Sermon Ideas For John 1:29-34 Part 1
John 1:29-34 lends itself readily to several themes. There is the manner in which the Old Covenant, the person of John the Baptist, points toward the New Covenant embodied in Jesus Christ. There is a wealth of Christological detail. There is the portrait of faith during a time of transition. We can save the Christological angle for another time, and focus on themes one and three, seeing John as a representative of the Old Covenant pointing to the New, and treating this as an illustration of faith during a time of change.
Churches are not always kind to present-day change agents. Part of the problem is that change agents of an earlier time are often recast as pillars of stability and defenders of the status quo. Thus, as the church confronts a moment of uncertainty and promise, lessons from an earlier day are hard to retrieve. We will be in much better shape if we recognize faith's pioneers as simply that: Pioneers.
This is what John was. Yes, he stood in continuity with Israel's long line of prophetic figures. But that line was broken off more than four hundred years earlier. There have been no prophets since Malachi. Thus, John was a novelty, a threat, a challenge to business-as-usual. He was a change agent.
More than this, John is the figure by virtue of which the Old Testament spills over into the New. The relation between the two Testaments is complicated. Many different interpretations have surfaced over the centuries. We can summarize the issues by considering the continuity and discontinuity between the Covenants as they surface in the text at hand.
We see the continuity between the two Testaments in all that John knows and affirms about Jesus. He is God's Lamb and God's Son (1:29-34). He ranks above John by virtue of coming "before" him (1:30). The reason for John's ministry is that he might be clearly recognized for who he is (1:31). He fulfills the condition John was given, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (1:33).
As John is to Jesus, so is the Old Testament to the New. The former spells out the conditions which the New is to fulfill, so much so, in fact, that we could say that the reason the Old Covenant came into being was so that the New could be clearly recognized for what it is. The latter Covenant ranks above the former and precedes it, logically if not chronologically. Just as John points to Jesus as God's Lamb and Son, so the Old Testament points toward the Savior and Lord disclosed in the New.
There is continuity but also discontinuity. John says twice with emphasis, "I myself did not know him" (1:31, 33). Despite everything he knew and could bear witness to, he was still in the dark as to the identity of the one who followed him. In the dark, that is, until the light began to shine. When Jesus appeared to be baptized, everything suddenly came together for John, even as the Old Covenant gave way to the New.
But even if John represents God's Old Covenant, he is also a person of faith in his own right. And it is always worth asking if we know what faith really is. Paul Tillich asks us to expand our understanding of this crucial concept. Instead of seeing it as a circle with a single focal point, Tillich views it as an ellipse, which has two focal points. This definition corresponds rather well with the faith of John the Baptist. There is what he does know and what he doesn't know. He is committed to what he does understand, but this extends further to include what he doesn't understand.
If faith is a circle, and if it centers around a single point, there will be problems. We can make our circle very large, and pretend that we know more than we really do. Or we can make our circle very small and try to convince ourselves that we can be happy confined to the few things we can comprehend. The first approach is unrealistic about the limits of the mind; the second about the needs of the heart. Much better to have an elliptical faith. Much better to commit to God with a full awareness of what we understand and of what we cannot understand.
John illustrates this for us. In this he makes a stark contrast to the religious elite who opposed Jesus. Their faith was coterminous with what they believed to be true, and as a consequence, there was no readiness to change. When Jesus arrived preaching a message of change ("repent and believe"), they could only reject it.
When seasons are changing, when paradigms are shifting, when worldviews are replacing one another, it is better to leave room for change by freely admitting both what we understand and what we don't.