Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Important Setup

This Sunday's gospel lesson (John 1:29-42) feels like a letdown. Last week, we heard Matthew's dramatic account of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan. We saw what he saw--the heavens opened and the Spirit descending and alighting on him like a dove. We heard the voice proclaim that Jesus is God's Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased. And, this week, John the gospel-writer gives his version of the same encounter not as a powerful narrative but as an explanatory recollection. It almost feels like a yada-yada moment. But this week's passage is pivotal in its own way.

"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" John the baptizer proclaims. Twice in this passage, John identifies Jesus as God's Lamb. That may not be as interesting as God's own voice thundering from heaven and proclaiming Jesus as God's beloved Son, but, as John's way of introducing Jesus, it's critical. Flip ahead in John's gospel account and see what comes in the next few chapters.

In chapter 2, Jesus turns water into wine. We recognize that this isn't just a party trick but a sign of the messianic wedding banquet between God and God's people enacted in the person of Jesus. Later in chapter 2, Jesus chases the money-changers out of the temple precincts, essentially bringing the mechanics of worship to a halt. In chapter 3, Jesus meets Nicodemus, a religious leader among his people, and explains to him that his own ministry is to bring everlasting life to God's people. Then, in chapter 4, Jesus has a surprising if not shocking encounter with a Samaritan woman, which results in the woman identifying Jesus as messiah and her entire village hearing and believing the good news. That boundary-pushing behavior continues throughout John's gospel account.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus operates outside the dominant religious expectations of his time. He doesn't reveal God to God's people through a temple-focused ministry or through typical political processes. He challenges those in positions of power as a prophet would. And, in order to be recognized as a God-sent prophet instead of a godless radical, one needs an introduction like the one John the Baptist gives to Jesus: "Here is the Lamb of God! This is the one I've been talking about. This is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. I declare to you that this is God's Son." Not surprisingly, the temple leaders reject Jesus' prophetic action in the interruption of worship at the temple. The Baptizer engages in a conversation with his own disciples who question his identification of Jesus as the messianic bridegroom. For us, then, the question is how we will receive Jesus' signs--the actions that he undertakes as God's anointed one.

There's always a tension in the gospel between those who recognize Jesus for who he really is (God's Son) and those who reject him as a messianic pretender (usually religious leaders). Often, the disciples are portrayed as halfway understanding. This Sunday's gospel lesson seems to lay the question again at our feet. John the Baptist tells us that Jesus is the one of whom he has been speaking--the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. For the rest of the season after the Epiphany, we'll see other signs of who Jesus is. Whether we interpret them as indications of his heaven-sent identity or as evidence that he's an up-to-no-good trouble-maker depends on how we receive John's words. Will we recognize in Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the world's sins?

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