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You know how I’ve been talking about keeping that Christmas feeling going year ‘round? The passage that we’re looking at this morning could be called John’s Christmas Story. Luke starts is Christmas story in history – in the days of King Herod of Judea. Mark dispenses with a Christmas story and starts his action with the appearance of John the baptizer in the wilderness. Matthew takes his Christmas story all the way back to Adam – “The genealogy of Jesus Christ…” John takes the story even further back. Back to the beginning of all things.
Lent has begun. This year as is our custom here at Blythwood, we’re spending this period that leads up to Easter looking at one of the gospels. Seven Sundays in the gospel according to John. Why should we do this? TS Elliot asked the question “Why should men love the church?” He then answers his own question –
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
Why should we come to church? Because out there you don’t hear a lot about matters of Life and Death. Out there it seems to be a lot of trying to forget that we’re going to die. Youth and beauty are treated like they’re accomplishments out there. Out there it seems like we are constantly trying to distract ourselves from the fact that we will one day end up as dust. This is one of the reasons we have Ash Wednesday. It’s a day when people go to church and have ashes put on their foreheads. Prayers are made like this - Loving God,you create us from the dust of the earth; may these ashes be for us a sign of our penitence and our mortality,and a reminder that only by the cross do we receive eternal life in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Ashes are placed on the forehead with words like this - Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. Repent and believe the Good News: God longs for you to be whole. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. So Happy Lent!
Of course the story doesn’t end there. We view Lent from a post-Easter perspective don’t we? We listen to and extend the invitation – turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ (who is faithful). Repent (turn to him) and believe the Good News, God longs for you to be whole. I think it’s good to set aside time to be intentional about considering the Good News. It might even affect the rest of the year. I think it’s good to spend time thinking about where we spend our time. We spend a lot of time distracting ourselves don’t we? Maybe I should spend more time going to an Ash Wednesday service and less time watching cat videos. Less time on facebook. Less time watching cat videos on facebook! Not that I’m against cat videos (especially the ones where they jump because something scared them) or facebook necessarily. I’m just asking the question of myself – “Where do I spend my time?” How much of my time is being spent for things that will not be shaken?
I like taking 7 weeks to go through a gospel. God willing I plan to do this every year. Let’s start again with Matthew next year and keep cycling through them. Each gospel has its own particular slant. Three of them are similar. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because they by and large take the “same view”. Then we have John who’s off on his own. The maverick gospel. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. John is doing his own thing! He’s gone rogue! Unlike some of the politicians to the south of us, it’s not because he’s against the establishment. He’s seeking to establish the story of what God has accomplished in Jesus, what Jesus’s birth, life, death and resurrection means. What the promise of the Holy Spirit means and what all of this means for the family to which Jesus has entrusted his work. I won’t get into the differing opinions on who wrote the gospel or when (feel free to discuss that in small groups of course), who the beloved disciple might have been, because we just don’t know these things. What I want to say about the gospel is that it tells the story of the Christ that we follow. This is not a story that you’re going to hear out there. I’m not saying it’s not taking place out there or that you don’t encounter it out there. We gather together to proclaim the same thing that John and the other gospels proclaim. Will Willimon described it recently as “The difficulty and adventure of believing that God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly.” There are even some people who believe that he’s here among us now! He’s on the loose. This is what’s going on here friends.
Another thing I love about John is all the questions it contains about Jesus. Questions either put to Jesus directly or posed about him. Where are you staying? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? How did you get to know me? How can anyone be born after having grown old? How can these things be? Where do you get that living water? He cannot be the Messiah can he? Do you want to be made well? What must we do to perform the works of God? Surely we are not blind, are we? What do you mean by saying “You will be made free.”? What are we to do? What is truth? I wrote these down and went into Pastor Abby’s office to show her the list and say “Can you believe all these questions in the Gospel of John?” She said to me “And are there answers…” This is what we’re going to be looking at friends over the next seven weeks. As we’re doing this, I want us to think about the expectations that were put on Jesus. The expectations that were put on the Messiah. Many of us are familiar with the Jewish expectations of a powerful conquering Messiah that would free them from Roman rule. We see throughout the John that Jesus didn’t meet expectations. He tore down cultural and religious walls that divided. We see that when a Samaritan woman encounters Jesus at a well in the heat of the day. His arrival could have meant the shakeup of the religious system that was set up in the Jerusalem Temple – so much so that its leaders determined it would be better to have him killed than to shake up the deal they had with the Romans. While we’re at it let’s kill Lazarus too. We can’t have evidence of new life walking around. It’s better for one to die, or maybe a few so that the rest of us can continue comfortably in peace and security. Jesus didn’t meet expectations. What expectations do we put on Jesus? At a recent preaching conference I was with a group of pastors who were talking about feeling let down when Easter is over, asking “Is that all there is?” Do we as pastors put expectations on God of us knocking one out of the park on Easter Sunday – particularly important as we see people we don’t often see and maybe they’ll come back to church next week. Are these our expectations or God’s? We talk about church growth. How to get more people in here. Are we considering our expectations or God’s? What does God expect of us? What does God require of us? When Jesus got too very popular and a rivalry seemed to be growing between him and John the Baptist, he left. He went home to Galilee. When thousands were following him he told them “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Many said “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it” and they left him.
This is the choice that is ours friends. Are we prepared to follow this Jesus? Who is this Jesus? One thing we can say for certain about John is why it was written. John says so himself – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” When we want somebody who is unfamiliar with the Bible or the Gospel to read something, we often propose the Gospel of John don’t we? You see at the bottom of our NRSV Bibles that the editors have included a helpful note – Other ancient authorities read “may continue to believe”. In other words, this story is not just for those who have not yet believed, it is also for those who believe already or perhaps even have believed for a long time. I heard someone say recently about a conversation they had with an older Christian man who said “What does talk of the cross have to do with me?” God forbid that we ever take the cross for granted. God forbid that we ever come to think that we have no more to learn from posing the question to God “Who are you?”
This is the question that John starts with. Thank God we’re not left without answers. As I said he takes it back to Genesis 1:1. Listen to these words about the Christ that we follow friends. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This Word, this Jewish man who was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth and lived briefly and died violently and rose unexpectedly exists with God before time begins. It’s the 50,000 foot view as you sometimes hear. The big view. I think of this and imagine a picture of galaxies, of constellations. This Word that transcends space and time.
Right away John brings in the idea of the darkness. While we’re considering this 500 million mile view, we’re realists too. We need to recognize the darkness. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There is a choice involved here. Life or death. Blessings or curses. Light or darkness. To come to believe in the Word is to come to believe that in this Word is life, and the life is the light of all people. To believe anything else means that you are looking for life somewhere else. John calls this darkness. You need only look at our world to see what a belief in systems, what a belief in ideology, what a belief in religion brings about. Right away John sets forth the idea that this story of Jesus calls for a decision. We’re not looking at the life of Jesus because we’re interested in him as an historical figure. We don’t tell people to read the Gospel of John because they might learn some interesting facts about a Jewish teacher who lived 2,000 years ago. We immerse ourselves in the Gospel of John and we invite people to read and immerse themselves in the Gospel of John because we believe that we encounter Christ there, and an encounter with Christ calls for a decision. There’s a great line in John 12 where Jesus had just entered Jerusalem before his death. He prays “Father, glorify your name” and a voice is heard from heaven “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Jesus tells the crowd “That was for you by the way, not me,” and then says “Now is the judgement of the world.” If you don’t like to think of God judging, the Greek word is krisis, where we get crisis. It means decision. I want that on a poster – Jesus is the crisis of the world. He calls for a decision. What are you going to do with this? It’s not just the initial decision either that we’re talking about. As God is revealed to you and come to know more and more about this unexpectedly risen Lord, what are you going to do about it?
We sometimes think of John as a “more spiritual gospel.” This whole “In the beginning…”, long talks by Jesus using imagery about who he is, point to this. Our faith is not merely a spiritual act. Our faith is not simply something we are to hold privately. It’s incarnational – for us to follow the God who showed up in the person of Jesus should be making a difference in our lives. In v 6 the 500 million mile view closes in on a long haired, camel skin wearing prophet called John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. He was our forerunner, in other words. Jesus came to reveal God and his followers have been given the same task – to reveal God. Some have received him, some have not. The question that we need to be examining is – “How are we receiving him?” For many of us it’s not a matter of receive Christ or not receive Christ, as much as it is a matter of “In what areas of my life am I not receiving Christ?” In what areas of my life am I relying on something else for life?
Then John drops the news. The Word became flesh. The word for Word is Logos. Used by Jewish philosopher Philo to signify creative wisdom. Used by Heraclitus to signify what gives the world order. It’s no longer just a philosophy or an idea or even a belief. It’s a person. He’s walked among us. We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. This is how God has made himself known to us friends. This is how God makes himself known. Do you want to know him? Do you want to get to know him more? May this be true for us as we embark on this difficult and adventurous journey this Lenten season.
We’re not only called upon to experience this grace and truth of course, we’re called upon to share it. As God was made flesh in Christ, we are called to be the flesh of Christ. This news is supposed to make a difference in our lives. John testified to him and cried out. We are called to testify to him and cry out – with our words, with our actions, with our choices – enabled by the same Spirit that filled Christ. I said earlier that this gospel was written so that we may come to believe, or that we may continue to believe and have life the way we were created to live it, in communion with the one who is the source of all life. Wherever we find ourselves in relationship to this Christ – to the God we follow who lived briefly, died violently and rose unexpectedly – may these weeks leading up to Easter be a time when this Christ makes himself known to us in a way that he never has before. May our hearts be open to him. May this be true for us all.