentions to for a nation where God is God, and the people live in righteousness, Judah and Israel became very much kingdoms of the Earth.

Jesus said that he was here to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, or in some passages the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ kingdom is different — it is not one of the Earthly kingdoms ruled by corruptible human leaders. One thing that I’ve learned from history is that theocracies don’t seem to go well. They start with good intentions, but eventually someone who abuses power gains power. What started as a light shining in the darkness becomes just as dark as everything around it. God’s kingdom is different — it isn’t a kingdom of the world, and it won’t become a kingdom of the world. Samuel introduced a king that would produce a dynasty lasting for about four centuries, but John introduces a King who’s rein lasts for eternity.

Matthew 3:2 has the adult John saying: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John preaches that God will overthrow the current systems, and that there is one that will baptize with the Holy Spirit — and then John baptizes Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is as near as Jesus is. This is the good news that starts with John’s message — the kingdom of Heaven is coming, and it came with Jesus and through Jesus we are given a place in the eternal kingdom. This message starts with Zechariah in the temple meeting an angel who tells him about his miracle baby.

Why does the gospel start with John the Baptist?

Reading: Luke 3:1-18

When the gospels tell us about Jesus as an adult, they introduce us to John the Baptist first. If you recall, Mark’s introduction is a quote from Isaiah, and the narrative begins with a description of John in the wilderness. In the gospel of John, the introduction includes in John 1:6 “There was a man sent from God, his name was John”, and when the story begins it again begins with John. Matthew and Luke are different, both Matthew and Luke begin with a birth narrative and some items about the early childhood of Jesus — but, when it comes time to see Jesus as an adult, John appears first. We don’t meet Jesus by ourselves — John introduces Jesus to us.

This seems somewhat strange to me; John isn’t exactly a major character; he holds little purpose in the story beyond introducing Jesus to the crowds. John is sort of an extra that is part of the introduction, and then is either never mentioned again, or there is a little scene that ends his rather brief side story. My editorial hand almost wants to suggest that the writer let John diminish, and begin the story with Jesus.

Of course, even if I were able to sit and talk with the original Evangelists, I would not dare offer my opinion on how to make the story flow better. I am confident that they knew what they were doing — and that anything we notice when we hear the story of the gospel is something that we were supposed to notice; so I’m sure that I’m supposed to notice that John is introduced, and then John introduces Jesus — what I don’t know is why — all I can offer is guesses.

One guess that I have is that we are being told the Gospel the way that we hear the gospel. I don’t know about you, but my introduction to Jesus didn’t start by meeting Jesus randomly in a crowd. I was born into a Christian home, and my parents told me about Jesus — so my path to the Christian faith started by somebody pointing me in the right direction. John serves as the Evangelist in the story — telling the crowds, and by extension those hearing the Gospel story, who Jesus is, and then introducing them to Jesus at the time of the Baptism. John might be there so that we all see that we need an evangelist to point us to Jesus, because we really don’t know what we are looking for.

Another guess is that John is one of a line of people who received a messianic prophecy. The Christmas story is full of people who heard some sort of message from God about the Baby Jesus, and responded to it. Luke’s gospel has Gabriel’s message to Mary, and Mary’s response. Matthew’s gospel has the angel’s message to Joseph, and Joseph’s response. Shepherds and Magi somehow heard the message about Christ, and responded by coming to worship him. Luke’s Gospel also tells us about the prophets Simeon and Anna, who recognized the 8 day old Jesus as the Messiah. The Gospels quote long dead prophets to tell us that they expected Jesus, though they did not see what they were waiting for. It is quite possible that the gospel writers are connecting with the prophetic tradition by telling the stories of the contemporary prophets who actually lived to see what they were waiting for, and as Luke tells us of multiple contemporary prophetic visions, I feel pretty good about this guess.

Another possibility is the one that I suggested in my introduction to our study of Mark; I suggested that the small things that were said about John were there to give hints to the listeners about what would happen to Jesus — Mark tells us that John was arrested because what he said offended the leaders, and that later he was killed; so John gives the listeners a hint. I like this theory for Mark much better than I like it for Luke; it is reasonable to listen to Mark recited, in full, by a storyteller; Luke is much longer and needs to be broken into several chunks — but Luke really assembled his Gospel from sources more than wrote it. 42% of Luke is recognizably Mark’s gospel, and Luke quotes (or paraphrases) 79% of the content of Mark. If Mark used John to foreshadow what happened to Jesus, then Luke would have followed Mark because Mark was Luke’s most used source.

Another possibility was suggested to me by my friend, and fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom was than nobody announces themselves. She said:

I think there’s a theme or thread that no teacher stands on their own in rabbinical circles. That was why everyone was quoting, this rabbi says this and that rabbi says that, who do you agree with and walked away stunned because Jesus have his own answer. Standing on your own is suspect, even today.

We all need credentials; whether that is a degree, or a letter of recommendation, or just a trusted person offering an introduction — wise people don’t listen to random nobodies. There is a saying about those who listen to people who believe people based only on how confident they seem: “A fool and his money are soon parted.” When we see somebody appear out of nowhere, with no verifiable credentials or references claiming to be some expert, I know it’s time to lock up my wallet and hide the key. A person who speaks for himself, and has nothing to back it up is almost certainly a con-man — and I know enough people who have been taken in by con-men. There is a reason that Jesus was introduced by prophets who had nothing to gain by the introduction. John’s prophecy, along with the others are Jesus’ credentials.

As I said, I’m really not sure why the gospel writers always seem to start with John when they tell the story of Jesus’ ministry. I do know that the evangelists had their reasons, and it is one of those things that I sometimes think about when I read the gospels. What I do know is that every possibility that I mentioned rings true for me. Jesus didn’t just appear to me, somebody introduced me to Jesus, just as John introduced Jesus to the crowds. Not only did the people consider John to be a prophet, but John was a prophet. John not only told people that Jesus was coming, but he also spoke to them about their sins, and how they should live their lives in a Roman world while being faithful to God’s law; and, Jesus did that too. John was, in many ways, a foreshadowing of Jesus.

I assume most of you have heard of Lewis’s trilemma, which is an argument for the divinity of Christ given by C.S. Lewis in a Radio lecture which later became part of Mere Christianity — I will read it as C.S. Lewis states it.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.  (C.S. Lewis — Book 2 Chapter 3, Mere Christianity) 

C.S. Lewis makes the point quite well — the claims of Jesus and the claims of Christianity are rather hard to believe. If just Jesus were speaking with nobody and nothing to back up what he said, one would consider it to be insane, dangerous, and likely blasphemous. If we went into the story cold, we might very well think we were being told the story of a madman; and then when the story hits Easter, be filled with confusion. We desperately need to be told at the start that Jesus is God with us, because if we expect him to be a normal, like us, we won’t understand the story. Because John introduces Jesus we know from the start the answer of the question: “liar, lunatic or Lord” — and knowing, we can start to hear the story of Jesus.