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SERMON - First Sunday after Epiphany

 

Sermon for the first Sunday after Epiphany

Pastor Michael Jarick

IDENTITY AND PURPOSE

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        If I were to ask you “Who are you?” I wonder how you would respond. Probably the first thing you would say is your name, “I am Matilda”, or “I’m Trevor”. But what would you say next? Maybe you might refer to your occupation, “I am a retail worker” or “I make pies”. Then what? Your nationality or ethnicity? Your age? Your gender? The football or Big Bash cricket team you support?

        Because we are rational, emotional and spiritual beings, we need to know who we are. Thus, we are not like dogs, for instance, which, as far as I can tell, don’t go through adolescence wondering about who they are, which don’t ponder what make a dog a dog, which aren’t concerned about where they came from or where they are going. By the way, what is the definition of a dyslexic, agnostic, insomniac? The person who lies awake at night wondering if there is a dog.

        It is vital for human beings to know who they are. Without a clear sense of self, we become like dogs, chasing the ball that flashes past our eyes, waiting for the sound of the dog food packet being opened, or looking for something nasty to roll in after being washed.

        The question of identity saturates the Gospel written by St John. According to early Christian sources, John wrote his Gospel to refute the influential teachings of Cerinthus, who denied that God created the world, and taught that Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism but left him at his crucifixion. For Cerinthus, Jesus only appeared to be God and Saviour.

        It is no accident that John starts with “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 were made through him” (John 1:1-3a).

        After presenting who Jesus is, St John goes on to address the identity of John the Baptist. In verse 19 priests and Levites go to John and ask, “Who are you?” John responds, “I am not the Christ. They ask then if he is Elijah. “No.” Is he the Prophet (meaning the new Moses)? “No.” I can picture the priests and Levites getting annoyed at this stage, as they need an answer to give to the leaders back in Jerusalem.

        Finally, John gives them something, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” They retort that if he’s not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet, what does he think he’s doing baptizing people.

        Still John doesn’t answer who he is. Instead, he points to Jesus, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am unworthy to untie.”

        Not even John’s own disciples understand who John was. In chapter 3, they come to John and complain, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness – look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

        They are envious of the influence Jesus has, as if it is a competition to see who attracts the most disciples. John replies, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” (verse 27) …. and then in verse 30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John is a witness. The original word in the Greek text is ‘marturia’, from which our English word martyr comes.

       Finally, in our text for today, John makes explicit the identity of Jesus, the Word made flesh, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” For the Hebrews, a lamb was key to the Exodus, the central event in their history when God commanded the people to sacrifice a male lamb without blemish and to paint the lamb’s blood on the doorways to their houses. The angel of death would then pass over their families and not kill their firstborn. Every year this story of salvation was retold in the ritual called the Passover, still celebrated by orthodox Jews today.

        By the time the book of Leviticus was written around 1445 BC, God had decreed laws through Moses about worship and offerings made at the tabernacle. On the original Day of Atonement (celebrated by the Jews today as Yom Kippur) a goat was presented to Aaron, who laid his hands on its head and confessed over it all the sins of the people. The goat was then let go free in the wilderness. This ritual is the origin of our term ‘scape goat’.

        Martin Luther writes about John’s declaration of who Jesus is, “The Son of God says to me, ‘You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute… All your sins are to rest on me and not on you.”

        John is so sincere in his duty to point to Christ that he doesn’t even take credit for recognizing Jesus’ identity, when he says, “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.’”

        On the following day, when John is with two of his disciples, he again sees Jesus passing by, and he repeats his declaration “Behold the Lamb of God!” The two disciples follow Jesus, who turns to them and asks a question.

        Jesus’ ministry begins not with a mighty command to silence a demon, as it does in the Gospel of Mark; nor with a sermon to the crowds who have gathered on a mountain, as in Matthew; and not with a quotation from Isaiah to proclaim his anointing for the year of God’s favour, as in Luke.  It begins with a question: “What are you seeking?... What are you looking for?... What do you need?...

        Jesus poses this question to two of John’s disciples who have just learned that Jesus is the Lamb of God and are determined to follow him. Before the story moves very far we learn that other people also are looking for Jesus, but for very different reasons.

        The crowds are seeking to have their stomachs filled with a little more bread (John 6:26), while the religious authorities are seeking to kill him (John 5:18; 7:1; cf. 7:11, 19, 20, 25, etc). The crowds seek life, the religious leaders, death.

        These two disciples, for their part, want something different than either the crowds or the authorities. They want simply to be with Jesus. The Greek verb is ‘meno’, to abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in the sense of permanence or stability.  They want much more than his street name and number.

        John the Baptist recognizes Jesus when the Holy Spirit remains (meno) on him (John 1:32). After Jesus provides enough bread to satisfy a great crowd, he cautions the people to work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures (meno) for eternal life (John 6:27). He promises that he will abide (meno) in those who abide (meno) in him (John 15:4-10). Wherever Jesus stays (meno), people have the opportunity to believe (John 4:40; 10:40).

        I’ll finish with a guided meditation using 5 questions based on Jesus’ question to the two disciples. How we answer Jesus’ question will suggest what we find in life, as well as the journey we take.

        So, find a comfortable posture that you can hold for about 5 minutes. Feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes, or focus on an object like the cross or the altar… Think about your breathing… Listen to the sound of your breath… breathe in slowly… hold… breathe out slowly… breathe in slowly… hold… breathe out slowly… breathe in slowly… hold… breathe out slowly…

 

  • What are you seeking?

  • What motivates you?

  • What do you really need?

  • How do you remain in Jesus?

  • What does Jesus do to remain in you?

 

Prayer

Lord, you promise to be with me always. Help me to remain in you. Amen.

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