January 17, 2021 Pastor Pat's Sermon Notes

In the book, In the Eye of the Storm , Max Lucado tells this story on him

One summer while I was in high school I worked laying pipe in the West Texas oil field. At lunchtime the workers in the oil field would tell jokes and play cards. “For 30 minutes in the heat of the day,” [Max writes] “the oil patch became Las Vegas – – replete with foul language, dirty stories, blackjack, and barstools that doubled as lunch pails.”

One day during lunch a supervisor walked toward us. Did he have a job for us and couldn’t wait? we wondered. “Uh, Fellows,” he said. We all turned and looked up at him. “I, uh, I just wanted, uh, to invite…” We could tell he was uncomfortable with whatever he was trying to tell us. He tried again. “I just wanted to tell you that our church is having a service tonight and…” “What?” I thought to myself in disbelief. “He’s talking church? Out here? With us!?” “I wanted to invite any of you to come along,” the supervisor said.There was a silence among us. Several stared at the dirt. Others just looked at each other. No one said anything.

“Well, that’s it,” he said. “If any of you want to go… Let me know.” After saying that he left. We all began to laugh. Five years later I was a college sophomore struggling with a decision. I admit I drifted from faith. I wanted to know Jesus again. But the price was too high. My friends might laugh. That’s when I thought of the supervisor in the oil field. That supervisor’s love for God had been greater than his concern for his reputation. “So I came home,” Max concluded.

Throughout the pages of the Bible we find a God who loves us and wants the very best for each of us. Sometimes God speaks to us directly. At other times God speaks to us through others, such as that supervisor. In either case we must respond to the voice of God. God does speak.  This morning we have in our lessons two cases in which God speaks and calls, from which we can learn how to answer when he calls on us. In the first lesson, in the time of the prophets, before the kings of Israel, when Israel was led by what were known as judges - think Othniel and Deborah, Gideon and Samson, we hear the story of Samuel’s call; this prophet and judge would eventually anoint first Saul and then David as kings of Israel. Then, in the gospel lesson, the call of the first disciples is exemplified in Jesus’ invitation to Nathaniel. Let’s take a look at those two vignettes: Samuel was just a young boy when he went to live in the Tabernacle with the old priest Eli. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had dedicated her son to God’s service, even before his birth. His name means “Name of God.” Samuel had all the energy and enthusiasm of a child. We are told Eli was old and his eyesight had grown dim. Eli’s sons were next in line to be high priest, but they were not like Eli. In fact, they were outright frauds. And, the writer of Samuel tells us, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Perhaps there was simply no one worthy to hear it. 

Samuel’s sleeping quarters were in the Tabernacle – right near the famed Ark of the Covenant. I’ve always wondered about this. Our text says, “Samuel was lying down in the Temple of the Lord, where the Ark of God was.” On the one hand, it would certainly be exciting to be welcomed into the inner sanctum of the tabernacle, into the Holy of Holies. On the other hand, I can’t help but remember, that’s where a quick glimpse of God nets you the end of your story. But there little Sammy sleeps, and one night, while Eli and his sons were sleeping in their tent nearby, God called the young Samuel, “Samuel! Samuel!” And the young boy was startled awake. The sanctuary was a strange place for a boy. And his mother was not nearby to comfort him. He was alone in this extraordinary place and he had heard a peculiar voice calling his name. You might imagine he would have been alarmed.

His first thought was that it must’ve been Eli. Eli must need something. Who else would be calling him? Samuel got out of bed and raced to Eli’s tent. “Here I am,” the young boy says, “for you called me.” Now Eli was sound asleep, along with his sons. But it hadn’t been Eli who called him. Samuel’s commotion must’ve been equally disturbing to Eli. You can almost hear Eli thinking in his disturbed sleep: had this sort of thing happened before? Was Samuel prone to hearing voices in the night? Did he often have nightmares? Was he going to be too much of a bother to have around? I can imagine Eli didn’t like being awakened in the middle of the night like this. “I didn’t call,” he says brusquely to Samuel. “Go and lie down!” Dejectedly, Samuel went back to bed. But he was certain someone had called his name.

As he began to fall asleep, once more he heard the voice calling his name: “Samuel.” Again, he raced to Eli’s tent. This time he was sure that someone had called him. Again Eli sent him back to bed, somewhat exasperated for these disturbances to his sleep. After the second time, we are told Samuel “did not know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” And we shake our heads and think, “how silly of him,” knowing, of course, we would’ve been able to distinguish right away who was calling, right? But still, Samuel had no idea who was calling him that night.

Then it happened a third time. Again Samuel rushed to Eli’s side.

God does speak; the problem is that maybe we don’t really listen. It took old Eli three times before he realized that it was God who was calling Samuel. You would think that a priest who had devoted most of his life to God’s service would realize sooner who was on the line. Perhaps for Eli, too, it was because “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” that he failed to get it the first three times. To Eli’s credit, he finally tells Samuel that if he hears the voice again to reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Why would God be calling Samuel? Samuel was just a young boy, perhaps as young as seven or eight. Probably hadn’t even yet made his Bar Mitzvah! But notice that God calls persons of all ages; we are never too young; we are never too old. Samuel returns to bed. If he hears the voice again, he will respond as Eli has instructed.  And of course, God speaks. What prevents us from hearing? Could it be that we fail to listen? Maybe we need to discipline ourselves to hear the still small voice of God, and then invite him to speak when we recognize his voice, saying “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Perhaps we have missed God’s call because we’ve been too busy being in control of our own lives. God speaks. Some of us haven’t been listening. That brings us to the point of this ancient but well-loved story. 

“Here I am” is the ready response. After waking old Eli up for the third time, Samuel goes back to bed. Samuel would be called one more time that night. This time when God calls, “Samuel! Samuel!” young Samuel pops up saying exactly what Eli instructed him to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And God spoke to Samuel.  One reason we might be reluctant to hear God’s call is the changes he might require of us. That night in the tabernacle, God spoke to young Samuel and gave him some rather disturbing news. Samuel would become a prophet, indeed, the last of the Judges. Eli was on his way out. God told Samuel, “I am about to punish his house forever.” God had had enough of Eli’s sons. Samuel would take Eli’s place. Samuel probably didn’t want to hear that, but God assured him he would not be alone. 

We need to understand as well that if God calls us and we respond, “Here I am,” there might be changes in store for us, too, but we are never left alone.  You might imagine Samuel wasn’t able to go back to sleep that night. He had been awakened four times in one night. Now he had this heavy message to consider. More than likely he spent the rest of the night awake. Everything happened just as God told him it would. Later, with the news that Eli’s sons had been killed, Eli himself died. In the closing verse of chapter 3 we discover that, “All Israel… knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.” 

Moving on in God’s story, did you ever stop to think about how Jesus put his team together? No MBTI evaluations, no references, no headhunters, not even an application process, very much like an NFL draft, without the scouting or the combine. And what an unlikely group of “leaders” Jesus chooses: some fishermen, a few whose jobs we never hear about, and a tax collector; among them, possibly one of royal blood, descended from David himself, and at least one, perhaps two malcontented Zealots, who hate Rome and everything it stands for, and wouldn’t think twice about out and out rebellion, even murder – imagine the initial snarling match between Simon the Zealot and Matthew the collector of Roman taxes – talk about building friction, tension, and strife into your team! And not a scholar among them.

Jesus rolls out his IPO with what appears to be little actual employment strategy, leads them in practical application training and seminars for three years, then, just before he disappears before them into the clouds, tells them to wait in Jerusalem for something special to happen, which they do in heightened fear and anxiety. Suddenly, as they’re considering just how they ought to celebrate Pentecost, one of the high festivals of Judaism, the Holy Spirit falls on them, and Jesus’ choice of them seems to be genius, because from the first day on, the church goes viral.

Now that’s a rewrite of the Gospels and of the first chapters of the book of Acts, more or less. But I’d like you to notice something very important in this whole call process. Jesus could call just about anyone simply because what the family business is all about is going to be empowered and anointed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and not by any particular strength or wisdom on the part of those chosen

Oh, please don’t misunderstand. God can and will use the specific way in which you are SHAPEd, but he’s certainly not restricted by that. If he can use a donkey to preach to Balaam, a Midianite diviner and prophet, he can use me to preach, or you to pray, or sing, or share, or fund his kingdom work, or, horrors, do outreach.  So trust the Holy Spirit to work in your life and in Christ’s church. 

That brings us to the story of Nathaniel’s call some 1100 years after Samuel. It doesn’t appear to be quite so startling a revelation; it doesn’t take place in such a holy location; the call was a good deal easier to hear and respond to. Nonetheless, its message is just as important.

Do you have a favorite place to go, a place nobody else knows about other than you? Is it a secret place where you can be alone, maybe to write in a diary or pray to God or just do your own thing? If you have such a place, then you can understand the reaction when Jesus of Nazareth told Nathaniel Bartholomew that he had seen him under the fig tree.

It makes sense to guess that there was a fig tree in Nathaniel’s yard where he was accustomed to reading Scripture and praying in private. Fig trees grow well in climates such as Israel. In the summertime, the fig tree is a big leafy, shady tree whose figs weigh the branches down until they hang quite low. It was cool under that fig tree, cool and shady on even the hottest summer afternoon. I suspect Nathaniel’s tree was just like that, a quiet place of refuge and of meditation, far from the prying eyes of neighbor or passerby. But not far from the view of one who sees all and knows all – Jesus our Lord.

Thus it is the Lord who broke in on Nathaniel’s happy, carefree life, and changed it forever with merely a word of recognition. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus told him. It was enough of a call for Nathaniel; it was enough of a reason to leave everything and follow, and it was a call that changed his life.  Whatever his prior occupation, he left its security to follow Jesus. Whatever his prior reservations – remember he had said to his brother, Philip, scoffing, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – he left any reservations behind to follow Jesus. Whatever his prior commitments, however full his weekly reminder, he gave them up to follow Jesus. 

Scripture tells us little more about this Nathaniel, son of Tholmai, Bartholomew, other than that he was one of the dejected disciples who accompanied Peter when he decided to go fishing after Jesus death and resurrection. Nathaniel was there when the fishermen toiled all night long only to catch nothing. He was there as Peter swam to shore to meet Jesus, left behind to pull in the teeming net of fish capsizing the boat. He was there to hear Jesus restore Peter to leadership in the group, and he ate of the fish Jesus had prepared for his fishermen, even as he had shared with them and eaten of the Sacrament promising both forgiveness and life to those who believe in Jesus.

Nathaniel had his decision to follow vindicated, for he was doubtless present at Pentecost to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Tradition tells us that he lived his life as an apostle, being martyred in India rather than giving up his preaching. Somehow such a response seems characteristic of one whom Jesus found to be “… an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathaniel Bartholomew had discovered that something good could come from Nazareth – something no less significant than his Savior and his Lord. Accepting Phillip’s invitation to “come and see,” he began a glorious adventure with Jesus, an adventure we too share.

For, along with Nathaniel, we’re seen by Jesus under our “fig trees,” and the one who sees us there calls us to repentance and to service. And as we learned last week that in Baptism we receive from God both his affirmation of affection and his proclamation of purpose, so too in the Lord’s call we receive affirmation of our worth and notice of our mission. And, like Nathaniel, we may recognize our Savior and King, and we may also hear him call us to serve him in this life and in the life to come.  God speaks to us in many ways. We need to spend more time listening. And we must be prepared to follow and to change, to allow for the transformation the Holy Spirit brings, and to become, by the grace of God, new people. 

The next time you hear someone calling you in the night, it just might be God. When the invitation comes to leave the comfort of your secret place, the Lord might be inviting you to a greater adventure. When you hear that call, respond as young Samuel did, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Follow along as Nathaniel did, and witness God’s marvelous grace at work in your world. Once we have encountered God in our lives we will never again be the same.

January 10, 2021 Pastor Pats Sermon Notes

Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

The Baptism of Our Lord

I suspect that, having made it to mid-January, you would say that you have successfully survived the holidays, even though somewhat muted this year because of the circumstances, which for many of us means we’ve also, so far survived covid! The celebrations of our Savior’s birth – Christmas; then the New Year; and finally the Feast of the Three Kings, on January 6, Epiphany, or as it has come to be known for many of us, The Feast of Taking Down the Decorations, have all passed. This morning I want to suggest that there is one more holiday we should be observing – THIS day, the one the liturgical calendar designates to remember the baptism of our Lord. If the witness of Scripture is to be taken seriously, this day must be even MORE important than those others. After all, only Matthew and Luke record anything about Jesus’ birth, but all FOUR Gospels report his baptism, PLUS acts and Romans. In fact, in centuries past the church DID celebrate this day even more than the days remembering the holy birth, but we have drifted away from that practice. 

It’s sad, really, because in the process, we have relegated to minor importance an event that, when properly understood, can give us a sense of enthusiasm, encouragement, and absolute joy.

Think about the scene for a moment. We are down by the Riverside… the Jordan. There is a throng of people from all walks of life who have made this mini-pilgrimage into the countryside. They had come to see an itinerant preacher who is more than just strange – a coarse camel’s-hair tunic with a leather belt around his waist, the uniform of a prophet since the days of Elijah. A diet of locusts and honey, one I’m certain would not be approved by the FDA as a possible weight reduction regimen! But maybe so – our son Ken received a gift of dried crickets, with various spices, I suspect to cover the taste, for Christmas from his wife this year. Not sure exactly what she’s meaning…

Back to our scene - it was longing and anticipation that brought this mass of people out – there was a sense that something was missing in their walk with God, so they were ready to listen to a new voice. And John the Baptists is a powerful new voice: according to the other Biblical sources he shouts, “You pack of snakes! Who warned you to run from the anger of God that is coming on you? Clean up your act! And do not presume to rely on the fact that you are Israelites – God’s chosen people – to save you. Get right and do right.” The crowds asked what to do. He responded, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Tax collectors were told, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers were instructed, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” It was a message that affirmed what they already knew: if they would be right with God, they had to be right with, not only God, but God’s children as well. Then as a sign of their commitment to repentance and a new way of living, they made their way down into the river, allowed John to “bury” their old ways under the water in baptism, then raise them again to a better life. Neat ceremony. Wonderful symbolism. And in the hands of a dynamic personality… so forceful and impressive that some were led to think that John was the promised Messiah finally come. So forceful and impressive in fact that sometime later in the Book of Acts, recorded in our Epistle lesson today, Paul runs into a band of believers who know nothing about the Holy Spirit’s promised coming in baptism and know only the baptism of John, yet are described as believers in Jesus. Paul sets them straight, baptized them and then laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied, in other words, they experienced Pentecost themselves and it completed their baptism in Jesus!

But, back to the Jordan - there John the Baptist debunked the notion of his own preeminence out of hand: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Then one day it happened… Jesus comes. The request for baptism is made of John. John is initially reluctant, then acquiescence follows. Finally, the dramatic climax. As our lesson has it, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” What an image! It is as if God the Father, confined to heaven at this fantastic moment, in euphoric frustration rips open the very fabric of the universe to lay claim upon his Son. It is a cosmic yes, arms raised high and feet dancing. It is love spilling out, the cup overflowing. Not celebrating the conclusion of a work well done, but before anything at all was done by Jesus, who is only now about to embark on his ministry.

THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING! Jesus’ baptism ushered in a new baptism. Christian baptism became not just a washing away of sin, as John’s baptism was, but the baptism that brings a special relationship with God and the power of the Holy Spirit for witness. Why? For no reason other than God chooses to do it. Now, that’s worth a holiday in my book.

Perhaps we should be used to this by now, but once more, all our high and holy religious expectations are trashed. It started with the ruler of the entire universe entering this world how? As an all-powerful potentate? No. An utterly helpless infant. The King of creation being born where? A palace? No. Among the animals. As life went on his best friends were who? The privileged and powerful? No. The down and dirty, the outcasts, those on life’s fringes, the nobodies. And, of course, at the end of it all, instead of doing what the world would consider the really smart thing, and not dying, he dies. Then three days later, SURPRISE!!! Empty tomb! Why should we be amazed when we learn that God loves us for no more reason than good parents do: just because. No surprise, because, actually, God is love.

And this is half the message of Jesus’ baptism and our own – we are loved. Most folks understand that, and that is why they get all warm and fuzzy when it comes to presenting their little ones for the sacrament.

I read a definition of grace that I think is powerful and applicable here. Grace is the willing transmission of an unmerited blessing to an unworthy recipient at great cost to the Giver. And God does that because He loves the world so much…

But there is another side to this baptism event, and it is this: WE HAVE WORK TO DO. Remember, this happened at the start of Jesus’ ministry. This was his commissioning service. Now, almost 20 centuries later, when someone is baptized in the church (infant or adult), it is no different. There is surely the affirmation of God’s incredible and unconditional love and… and this is a big AND… a commissioning to service in the name of Jesus Christ, the One into whose name we are baptized. That is why we take so seriously the promises that new disciples make or their parents make on their behalf – to live the Christian faith, to teach that faith to the children. We even go for extra help: as we present the baptized to the congregation with the proclamation, “Through baptism God has made these new sisters and brothers members of the priesthood we all share in Christ Jesus, that we may proclaim the praise of God and bear his creative and redeeming Word to all the world,” you, the ministers in this place, are called upon to add your affirmation, “We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We receive you as fellow members of the body of Christ, children of the same heavenly Father, and workers with us in the kingdom of God.” New disciples have work to do, and they will need all the help they can get. So we invite them to stand beside us in ministry and mission.

Both of the elements are important: the affirmation of affection and the proclamation of purpose. Lacking one or the other, we are incomplete.

Among the millions of Jews imprisoned by the Nazis in the death camps of the 1930s and 40s was Viktor Frankl. In spite of the horrors and the odds, he survived. Around him, next to him, each day of his ordeal, dozens, hundreds, thousands of fellow Jews, and others, died, many of them, of course, in the ovens – but many others died by giving up hope, losing heart, overwhelmed by horror and fear and hopelessness. Frankl survived, he said, because two forces sustained him: one was the certainty of his wife’s love. The other was an inner drive to rewrite the manuscript of the book he had completed after years of labor – but the Nazis had destroyed. Frankl’s imprisonment was lightened by daily imaginary conversations with his wife and by scrawling notes for his book on all the bits and scraps of paper he could find. And Frankl has written eloquently of these two insights to cope with life: first, the discovery and certainty of being loved, and, second, having a clear and controlling purpose in life. Both are the messages we receive in Christian baptism: the affirmation of affection and the proclamation of purpose.

A blog from a pastor I read recently said:

Quote “I think of the story that appeared a number of years ago in the midst of the upheaval in the former Soviet Union about the fact that Gorbachev’s grandmother had had him baptized as an infant, and what that meant as far as his willingness to see and do things differently. I think of the conversion and baptism of the former slave trader, John Newton, and his ministry of healing and grace which continues through his hymns, which include, “On Our Way Rejoicing,” and “Amazing Grace.” I think of how important Luther’s remembrance that “I am baptized” was to him in moments of trial and despair… I will be honest. I tremble and grow weak when I do baptisms… And I weep. Not because of some cute-little-baby-warm-fuzzy-isn’t-this-a-nice-family picture kind of feeling, but because I think it is the most radical and dangerous thing I do. And maybe because it is so radical, so dangerous, so threatening, that people either flee the church as they get older, or they weep when we have the opportunity to reaffirm our baptismal vows.” End quote…

The Baptism of the Lord was a big deal, and much bigger than we have given it credit for in its implications for you and me. Perhaps if we celebrated this day as a holiday… a HOLY day… we might reclaim the importance of the sacrament. After all, what we do in those sacred moments at the font has the potential for unleashing incredible power. The message is: you are loved and you have a purpose; that combination makes you very special.

You’re all familiar with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. No matter what folks think of Jesse’s politics, most everyone will agree that he is an incredible speaker and can genuinely communicate. Jesse speaks in many different settings, and one of those he enjoys the most is school auditoriums – he loves addressing students, particularly those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, to give them a sense of their own worth and a vision of a better future. Some years ago, he began concluding his speeches by having the youngsters respond to his urgings with a litany of self-affirmation. He would say something or ask some question and he would have the kids respond, “I am somebody!” Over and over again, the youngsters would be asked about themselves and the response would be, “I am somebody!” By the time Jesse would be done, those students would be positively bellowing, “I am somebody,” and they would leave with a sense of worth that, for many, would be brand-new.

The first message of your baptism and my baptism is that, in God’s grand scheme of things, I am somebody… you are somebody. The world asks, “Who are you?” And because of your baptism you can proudly proclaim, I am somebody in Christ. The world says we have no interest in you, but you can say, “World, you had better pay attention,” because you audaciously affirm, “I am somebody!” Your detractors can say that they can ignore you, but because of your baptism, you can say, “You dare not, because I am somebody!” Society says we have no need of you, but you can say, “Oh, yes, you do, because, in Christ, I am somebody!”

The second message of your baptism and my baptism is that, in God’s grand scheme of things, we are called, empowered, and sent for the purpose of declaring God’s great love for all humanity, to show the way, “making the paths straight,” as John the Baptist was commissioned, for any and all others to come home to God. At our baptism, God pours His Holy Spirit into us so that we have power to witness to his grace and majesty, wherever we are.

We take this moment to consider our baptisms. When you do, you tell me whether or not this day that recalls the baptism of the Lord deserves a holiday. I think absolutely! Because at its heart it teaches me that my own baptismal status, in spite of all my fears and failures, in spite of any worry and wonder, once and for all, in the eyes of the God of all the universe, I am somebody! You are somebody! And because we are somebody, we are in Christ and we have work to do, for Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let us pray. Gracious Lord, we are grateful to have been chosen, not only for your love, but your service as well. Help us to joyously celebrate your affection, but then equally joyful, set us about the work for that which you set us apart. Your Kingdom come, your will be done. Right here, right now, build your Kingdom and use us. We pray, Father, in the name of Jesus, empower us with your Spirit. Amen!

Pastor Pat's January 3rd, Sermon Notes

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18

2nd Sunday After Christmas

I saw a book at Barnes & Noble, on the sale rack, one of my favorite places to browse for books. “1,000 Events that Shaped the World” published by National Geographic, August, 2019, is described as:

A fascinating sweep of global developments, this fact-filled book delivers what National Geographic has introduced into households for more than a century: The world and all that is in it. A thousand concise nuggets of text, each focused on one event and numbered chronologically, walk readers through time —from the first evidence of life 3.8 billion years ago to a just-discovered planet beyond our solar system that could harbor life as we know it.

Accompanied by hundreds of illustrations and maps, the chosen events give insight into how and why our world has grown and changed. Did you know that the bow and arrow were developed nearly 5,000 years before pottery was made? (Events #16 and #19.) Or that Hamlet (#319) appeared at about the same time as Japan’s Kabuki theater (#320) and the first newspapers (#322)? There’s much more: Buddha’s birth, the understanding of sight, Mercator‘s mapmaking, Tsar Alexander’s freeing of serfs, the Battle of Gettysburg, the debut of toilet paper [now there’s a banner day!], D-Day, the first e-mail. A reader can open this book anywhere and find fascinating tidbits of history embellished with quick-read biographies, first-person accounts [keep that thought in mind…], and landmark paintings and photos. 1000 Events is sure to be a perennial backlist book, with its well-researched information appealing to readers of all ages. In the winning tradition of bestsellers Visual History of the World and Concise History of the World, this new volume presents facts in the easy-access format that people love.

Now I generally love National Geographic magazine and generally respect its work. So I thumbed open the book to something I thought would be relevant and found this brief article:

#127 Jesus Begins Ministry

29 C. E. Jewish preacher Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry in the Roman province of Palestine around 29 C. E. Palestine at the time was a land rife with political and social tensions between Gentiles and Jews, between Roman overlords and subjects, and among various sects of Judaism itself. Though himself a man of peace, Jesus gathered large crowds with his preaching and any man capable of attracting such crowds was viewed as politically dangerous by Roman governors and Jewish priests alike, as there was no dearth of Jews willing to mount rebellion against Rome. Jesus was never charged in his native region of Galilee with any serious legal offense, but when he entered Jerusalem to observe the Passover and was greeted by a mass of admirers, even his message of compassion became a portent of conflict. He was crucified as an agitator by Roman authorities around 30 C. E., But his teachings, preserved in the New Testament, have survived as some of the most powerful cultural and political forces in history.

Perhaps National Geographic didn’t check out the “first-person accounts” it is so vaunted for and entirely missed the point… I didn’t buy the book… 

We’ve just come through the season where clerks in stores have been instructed to say, “Happy holidays” or “Season’s greetings” instead of the more controversial “Merry Christmas.” Curious to me that people want two days off, paid, mind you, to celebrate the holiday, but can’t acknowledge the reason for it in the first place. The word itself, “holiday,” is a contraction of the words “holy day” which marks the occurrence of a holy event, in this case, Christ’s birth.

You’ve seen the signs, “Jesus: the reason for the season.” How about, “Jesus, the reason for all existence!” or “The reason you’re set free!” or “The reason for your being!” What about “The reason for yesterday, today, and tomorrow!” I was thinking about another phrase often heard over the past weeks: “Keep Christ in Christmas!” And I couldn’t help but conclude that, no matter how hard we try to keep Christ in Christmas, He keeps breaking out!

And I want to be part of that breakout! And I want you to be, too!

In the biblical accounts of the incarnation, who bears witness to Jesus? In Matthew and Luke, there are shepherds and kings, an old man and an old woman, and angels. But these are not witnesses in the Gospel of John’s account of the incarnation. Here we find, in chapter 1, only one witness, a man sent from God whose name was John. As you listen to John 1:1-18, hear the rhythmic flow between proclamation about Jesus and witness to Jesus.

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 

The evangelist has, in this poetry, established a theme that he will continue to develop throughout his gospel. That theme is the critical importance of the witness. We know who Jesus is because of the witness, who is John the Baptist. We know the witness is reliable because he was sent by God. Whenever truth is proclaimed in the Gospel of John, it is attested to by a witness which might be a person, a sign or a miracle, or God directly. Listen to this series of phrases from John’s Gospel: “… The father who sent me has himself born witness…” (5:37); “I bear witness to myself” (8:18); “the works that I do… they bear witness to me.” (10:25) and then, listen carefully, because we shall return to this point: “…You also shall bear witness…” (15:27).

The problem the apostle John, writer of this gospel, had to contend with in his church, some 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was opposition to the truth. Pagans, Christians teaching false doctrine, and some Jews who continued to oppose the church, all had to be battled. The light had to continue to oppose darkness. The truth had to be ever vigilant against distortions and lies. And that is why, of course, such attention is placed on the authority of the witness. There has to be a witness who knows and can tell the truth if there is to be salvation for any of God’s people. Without the witness, there can be no faith. The witness creates a connection between Jesus, who is the light, and anyone still living in darkness. For example, notice the use of the word “we” in the middle of John 1:14: “… We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.” John claims for his people that they, 60 years or so after the resurrection, have seen Jesus, because they have seen him through the eyes of witnesses. It was like they were really there. John’s church was saved by Jesus, because they saw Jesus, in all of his glory, through the eyes of witnesses.

And what of those who see through the eyes of witnesses, who saw Jesus through the eyes of other witnesses, who saw through the eyes of previous witnesses, who saw Jesus in all his glory through the eyes of still other witnesses, who saw him through the eyes of other witnesses… I trust you get the point. Those people who see the glory of Jesus through the eyes of witnesses for almost 2000 years of Christian history, those people whose salvation depends on the faithful testimony of witnesses, are you and I, and those who will yet come to believe because of our witness. Witnesses in my life included my parents, Ann Sullivan (who later became my wife of 50 years now), Larry Lachman, Pastor Carl Dietz, Jerry Romanek, Bob and Mickey Beard; all of them spoke faith into my life by their witness.

The proclamation of the people of John’s church is also our proclamation: “For we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father… And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.”

It may be apparent how important it is, then, that we have a practice of listening to and learning from reliable witnesses. Christians, and the church, can, according to John, reflect the full glory of Jesus only if their lives are grounded in the witness of others who saw Jesus. In turn, the Christian and the church must bear witness to what they have received. Given the depth of John’s emphasis on the importance of the witness, might we not be concerned about how little emphasis there is on “witnessing” among Christians today? The freedom to tell the stories of our meetings with Jesus used to be a great strength in many Christian communities. Given some of the distortions that become all too common, it is not hard to see why giving witness has become a lost art. But it cannot remain lost! The power of the witness to bring others to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ is astounding. I could prepare numerous classes and wonderful sermons (if I were capable of that), but more often it’s the spontaneous, one-on-one sharing of a Christian witness that will turn a person on to Christ. If the gospel of John is correct, then careful, prayerful, focused witnessing to Jesus is essential in any and every church that bears his name, that hopes to be the light of Jesus Christ to the darkness of the world.

There is another kind of witness along the way to whom we might listen. Of course we need to listen to theologians and scholars, to preachers and teachers. And there are saints of the church who are particularly authoritative witnesses. But in addition, from among the communion of saints stretching through the ages, each Christian can choose a witness, or two, or many, to whom you listen regularly in order to be sure you are seeing Jesus in all of his glory.

One witness I have been particularly drawn to over the past years has been C. S. Lewis. Lewis was an Anglican layman who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge. C. E. M. Jody has said about Lewis that “he had the rare gift of making righteousness readable.” His tales of Narnia, beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” are so simple that, 60 years ago I could read them aloud to my children, and yet they are so full of profound analogy that I myself could study them in depth. One of the reasons that C. S. Lewis is good for me, besides the fact that he is spiritually profound and a deep lover of Jesus, is that he comes to Christianity from a different direction than I do. His experience, his witness, is such that he leads me to make conclusions I would not otherwise consider. He also writes in a slightly different dialect of English, more full and rich than I am accustomed to. All of this serves to help me to see and to know Jesus in new ways. Literally, day after day, every time I pick up one of his writings, I find myself feeling that I have received from Christ by way of Lewis’ witness.

C. S. Lewis gives witness to the Christ who was first witnessed to by John the Baptist, who was sent by God. All of that is why I can believe! The fullness of God’s love for you and me was passed down witness to witness for decades and generations and centuries of Christian church history. And look! Do you see it? This light and life and love, Jesus, full of grace and truth, has now come to make his home in our lives, and in our church.

And God the Father is making you into his witness. Remember when Jesus said in John 15:27, “You shall bear witness?” That word was spoken to the apostles. When John recorded those words of Jesus in his gospel, 60 years later, then it was also spoken to John’s church. And it is still the word of the Lord for us today. You are the witness. I am the witness. We are the witness together. That is how God is acting in our world today to bring the saving light of Jesus to the people, the community, the nation, and the world. Do not fail to see – do not fail to be – the witness. Can I get a witness?!

May God empower you by the Holy Spirit to be his witness, to the ends of the earth, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.