January 09, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
“The world was made through him,” the apostle John wrote earlier in this chapter, “but when he was in the world, it didn’t recognize him.” Indeed, it didn’t. Jesus existed as just another face in the crowd. Even his own cousin, John the Baptist, almost missed recognizing him. And yet hidden inside that one man was all the power of God. Somewhere under those modest outer trappings shined the light of the world, the light that just is the truest Life of every one of us, if indeed we have true Life at all.
But it took a specially designated person like John to point him out to the world. Verse 32 tells us that John gave a testimony about Jesus. He’s like a witness in a courtroom who testifies to something in front of a jury. That’s all John the Baptist could do: proffer a testimony, bear witness, tell what he believed was the truth. And so as in any courtroom trial, it is up to others to believe him or not. Do you find John a credible witness? Can you believe him? All we have to go on are his words. And what words they are!
Most people in the church today are unlikely to bat an eye when they hear this passage read and hear the (now) familiar phrase about Jesus’ being “the lamb of God.” People have heard and sung that phrase countless times before. It is one of the most famous pieces of Christian jargon. Yet John 1 is the only place in the entire Bible where it is used. No Old Testament prophet ever referred to God’s Messiah as “the lamb of God” before John 1 and no New Testament writer will repeat it after John 1, either. Even in the Book of Revelation, where John mentions the image of the Lamb, the exact phrase “the lamb of God” is not repeated.
To this day scholars have not come to a consensus as to what John the Baptist meant by this designation for Jesus. But consider: if even 2,000 years later people are not certain as to what this phrase means, how likely is it that the people on that long ago day understood it!? If, as appears to be the case, this phrase was a novelty, perhaps coined by John the Baptist himself, then how did it strike those around him? The people had long been looking for the Messiah, but in the form of a king, a warrior, a hero. So calling Jesus a lamb would hardly have conjured up the idea of the Messiah. It maybe seemed downright queer or even cruel.
Even today you sometimes hear people described in animal terms, but nine times out of ten such designations are not complimentary. No one wants to be called “a pig” at the dinner table. If a high school boy refers to a girl as a real “dog,” it’s not kind. Still other times someone may be called “bull-headed,” a “bird brain,” a “cow,” a “scaredy cat,” a “barracuda,” a “pit bull,” and so forth. Each carries with it a certain descriptive connotation but none is very positive.
John calls Jesus “a lamb,” which could have been perceived a couple of different ways. Lambs are often a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability. In this sense, calling Jesus a lamb could have been a nice thing to say, but it would hardly be the type of description that would fit the Messiah. Certainly the average politician wouldn’t be very successful in getting elected if the main way people thought about him was that he was a real lamb of a guy! But, of course, in Jesus’ day, because there was that long history in Israel of using lambs as sacrifices, there was another sense in which hearing Jesus called “a lamb” might have struck some people as cruel. Maybe it would be like today calling someone a “turkey” or a “dumb bunny.” Calling Jesus a lamb may have sounded like the equivalent of accusing Jesus of being a little dumb, someone easy to gang up on. It does make you wonder what the disciples thought when they decided to hitch their wagon to this particular “star.” Was Jesus going places or going nowhere?
Whether John’s title meant Jesus was very meek or that he was destined for the chopping block, either way it didn’t seem to indicate Jesus would be very effective in the long run. Nice guys finish last and sacrificial lambs are just finished eventually. Yet John adds the kicker line that somehow this particular lamb-like Jesus would “take away the sin of the world.”
So now we have the image of a lamb and the concept of sin in the same sentence. But since the only traditional connection between lambs and sin had always involved the death of the hapless lamb, John is clearly introducing a very dark theme. This isn’t the kind of thing you’d say about someone who was on his way to the top of this world’s heap. This isn’t how you’d describe a celebrity on a red carpet or a politician on his way to the platform where he had just been nominated for president.
John could just as easily have said, “Behold, the one who is going down the tubes! Behold the loser, the victim, the dead man walking.”
How odd it must have sounded. The next day, though, John repeats it, letting you know that it wasn’t some foolish slip-of-the-tongue on John’s part. This is central to who this Jesus was. When preaching on this passage today, we do well to recover for our congregations the oddness of the phrase, re-appropriating it afresh in ways that will generate wonder and gratitude.
As noted, despite the world-famous nature of the phrase “the lamb of God,” this is a John 1 novelty not found anywhere else in the Bible. That Jesus is identified as being a lamb is surely confirmed in Revelation 4-5 but the precise phrase used in John 1 may be a John-the-Baptist novelty. What did John the Baptist mean by it? As noted, there is not a great scholarly consensus on this question. The most obvious choice is to connect this to the Passover lamb but even this is disputed by many. But if you do not go that route, the other options are limited to a single verse scattered here or there in the Old Testament, the best known of which is Isaiah 53’s passing reference to a lamb being led silently to the slaughter.
But either way or both ways, calling Jesus a lamb surely was meant to conjure up sacrifice and suffering and such. Probably that is why the next time we run across that image in the Book of Revelation, we are told that the lamb John of Patmos saw in his heavenly vision was not just any old lamb: this one was a lamb “that had been slain.” A dead lamb walking—that’s what John saw. It is also what John the Baptist predicted in John 1.
The folks in Hollywood love to shower themselves with awards. There are, of course, awards presented in other fields: journalism and literature have the Pulitzer, the sciences and related fields have the Nobel Prize, and even religious folks get in on the action through things like Christianity Today’s “Book of the Year Award” and the lucrative “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.” But no single field has an array of awards like the entertainment industry: the Golden Globe Awards, the People’s Choice Awards, the New York Film Critics Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Cannes Film Festival Awards, the Tony Awards, the Grammy Awards, the American Film Institute Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and of course the Academy Awards.
Now whether you’re like me and find some quirky desire to watch who wins these prizes, or whether you find these shows to be a most ludicrous spectacle, you are probably familiar with what often happens before these ceremonies begin. Outside the theater hosting the show, they literally roll out the red carpet. Velvet ropes cordon off the walkway leading to the entrance, and sometimes a few tiers of bleachers are erected for spectators. Hours, and sometimes even days, before the show begins, crowds gather hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars. Then, as the limos begin pulling up and depositing their precious celebrity cargo, cheers and screams emanate from the spectators as the likes of Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney, begin their high-profile trek down the red carpet, stopping frequently to speak into the microphones being shoved their way by eager reporters.
It’s amazing how much excitement can be generated by having the right kind of person simply walk past you. That’s why there is a kind of delicious contrast provided by John 1. There has never been a more important celebrity on this planet than Jesus. Yet John 1 makes clear that without some extra divine help, you would hardly be able to pick Jesus out of a crowd. Even John the Baptist admits that if God hadn’t let him see the Spirit descending onto Jesus like a dove, he himself wouldn’t have known who Jesus was.
If you look at it from the right angle, John 1 is almost hilarious in being so understated. Jesus had no red carpet to walk on. He wasn’t a George Clooney-type who became the center of attention wherever he went, causing people to crane their necks to see him. Small wonder people missed recognizing Jesus then. We for sure would miss him today! While thrusting an autograph book in the direction of Julia Roberts or Leonardo DiCaprio, Jesus would probably brush past us and we’d never see him.
Author: Doug Bratt
“I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing” (Isaiah 49:3) might be a motto of more than a few of the pastors and teachers I know. Even on a Sunday so close to the start of a new year, some of us wrestle with the kind of discouragement Isaiah expresses in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.
So Isaiah 49’s preachers and teachers may want to begin their presentation by exploring some of the dynamics of such discouragement. They may want to share some of the things that discourage them about their work for God’s Church and Kingdom — while remaining sensitive to those for and with whom they work. Preachers and teachers may even want to find ways to help their hearers explore their own discouragement about their work for God in God’s Church and kingdom.
Isaiah’s discouragment may surprise us. After all, as my colleague Scott Hoezee notes in a fine sermon starter on this text on this website in January, 2014, Isaiah seems to have had a lot of advantages. Like the prophet Jeremiah, he’d had a lifelong sense of calling from God. God had also empowered and gifted him in a number of ways.
On top of that, our text’s prophet seems to have used those gifts and talents well. Isaiah 49 makes it quite clear he has worked very hard to use them for God’s honor and God’s people’s well-being. Isaiah has worked hard in spite of the difficult context that is his setting.
The Babylonians have defeated God’s Israelite people and destroyed their temple. By dragging them away in chains, they have separated the Israelites from the land God had both promised and given their ancestors. God’s exiled Israelite sons and daughters must almost surely wonder if God is still their God. And if so, how can they worship the Lord so far from the land God had graciously promised and given them?
We briefly addressed the issue of this servant’s identity in last week’s CEP sermon starter. Those who consulted this website on Isaiah 42 may not want to get bogged down in that controversial issue, other than to perhaps remind people that while some see this servant as an individual, others see him communally, perhaps as Isaiah’s “Israel” (3).
In verse 7 God almost as much as admits that people have not received God’s servant Isaiah very well. God seems to understand why God’s prophet might feel as though he’s worked hard without results. God speaks of him as “him who was despised and abhorred by the nations … the servant of rulers.”
Of course, Isaiah’s trying not to let that rejection bother him too deeply. At the end of verse 4, after all, he says, “What is due to me is in the Lord’s hands, and my reward is with my God.” In verse 5 the prophet also reminds himself that he’s “honored in the eyes of the Lord” and “God has been my strength.” Hoezee calls this “self-talk,” the kind of “pep talk for the soul” that we need and give ourselves from time to time.
Yet God goes on to insist that Isaiah’s “reward” is far, far greater than anything he seems to be able to imagine. The prophet’s original job of restoring the tribes of Jacob and bringing back God’s Israelite sons and daughters is just “too small a thing” (6). God’s got far bigger plans and goals for him.
God, in fact, isn’t just going to equip the prophet to do what God had called him to do all along – “to bring Jacob back to” the Lord and “gather Israel to himself” (5). God also promises to use to make God’s servant “a light to the Gentiles” (6).
God isn’t just going to use Isaiah to “restore the tribes of Israel and bring back those of Israel” God “has kept” (6). Through the prophet’s labor God is going to “bring” God’s “salvation to the ends of the earth” (6).
On top of all that, God insists Isaiah will no longer be the “servant of rulers” (7). Instead, God promises that “Kings will see” Isaiah” and rise up, princes will see” him “and bow down” (7).
Of course, this dramatic reversal of fortune won’t just or even primarily be due to Isaiah’s hard and persistent work. It’s not the prophet’s charisma or persistence that will humble the high and mighty. No, God insists powerful people will both rise up and bow down before Isaiah “because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen” God’s servant (7).
So instead of giving God’s worn-out prophet a retirement with a healthy pension, God gives him a new, bigger and far more challenging assignment: bring the news of God’s love and rescue to basically everyone, including Gentiles like the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians.
After all, good news that’s just for those who have already received God’s grace with their faith is just “too small a thing.” That gospel is also for those who live in the world’s four corners. The gospel is not just for God’s “nice” adopted sons and daughters. It’s also for those who have made themselves God and God’s children’s enemies.
Isaiah 49 reminds us that God’s deep and abiding love for God’s world is just too enormous to be limited to just one kind of person or people. God’s grace is too huge to be limited to one area or region. God’s compassion is too immense to be limited to one ethnic group.
Hoezee and others suggest these grand plans and purposes offer those who preach and teach Isaiah 49 an opportunity to reflect with their hearers on the size and shape of our own goals for Christ’s Church and Kingdom. Those goals are so often shaped and limited by the past’s limits and frustrations. We hardly dare imagine things like new ministries because, well, frankly, some of our old programs have seemed to be of “no purpose” and “in vain.”
Hoezee writes, “God may not be all that interested to hear our self-pity or our excuses as to why we just can’t try to do this or that. God always has bigger ideas, grander dreams, a broader vision. It seems unlikely that when we complain to God that we’ve ‘done enough’ that God will reply, ‘You’re right; you’ve done it all. There is nothing left to do’.”
I recently had a cup of coffee with someone whom I deeply admire and respect who works for the United States Peace Corps in an east African country. She has been diligently working to teach middle school students English, as well working on some neighborhood development projects. She’s recently taken on a new role of helping people form economic empowerment groups that focus on financial planning.
But this dear person admitted to me that she, like Isaiah, fights discouragement. She has poured so much of her life, time and energy into a people and nation that she has come to love. Yet she admits that she sees little concrete impact, outside of a handful of students who have come to see her as mentor and even friend.
Author: Stan Mast
“The correct ‘voice’ for Psalm 40 is not in doubt,” says Patrick Henry Reardon in his Christ in the Psalms. “We know from Hebrews 10 that these are words springing from the heart of Christ our Lord and have reference to the sacrificial obedience of his Passion and death.” That may be ultimately true and finally helpful in applying the words of Psalm 40 to our lives, but beginning with that conclusion skips over many centuries and a lot of existential angst. So before we get to Christ, let’s dwell in Psalm 40 for a while. That will help us get to Christ better.
This Psalm of David begins with praise for past mercies (verses 1-5), continues with a testimony of the King’s response to that mercy (verses 6-10), but then concludes with a passionate plea for help (verses 11-17). The Lectionary reading inexplicably ends just as the prayer for deliverance is beginning, which could keep a preacher from noticing one of the most remarkable and helpful features of this Psalm. Psalm 40 reverses the order of most Psalms, which begin with trouble and end with praise for deliverance from that trouble. That is a satisfying order; that’s how I like books and movies and the chapters of my life to end– with a resolution of the problem. I love comedy much more than tragedy.
But Psalm 40 begins with praise and ends with a plea to God to come and help, and to do it quickly. That order is not as satisfying, but it is more like real life. One remarkable act of rescue with subsequent praise is not the end of the story, ever. Before the day is over, there is more trouble again, and again. Psalm 40 reminds us that it is to Yahweh that we must turn in trouble as well as in joy, when we’re in the pit and when we’re on the peak.
That transition from pit to peak is precisely where Psalm 40 opens. It doesn’t take much imagination to feel the Psalmist’s former distress. If we take his words literally, he had been cast into an old cistern, like Joseph, where there was just enough rank water to make the bottom a soggy, slimy, muddy mess. And there was no getting out, no exit (as Jean Paul Sartre put it in one of his desperate plays). Or is the Psalmist using that figure of speech to describe some other experience of hell on earth? We can’t be sure, but we do know how he responded.
All the Psalmist could do was scream for help. The NIV translates verse 1 as “I waited patiently,” but the Hebrew doesn’t paint a picture of a man calmly twiddling his thumbs as he passively sinks into the mire. Rather the original language speaks of intense hope, of passionate pleading from the bottom of that pit. And, says the Psalmist, God heard and did something. In language that sounds remarkably like the story of the Exodus (Exodus 3), we hear verb after verb describing Yahweh’s saving activity: he turned to me (or bent down), he heard my cry, he lifted me up, he set my feet upon a rock, he gave me a firm place to stand, he put a new song in my mouth. What a marvelous description of salvation. God can deliver us from hell where we scream with despair and place us in heaven where we sing for joy. No wonder the Psalmist wanted to memorialize that experience with a “hymn of praise to our God.”
Note that first person plural in verse 3. We hear it again in verse 5, where the Psalmist talks about the “things you planned for us….” That prepares us for verses 9 and 10, where the Psalmist deliberately turns to the “great assembly” of God’s people to tell his story and invite the congregation to join him in his praise. I’ll say a bit more about those last verses later, but for now it is important to note that he turns from his purely personal experience of salvation to the hoped-for effect on the whole community.
David tells his story of deliverance in the hope that “many will see and fear and put their trust in Yahweh.” We ought to preach on that expectation today. One of the reasons the church is so weak and flabby and the world so hard and closed is that believers don’t talk enough in public about their private experiences of being rescued out of the pit and put on a peak. We often wonder how we can fulfill the Great Commission, feeling ill-equipped to share the Gospel. But nearly all of us have a story to tell, a story that will bless people.
Interestingly, that blessing is exactly what the Psalmist turns to next, giving us another of the Beatitudes that beautify the Psalms. It speaks precisely of an unbelieving world, of the proud (meaning the arrogantly self-confident person), even of those who turn aside to false gods. How can we possibly break through that worldly self-sufficiency and that pagan religion? By telling the real life stories of how God delivered us. The blessing we have received and shared may well move the unbeliever to “make the Lord his trust.”
But that change in others is off in the future. Right now the Psalmist has experienced a profound and perplexing change in his own life (verses 6-8). Not only have his feet been pulled out of the miry pit and place on the solid rock, but his ears have been opened and his heart has been strangely warmed. I say that this change is perplexing in part because of the way these words are attributed to Christ (with important changes in translation) in Hebrews 10:5-10. These words are also perplexing because it is very difficult to know exactly what some of them mean, especially verse 6b. Those words about ears could refer to the ancient practice of piercing the ear of a servant to indicate his lifelong commitment to his master. Or they could mean that God has dug a new canal in the Psalmist’s ear, so to speak, that enables him to hear God’s Word better.
Either meaning would fit the Psalm, but the way Hebrews 10 uses these words pushes me toward that latter interpretation. All three of these verses are about the Psalmist’s surprising response to God’s saving grace. Rather than offering an animal sacrifice, as the grateful often do in Psalms of thanksgiving, David expresses his determination to obey Torah with a willing heart. What God wants from the redeemed is not conventional religion, but new obedience to his will. And not just surface obedience, but heartfelt obedience, obedience that is born of a deep desire to do God’s will. Here is a point to press upon our listeners and take to heart ourselves. When we have experienced God’s redemptive power and love in our lives, we should be delighted to do God’s will from the heart.
Further, we should be eager to share our testimony with the rest of God’s people, who perhaps have not had such an experience. Now, we have to be careful how we do that. I have heard testimonies in which far too much time was devoted to the “miry pit” part of the experience, to what life was like before God intervened. And I’ve heard testimonies to God’s grace that were really testimonies about the faith of the one delivered. They were filled with that awful word, “I.” Psalm 40:9-10 is a model of how to give a testimony in the great assembly. You focus on God. Note how the Psalmist uses words associated throughout the Old Testament with the Gospel: righteousness, faithfulness, salvation, love and truth. That’s what I will proclaim—your righteousness, your faithfulness, your salvation. I will not hide what you have done. I will go public and tell how your love and truth have delivered me.
On that high note our reading from Psalm 40 almost ends, but for some inexplicable reason the Lectionary goes on to verse 11, where the tone changes decidedly (unless we read the verbs not as a prayer, but as a statement of fact). That is a grammatical possibility, but the verses that follow are a clear indication that verse 11 is a prayer for deliverance, much like the one we heard in verses 1 and 2. After singing God’s praises, dedicating his life to obeying God’s will, and testifying in church, the Psalmist is once again plunged into trouble, troubles without number that seem to overwhelm all the wonders the Lord has previously done (verse 5). As I said above, this is exactly what happens in our lives again and again. So we can’t leave Psalm 40 without at least a glance at verse 11 and what follows.
What follows is another desperate prayer for deliverance. Given his heartfelt desire to do God’s will, it is incredible that the Psalmist should say “my sins have overtaken me.” But isn’t that just like us, again. Even the most committed person is “prone to wander… to leave the God we love.” Often our troubles are of our own making. But the trouble caused by the Psalmist’s own sin has been exacerbated by the foes who surround him. Appealing to God’s justice, the Psalmist begs God to visit the sins of his enemies upon them and to grant salvation to the righteous (verses 14-16). He ends where he began, as a poor and needy person crying for help and deliverance. And, says the man who “waited patiently” for the Lord, make it snappy; “O my God, do not delay.” How like me!
The way this Psalm ends points us to the Christological interpretation with which I began this piece. Our ever-recurring cycle of deliverance followed by dedication followed by depravity followed by desperation followed by deliverance finds its final resolution in the once for all sacrifice of Christ. As Hebrews 10 says, even our best efforts to save ourselves will always fail. Even the most faithful observance of Torah cannot save, “because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.” (Heb. 10:4) In the very next verse of Hebrews 10, Psalm 40:6-8 are put in the mouth of Christ, proving that only the obedience of Christ can make us holy in the deepest sense. “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Once and for all, by his obedience and death, Jesus delivers us from our sins, from our enemies, and from the slimy pit.
Psalm 40 shows us how to praise God for his deliverance, how that deliverance should affect our lives, how we should share our experience with others, and how we should react when our mountaintop experiences inevitably leads to a disastrous slide back into the pit. But most of all, it tells us that our up and down experiences of sin and grace are ultimately redeemed by the once for all sacrifice of Christ. Even when we try to rely only on the Lord, when we try to obey the Lord gladly from the heart, when we try to give testimony to the Lord’s deliverance, we will always slip and fall. But Jesus never fails. He has done once and for all what we can never do. Thanks be to God.
The idea of going public with our experience of grace should resonate with our congregations, because we live in a culture where going public is often a negative thing. WikiLeaks goes public with embarrassing emails. Women abused by powerful men go public with their accusations. People go public with news of their sexual orientations and activities. Often we wince at these public revelations. We long for a good word about God spoken in public.
I’ll never forget a man who told me about his experience of God’s grace. He was an intensely private man, a man who never expressed his emotions– not his faith in Christ, not even love for his family. Indeed, they were estranged by his cold and distant demeanor. But when his wife fell terribly ill and was hospitalized for a length of time, he was deeply worried about her. He prayed fervently that she would be healed.
As he prayed, he heard God say, “She will be just fine.” He was startled. He had never had a direct experience of grace like that, even though he was a lifelong believer. He told me about it with tears in his eyes, repeating over and over, “I’ve never had an experience like that.”
But he never told his family; he never went public, even in private with them. And they never got close to him. One day in the depths of depression, he took his own life. I wonder what would have happened if he had told them what he told me. Thank God that Jesus’ once for all sacrifice covered all his sins, including the sin of despair.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Author: Scott Hoezee
If what we call First Corinthians were a contemporary letter, then a good bit of this reading would be like focusing not on the shank or the primary content of the letter. Instead, it would be like focusing on the part of the letter at the very end that begins with “Well, that’s about all for now. Say Hi to Dad for me and drop a line when you can. Love, George.”
As Thomas Long has reminded us, ancient letter writers signed their letters up front and so the first couple-three verses of all of Paul’s letters are essentially the part of current-day letters that include the “Sincerely” signature at the end. It does not seem like the most exciting part of any letter. But there it is in this particular lection for the second Sunday of Epiphany this year.
But there is far more here than you might think. And speaking of Tom Long, I really cannot think of a better way to direct you on this passage than to invite you very simply to listen to a wonderful sermon on this passage that Long preached at a preachers conference now nearly 20 years ago. Because here Long detects the wittiness of Paul as the apostle writes these verses with tongue firmly embedded in cheek. If you listen correctly to the signature of this letter, you see Paul summarizing the letter he had received from Corinth (with a long list of their troubles and questions) even as he sets the table for the balance of this landmark letter of 1 Corinthians.
In Long’s sermon—that you can hear by clicking here—you will find some novel insights into the text and several illustrative stories to choose from. But as you listen to this—and as you glean ideas for your own sermon on this passage—notice how enduring and how perennial Paul’s words are. If 1,000 different pastors read this sermon starter and listen to Long’s sermon, I can all but guarantee that every one of those pastors will be shepherding a flock that has just enough squabbles, questions, and controversies that the congregation will be able to see itself inside the Corinthian picture. And insofar as Paul had something to say over the troubled waters that just were the tiny church in Corinth 2,000 years ago, he has by the Spirit something to say to each of our oft-rocky congregations today too.
As Long details it, listen, then, to how Paul kicks off his letter to a congregation that surely vexed him and tested his patience. And listen, too, for how the Spirit of God—no doubt vexed and troubled by our own congregations yet today—also exercises enormous patience with us as he calls us along the road that will lead all of us to true sainthood in Christ.