Preaching John 1:29-34
Thematic words for this Sunday's gospel might be "bridge" and "change". Where last week's reading from Isaiah pointed toward the humility of Jesus in the Matthean baptism story, this week's Servant Song (Is 49:1-7) has to resonate with the Baptist himself in John's Gospel. The question asserts itself: What does this strange figure of John the Baptist have to do with the Good News, and particularly this season where we celebrate the broadcasting of the Good News?
John presents a model of the bridge from the world of the Old Covenant to the New, and also one of faithfulness during a time of change. Another way to put this might be to say that in the course of a few short verses, John moves from playing the role of prophet to witness and even to evangelist. In the midst of this movement is the challenging knowledge that John must now step back to let the Lamb of God take center stage.
One can't help thinking of Jonah, who so "enjoyed" his role as doom-sayer that when his prophecy "worked," Ninevah was converted, and the Lord repented of destroying that great city, he withdrew to the desert and sulked. Not so John. He sees the fruit of his proclamation before his eyes and rejoices! Then his importance begins to fade.
But let us talk "bridges." It has often been said that John was the "last Old Testament prophet," and that now the system is forever changed. But that would be simply to cast the Old aside. What does John bring with him from the wealth of that ancient tradition? In attempting to answer that question, we would do well to review the prophetic tradition, and to consider for awhile how we, as preachers, draw from or ignore it.
Now, how does the prophet continue to validate the Old while embracing the Good News that appears before him? Examples abound through history of great figures who did not possess the humility to step aside when a new truth asserted itself. Famous archaeologists have falsified journal entries to prove that their theories were correct. Much more frightening, think of the medical researchers who have done the same. Do we not all succumb to this form of pride at one time or another—willfully ignoring or twisting data to fit our own fiercely held views? How much more dangerous this tendency for a prophet of God!
So John offers us a model of faithfulness to the excitement and surprise that are the natural attendants of God's in-breaking in the world. How might that model direct us twentieth-century Christians in our own call to be witnesses to the Lamb of God?
Here is the preacher's opportunity to remind the assembled community of the surprising ways in which God has presented Godself in our own day. Taking John's situation as a type, consider events that were perceived at the time as upsetting the status quo, yet which were actually grounded in the Old, the expressed values of our nation of our church. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., comes to mind of course. From the point of view of his virtual canonization today, can we recover the fear and resistance that he engendered during his life? And all he was doing was preaching the age-old Gospel!
How about some of the truly frightening challenges confronting us today? Why is the Church at large spending so much energy discussing whom to ordain? Are we being confronted with a new vision? How about the crisis in "family values" in America—is the answer simply to shout the old models louder, or is there a new model being called for? What about the metaphor of warfare we use for anything that worries us (e.g., the "war on drugs")? Could the very vocabulary we use to voice our concerns be limiting our vision of new avenues of hope? Might there be old forms or systems that are limiting our congregation's ability to freely shout out the good news?
The sermon will derive its power from the level of fear it touches in giving examples of change. Power to move, and power also to hurt. We preachers might do well to keep the rest of John's story before us, as we decide just how prophetic the occasion calls us to be.
Linda L. Clader