Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Not dead..."

In a recent sermon I recounted the famous story of Rev. William Haslam, a man who served as a pastor for quite some time without having been converted. The remarkable part of Haslam's story is that he was converted by his own sermon. After realizing that he was unregenerate, he entered the pulpit with the intent of resigning his pastorate until God saved him. As he preached, he was overcome by the Holy Spirit. The effect was so profound that another pastor, who happened to be visiting Haslam's parish that day, stood up and proclaimed, "The parson's been converted!" Much celebration ensued, and the ruckus was so disconcerting to some that they fled the church in fear.

It turns out that Halsam's conversion marked the beginning of a much larger revival. One of the souls saved during this time was an older man who went by the moniker "Old Billy." This is what happened next, as recounted by Haslam in his book From Death to Life:
This dear man lived for three months after this, verifying the words I was led to say to him at the beginning of our intercourse -- that the Lord was keeping him alive in order to have mercy upon him. At the end of this time, his daughter came to see me one morning in great haste, and said, "Father is dying, and does so want to see you. Will you come?" I went immediately. On reaching his house and entering his bedroom, his wife said, "You are too late; he is dead!" Softly I moved forward to the bed, and looking into that face once more, I thought that I could still see sign of life. Pressing his cold hand, I spoke a few words about the loving-kindness of the Lord. He knew me, and a smile brightened his face at the precious name of Jesus. While we stood silently round his dying bed, he said (evidently in reference to what he had heard), "Not dead: just beginning to live." Thus, with a sweet, triumphant smile, he departed."

Monday, January 17, 2011

What Are You Seeking?

Scripture Text: John 1:29-42

Last week, we learned that the baptism of Jesus was for us. He didn’t need baptism because he was without sin. We also learned that because of his baptism, those who are in Christ receive multiple gifts through Christ. He gives the gifts he didn’t need to those who are in deep need, who are dead in sin. Jesus gives those folks the exact things they need – The gift of forgiveness of sins, and the gift of abiding, steadfast presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

This week John the Baptist makes another appearance. There are two significant sections in the reading this week from the gospel of John. There are, therefore, two main points to this sermon. First point, the only way to know Jesus and to see who he really is is by the revelation of God in the new birth proclaimed in baptism. Second point, those who receive this gift of seeing who Jesus is are transformed into witnesses and are empowered by the Holy Spirit so that others whom Christ is calling may fellowship with him and receive his grace.


Immediately before our reading, John is interviewed by some priests and Levites sent from the Pharisees in Jerusalem who are curious to know what he’s doing. They ask them the question: “Who are you?” John tells them that he is neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet anticipated first by Moses. What are you doing, then, if you’re none of those people, the interviewers ask. John replies by telling them I’m the guy that Isaiah foretold, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (1:23). Okay then, say the interviewers, why do you baptize, if you’re none of these other famous people? John gives a reply, but doesn’t quite answer their question. His reply is:
[1:26] “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, [27] even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
And now it’s the next day. John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him and exclaims, “[29] Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! [30] This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’

Notice the imagery here. John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God,” which seems to be a clear refers to the sacrificial lamb of the Passover, and other Old Testament sacrifices for sin. John is basically saying, this is the man who will take away all sins through his sacrificial death for others. This would have been a shocking thing to say about a human being. How exactly could John have made the determination the Jesus was this “Lamb of God?”

The answer to that question comes in the verses that follows:
[30] This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ [31] I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Here, John finally gives the answer to the question from his visitors the previous day. Why do you do this, the interviewers from Jerusalem want to know? I do this, so that the promised one of God might be revealed to Israel.

John’s eyewitness testimony continues:
[32] And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. [33] I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ [34] And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
First point: The only way to know Jesus and to see who he really is is by the revelation of God in the new birth proclaimed by baptism.

You will notice that John did not know the full extent of Jesus’ identity until Jesus was baptized. John likely knew of Jesus by virtue of the relationship between his mother, Elizabeth, and her cousin Mary. But he didn’t know who Jesus really was until it was revealed to him by God when Jesus was baptized.

I can see one huge implication for this text for those of us here in the room who are listening. Jesus’ full identify is only provided to and only seen by those to whom it is revealed. You cannot truly know Jesus unless the Holy Spirit reveals him to you. Jesus is a human being, but he is also God. Any human can be casually known in passing or in brief conversation. But you cannot know the fullness of who Jesus is unless God reveals it to you.

How is Jesus revealed? The first way is by the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon you to open your eyes to the truth of God’s Word. He is revealed to you whenever baptism is administered, the moment when God’s saving work is enacted publicly before the church and by other witnesses. Jesus’ identity is revealed in the Supper, where we receive not just bread and wine but the very spiritual food of the body and blood of Jesus, who is the host of the meal. Unless the Holy Spirit resides in you, the bible will appear to be just another religious book, as it is treated in the contemporary university. Apart from the revelation of God, baptism is just fancy washing ceremony done in obedience to some religious rule. Apart from the revelation of God, the Lord’s Supper is just a simple meal. But for those to whom the fullness of Jesus’ identity has been granted by the Holy Spirit in the new birth, the bible, the font, and the table are the very means of grace, of forgiveness, of salvation, of sanctification, and of eternal life, because all of them reveal the glorious Savior.

Second point: Those who receive this gift of seeing who Jesus is are transformed into witnesses and empowered by the Holy Spirit so that others whom Christ is calling may fellowship with him and receive his grace.

Next day, the next scene. John is standing with two of his disciples. He sees Jesus and calls out, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Hearing these words, John’s two disciples begin to follow Jesus. So John has witnessed that Jesus is the Lamb of God, and John’s two disciples begin to follow Jesus. As the two are following, perhaps a bit unsure of what is going on, Jesus suddenly turns around and asks them the question: “What are you seeking?”

What are you seeking? These are very profound words. What are you seeking by following Jesus? Have you asked yourself the question recently? Ask it now. Why are we hear today? Is it to seek after Jesus? Or something else? And if your seeking after something else, what is it?

This question Jesus asks is huge! Why is this question huge? Because the answer will ultimately reveal what is at the center of the human heart, that is, of what we worship. The answer will reveal what we are truly seeking after. If you were to ask this question that Jesus asks to anyone you might meet on the street, how would they answer? Here are some possibilities: Happiness, fame, money, a fruitful marriage, retirement, success, property, a family, relief from pain, a gas station, food, a hotel, good health, a Kleenex, it could be anything, couldn’t it? Let me ask you this now: If someone stopped you on the street and asked you what you were seeking, what would you say? The answer always will reveal what is at present the most important to us.

This penetrating question from Jesus to those who would follow him is, in fact, the most important question you can ever be asked as a human being. The answer to the question reveals what is at the bottom of the human heart. This is the question that is at the heart of faith, salvation, and discipleship. The answer to this question reveals for the world to see who we really worship.

How did these two guys answer? “[38b] And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ [39] He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’ So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. [40] One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother.”

Notice how Jesus is addressed here? John called him “the Lamb of God,” but they call him “rabbi.” Jesus asks them what they are seeking. They respond that they are seeking to be where he is staying! Getting closer now. So they go off and stay together in fellowship. That’s all we know. We don’t know what they discussed, or what they ate or drank. All we know is that they go off to spend time with Jesus where he is.

This is what happens next:
[40] One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. [41] He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). [42] He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).
Can you see the pattern here? They two disciples seek after the place where Jesus is and something huge has happened. By following him in faith to the place where he was staying, they see Jesus for who he really is. They have been granted the gift of knowing who he really is! I think we know this for two reasons: First, Andrew no longer calls Jesus “teacher,” but “the Messiah.” Second, after spending time with Jesus, Andrew has suddenly become a witness to who Jesus really is, just like John the Baptist was a witness. Andrew then runs off to find his brother Simon and announces, “We have found the Messiah.” Andrew then brings his brother to Jesus for an introduction. And in the presence of Jesus, Simon receives a new name, a clear sign of the call of God.

This is the pattern of new birth and discipleship. The Holy Spirit opens a person to the truth of the gospel by means of witnesses. John the Baptist was a witness to his own disciples, who then followed Jesus and came to know him as the Christ. Andrew, having had this truth revealed to him, becomes a witness by and gives his witness to his brother Simon, announcing to his brother that he has found the Christ. Simon in turn is brought to Jesus, and Jesus marks calls him and gives him a new name. A new life has begun! Peter, too, will follow and become a disciple and also a witness to Christ.

And so it goes. Jesus enters the world. The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus to be the Son of God to John the Baptist and to other believers. They come to Christ, and then they in turn go out, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and witness to the good news of the Christ to others.

Peter will become a prominent apostle, but will later deny Jesus three times, but will be restored by Jesus at the end of the gospel. Having been so restored, what does Peter do? He becomes the first to preach the gospel at Pentecost. He will be persecuted, jailed, and rescued for the proclamation of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. He was transformed from one who sought after Jesus and became one who sought to bring others to Jesus, just as Andrew has sought him out. And this pattern has gone on and on and on for over 2,000 years, and now we are sitting here today as a result of that witness. The question for us is now: What are we seeking? What are we seeking by being here? Are we looking for good advice? To be seen as good people by others? Or are we seeking after Christ, to fellowship with him where he is? Are we then being transformed by him through the means of the Word and Sacraments? Are we witnessing, bringing others to Jesus where he is?

The larger church in general in this community has to a certain extent fallen by the wayside like Peter did with his denials of Jesus. Today, our denials of Christ come in a couple of forms. The first is a result of complacency. We’ve become far to comfortable in our faith. The second form of denying Christ comes from our fear of the culture’s hostility to Christianity. The good news for us, however, is that with Jesus there is always more and more grace. By the power of the Holy Spirit, not even these denials can overwhelm the power of his grace, and a people can be restored to their baptismal calling to witness to the power and might and glory of the risen Christ.

Would you join me in praying for the whole church to experience a revival of its baptismal calling? Lord, we pray that you will grant us the gift of boldness so that we are able to speak to someone outside of our immediate families or this church about Jesus. Grant to our pastors and elders the gifts of leadership inspire the people to courageous witness. Show how we can help each other and hold each other accountable with evangelical witness we are charged with by none other than our Lord himself. Let us feel the fire of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, that together we may become far more bold in our individual and corporate witness to the glory of Christ. Lives are in peril. We are called to act. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
January 16, 2011
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew