Preparing the Way (John 1:19-28)

John the Baptist by Ivan Filichev, 1992

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (New International Version)

John was not the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah. John’s life was devoted to preparing people and pointing them to Jesus. You and I are not the Messiah; Jesus is. You and I are to devote are lives to preparing people and pointing them to Jesus.

John the Baptist had a way of communicating that didn’t exactly win friends; but he sure influenced a lot of people. (Matthew 3:1-12) 

Considering that John lived in seclusion, dressed weird, and ate different food, it’s not a stretch to see how people might dismiss him as a kook and move on. Yet, there’s no evidence that people viewed John that way. 

Instead, John the Baptist had an effective ministry. I suggest that’s because John didn’t seek his own gain, wasn’t trying to build a big following, but understood that he was to point to the coming Christ. 

John believed judgment was imminent, so he put all his efforts into getting people to realize the wrath of God was real and coming soon.

The kingdom of God cannot be entered by forcefully pushing the door in; we enter God’s kingdom through the humility of confession and repentance. The way to the Nativity goes through John the Baptist and his message of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3)

We are, like John, to make a straight and level way for folks to come to Jesus. That’s going to require some change on our part. But if we’re stuck in our ways, that makes it really hard to make a level path to Jesus.

There’s all sorts of ways we get stuck. We might be mired in a destructive habit because we think we need it to keep going; we may get cemented into rehearsing all the past dumb decisions we made, and so, cannot move forward; or we might become fastened in an unhealthy relationship and see no way to move. 

If we are stuck long enough, we blandly accept this as a new normal, then go about our daily lives with a “meh” kind of attitude; not too low, not too high, but just “meh.”

All this sticky stuff – the patterns, behaviors, activities and habits which trap us – keep us in an immovable bondage. And we might become so used to “meh” that we are cut off from the source that would get us un-stuck.

The reason people didn’t dismiss John as some creepy clown is that he offered them something better than their sticky situations. 

Awareness of our real selves and our true condition brings hope – because God will not leave us stuck. The Lord will turn us into free people, delivered from the stickiness, to live fully for the coming King. God doesn’t give up on us, so we do not need to settle for a “meh” existence.

It can be scary, looking squarely at our sins, habits, memories, and emotions because they might keep us on the flypaper of death. We may feel overwhelmed and think there is hope for other people, but not me. Or, conversely, we might think that everyone else has a problem except me. 

Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Christ will shake things up. He’ll unstick people and free them from narrow thinking and a lack of self-awareness.

The season of Advent means that the time of the Lord’s coming is near. Therefore, preparation for the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas, is of primary importance. And the best way of preparing for Christmas Day is to repent and believe that the kingdom of God is near (as opposed to far away). 

God has come near to us in the person of Jesus; and that makes all the difference. 

It’s hard to admit we’re stuck. Yet, if many are honest, their relationship with God and/or the Church is nothing more than a shoulder shrugging “meh.”

There are two ways to deal with being stuck in guilt and shame: either justify it or confess it. 

Denying, minimizing, or excusing sin leads to separation from God – whereas confession leads to connecting with God. 

John the Baptist’s message is this: Get ready because Jesus is coming! Through the grace of repentance and faith there is hope – the hope of stopping all the petty games we play to hide our sin and hide the fact we are really super-glued to our idols. Our hope is in being cleansed from our impurities and ready for God to be with us in the person of Jesus.

God unsticks us so we can bear good fruit that is in keeping with repentance. Our lives need to be congruent between what we profess and how we live. Outward religious observance, although important, is not the way into the kingdom. And confession without genuine change is not repentance – it’s just confession. 

The God who came to his people in Jesus will one day unveil his kingdom in all its glory. We need to get ready for that day. There are roads that need straightening; fires that need to be lit in order to burn away the rubbish and brush in the path; dead trees that need to be cut down; there are people who need to repent because the kingdom of God is near.

We must clear the road so that Jesus has a way into our hearts. 

Just as law enforcement and the secret service are serious about making presidential motorcades free of obstacles and having a clear road to the destination, so we need to ensure that we are doing all we can to pave the way for Christ’s coming. 

This is no time for a spiritually milquetoast deadpan “meh” kind of life; this is the day to clear the way for Jesus. Now is the time to prepare for Christ’s coming. 

And the proper preparation for the Lord’s return is with admitting our stickiness and asking God to unstick us from the sin that so easily entraps us on the devil’s flypaper. 

The kingdom of God belongs to those who prepare the way and produce good fruit in keeping with repentance. 

Maranatha. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Like Father Like Son (John 5:19-29)

The Trinity, by Ukrainian painter Feodosiy Humeniuk, 1981

Jesus responded to the Jewish leaders: 

“I assure you that the Son can’t do anything by himself except what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him everything that he does. He will show him greater works than these so that you will marvel. 

As the Father raises the dead and gives life, so too does the Son give life to whomever he wishes. The Father doesn’t judge anyone, but he has given all judgment to the Son so that everyone will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever doesn’t honor the Son doesn’t honor the Father who sent him.

I assure you that whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and won’t come under judgment but has passed from death into life.

I assure you that the time is coming—and is here!—when the dead will hear the voice of God’s Son, and those who hear it will live. Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. He gives the Son authority to judge because he is the Human One.

Don’t be surprised by this, because the time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice. Those who did good things will come out into the resurrection of life, and those who did wicked things into the resurrection of judgment.”

(Common English Bible)

So goes the parent, so goes the child. Sons look and act a great deal like their fathers. And there is no mistaking the resemblance between Father of the heavens and Son of the incarnation.

In Christianity, to see Jesus is to see God. To know Christ is to know the Lord. They are distinct, yet inextricably linked as one; each is differentiated from the other in personhood, yet united with the same divine substance.

The deity of the Father and the deity of the Son is one, equal in glory, co-eternal in majesty.

What the Father is, the Son is.

Uncreated, eternal, almighty, and sovereign is the Father; uncreated, eternal, almighty, and sovereign is the Son.

The Father and the Son are not two gods but one God.

There is only one Father; there is only one Son. Each is neither greater nor lesser than the other.

Whoever wants to be saved from guilt, shame, sin, death, and hell – and to be delivered from the injustice of the world, the failings of oneself, and the machinations of evil, should think about the Father and the Son and the Spirit, the Holy Trinity, one God.

– Athanasian Creed

So, why is all this creedal Christian doctrine of any importance? Why pay attention to such things?

Because there are many issues and problems in this world of great importance which must be addressed and dealt with. We need to have some idea of how to go about: 

  • Governing ourselves as a free people
  • Eradicating poverty and disease
  • Educating our children
  • Paying taxes
  • Providing excellent and cost effective healthcare for everyone
  • Dismantling racism
  • Seeking peaceful international relations
  • Building responsible and accountable local community relationships
  • Supporting small businesses
  • Helping workers make a decent contributive living
  • Loving our families and faith communities 

It is my unshakable conviction that all these issues, and many others, need more than our collective mental attention and physical resources; these problems also need spiritual resolutions and solutions.

Seasons, years, centuries, and millennia come and go. People are born, live, and die. Generations exist and then are no more. Civilizations rise and fall. Through it all and above it all is the person of Jesus.

Christ is alive. He brings breath from dust, beauty from ashes, order from chaos, stability from insecurity, dignity from disrespect, and meaning from uncertainty. Jesus gives life, abundant and to the full.

Christ the King, San Miniato al Monte Church, Florence, Italy

Today, this very moment, Christ is still on the throne of all creation. 

Human elections and institutions only have authority as given by Jesus, the Ruler of all.

Presently, Jesus is attentive and vigilant to people, actively interceding for us at the right hand of his Father in heaven. At this very moment, the Holy Spirit is the continuing presence of Christ on this earth, applying Christ’s redemption of humanity to the lives of millions. 

Sometimes we need to remember how important our spiritual resources are to living in this world – and to clarify what’s really of ultimate significance in this old broken world. 

My unwavering spiritual persuasion is this: People need the Lord. Therefore, it only makes good spiritual sense to live in ways that foster a connection with Jesus. 

This morning, I did what I do every morning – whether I’m sick or well, sad or happy, facing a busy day or a relaxed day – I began my day with Scripture reading, prayer, reflection, and gratitude. And I do it with the realization that Christ is King, that as the divine/human Lord of all, his:

  • authority is real
  • rule is benevolent
  • sovereignty is ubiquitous
  • reign is supreme
  • judgments are right and good
  • power is mighty enough to raise the dead

The Christian tradition holds that Jesus Christ is the exalted and glorified Son of God, the Sovereign authority over every dominion. The works of Jesus bear testimony to the cosmic reality that he is Lord of all. And, if that were not enough, Jesus shares his divine power with us, his people.

In the face of Christ’s majesty, the valid and appropriate response is sheer submission to Christ’s authority. 

Just as Jesus listened to the Father and obeyed the Father’s will, so we need to listen to Jesus and carry out his will. 

Just as Jesus enjoyed his relationship with the Father, so we are to bask in our wonderful relationship with Jesus. 

Since Jesus submitted to death on a cross and rose from the dead through God’s power, we now have access to that power by God’s grace through faith in Christ. And we are to use that divine power to take up our own cross and bear the great issues and problems of our day with all the spiritual resources granted to us in Christ Jesus.

Like Father, like Son. Like Christ, like Christians. May all followers of Jesus resemble their Lord in each word and in every way.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 10:11-21 – The “Good” Shepherd

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, by P. Solomon Raj (1921-2019)

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So, the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

“This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”

There was another division among the Jews because of Jesus’ words. Many of them said, “He has a demon and has lost his mind. Why listen to him?” Others said, “These aren’t the words of someone who has a demon. Can a demon heal the eyes of people who are blind?” (Common English Bible)

Many people in today’s urban and suburban world are completely unfamiliar with sheep and shepherds. So, when it comes to picturing Jesus as the good shepherd, idyllic scenes might come to mind, full of green meadows and pastoral landscapes, where there is perfect peace and rest, at all times.

Having been raised in rural Midwest America, I can confidently say there is little romanticism to the life of shepherds and sheep. Sheep eat a lot. They’ll eat just about anything that’s growing out of the ground. Think about how you would feel if you ate copious amounts of plants…. Lots of gas, trips to the bathroom, and stink.

That’s how it is with sheep. They continually poop and the smell is downright awful. A lot of a shepherd’s daily work is helping sheep deal with all the gas inside them. Sheep are easily prone to bloating from excess gas. This isn’t just an uncomfortable situation for a sheep; it’s an emergency life-and-death scenario. The shepherd must continually be vigilant to the sheep and take care of such circumstances immediately and carefully.

Taking care of sheep is dangerous, difficult, and tedious work. Historically, shepherds were rough characters, constantly on the move to find lush pastures for the flock’s voracious appetite. They had to deal with both animal and human predators looking for an easy meal. Being mostly outdoors, even at night, led to their reputation as drinkers – keeping up a consistent nip of spirits to remain warm. And, of course, they smelled bad.

So, when Jesus described himself as the “good shepherd,” this was anything but a pleasing picture for people in the ancient world. The closest equivalents to our modern day might be for Jesus to say, “I am the good migrant worker,” or the “good carny” (carnival employee).

Anyone or any profession in which we might deem a person in that line of work as of dubious character – that is precisely how a shepherd, and their work, were viewed by ancient people. It’s often the low-wage workers of society who get down and dirty. Because of their work, they get a suspicious and contemptuous reputation. Remarkably, Jesus unabashedly aligned himself with such people.

And yet, it is the discounted professions and the dismissed people from which we must pay attention; God is probably at work in their midst.

The despised Samaritan gained the label of “good” by Jesus for giving himself fully to save a stranger. Jesus puts the same adjective in front of shepherd. Whereas no one in polite society would use “good” for shepherd, Jesus labels himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

Jesus, this incredible figure who puts good and shepherd together, also goes out of his way to bring other sheep into his fold. Since Christ identifies himself as a stinky lowly shepherd, he has no problem connecting with everyone. After all, when one is already low, there’s no looking down on another.

People everywhere, no matter their station in life, can hear the voice of Jesus speaking to them when they, too, are low enough to be able to listen.

The Good Shepherd by He Qi

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is also the sacrificial lamb. In laying down his life he takes it up again (John 10:17). And when we participate in that dying and rising, when we eat the bread and drink the cup of salvation, we know he abides in us(1 John 3:24). Remaining in Christ with our Good Shepherd means, we, too, lay down our lives:

This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves.

If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. (1 John 3:16-18, MSG)

Community is messy. People are stinky. Stepping into another’s life is rarely picturesque or idyllic. Yet, it’s at the same time elegant and aromatic. For we discover that our old ideas of beauty are obsolete. We gain a new spiritual sense which is redolent with the fragrance of Christ.

O God, Shepherd of all your people, deliver us from all troubles, worries and cares that assail us so that we may always do what is pleasing in your sight, and remain safe in the care of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 6:41-51 – The Bread of Life

“I Am the Bread of Life” by Lebanese painter Joseph Matar

The Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life.

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (New International Version)

Christians everywhere hold to Jesus as the Son of God, Lord of the universe, and Savior of all.

However, for most people who were following Jesus around in the first century, this was not their understanding of Christ. In his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke in ways that introduced people to who he really was and sought to bring them to a point of following him based on his identity. 

Jesus wanted the crowds to see him for who he really is – themselves for what they really needed – and follow him based on the deepest needs of their lives.

I believe Jesus is the hope of all nations and all people, and in him humanity’s most basic and profound needs are met for forgiveness, love, and purpose in life. To address this, I ask three basic philosophical and theological questions of life:

What should human beings seek in life?

The responses in history are legion. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought a proper appreciation for an ethical and virtuous life found in practical wisdom was where people’s most concerted efforts should be. 

Karl Marx, the father of communism and socialism believed the proletariat should use their heads and their hands to rise above their economic conditions and oppression.

In the late 1960’s, Bobby Kennedy said we ought to be working the hardest to achieve justice and not advance ourselves on the misfortunes of others.

In more recent times, the Harvard Business Review is continually on the lookout for the best ways of being efficient, productive, and making the most of time because work itself is paramount.

Jesus insisted that people are not to work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life. Christ positioned himself as the bread of life – the one who is able to sustain humanity and enable to thrive and flourish in life.

By literally feeding thousands of people, Jesus wanted the people to understand the source of life itself comes from him. Jesus aspired beyond providing a supper for folks – he desired the people to feast on himself – to ingest him, to take him into their lives in a deep and profound way as the fulfillment of all the hope and promises of the Old Testament. 

“The Lord’s Supper” by Cameroon artist Jesus Mafa, 1973

Jesus is the bread, the basic staple of life, that meets the cravings and needs of all people everywhere. Starving people, in both body and soul, find in Jesus a meal which keeps on giving, a feast of grace that is both delectable and unending.

The answer to my own question is that, for me, one’s highest pursuit and greatest quest is Jesus. Apart from Christ, I will starve. Furthermore, Jesus is not some cheap fast food off a value menu; he is real soul food to be ingested and enjoyed with others.

I believe people need Jesus. A passionate seeking of Jesus, to follow him, live for him, center life around him, is my most ardent desire. I do not simply desire Jesus for what he can do for me; I vigorously chase after him because if I do not have Jesus, I will die, I will starve to death. 

For me, Jesus is so much more than a nice addition to my life, like a new puppy; Jesus is Lord and Savior. I must consume him, or I will be completely undone, and I will not survive! Jesus is my bread, my food, my life!  I cannot survive on a daily crumb, but I feast on every word that comes from the mouth of Jesus because in Christ there is the life that is truly life.

What should human beings do in life?

Believe. To have and keep faith in the One God has sent, Jesus, is the primary “work” that pleases God.

Jesus communicated to the crowd that they can do so much more than follow him for another earthly meal – they can place their faith and hope in him for food that will last, food that will transcend the three-dimensional world.

Faith is more than an intellectual recognition to some facts about Christianity.

Belief is not about always having clarity and certainty to every facet and loci of Christian doctrine. Rather, Christian faith is a complete trust in Jesus as our hope and our life.

Education, economic uplift, political stability, and institutional peace and justice are important activities for this world. For the Christian, the accomplishment of these and so much more comes from the grace of God in Christ. As people come to the end of themselves with their homebrewed and half-baked attempts at being satisfied, Jesus stands at the door and knocks, the Living Bread who offers himself for humanity’s deepest needs.

“The Last Supper” by Godefroy, 1482, C.E.

Giving kudos to Jesus might be nice, yet Christ himself cares about folks placing their trust in him for grace, forgiveness, and hope in their world. Jesus longs to reconnect people with God through giving himself as the means of making that happen.

All the works we do in this life, every good deed we accomplish, and each positive action we do are all helpful and necessary… and they all pale in comparison to the greatest work of all, to believe in Jesus Christ as the hope of this world, the hope of your family, the hope of the church, and the hope of your life. It’s all accessed by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

Church buildings and furniture, stained-glass windows, pews, and even the Bible are not Jesus – they are simply and hopefully signs which point to him. They are all designed to lead us to Christ so that we may come to him. And coming to Christ is what the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and any other description you want to give about ingesting Jesus is about. The elements of bread and cup bring us to Christ so that we can experience Jesus and be joined to him by faith in a mystical union of human and divine in the unseen heaven.

Conclusion

Where will you find true satisfaction and hope? Probably not in the clearance aisle at Wal-Mart. Likely not in conforming to cultural Christianity or embracing generic forms of Jesus as merely a good teacher and moral example.

Furthermore, life’s ultimate satisfaction and hope are not to be found in a spotless house and perfect kids; in working more hours and making more money. Nor will we find contentment and peace in the radical independence of doing things my way.

Jesus is the Bread of Life. Through ingesting him, passionately pursuing him, believing in him, and coming to him in everything, we find the life that is truly life. Do not settle for any substitutes to Jesus. Come to the real person.

Lord God, you said that when we seek you with all our hearts, you will be found.  As the deer pants for streams of water, so we, your people, long for you in a dry and weary land.  We hunger and thirst for your righteousness.  We deeply desire your presence in all things. So, we die to ourselves and surrender to your will and way for us, by faith trusting you will come into our lives and completely take over. May your blessing rest upon us as we seek Jesus. Amen.