2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For John 1:6-8, 19-28 Part 1

In the classic Greek plays of Aeschylus or Aristophanes, dramatic figures identified as the Chorus occasionally appear on stage to comment on the events occurring before them. They are objective observers, with whom the other characters only minimally interact, whose role it is to connect the actors with the audience and ensure that the drama's message is clear to all. In some ways, the Chorus serves as the voice of the Greek gods, who also were considered objective observers viewing from on high the comedies and tragedies of human life below. Such theatrical methods are ill-suited to the Judeo-Christian world. The Lord God has never been a passive observer from on high, but instead has been active in human history through Garden of Eden walks, Mt. Sinai theophanies, desert wilderness wanderings, and prophetic voices like Elijah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. The advantage of the Greek approach is that so long as the Chorus members remain unattached to the drama at hand, no one questions their authority. The difficulty with the Judeo-Christian version is that all who enter the drama claiming to speak for God will be constantly challenged about their own role and authority. This was especially the case with the prophet and Chorus Voice, John the Baptist.

The curtain rises on the Fourth Gospel, only to reveal a stage shrouded in swirling fog and colored lights. The narration begins by speaking in broad terms of creation, of God, God's Word, light and darkness. Through the mist a figure briefly emerges, a man identified as John. He is to give testimony to the light and the Logos (Word), but he himself is neither of these things. Once the Prologue ends, the fog dissipates and the gospel begins with this same man being interrogated by the leaders of his own faith.

This episode is a paradigm for any who would follow John's example and be a witness for Christ. The questions asked then are the questions still being asked today: "Who are you? Who sent you? By what authority do you speak and act?" John began with a negative confession: "I am not the Christ." As a true prophet, he consistently pointed away from himself to the other, greater One whom he was serving. He was clear in proclaiming his authority as delegated authority. Even the act of baptizing converts is done as a preparatory act for a greater baptism with fire and spirit yet to come (Lk 3:16), not as efficacious in and of itself.

In Luke 7, some of John's disciples con front Jesus with questions similar to what their teacher had been asked earlier by the priests and Levites. Both outsiders and insiders can ask what is the source of a person's authority. Unable to be as convincing in our response as John, some Christians through the ages have pointed to the authority of the church, the "magisterium" of church teachings as well as the belief in apostolic succession among church leaders. Other Christians point to the scriptures as the concrete embodiment of apostolic authority and truth, especially when comprehension of the scripture is aided by the Holy Spirit. Trying to resolve these viewpoints has been one of the most divisive issues in the history of Christianity.

The example of John is particularly instructive. As the Prologue verses and the subsequent interrogative episode point out, we do not so much possess God's truth as we are possessed by it. We are witnesses of that light which shines in the darkness, which as sinners we are unworthy to possess, yet as children of God we are obliged to reflect according to God's grace. Discussions over partial human, scriptural or ecclesiastical authority should not divert us from recognizing God as the source of ultimate authority. Like John baptizing in the Jordan, our faith testimonies have value insofar as they point to the One who stands in our midst, yet whom so many do not know (Jn 1:26).

The Advent/Christmas season is a strongly visual time. Sanctuaries and storefronts put up displays and decorations; bright colors, bows and wrapping paper seem to surround us wherever we go. Once again the Greeks would be pleased, since their culture was known for its amphitheaters filled with statues of gods and goddesses, and stages on which dazzling productions were presented. The Hebrew/Christian culture relies more on the sense of hearing. Historically, they forbade making images of their God and chose to refer to the incarnated Lord as the Word made flesh. They heard commandments from Mt. Sinai and listened to instruction from a sermon on the mount. One Pentecost day, Peter gave a sermon and three thousand who heard him were baptized before going home. Therefore our Advent celebrations should be true to our aural heritage, and like John focus on being principally the voice of one crying in the wilderness.

Reinhold Niebuhr insisted that there are moments in history which are more than just historic moments; there are times when what has been partial finds its completeness in a historic moment of illumination. A prophet comes down a mountain with two stone tablets; another baptizes in the muddy water of the Jordan river; a third climbs into a carriage to read scripture with an Ethiopian eunuch. But Niebuhr goes on to insist that those historic moments have no meaning for those who are not prepared for them. Just as John entered the drama to prepare those who heard his voice for the historic one who would soon follow, so are we to be guided by his example as we strive to prepare a modern generation with our wilderness cries.

Randall K. Bush

SOURCES

Carl Michalson, "Authority," Handbook of Christian Theology, pp. 29-32. Eugene Peterson, Working the An gles, pp. 114-5. Reinhold Niebuhr, Discerning the Signs of the Times, p. 96.