“Come and See,” a Sermon for January 15, 2023
I recorded this sermon on Zoom so if you prefer to listen (and view) rather than read you should be able to access it by clicking on this link. You will need this passcode, so write it down before you click on the link $6c&5$f7
“Come and See”
John 1: 29 – 42
January 15, 2023
I had thought that last week’s sermon, “The Family Photo,” would probably be the last in this series, one that began in early November. But the Scripture or the Spirit got a hold on me, so here we are.
A couple preliminaries regarding today’s reading from the Gospel of John. But how come John, the Fourth Gospel, since this is the year of Matthew in the Common Lectionary?
So glad you asked . . . the way the Lectionary works, each of the three so-called Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, gets a year in which the gospel reading come from them. Each of the three provides a fairly similar “synopsis” of Jesus’ ministry, although with their own colors and accents. John is way different, built more around a series of “signs.”
Perhaps because John is so different, John doesn’t get a year of its own. But all is not lost, as John gets worked into every other year, here and there, now and then. Sometimes for one Sunday, like today. Sometimes for a whole season, like the 7 Sunday season of Eastertide.
So we’re in strange, wonderful world John this week because the church in its finite wisdom believes we need to turn the jewel of Jesus’ baptism and see it through the John prism — which is decidely different — than last week’s account, when we viewed through the Matthew prism. A final preliminary point, this passage start is a lot about John the Baptist. John the Baptist and the author of John’s Gospel are not the same guy. There are a lot of “Johns” in the New Testament.
Okay, then, away we go.
What is especially notable about the way the Gospel of John portrays John the Baptist is that we are told in many and various ways that it’s not about Johnny B.
So in John’s “Prologue,” which was the text for my Christmas Day sermon, there’s a sidebar about John the Baptist which says, among other things, “He was not the light.” Just in case anyone was confused about that.
A little later in chapter 1 we are now on-site with Johnny B. at the Jordan River, as the religious authorities try to pin him down about who he is and what he is up to. He frustrates that congressional inquiry by refusing to say anything at all about himself apart from an elusive, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness . . . make straight the way of the Lord.”
So almost everything the Gospel of John tells us about the Baptizer is that he keeps saying one way or another, “It’s not about me.” And then in today’s reading, more of the same. Of the Messiah he says, “I myself did not know him.” Twice he says that. John was in the dark until God shone a light on Jesus and the Spirit fluttered down like a dove to rest upon him. John didn’t figure it out. It was revealed to him.
Now we might conclude — some have — that the point of all of this is to downgrade, if not eliminate, John the Baptist as a competitor for Jesus. It’s really all politics. John was a powerful guy, drawing big crowds. But that makes it all sound a little “Da Vinci Code-ish.” You know, “the secret, behind-the-scenes truth about John the Baptist and Jesus.” Down and dirty with Prince Harry and Prince Andrew. Nowadays, we love that stuff.
I have a different take on it. A friend told me about two banners that hung on two different churches in his hometown not long ago. Both churches were celebrating their 100th anniversary. The banner at my friend’s church said, in big, bold letters, “Celebrating 100 Years of Serving Our Community.”
The other banner, on another church, said, “Celebrating 100 Years of God’s Faithfulness.”
As my friend noted, their banner made it about, pointed to, the church itself; to the congregation and what it had done. He was somewhat chagrined to note that the banner on the second church was not self-focused, not about themselves, their proud history or their accomplishments. The focus of the second banner was God.
That latter congregation’s banner is in keeping with the witness of John the Baptist. “It’s not about me,” John is forever saying. “It’s about him, Jesus Christ.” As many of you know there is a famous painting — the Eisenheim altarpiece — of John the Baptist, which shows John pointing a long bony finger away from himself to a figure in the distance, Christ on the cross.
Often, as the two anniversary banners story indicates, it is very hard for us to resist blowing our own horn. Both as individuals and as congregations, we find John the Baptist a tough act to follow. Instead of pointing beyond ourselves to God’s grace, to what God has done and is doing, we point to ourselves and what we have done. We are clever about it, it was all in service of others, “100 Years of Serving Our Community.”
A truly John the Baptist inspired banner might read, “We Are Nothing/ Christ Is Everything.” These days, might sound to us as if someone with a low “self-esteem” problem. “‘I am nothing.’ You shouldn’t say that! That’s not right. You are important. You’ve done so much,” etc. so on and so forth.
But the hyperbole, “I am nothing, Christ is everything,” makes a point. It de-thrones our hungry ego and thwarts our desire to blow our own horn. Instead, we lose ourselves, sounding every trumpet in glorious praise of God. That’s why people in a choir love singing the “Messiah,” with it’s famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” You lose yourself in it, in something bigger than you.
Yes, of course, there is a way in which saying “I am nothing,” or worse, “I am a nothing,” is cause for concern and may well be a cry for help. But there may be another sense in which “I am nothing/ Christ is everything” can be truly liberating. We lose ourselves in that which is greater, more beautiful, and eternal. In a society as focused as ours appears to be on us, “It’s not about you,” can — paradoxically — be quite good news. It can be liberating to get over yourself. “He who loses himself for my sake, will find himself,” said Jesus.
Think of Paul’s amazing words to the Galatians. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live . . . I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” That’s not lousy self-esteem; that’s spiritual truth, truth and liberation.
So here in today’s passage, John is standing around with two of his disciples. He sees Jesus go by and says, “There goes the Lamb of God,” whereupon his two disciples become disciples of Jesus, following him — and John, left behind, is fine with that because he’s not the point. Many preachers, including this one, make the very human mistake of thinking (though we wouldn’t say this) it really is about us — how brilliant we are, how good we are, what a great orator we are, blah, blah, blah. To be sure, we have our place, our job to do, but it’s not about us.
Maybe ten years ago now, when I was doing a lot of traveling and speaking, I was invited to keynote an event in Louisville, Kentucky. (Whatever you do, don’t say “Louis/ville.” You say “Lu/ville.”) Anyhow, I arrived the evening before the event, and the committee that had put it together took me out for dinner. One member of their band — Diane — was not there. Can’t remember why.
But the rest of the group regaled me with a story about Diane, who was it seems a force of nature. Diane’s ministry was mostly as an interim pastor. In this capacity, Diane had been called to an all-but-dead downtown congregation, housed in a giant stone edifice in Louisville (Lu-ville). Inside, on a good Sunday, there were 12 to 15 stubborn, grumpy, old German-Americans.
They were the remnant, the last of a once large and prestigeous congregation in an historically German-American part of town. But as these things go, most of the congregation had, over the years, moved out of town to the ‘burbs. And gradually the neighborhood around the church became entirely African-American. Today many lived in housing projects, some directly across the street from the old stone church.
The grumpy remnant welcomed their interim pastor, Diane, by telling her — among other things — that they were not at all interested in having “those people,” meaning black people from the projects, in “their” church.
But Diane’s feistyness was a match for the congregation’s grumpiness. Never one to obey orders very well, Diane — soon after her arrival — marched across the street and began inviting people in the housing projects to come to church. Which none did. Except a single mother with two little girls.
The three of them showed up at church, the little girls dressed in identical pink dresses with bows in their hair, and little pink purses, from which they each proudly extracted a quarter to place in the offering plate. They were as cute as the proverbial buttons and, well, the old Germans fell head-over-heels in love with those two little girls, apparently not noticing that they were “those people.”
Meanwhile, back at the stone fortress of St. Peter’s in Louisville, the little girls and their mom kept coming, the first of a trickle to respond to intrepid, feisty Diane, whose next project was to get her congregation to call as their pastor a lively and effective colleague who happened to be both black and female.
And wonder of wonders St. Peter’s did call that very woman as their new pastor, and things really started jumping at old St. Peter’s. The dozen old Germans didn’t know what had hit them, but as they saw the two little girls and more children swarm in — children in their church for the first time in 25 years — they were ecstatic.
So, the next day after that dinner, at the conference, I met the dynamo who was now the pastor of St. Peter’s, which had largely become an African-American congregation with a dozen old Germans who didn’t know what had hit ‘em, but who seemed happy as clams in their newly full sanctuary.
At the conference, I was introduced to this pastor. I said, “I’ve heard about your church. I’d love to come visit.” To which she said, “Well, that would be great. We’d love to have you.” And then she said, “Yes, come and see what God is doing.”
Did you hear that?
She did not say, “Oh, yes, we have a lovely church, please come.” Nor did she say, “Yes, we have so much going on.” Neither she, nor the congregation, were the subject of the sentence. The subject of the sentence was God. Come and see what God is doing. Now, that is interesting, intriguing . . .
And kind of John the Baptist thing. “It’s not about me, it’s not about you . . . it’s really not.” “It’s about the Lord.” “It’s about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In place of bondage, rejection and dis-enfranchisement, Jesus had brought and is bringing today freedom, acceptance and belonging — especially to the rejected, to the dis-enfranchised. This was happening at St. Peter’s in Louisville. And the pastor said, “Come and see, come and see what God is doing.”
Just the other day I read this in a newsletter from Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattoed Lutheran pastor, who founded “House for All Sinners and Saints” in Denver. She wrote,
“Recently in a Q and A someone asked me what I thought Jesus would think of the church were he to return today – assuming I’d answer with something like he’d say what’s up with those fancy vestments and organ music? – but instead I answered ‘I think he’d be curious why his church doesn’t talk about forgiveness of sins nearly as much as he did.’”
It’s not about us. It’s about him, the crucified one, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It is about grace and mercy, about what God has done for you, for us and for the whole world. It’s about forgiveness, about lifting the burden of perfection and achievement we so often weigh ourselves and others down beneath. It is about God’s love for us even when — especially when — we are as unloveable as grumpy, stuck old Germans who didn’t want any of “those people” in “their church.”
The disciples of John the Baptist who peeled off to follow Jesus asked him “Where are you staying?” Perhaps coincidentally, he answered with the very same words of invitation used by the pastor of a renewed St. Peter’s. Jesus said, “Come and see.”
Come, beloved ones, come and see what God can do. Come and see, Sin and Death are not the last word. God and God’s grace get the last word. Lost in praise and wonder at God and God’s grace, we are truly and gloriously found.