2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Who's Really On The Spot?

John 1:6-13, 19-28

Think about one of those cops and robbers shows on TV in which a victim of blackmail or extortion pulls into some out-of-the-way parking lot in obedience to instructions from the blackmailer. There is a wait, and then the criminal's car pulls cautiously up beside the victim's car. The criminal pulls his gun and tells the victim to hand over the dough. Suddenly, the trap springs. Police cars pull in from all sides with blue lights flashing and tires squealing, and uniformed officers hop out with guns drawn. The guy who turns out really to be on the spot is not the blackmailer's victim, but the blackmailer himself.

In a less melodramatic, but far more profound way, that is the kind of picture we have in John 1. Big shots from the Jerusalem religious establishment have heard reports of this sensational desert preacher who is get 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

ting people stirred up with his message about the kingdom of God being at hand. A delegation from Jerusalem comes down and puts John the Baptist on the spot.

"Just who do you think you are, anyway?" they demand to know.

John says, "Well, I'm not the Messiah, if that's what you think I am claiming. "

"Well, who are you?" they press. "Elijah?"


"The prophet?"


"Who then?"

John says, "I am just the announcer, the introducer, of one who is going to make me look small by comparison. I'm just wetting people down with water. He's going to set them on fire. You come down here putting me on the spot, and already among us is the one who is going to put you and the whole world on the spot!"

That same dynamic is at work in the account of Jesus before Pilate. Jesus seems to be on the spot. Pilate stands there with his hands on his hips, looking at this pathetic figure with briars on his head and trickles of blood running down his face. All around the room brawny soldiers with scabbarded swords and folded arms smirk and wonder which of them is going to be tapped to drag this one out for execution. It is only from our vantage point that we know who was really on the spot in that tableau. And it was not Jesus.

John and Jesus and those who decide to stand beside them and stick with them are continually being put on the spot by the powers that be.

Willard was a gentle, self-effacing, unpretentious young Presbyterian minister who had received a call from a little Alabama congregation and was being examined for admission to our presbytery in which that congregation was located. His unwillingness to affirm with certitude that there were some people who were going to be eternally damned to hell had gotten him into very hot water with champions of orthodoxy who had him on the spot and were rubbing their hands over it. One of their number drew himself up for the coup de grace.

"Mr. Snavely," the questioner thundered, "are you telling us that you are a...universalist? (gasp) Are you telling us that you believe everybody is going to be saved?"

A hundred or more commissioners to the presbytery meeting leaned forward in suspense and waited for an answer from the young man sitting alone on a straight-backed chair on the pulpit platform. You could have heard a pin drop.

Willard looked at the floor, then looked up and said with a rural twang, "Well, to tell you the truth, I believe if God could save me he can save anybody."

There was a moment of silence, and then the whole place exploded in a burst of laughter and cheering. The tables had been completely turned.

"Uh...uh...I have no further questions," mumbled the interrogator, sitting down quickly, as his face turned fiery red.

"Just who do you think you are?" the Pope demanded of Martin Luther.

"Who do you think you are?" the Salvadoran death squad members asked contemptuously before they raped and murdered the Roman Catholic women from America who were working with the Salvadoran poor.

Lech Walensa became the spokesman for the Polish workers aspiring to a measure of economic power and freedom. "Who do you think you are?" the government responded, putting him on the spot.

"Who do you think you are?" some of Jane's classmates asked, putting her on the spot when it became known that she had reported someone for cheating.

"Well, just who do you think you are?" Al's buddies asked when he refused to take part in the initiation stunt they had cooked up for one of the fraternity pledges.

What made it possible for John the Baptist to stand firm when he was put on the spot, even when it led to his being beheaded? What made it possible for Jesus to remain quietly undaunted when put on the spot?

How can ordinary Christian people take the heat without caving in?

They can do it because they know who is really on the spot, and they know it is not they! In a book entitled Liturgies and Trials, Richard K. Fenn comments that "the question of whether it is God or Caesar who is on trial is at the heart of the biblical tradition." Expanding on this thought, Tom Long writes in his book, Shepherds and Bathrobes:

Christians are persuaded that it is the world which is finally on trial, and they give their testimony accordingly. Placing their trust in the Christ who `will come to judge the quick and the dead,' the Christian community has been bold to face all worldly accusers, whether they come from Rome with swords, from Birmingham with police dogs, from Warsaw with a rifle, from Hollywood with a sneer, or from Washington with a court order.

A fraternity member who is in tune with the God who has infiltrated our human life in Christ knows that reckless cruelty is going to be swallowed up by kindness.

A girl who is in tune with that God knows that if she is honest and does her part to protect honesty she is on the side which determines the future.

There was a time when we did not know that. There was a time when we were just as much in the dark as everybody else. There is a wonderful Christmas spiritual which continues to touch our hearts because it reminds us of that time:

Sweet little Jesus boy, We didn't know who you was.

\But we learned. We learned that his manger contained a time bomb. We learned that he would speak to demons and cast them out. . .even out of us. We learned that he could hold his hand out over troubled waters and still the wild waves. . . even those which sweep us to and fro. We learned that the whole sky would turn black and the whole earth shake in revulsion at the enormity of our sin which murdered him so hideously. We learned that as enormous as our sin and capacity for inflicting death were they were no match for him. We learned that no stone, however large, could seal up his life and power. We learned that nothing at all could matter as much as knowing who he really was and being known by him.

During the next two weeks you will probably go in some big department store where a lady in an inexpensive coat will be standing at the entrance ringing a bell beside a Salvation Army collection kettle. And you will feel an almost involuntary twinge of embarrassment for her. She seems to be out of step with you and me and all of the hundreds of happy people moving through the doors behind her. She seems small, and the little pile of bills and coins in the kettle probably would not buy one suit off the bulging racks inside.

Now, I'm not asking you when you walk by that lady to stop and put something in the kettle. It's fine if you choose to do that, but it should not cause you any great discomfort if you do not. You cannot respond to all good appeals, and you are responding generously to some...probably to many. No, what I want you to do when you walk by that lady is to listen to her bell and remember for whom it tolls. Then, as you walk into the bright and bustling store, instead of shaking off your puzzlement as to why anyone would let herself be put on the spot like that, standing for hours in the cold wind, wrap your mind for a few seconds around the question, "Who's really on the spot?"

"He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God" (John 1:10-12).

J. Harold McKeithen, Jr. Hidenwood Presbyterian Church Newport News, VA