Eavesdropping on Eternity (Isaiah 49:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-34)
Last week I introduced the season of Epiphany by saying that this season of the year celebrates the revelation of God in the human being Jesus. It celebrates the universal – God’s love and plan and mission for the whole world – in one specific human person – Jesus of Nazareth. Christians, at our best, have faith in Jesus, who, as he is portrayed in the Gospels especially, is the one who brings concrete humanity to who God is and what God values. The season of Epiphany seeks to help us with that as well. It’s saying to us that this one human person is important and life-altering for all sorts of folks of very diverse cultures and opinions. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. And that’s at the core of our Gospel lesson today.
In fact, all our lessons centre on the first chapter of John’s Gospel that begins in, in perhaps one of the deepest places in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word,” or, in a better translation, “When all things began, the Word already was.” Here, indeed, we are eavesdropping on eternity with a glimpse into the very life of God. But, as mere humans, we only see into that divine life murkily or “through a glass, darkly.” What or who does the author intend by “the word?” Slowly, through the passage, some daylight dawns, and the identity of “the word” becomes clearer. We read: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelled with us for a while,” but still without a name and human identity. All through the first chapter of this Gospel, the author alternates between eavesdropping on eternity and dabbling in the very dust of the earth in a backwater place in the Middle East. After we learn that this word was present with God and the agent of the creation of the world, all of a sudden, we are flung to earth with a thud: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” And we learn that John was a witness to the light of the word coming into the world. But, then, we’re off into the heavenly places again.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us…No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” This last expression, “made God known,” is literally, “has interpreted (or exegeted) God.”
Then…back to the dirt of ancient Israel: “This is the testimony of John…” who claimed not to be Elijah, who was the classically expected forerunner of the Messiah, but only a voice to announce the coming of God and speaks human words to prepare for the coming of the Word from eternity itself by calling people to get their acts together before God. John symbolized this change of direction in people by the common-enough rite of dipping them under water, called baptism, after the Greek word for the act of dipping.
And, then, in our passage for today, just when we’d expect to go back to heaven, instead we learn of another human whose full name is Yehoshua in Hebrew (Yeshua for short, “He causes to be whole”) or Yesous, Jesus, in Greek. But, even though this scene is in the dirt of Palestine rather than heaven, its subject matter is quite other than one might expect from a guy like John, who other gospels tell us was kind of an oddball who wore hairy clothes and ate locusts and wild honey. He looked at Jesus and he identified him, not as a carpenter from Nazareth in that time and place, but with an identity that is much more “eternal,” so to speak (much like the talk of the Word made flesh earlier who interpreted God). He puts all this in a very Jewish way, when he says, “Here’s the lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin.” He says, “This one ranks ahead of me because he existed before me” (remember “When all things began, the Word already was”). He says, “I plunge you under the water to symbolize a new direction for your life, but this one, upon whom God’s Holy Spirit rests, will plunge you into that same Spirit.” He says, “This one is the Son of God,” which to a Hebrew would mean one who shares in the characteristics of God. And that’s how John the Gospel writer uses John the Baptist to paint this one, as the human image of God in a unique way, for the whole world. This may get a little high-sounding for some of us, but that’s what this text says.
Here John the Baptist is clearly the mouthpiece for the author of this Gospel in identifying Jesus’ significance for Christians. John stands on the earth and sees into the heavens. Each one of the terms he uses for Jesus has occasioned thousands and millions of words to explain them. Sometimes we confuse the words used to explain the words with the words of the Bible themselves, and that can get to be a problem. Nonetheless, it is true that all of John’s words (and many of those used to explain them) depend on a world view that is quite foreign to us: the Hebrew sacrificial system, and Jewish expectation of a Messiah in particular religious and political terms, especially as these were thought of and practiced in the period between the Old and the New Testaments. If we wish to do more than simply restate them (which does nothing to help us understand them for our world today), then we’re going to have to use words that don’t deal in first century Jewish culture and that alone.
What I take John the Baptist to be saying (on behalf of John the Gospel writer, and the community for which he was writing) is In this Yeshua, this Jesus, God is visible in humanity. Jesus interprets God for us and allows us to eavesdrop on eternity. I haven’t a clue how all this is possible (and either has anyone else.) This one has come to enable all sorts of folks to lead lives that can be freed to receive the love and grace of God. That’s what is contained within all those titles that John used without the ancient baggage. If we are familiar with the Old Testament, we will realize that God has been seeking to have communion with humans for a long time, surely from the call of Abraham and his family; one man who would become a nation, and, really, back beyond that into the earliest stories in the Bible that speak of God’s seeking-love for humans.
The phrase I’ve used to describe John’s confession of Jesus this morning, is “eavesdropping on eternity.” None of us, right now, have the privilege of living in the heavenly bliss of eternity. For now we have to settle for life on earth. As the old saying goes, we (in church) can be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good. Leave it to the Old Testament to be practical and to ground our theology in the here and now. Our Old Testament lesson speaks of one called the Servant of the Lord, identified in this passage as “My servant Israel,” God’s people. As we read the Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 49 today as Christian scripture, we may also recognize in it, once we have come to see Jesus as that word made flesh, that, through Jesus, God is calling a flesh and blood people that will be the vehicle for God’s grace to the whole world not just in the Old Testament People of God, but in the People of God today. God calls people to form a community of faith that thrives by mutual love, accountability and encouragement. But fulfilling that call, inside four walls, can be too easy, too light, Isaiah 49:6 says. God wants the community to be nurtured and up-built so as to spread the love, grace, hope, and peace of God to the ends of the earth beginning outside our door. It is very familiar news to First Baptist that there is an inside mission and an outside mission.
Further, Isaiah 49:2 talks about God’s servant being a sharp sword and polished arrow. So often our only view of mission has been, “Here am I, send my money.” That’s a limited view of mission, which God intends to engulf our beings, our values, our very identities and how we live where we are. We don’t have to go to the ends of the earth, the mission is here.
There is no question in my mind that, sometimes, we find all this talk of mission as a personal thing a little frustrating. That’s because, if we have much self-awareness, we know that we’re really no better than those to whom we are called in mission to serve. And we very quickly discover that it’s easier to send money than it is to penetrate the world on Jesus’ behalf with ourselves. What’s the plan for that? Do you know that line in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” when they’re in a terrible shoot-out, and one asks another, “What’s the plan?” The other says, “I dunno, I’m making this up as I go along.” All of us in mission are weak and imperfect, and sometimes we don’t feel very empowered to do anything. That’s where we need to recognize that this is God’s mission, not ours, and we really need, first and foremost, to be attentive and responsive to what God puts before us. It’s not our call to have all the answers, but to be nimble and responsive to present need with the love of Jesus: the human face of God, even if our community is not very large and not perfect by any means. And we can be helped in our frustration by the Epistle lesson.
Other than his letter to the Galatians, there is probably no Pauline letter that finds more to complain about than the 1st and 2nd Letters to the Corinthians (especially the 1st). These people were fighting, they were factionalized, they were arrogant, they thought they had everything when they had next to nothing. And, yet, and yet, Paul still does two amazing things here. First, he calls them “The Church of God in Corinth.” With all their warts, with all their factions, with all their flaws, they are still “The Church of God at Corinth.” They share the designation “Church of God” with all who call upon the name of Jesus all over the world, Paul says. The second thing Paul did was to pray for them. It is interesting that some of the specifics he prays for (such as their excellence in all spiritual gifts) are the very things he will take them to task for later on. But he prays for them, that God will make what is good better and strengthen them to the end. Even if they were a bunch of not very good servants of the Servant of the Lord, and couldn’t always be counted on, nonetheless, “God is faithful; by God you were called into the fellowship of the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). Paul recognized that God was still working with those imperfect folk, who were, nonetheless, the Church of God at Corinth. And, at the centre, we are the Church of God in La Crosse, one of many. We are imperfect servants who are being nurtured to walk in a yoke beside Jesus: the human interpreter of God, the word made flesh. As we go on in mission, let us strive to look more like Jesus, who in a mightily mysterious way is the image of the invisible God.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.