TITLE: Pointing to the Light!
SERMON IN A SENTENCE: God calls us, the church, to bear witness to Christ through word and sacrament.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
We see other metaphors in this Gospel. Jesus says, "I am the light of the world" (8:12) -- "I am the bread of life" (6:35) -- "I am the gate" (10:9) -- "I am the good shepherd" (10:11), etc. In the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals himself by the phrase, "I am" -- God's name. As we shall see, John reveals himself by the phrase, "I am not."
SCRIPTURE: John 1:6-8, 19-28
- John the Baptist was popular -- very popular.
- He was Israel's first prophet in three hundred years
- and people flocked to hear him.
- He lived in the wilderness -- in the desert wilderness -- in a place where there were many snakes but few people -- in a place where you could die if you got lost between waterholes -- and still they came.
- They came from Jerusalem, the big city -- a place where there was lots of excitement and plenty of watering holes.
- They came in droves to hear John preach. "Repent," he cried! "Be baptized for the forgiveness of sins!"
- And they repented! And they were baptized! And they returned to the city feeling clean and pure -- sometimes for the first time in many years.
- But then King Herod killed John.
- He didn't want to kill John, because he respected John.
- But John criticized Herod for taking his brother's wife, and Herod's wife hated John.
- She and her daughter conspired to trick Herod. After the daughter performed a cute little strip tease, Herod said, "Anything you want! Up to half my kingdom!" And the daughter said, "I want John's head on a platter!"
- Herod was trapped. He didn't want to kill John, but he didn't want to back down in front of his guests -- and so he served up John's head on a platter.
- But still, John was popular, even after his death.
- Twenty or thirty years later, in the book of Acts, Paul came across disciples of John who had never even heard of Jesus.
- There were pockets of John's disciples around for decades. That just shows you how popular John was, even after his death..
- But, in life, John tried to put himself in the right place with regard to Jesus.
- We see it in our Gospel lesson today. The scripture says of John that "he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light."
- When the priests and the Levites asked John who he was, and he told them who he wasn't.
- He said, "I am not the Messiah."
- Obviously, somebody thought that he was the Messiah, and he was trying to kill that idea dead as a doornail.
- "Who are you?" "I am NOT the Messiah! NOT! Did you get that! NOT the Messiah!"
- They asked him if he were Elijah, and he said "NO!"
- They asked if he were the prophet, and he said "NO!"
- Well then, who are you?
- "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord." That's my job! That's my mission! That's my purpose in life!
- The Lord is coming, and my job is to get people ready for him!
- What John did to prepare people for Jesus was to preach and to baptize.
- He called people to repent, to confess their sins, and to be baptized.
- When Jesus came, he would add to what John had done.
- Jesus would add the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Then things would really happen! Jesus, helped by Spirit-gifted people, would change the world.
- It occurred to me as I read this story that we, the church need to be doing exactly what John was doing.
- We need to be testifying to the light -- pointing to Jesus -- making sure that people see Jesus.
- We need to be making straight the way of the Lord.
- We need to be preparing people to know Jesus.
- We need to be calling people to repent, to be baptized, and to confess their sins.
- We do lots of things as a church, but these are what educators would call our core curriculum -- testifying to the light -- pointing to Jesus -- making straight the way of the Lord -- calling people to repent, to confess, and to be baptized. That is our mission.
- We, the church, are always tempted to forget that.
- We are tempted to get involved with other things and to push Jesus off to the side.
- We are tempted to put second things first and first things second.
- The reason is that the church's second things are important:
i. Feeding the hungry is important, and the church does a lot of that -- but it is one of our secondary tasks. Our first task is to witness to Christ through word and sacrament.
ii. Housing the homeless is important, and the church does a lot of that -- but it is one of our secondary tasks. Our first task is to witness to Christ through word and sacrament.
iii. Building schools where schools are needed is important, and the church does a lot of that -- but that is one of our secondary tasks. Our first task is to witness to Christ through word and sacrament.
iv. Promoting racial harmony is important, and the church does a lot of that -- but that is one of our secondary tasks. Our first task is to witness to Christ through word and sacrament.
- Sometimes we, the church, forget that our first task is to witness to Christ. When that happens, the church starts to die.
i. When the church becomes primarily a soup kitchen -- or a homeless shelter -- or a counseling center -- or an AIDS shelter -- or a place to meet nice people -- or a concert hall -- or a rummage sale -- or anything other than a witness to Christ -- it starts to die.
ii. Our first task is to witness to Christ. When we fail to do that, Christ lets us wither on the vine.
- In the last few decades, mainline churches have lost millions of members.
- The nation's population has grown -- church attendance has grown -- but mainline churches have shrunk. #. People wonder why. A few years ago, C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen did a careful study of growing and declining churches.
- Listen to what they have to say:
i. "To grow and to continue growing, it is necessary for each mainstream church to become a vital religious institution, vibrant with the presence of God. It must develop a clear religious identity, a compelling religious purpose, and a coherent sense of direction that arises from that purpose"
- If I may put their conclusion in different words,
i. mainline churches have declined over the past few decades because we took our eye off the ball
ii. we majored in minors
iii. we put second things first and first things second.
iv. We need to recover our sense of mission, and our mission is to witness to Christ. And the primary way that we do that is through word and sacrament -- through preaching, Eucharist, and baptism.
- Now here is the tricky part. One of the ways that we witness to Christ is to meet the needs of vulnerable people
- to feed the hungry -- to house the homeless -- to help people infected with AIDS -- to build schools in places that need them. #. When we do those things, we show forth Christ's love, and we bear witness to Christ.
- Christ calls us to do these things, and the church has always done them. It often does them well.
- We must continue to do them. They are important.
- But we must always remember that our first task is to witness to Christ through word and sacrament -- through preaching, Eucharist, and baptism.
- If we genuinely bear witness to Christ through word and sacrament, Christ will bless us and will make it possible for us to do the other things as well.
- When I was thinking about this sermon, the phrase "bright morning star" came to my mind.
- I connected that phrase in my mind with Jesus, but I couldn't remember where I had heard it. From a hymn, I think! Our hymns really do teach us about Christ, you know!
- I believe that the phrase, "bright morning star" came to my mind as I prepared this sermon, because I knew somehow that it was speaking of Jesus as the brightest star in the heavens.
- I looked up "bright morning star," and found that it comes from the book of Revelation. Jesus says, "I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star" (Rev 22:16).
- Jesus says, "I am...the bright morning star."
- He is the brightest light in the sky.
- He is the center of everything that we do as the church.
- If we turn our backs on Jesus, our sky grows dark.
- If we turn our backs on him, it matters not what other good things we do.
- We must keep ourselves and the church focused on Christ if we are to succeed in our mission, because witnessing to Christ through word and sacrament is our mission.
- In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about all the things that we worry about -- what we will eat or what we will drink or what we will wear.
- Then he talks about God providing all these things, even for the birds of the air
- and he assures us that we are more important to God than the birds.
- He tells us not to worry, and concludes by saying, "But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt 7:33).
- In the church, we sometimes worry about a thousand things, all the way from feeding the hungry down to the color of the carpet.
- We are always tempted to put second things first and first things second
- to be distracted by little things so that we forget the big ones.
- Let us, for the sake of Christ's kingdom, keep focused on the big thing -- our witness to Christ through word and sacrament
- trusting that God will then make it possible for us to do everything else that he wants us to do.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing