2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Sermon Ideas For John 1:6-8, 19-28 Part 4

The history that lies behind today's text might provide the preacher with a clue for a sermon. Many scholars believe that a rivalry developed between the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist regarding which was the superior leader. This passage shows how the church resolved this rivalry and made sense of the relationship between John and Jesus.

According to the Fourth Gospel, John is an important and honored figure. Indeed, he is a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah. But despite the place of respect accorded him in Christian tradition, he is still subservient to Jesus. John's vocation is to witness to Jesus.

In John 1:1-5, the writer of this gospel uses the language of wisdom to identify Jesus. Jesus was resident with God from the very beginning. Jesus is God's closest agent through whom God created the world. Later in the gospel, we learn that Jesus and God are one in the sense that the character and purposes of God are revealed through Jesus. John points to Jesus. Jesus reveals the fullness of the divine will and relationship with the world.

Today's congregation lives in a world similar to the world of the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus. In today's pluralistic society, many different groups claim to have the ultimate clue to the meaning of life: e.g., the various forms of Judaism and Christianity, Mohammedanism, new age spiritualities, Eastern religions, postmodern philosophies, agnosticism, atheism. Within the Christian house itself, a kind of rivalry exists regarding who are the most faithful interpreters of the Christian tradition.

In this diverse setting, the preacher can do for today's church what the Fourth Gospel did in antiquity: help the congregation understand the distinctiveness of the Christian story. Given the relativity of today's social climate, the preacher may need to help the congregation understand why the story of Jesus can lay claim to contemporary life.

The preacher might also develop a sermon on the vocation of the church as witness. The fourth gospel pictures John as one sent from God to point to Jesus. Long ago, Karl Barth used the altarpiece in a church sanctuary in Isenheim, Germany, as a visual image of the role of the church. The altarpiece depicts the meeting of John and Jesus on the banks of the Jordan. However, John's index finger is distorted. His index finger is disproportionately large as it points to Jesus. In a single picture, we see the mission of the church.

This notion bestows vocation. In everything the church says and does, we are to witness to God as revealed through Jesus. John 3:16-17 are a wonderful summary of the heart of this revelation. God loves the world and wants all to have eternal life. (In the Johannine context, eternal life is a quality of existence that begins now and goes on forever in which one knows oneself to be accepted by God and to live by God's values.) In its internal life, the church asks of every line in the budget, every program, every class and relationship, "How will this action witness to God's love for the world?"

The church asks the same question of all actions that are designed to carry the Christian witness beyond the boundaries of the Christian community. Given the privatism, tribalism, and narcissism of today's culture, most congregations need to be prodded to take a cue from John the Baptist and to act on the external dimensions of their witness.

The notion of church as witness also reminds the church not to confuse itself with the one to whom it witnesses. The goal of Christian witness is not to build up the church, but is to help the world recognize God's love for it, and to respond with love in all its relationships. The church also needs to remember that it can give false (or partial) testimony to the revelation of God. Of all communities in the world, the church ought to have the most humility. For, as community very much located in time and space, it seeks to speak a word from the Transcendent. By definition words that the church speaks even the true ones are partial.

Still another sermon might focus on what it means to call Jesus "Messiah" (NRSV) or "Christ" (RSV). This issue is always timely in the Christian community, and especially so now. In 1996, Jesus hit the covers of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report as the publications of the Jesus Seminar (typified by the work of John Dominic Crossan) and responses to it (typified by the work of Luke Timothy Johnson) have captured national attention. People are talking about Jesus in the workplace, while watching the children's basketball games, and on talk shows on TV, and even in church.

While we may regret particular views that are expressed in these publications and discussions, the conversation itself is welcome. It gives Christians an opportunity to say a few kind words for Jesus and the God whom he represents.

A sermon on the meaning of Jesus as Messiah should explain the notion of Messiah or Christ in the world of the first century. Toward this end, the title of a book edited by Jacob Neusner is to the point: Judaisms and Their Messiahs. Judaism was made up of several differing branches with several different notions of Messiah. Some groups within Judaism had no Messianic hope. Consequently, Christian preachers cannot glibly contrast Jesus with "the" Jewish Messianic expectation.

Since the text is from John, the preacher should certainly explore John's Christology: Jesus as the Revealer of God. The preacher might also point out other understandings of the Messiah ship of Jesus (e.g., in Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke). Each writer in the Second Testament tries to explain Jesus in the light of the particular worldview, social setting, and vocabulary and categories that are salient to that community.

The sermon could develop a way of understanding Jesus for today that is continuous with Christian tradition, and that makes use of particular images that are pertinent for today. For John, Jesus is "the true light which enlightens everyone." Who is Jesus to you? And what does he do for you?

Ronald J. Allen