Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Eve Homily

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10)

God’s way is a descending way.  Tonight, he does not want you to look up to the heavens to find him.  You don’t have to climb Jacob’s ladder or ascend to him.  You don’t have to climb or claw your way up to the heavens tonight to see Him.  God doesn’t want you to find him there. 

Listen to the words of the angels “You will find the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in the manger”  In His mother’s arms.  For God’s way is a descending way - a coming down sort of way.  A meek and lowly way.  Remember it was Jesus who said  “Behold you will see the Son of man coming down on the clouds of heaven.” 

Lo, he comes with clouds descending.  On earth as it is in heaven.  Remember that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey a beast of burden.  He claims his Kingdom on a cross made from the same wood of his manger.  He wears a glorious crown of thorns and thistles – which pierce his sacred head.  God’s way is a blood running down sort of way. 

From heaven down to earth.  God’s way is a coming down sort of way.  A donkey sort of way.  Wearing diapers and needing his bottom wiped, so that he won’t get a rash.  Yes, God needs his bottom wiped.  Jesus says blessed are those who are not offended by me.  The ruler of the heavens and earth who says let there be light.  The God who governs the wind and the waves, nurses not by venus, or by the mighty hand of Zeus, but through the breast of an unknown homey peasant girl, from an unknown town.      

Let that be of comfort to us unknown people of an unknown town.  The angels are singing for the likes of you.  For God does not come for the mighty but for the lowly.  I came not to call the righteous but lowly sinners to repentance.  God’s way is a coming down sort of way.  A manger and stable way.  Just consider that there was no one there to give the Baby Jesus a bath.  There was no warm water, perhaps no water at all.  Perhaps God cried and shivered in the cold. 

There was no fire or light, just the snorts of donkeys and pigs.  This young maiden Mary was herself the midwife and the maid.  A cold wooden feed trough was our God’s bed.  And who showed Mary what do do?  She never had a baby before.  We should be amazed the little boy did not freeze to death.

Do not look up dear Christian.  Behold your God down here among us in the hay.  For God’s way is a coming down sort of way.  Like manna that falls down from the heavens.  Did Jesus not say “I am the bread of life which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”  It’s not a coincidence that Jesus is born in a feed trough where animals eat.  It is not a coincidence that Jesus is born in a town called “Bethlehem,” which literally means “house of bread.”        

Dearly Beloved, let us stoop down and love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 

In this the love of God was made known to us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the payment for our sins. Be glad!  Dearly Beloved, if God so loves us, we also ought to love one another. And by this we know God and the content of love – that love incarnate lays down his life for us. 

At the very heart of unbelief is the refusal to be loved by God.  God can love others perhaps, but not you so you think.  Repent.  Let the Holy Spirit break the iron clad gate of your tired heart and let God enter into the manger of your soul.                

God himself has given his life for you and for your children.  He is a man acquainted with sorrow and grief, who has taken your sins upon his back – as the very Lamb of God – He suffered for your disobedience and rebellion.  He was betrayed by his own people.  Spat upon and mocked before the whole city, while his dear mother looked on.  Her heart pierced with sorrow.  He became filthy that you might come out clean. 

He became guilty that you would be pronounced innocent before all the angels in heaven.  He who knew no sin became sin, that you might be perfect.  He became a ghastly sight on the cross that you might be absolutely beautiful before your Father in heaven.  He has opened the way to paradise for you. 

Tonight in Bethlehem, the gates of heaven have swung wide open for you.  The angels are singing to you.  Christ is born for you!      

Rejoice dear Christian!  What has he left undone?  God has come down to you.  In the muck and slop of this world.  You’ve made a mess of your life, and this is why he has come.  He who was denied a bath at His birth has washed you clean in the heavenly waters of baptism.  He has marked your home with His blood and death has passed over.  He has parted the Red Sea and flung open wide the promised Land.  He has destroyed your death by his life.  He has joined you to His birth and His glorious Resurrection.  He has raised you up to live with Him now and in eternity.  

He calls you His beloved, His Bride.  Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.  “I love you” He says.  He delights in you.  He speaks gently to you.  It was His joy to do all this for you.  This is all you need.  Let your restless heart find your rest in Him.  Christ is born in Bethlehem.          

Come mothers and fathers, come children, come widows, come workers of all kinds, come teachers and come auto mechanics.  Come factory workers and electricians.  Come bakers and truck drivers.  Come widows and those who are lonely.  Come addicts and drunks - God comes down to serve us poor sinners in meekness.

Don’t blush like St. Peter, when Jesus stoops down, gets on His knees to wash your sinner feet.  Jesus says I did not come to be served but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.       

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he came down to Bethlehem to become poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.  He has become what you are that you might become what he is.  And God has come down that you might ascend to the heavens to be where He is.   

O Men and women of Wittenberg, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.  From the stable to the table tonight he comes that we too might be born again, as children of love.

Let us then, rejoice and be happy tonight.   Let our mouths be full of laughter and our tongues full of praise.  For the holy message of Christmas is that heaven’s gates stand open for you.   
Merry Christmas.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.  

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1)

On the fourth Sunday in Advent we are duty bound by hundreds of years of church history to speak about John the Baptist.  That is the appointed Gospel text for the day.  If there are any single ladies out there, John the Baptist is not the sort of guy you want to bring home to your parents.  

The guy wears a coat of camel hair a big leather belt.  If you brought him over for dinner I don’t know how he would respond to your fancy food, your china dinnerware, and your liquor cabinet.  

John ate locusts, bugs, and honey.  This guy is a bit on the edge.  On the edge of time, an apocalyptic, end times guy.  John the Baptist however, is interested in one thing, the coming of Christ.  He cries out to the crowds ‘Repent!’  The Kingdom of God is drawing near.  

That is to say, quit your idolatry.  Quit your fascination and obsession with your television and your entertainment.  Quit your gossiping and tearing down, do you not know that the judge is at the door.  

He reminded them of the convent at Sinai.  He reminded them of the penalty for willful sin and disobedience to God.  Fornication outside of marriage, nothing was off limits.  Keep in mind John got his head lopped off for telling Herod that he shouldn’t take a woman into bed without marriage.  Many pastors today are met with a similar fate.    

John during His ministry cried out “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.  Among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”  

That is to say, get your house in order.  John probably wouldn’t have done well with our call committee here when you folks were looking for a new pastor.  A little edgy, a little too much fire and brimstone maybe.  

Faithful? Yes.  A Preacher of God’s Word?  Yes.  But it must be said that wherever God’s Word is taught in its truth and purity, there it will encounter great opposition and resistance.

So today we consider the fiery preacher from the River Jordan.  Yet in the Gospels John has but one mission.  When Jesus comes to the river to be baptized.  It is John who says “Behold the Kingdom of Heaven is drawing near.”  That is to say, heaven is itself Jesus.  And Jesus is the Kingdom of Heaven.  

John in a flash of ecstatic delight calls out Behold, look, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.”  John says this, looking at Jesus, and pointing Jesus out to all of His followers.  The crowds followed John because John spoke of and followed Jesus.  And now God is here is human flesh.    

Later when Jesus ministry begins, John’s work is done.  John is the last of the Old Testament prophets. The long awaited Messiah is now here. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Malachi, and John the Baptist have fulfilled their work.  John now speaks to his followers, concerning himself, simply saying “I must decrease and he must increase.”  We don’t hear anything more about John.  And so it is.  John’s head is cutoff for stirring the pot too much about adultery.  And he is whisked off to heaven to receive his reward there. 
John the Baptist provides a model for all preachers and pastors in Christ.  He embodies the words of St. Paul who writes in 1st Corinthians “We preach nothing but Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ  is the power of God and wisdom of the cross.”  

Holy Scripture also says “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  The work of all prophets is to point to Jesus.  It is the work of all pastors to point to Jesus.  Nothing more, nothing less.  

You go to the average church, maybe even a Lutheran one for worship.  You’ll get a couple cute stories, a hunting story, a heart-wrenching video on the big screen projectors and maybe a bible verse, and you can call it a day.  People are comfortable with that.  It’s neat and tidy.  People can smile, laugh, feel good about themselves and consider it all a remarkable success.

John the Baptist wouldn’t permit it.  The first words we hear John the Baptist say are repent, flee from the wrath to come.  The first words Jesus says are repent.  The first of the 95 theses of Martin Luther nailed to the church doors were “repent, the kingdom of God is near.”  Advent is all about repentance.  

Jesus is coming after all.  The little baby, the infant child priest, is God of God and light of light.  This child will judge the living and the dead.  He will separate the sheep from the goats.  And say to those who didn’t have time for him he will say without a hint of malice “Depart from me…for I do not know you.”  

Rather than following the entertainers and popular preachers of our day.  Listen and heed the voice of John the Baptist.  He is a preacher for our era of slouching morals, decadence, and destruction of common virtues and godly living.  

We are slouching toward Sodom and Gomorrah and John is our man.  A real man for our times.  You don’t have to take him home for dinner.  But you should treasure his words in your heart.  Soon Jesus will be born.  Angels will sing and so should you.  
Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.  I must decrease and He must increase.  Here what Pastor Luther preaches to his congregation in Wittenberg:  

Now, if you are able to believe that this voice of John speaks the truth, and if you are able to follow his finger and recognize the Lamb of God carrying your sin, then you have gained the victory, then you are a Christian, a master of sin, death, hell, and all things. Then your conscience will rejoice and become heartily fond of this gentle Lamb of God. Then will you love, praise, and give thanks to our heavenly Father for this infinite wealth of his mercy, preached by John and given in Christ. 

And finally you will become cheerful and willing to do his divine will, as best you can, with all your strength. For what lovelier and more comforting message can be heard than that our sins are not ours any more, that they no more lie on us, but on the Lamb of God. 

How can sin condemn such an innocent Lamb? Lying on him, it must be vanquished and made to nothing, and likewise death and hell, being the reward of sin, must be vanquished also. Behold what God our Father has given us in Christ! 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent

(painting by Bernardino Luini, "Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist," (1513).

And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Mt. 11:2)

John, being locked in Herod’s rotting dungeon, sent word to Jesus asking if He was the one to come and redeem Israel – “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

As John was chained up and locked down in Herod’s cold jail – he needed the help and comfort of the Christ.  He needed a sweet release – a rescue mission – from on high.  He needed an advent – a coming of Jesus to set him free.  Not to protect his neck from Herod’s cold sword but to preserve and keep his whole body and soul – to redeem Israel and forgive sin.

Jesus said that among those born of a woman there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.  Yet here, the greatest of all men born of a woman, is locked up, likely tired and beaten.  Here the greatest of all men sends a message to Jesus, asking “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Even the greatest of all men, the fiery preacher from the river Jordan needed his doubts to be expelled.  Things were far from clear at the bottom of Herod’s damp dungeon.  Death loomed over him, and what frantic fears must have taken hold of him.  Surely he was not a reed shaken by the wind – to be sure – but he was a man, - a flesh and blood man – like us.  Like us, John had to do battle against the sinful flesh that clung to him.

He was likely afraid of death, fearful over sin, and looking for comfort.  Do not be offended by John’s question, “Are you the one, or shall we look for another.”  It is a faithful question. John needed to know if Jesus was the one who would free the church from all her sins.  The patriarchs of the church are invited by their Lord to inquire of Him.

Like a child asking his mother if she loves him, John asks, "Are you the Coming One or do we look for another?" He knows the answer but wants reassurance, wants comfort.  He wants to hear again what he already knows.

This is the language of faith and it is a sort of love language.  Faith seeks reassurance and comfort.  Faith seeks an answer where doubts spring up. And this is good.  Faith goes to where God promises to be.  Are you the one to come?

John is like a bride asking her husband if he truly loves her.  The answer of course is “yes.”  No matter how many times it is asked – it remains true. But with John we ask because we love to hear the answer.  It is why we gather here, week in and week out.  Together we cry out, Lord are you the one?  Where else shall we go? You have the word of eternal life?  Lord, Do you love me?  Do you care for me?  Do you forgive me?

And this is the great surprise of being a Christian that is always new to us.  To be taken back.  Continually.  Yes, I love you He says.  I forgive you all your sins, He says.  Do not be afraid.  I am with you – He says.            
You probably will not meet martyrdom like the holy innocents in Newtown, Connnecticut.  Nor are you likely to get your head lopped off like St. John.  But you will face crushing disappointments and trials along your way.  And your time of waiting, of suffering, and persisting is worth it.  Your trials are not insignificant – for your bear the marks of Jesus on your forehead – in your heart.  In your wrinkles – in your bones.  

You will not receive the cold blade of Herod’s sword but you will feel the cutting betrayal of a friend or the stabbing insult of a neighbor.  Many will feel the crushing blow of loneliness in these cold dark weeks.  

Like John’s musty, cold, and dark jail cell it is very messy down here – even amidst the joy the coming holy day.  Our lives often feel like a dark prison – where no light shines.  Our nighttime news casts a dark shadow over our homes.

There will be voids and patches of darkness this Christmas time for you personally.  As you gather around the turkey, pie, and brandy – there will be family missing this year from divorce – a son will be missing – another family member will be crippled by depression - parents will show new signs of Alzheimer’s.  

Like John the Baptist – your pain and agony is temporary – and it all will soon pass.  John’s question becomes our own.  “Jesus are you the one who will come down and save us or shall we look for another?”  The question is a good one.  And Jesus is your “Yes.”  He is your amen.  He is your “Yes, I believe – help my unbelief!”  Jesus is your man.  He is your God who comes down to you.  And you need not look any further.  For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.

John the Baptist was called the greatest among all born of woman, because he pointed to Jesus, and said “Behold the Lamb of God.”  He was great because he waited for Jesus and believed in Him.  And Jesus loved John, before He leaped in the womb.

You are called great in heaven because Jesus has made you His own.  You wait for Jesus – like a child waits for his father to lift him up and into his lap.    

Come Lord Jesus!

Unlike, Santa Clause, Jesus does not just come once a year to give you a bunch of crap that you don't need.  Your new stuff will not cover up your pain.  But Jesus comes today with healing for hurting people.  Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.  Drink this cup – it is me who is with you – He says.
There is a real mess down here.  A violent, agonizing mess.  But He is down here among us.  In the muck and sin of our lives He is with us.  In your own prison – like John – He is with you.  In your ears, in your heart.  In your bones, and on your lips.  Jesus has scrubbed you down – washed you clean from all sin – and has made living saints out of you.  Waiting – persisting – and standing strong for his coming.    

This is why Isaiah preaches to us, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who have an anxious heart, Be strong; fear not!” He is coming to rescue you and your little ones.

The Lord is compassionate and merciful to you.  He has gone before you to prepare the way – the way of the bitter cross – a cross that has become so sweet for you.  And when the time is right He will exalt you – and lift you up.  And you will behold His face – and He will shine like the Sun and so shall you.

There is no depression at His coming.  There is no darkness and anxiety.  We have a heavenly Father, whose heart we clearly see in Jesus – in his lowly birth, suffering, and cruxifixion.  There is only Joy – for the kingdom of heaven has come near – that is to say – Jesus is coming to you.    

The advent candles are being lit but no light is comparable to the light of Christ who will scatter all the darkness. He will bring you into his marvelous light. The violence and dark gloom in which we fumble around – will dissipate – and this veil of tears will be lifted.

Jesus shall be born in Bethlehem to young Mother Mary and soon we will have to endure and wait no longer. The singing of angels can gently be heard in the distance. Joined by a great chorus of little children who have gone on ahead of us. They beckon us on. He who has ears let him hear.

Blessed are you who hear the words of Jesus. And blessed are you who suffer and wait for Him. Pretty soon now, you’re waiting will all be over. This valley of tears will be ended. And all our children will finally be safe.

Come Lord Jesus. Come quickly. Amen.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Forensic Character of St. John's Gospel: An Exploration of the Johannine Community Concept of Witness and Testimony

The Four Evangelists all devote a similar amount of material to Jesus’ trial before the Roman and Jewish authorities.  The trial, crucifixion are central for all writers, however, only in the Fourth Gospel does the whole narrative proceed as one sweeping cosmic trial between God and the world, with Jesus standing at the very center.  The Word of God comes to His own people and they do not accept him (1:11), and though He comes to save the world, he also comes to condemn the lack of belief and to expose evil (3:17-21).  The narrative of “signs” either evoke belief or unbelief.  The verbπιστεύω occurs ninety-eight times in the Fourth Gospel, and is employed always with reference to Christ as the object of faith.  It seems to me that John may be the most “forensic” of all books in the canon, due to its consistent testimonial and evidential character.  This paper is far from being an exhaustive treatment on this theme, and will aim to explore the breadth of the juridical nature of the Fourth Gospel and implications for the church today.       

It is difficult to begin to grasp the agenda of John’s Gospel if the reader does not take seriously his intent, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in you” (20:30-31).  These verses expressing the intent and purpose of the book, bring to mind the image of a lawyer sifting and selecting the most compelling article of evidence to the jury, who then must decide what they believe.  This begs the question, who is the intended audience in the case?  Is the case made primarily to strengthen and comfirm those within the Johannine community itself, or is it intended for new converts outside the community, maybe the Samaritans?  It has also been proposed that the testimony of John’s Gospel is a skillful apologetic to the Jews who remained curious about Jesus and needed to be brought out of the synagogue worship to confess.[1]  It seems to me however, that the Fourth Gospel is broader and more universal in scope than any of the synoptics.  Bultmann does not see in John any such limited missionary activity to a specific group of non-believers:

So far as the Evangelist is concerned it is irrelevant whether the possible readers are already ‘Christians,’ or are not yet such; for to him the faith of ‘Christians’ is not a conviction that is present once for all, but it must perpetually make sure of itself anew, and therefore must continually hear the word anew.[2]
John concludes his account with these parting words: “This is the disciple who testifying (μαρτυρέω) to these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony (μαρτυρία) is true” (21:24).  In John’s account he is speaking of the person and work of Jesus Christ – His life, death, and resurrection.  Whereas the synoptics make consistent reference of Jesus work as “gospel”(εὐαγγέλιον), John never uses the word.  From Matthew, Mark, and especially Luke, the idea of “Gospel,” as good news to be eagerly received by the Mediterranean world is prevalent.  There is a great deal of optimism about the spread of the gospel with choral motets and composed hymns to fulfilled OT prophecies.  An argument can be made that John does not really provide a “Gospel” in the case of the synoptics, but rather a case and testimony.  If John’s account is known as a book of signs we may as well consider it a collection of evidence by key eye-witnesses.  The “evidence” that I hope to highlight suggests that John is not presenting an account of good news necessarily, although it truly is good news, but rather an account of judgment and wrath between those who come to believe in Jesus and those who refuse.

The central trial between God and “the world” in the person of Jesus is not just presented in His arrest and trial but in a series of confrontations with people who either receive or reject Him.  Each encounter is a sort of dramatic vignette between Jesus and each witness.  Each encounter also holds an intimacy with Jesus, unparalleled by the synoptics.  The Fourth Evangelist holds a series of encounters each with minor variations.  Either one is called to believe the testimony, escape judgment, and therefore receive life, or one will bring judgment upon himself by rejecting the message.  In the juridical narrative, either witnesses certify Jesus’ status as the Son of God, the truth and the light, or those who encounter Him accuse, judge, and execute Him.  

It is of utmost importance that John make an appeal and case for his own credibility and status as a writer.  His prologue may be the most dramatic introduction to any book in the Bible, while appealing to the Genesis and Wisdom tradition.  Culpepper observes that John is making use of Jewish and Hellenistic Jewish rhetorical strategies, given that before an orderly account, he must establish his credibility (ethos), identify favor with a audience (pathos), and lay out a convincing discourse of arguments and evidence in favor of his claims (logos).  Culpepper notes John’s use of self-authenticating rhetorical strategies.

The gospel makes use of virtually all of the devices available for heightening the credibility and authority of a narrative: appeal to tradition, a reliable narrator, inspiration (the Paraclete), eyewitness testimony, the authority of an esteemed figure (the Beloved Disciple), and the approval of a community.  Internally, the provision of historical, geographical, and descriptive detail which is either demonstrably true of verisimilar serves to confirm the claims the narrative makes for itself.[3]
It is Culpepper’s observation that John makes an extremely wide use of “literary weapons” in order to persuade, move, and convince the hearer that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and Son of God. 

John the Baptist has unparalleled significance as “witness” in the Fourth Gospel.  The prologue in fact emphasizes John’s identity of witness even above his status as “John the Baptizer.”[4]  The presentation of John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel has a significantly different emphasis than that of the Synoptics.  Whereas the Synoptics note John the Baptist’s clothing, fiery preaching, eating habits, baptism, incarceration, and beheading, John has rather one concern – that witness that he bears to Christ.  John’s work of baptizing is no doubt secondary, as the baptism of Jesus is even omitted in favor of repeated reference to his witness (1:7, 8, 15, 19, 32; 34:26, 5:33). 

There is also stress laid on precisely what John the witness is not.  There is a strong repudiation that he “was not the light” but rather a shining λύχνος.  One of the primary goals of John’s Gospel is to refute the exaggerated claims made by the sectarians of John the Baptist.[5]  Was John the Baptist thought of as “the light” – as day dawns from on high to those who sit in darkness, as referenced in Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined” (9:2).  The Fourth Gospel certainly seeks to rectify whatever misunderstanding may have taken place regarding the role of John the Baptist in pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.  The Prologue hymn seems to bracket together the witness (μαρτυρία) with the Isaiah voice in the wilderness proclaiming the coming light.  This of course is not unique in the Fourth Gospel but shared by Matthew in his showing Jesus to be the fulfillment of OT prophecy concerning light (4:16).  I am interested whether the themes of light shining in darkness also makes an elucidation of the juridical metaphors, and the on-going case in the fourth Gospel.  It does not seem pure speculation to understand the crucial witness of John the Baptist as pointing to the light and bringing to light the eye-witness proof that Jesus is the Son of God.  Today, even in our understanding of the legal system it seems normative to grammatically speak of “bringing to light of the evidence” and so forth.  I have not discovered any commentaries or articles exploring the light themes as an expression of the juridical proceedings in John’s Gospel.
          The Fourth Evangelist closes out the testimony of John the Baptist in the context of a dispute between his disciples and a Jew concerning purification.  John likely knowing that he was unable to provide the true purification, gives a final witness to the identity of Jesus.  John the Baptist has one function – to serve as μαρτύριον, and in turn introduce Israel to her Messiah.  He likens his role to a friend of the bridegroom, who hears him and rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.  Therefore, John by his own admission is to decrease as all eyes moves toward Jesus, who is the true light.  Now that the identity of Jesus is revealed and witnessed, his joy is now “complete” as he has borne witness to the truth.

 John and the Synoptics
Richards Bauckham has made a case that John is more concerned with a precise historiographical account than the synoptics.[6]  It seems clear that there is a very conscious, defined, and detailed chronology and topography.  Bauckham briefly highlights some of these precise details, “not just in Galilee, but in Cana or Capernaum; not just in Jerusalem but at the pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate; not just in the temple but in Solomon’s Portico.”[7]  The Gospel as a whole, is also structured around key Jewish festivals such as Passover (chapters 2, 6, 11-20), the Tent festival (chapters 7-8) and Hanukkah (chapter 10).  It seems to me that Bauckham’s observations concerning eyewitness testimony translate into an important element of the juridical concept of trial and sure testimony.  In any credible trial, precise historical details are indispensible in developing the case.

This brings to mind unique details, such as the foot race to the empty tomb.  Here Simon Peter takes careful note of particular details (“evidence”): “He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself” (20:6-7).  Whereas John often excludes certain details more common in the Synoptics, it seems to me, that he omits or expands and amplifies based upon how that detail relates to the chief point of the case: in this case Jesus’ resurrection.  If one was seeking to set forth the finest evidence and testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and therefore his identity as verifiable Son of God, it seems an exceptionally relevant inclusion by an eye-witness.  Based upon the evidence of the empty tomb and the neatly folded up shroud we soon find that the disciple “saw and believed.”   
Jesus discourse on His Sabbath work (5:31-40) provides a helpful look into the Johnannine theme of witness.  When Jesus is accused of being His own witness concerning the infraction of healing at the pool on the Sabbath, he provides a list of His key witnesses.  Brown makes the connection here with Deut 19:15, where it is states that a man cannot be convicted of a crime on the testimony of one witness.[8]  Deut 17:6 and Num 35:30 demand that the testimony of several witnesses are necessary in the case of a trial regarding the capital offense – in this case the breaking of the Sabbath.  Matthew 18:16 also makes clear that several witnesses must confirm a case against one guilty of a serious transgression.  John however, is not using witnesses to condemn a man but rather to confirm another’s testimony. 

The Jews seeking to accuse Jesus often appeal to these OT legal principles, “You are your own witness, and your testimony cannot be verified” (8:13).  In response, it seems that Jesus meets these accusations and challenges, and in fact takes them seriously, recognizing the prescriptions of the Law.  Jesus, in response, provides four key witnesses, appealing to the testimony of John the Baptist (vs. 35-37), His own miracles (vs. 36), the Father Himself (vs. 37-38), as well as the witness of the Scriptures (vs. 39).  The appeal to John as chief witness can hardly be overemphasized (as noted earlier).  John the Baptist is the “man sent from God” to “bear witness to the truth,” a “burning and shining lamp,” in order that “all might believe through him.”  Next, Jesus sets forth is own miracles that provide a clear testimony of his actions – healing on the Sabbath.  The works that He has been given to do are the works given by the Father Himself.  Jesus testifies that He is in fact doing these works, which themselves “bear witness” about his true identity.  The next appeal of Jesus surely would have been the most shocking to His hearers, for He appeals to the testimony of the Father Himself, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me.  His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen (vs. 37).  It seems unclear whether we ought to look to a particular testimony of the Father at a theophony-type event or if this refers more to the authority of Jesus throughout His entire ministry.  It may be a reference to His baptism, although in John there is no voice from heaven that is recorded.  It seems more plausible and in keeping with the narrative that this testimony is also linked with the belief of those confessing Jesus as the Son of God.  In 1 John v.9-10 we see this connection: “This is the testimony that God has given about His Son.  He who believes in the Son of God has this testimony within Himself.”  The fourth witness is the Scriptures (vs. 39), likely the Law itself.  Raymond Brown has the following observation of this fourfold testimony set forth by Jesus:

But it is obvious that nowhere in the Synoptic Gospels do we find such a logical and completely developed apologetic for Jesus’ claims.  We may well surmise, then, that what we have in John is the product of the apologetic of the Christian Church against the Jewish objections to Christ, an apologetic of the Christian Church against the Jewish objections to Christ, an apologetic grounded in Jesus’ own arguments, but now systematized.  The whole of chapter five fits in vey well with the purpose of the Gospel to persuade Jewish Christians to leave the synagogue and openly to profess their faith in Jesus.[9]   
The Johannine Jews however, remain unbelieving and form a striking contrast to those whose the signs and come to believe.  By the Jews stubborn refusal to take the evidence seriously, they shut themselves off from eternal life, and display an ignorance of the true meaning of their own scriptures.  Given the appeal to their own scriptures, in addition to the signs of Jesus, and the multiple testimonies, why do Jews fail to believe?  John makes frequent use of the “witness of the Father,” also that “no man can come to me, unless the Father whom has sent me draws him” (6:44).  Therefore, besides the clear and external testimony and work of Jesus Himself there is a witness of the Father whom exercises an internal divine witness that leads to faith.

            Jesus ends the discourse in chapter 5 by appealing to Moses as a prosecuting witness in the charge against the Jews.  The Jews are at fault when they cite Moses to oppose Christ (vs. 45).  Jesus responds that Moses “wrote of me,” not calling to mind a few Messianic references but rather the totality of the Law, which point to Him alone.  Due to the Jews’ refusal to see, Moses ultimately becomes their accuser, “There is one who accuses you: Moses on whom you have set your hope.  For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (vs. 45-47).      

            The lawsuit over Jesus’ claims become much more intensified with the Jews, likely after his bread of life discourse.  The Jewish leaders are now making moves to have him arrested and put to death (7:1), as Jesus makes his case against the ‘world,’ “I testify of it that’s its works are evil” (7:7).  The debates that follow are formed by three critical groups, the Jews (7:14-24), some of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (7:25-31), and the chief priests and Pharisees (7:32-36).  Jesus’ dialogue with the Jews asserts two things.  First, the person who desires to do God’s will must recognize the source of Christ’s teaching.  Second, the devotion of Christ to the Father who sent him is a “sign” of his truthfulness.  The great irony is that though they profess a full devotion to the Torah, they are preparing to murder the one who has come to fulfill it.  Here, we see Jesus boldly accusing and rendering a verdict.  Judgment is God’s business.     

It is noteworthy that double amen in John occurs 25 times.  This has usually been read simply to indicate a great emphasis, that something is indeed ‘verily’ true.  The use ‘Amen’ in the Old Testament however, is used commonly as a customary response to a promise, curse, or blessing, in a juridical context.  In Deuteronomy 27, the six tribes of Mount Ebal respond to each curse by saying “Amen.” (vs. 15-26).  Another response is to an oath taken in Nehemiah when a litany of charges is leveled against those who deal in corruption.  The crowd yells out “Amen” to the charges (5:13).  In John’s account, the amen is always in its double form, and is only said by Jesus, prior to a “truly I say to you.”  The amen serves as an expression of witness and sure testimony.    

Some scholars note a very close parable between the fourth Gospel and Isaiah chapters 40-55.  In fact, Dr. Allison A. Trites in The New Testament Concept of Witness has dedicated a whole book specifically to this parallel.  In Isaiah a great controversy in the form of a lawsuit takes places in which Yahweh and His witnesses are placed beside the gods of the nations and their supporters.  The false gods and the nations are challenged to produce a case and are invited to set their best witnesses and arguments forward to prove that they can stand.  Their inability to make a case, witnessed by their silence, is evidence that they cannot stand and must forfeit the case.   

Israel has been judged for her unfaithfulness and rejection in the relationship with Yahweh (43:21-28).  Those who are in error however, are invited to repent and recognize that Yahweh is Lord.  Against the false gods, Yahweh is the accuser.  The charges leveled against Yahweh cannot be proved and no witnesses can defend the false gods and “the world”(46:2).  It is the observation of Trites, that in the sustained lawsuit it is really a lawsuit between “God and the world.”  God is represented by Israel and the world is represented by the pagan nations.  The debate is over Yahweh, as creator and true Lord of history:

The lawsuit between God and the world involves parties who serve both as witnesses and as advocates, and in this respect Isaiah 40-55 follows the general practice of the Old Testament legal assembly.  It is the task of the witnesses not only to attest the face but also to convince the opposite side of the truth of them…Isaiah 40-55 think of Israel both as God’s witness and servant.  This combination appears later in the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus and the disciples are described in this dual capacity.[10]    
In the Gospel of John, the debate is over the Messiahship and divine Sonship of Jesus (3:15-16, 20:31).  Of course in the Fourth Gospel it is the Jews who step into the role of the pagan unbelievers, as God Himself, comes into their midst to conduct His own case and trial.  It is Trites observation that the debates with the Jews all follow OT legal assembly rubrics and take the form of a contest between the hostile unbelieving world and God.         

The work of the Holy Spirit appears to be interpreted in a juridical way in the Fourth Gospel.  Not only is a παράκλητος a juridical term (“to call alongside”), but his activity is in perfect keeping with the term.  In John’s Gospel there is a heightened confession of the Holy Spirit as “advocate” and “witness.”  We see this also in the Johannine Epistles, notably 1 John 5:6, “And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.”  John’s use of the word is akin to a defense attorney, not simply in defense of Christ, who must be accused but rather as an attorney who will console the disciples at Pentecost but also condemn the unbelieving world. The role of the paraclete is that of a prosecuting attorney proving the world guilty.  Brown writes:

We find that no one translation of paracletos captures the complexity of the functions, forensic and otherwise, that this figure has.  The Paraclete is a witness in defense of Jesus and a spokesman for him in the context of his trial by his enemies; the Paraclete is a consoler of the disciples for he takes Jesus’ place among them; the Paraclete is a teacher and guide of the disciples and thus their helper.[11] 
If we take seriously the possibility that the Johannine community was in fact “sectarian,” or at least somewhat isolated, there seems to be reason for the amplified role the Paraclete in such a community.  If the key eye-witnesses, particularly the Beloved Disciple himself were to die, a critical connection needed to be maintained with the person and work of Jesus.  The Paraclete is needed in a community whom is oppressed and in some ways is cut off.  After all, the Paraclete dwells within all Christians who love Jesus and keep His commandments (14:17).  

The fourth Gospel is also commonly known as the “book of signs.”[12]  After Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, the Jews demand a sign, “What sign can you show us, for doing these things!” (2:18).  It was expected that Jesus produce ‘signs,’ thereby serving as evidence for his claim of divine Sonship.  In the consciousness of the Jews there was certainly an expectation that a true prophet provides signs that verify his identity as an agent of God.  When Moses sensed his difficulty God enagled him to perform works or signs.  The words of Jesus: “but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38).  That is to say “accept the evidence presented to you that you may know!’ 

The use of “signs” in John’s Gospel must be carefully distinguished from the signs in the Synoptics.  The narratives of miracles in the Synoptics most always end with a description of amazement of fear of the crowds.  In the Fourth Gospel, this reaction to the miracles and signs is simply non-existent, being replaced by the reaction that people simply come to “believe” (2:11, 4:48, 54; 6:2; 11:45; 12:18-19).  The Fourth Gospel is also consistent in calling all the miracles, signs (σημεῖον).  These signs are not a cause for amazement or fear but are consistently linked with people “believing” and therefore coming to a saving faith (or refusing to believe and being condemned).  Given that the signs of Jesus all lead toward belief, the narrative is indeed structured that the greater miracle is in fact the belief itself.

It has been observed that there are seven signs of Jesus, following John the Baptist’s testimony and the conversion of the disciple.[13]  Fortna organizes the sequence as follows: the miracle at Cana (John 2); Jesus and the Samaritan woman (4:1-42); a nobleman’s son healed (4:43-54); a man of a thirty-eight year illness is healed (chap. 5).  This is followed by the feeding of the multitude (chap. 6); a man born blind from birth is healed (chap. 9); Lazarus is raised (chap. 11); a miraculous draft of fish (chap. 21).  Fortna groups the healing of the men together.  The final sign is the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

In John 11 the raising of Lazarus seems to present a dramatic climax to Jesus’ signs.  In the cosmic trial in John, this sign seems to have a great deal of weight and evidential value, as we find that many of the Jews saw what He did and “believed in Him” (11:45).  Now, even the enemies of Jesus are forced to acknowledge the miracle, even while they miss the obvious significance.  The Pharisees call a meeting (συνέδριον, note legal assembly) to put Jesus to death.  By Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus at last overcomes the world.  His claims and status are vindicated, and God’s case is won.  Now, in John’s Gospel the case for Jesus is made individually to its hearers, as the Father and Spirit continue to testify on Jesus’ behalf.   
  There is much about the juridical character of the Fourth Gospel that might help shape and inform life in the church today.  The Johannine community is at odds with the world.  The optimism about the Gospel of Jesus’ going to the ends of the earth and claiming the whole Mediterranean world is heavily contrasted with John’s theology of opposition from “the Jews” and “the world.”  The world is not simply some unplowed field waiting to be tilled, watered, and harvested.  The world is inherently against Jesus and has met judgment by its rejection of Him, preferring light to darkness.  The themes of bearing witness, believing, and coming to faith dominate the narrative.  The amplified teachings on love inform how the church lives in community and in relation to the world.  As hostility to the church heightens, particularly in the Western world, it seems to me that the Fourth Gospel serves as a model to inform how a community lives within the tension caused by rejection from outside.         

[1] Brown, Raymond Edward. The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 72-73
[2] R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), pp. 698-699.
[3] R.A. Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (FFNT, 1; Philadephia, Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 48-49. 
[4] εἰς μαρτυρίαν signifies “for witness,” not to be a witness.”  It is the activity of witnessing rather than the man who receives the emphasis. 
[5] For extended commentary see R.E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (Vol. 2., Garden City., 1966), Intro. V:LXVII-LXX. 
[6] Bauckham, Richards. Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, The: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
[7] Ibid., p. 99
[8] Brown, p. 223
[9] Brown, vol. 2, p. 228
[10] A.A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
[11] Brown, vol. II, p. 1137
[12] Speculation on the existence of a source(s) of signs predating the Fourth Gospel goes back to the beginning of the 20th century and reaches a high point with Rudolf Bultmann’s Das Evangelium des Johannes.  This work proposed a “signs source”
[13] Fortna, Robert Tomson. The Gospel of Signs: A Reconstruction of the Narrative Source Underlying the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Advent 1 Midweek Homily

“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5).

God’s Word exhorts us to patience, and the glory of waiting.  Waiting is not something we are good at.  That is why Advent is something of an awkward season for us.  We don’t really know what to do with it.  We can’t wait to put up all the decorations, we don’t hold much back.  Rather than sing advent hymns, we would much prefer to jump ahead to Joy to the World.

After all, where is the glory in waiting and being patient?  If you want something, you are just supposed to go get it.  In our fallen world there is no glory in waiting patiently.  There’s no dignity in it.  You are supposed to be a go-geter – the master of your own destiny – get what you want – eat, drink, be merry for tomorrow we die.

But for Christians it’s not so.  For it is not as though we live and then die.  Rather in dying we truly live.  All of life for us is an Advent of sorts.  We are waiting.  Living as pilgrims, as travelers in this fallen world.  Waiting for the coming of the Lord where he will burn everything up, and create a new heaven and a new earth.  At the calling of His voice and at that last trumpet blast, we will rise from our graves, and meet him in the air, and nothing will be hidden anymore.  Children will no longer be killed in their mother’s wombs. Our sons and daughters will not carry weapons in a foreign land.  There will be no war, no cruelty, no murder. You will no longer be anxious or embarrassed about your life – because your life will be in Christ – and He will love you and you will shine like the son.

The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Our own bodies bear witness to this, with our aches and pains, our incurable conditions, our flesh, our organs, our beating hearts.  We are more frail than what we think or imagine.  And we all have a terminal condition. We’re all in the same boat in a way – just different timing – different degrees of waiting and remaining patient. From dust you came and to dust you shall return.  

Your waiting, and your enduring is worth it.  Be patient, Christians, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rains. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.  Your destiny is not your dead end job.  Your less than secure retirement will not hinder God’s will for you.  You will receive inexpressible joys which in love he has prepared for you when he will at last end this valley of sorrow and take you to Himself in heaven. Be patient and suffer well in the life that God has placed you.  He works all things together for good for those who love him.  So love him, place your trust in him.  Let God be God.

Find new ways to love and care for your family.  At work seek to give greater honor to your boss, and open yourself up for greater kindness to your coworkers.  Contrary to the fallen world there is glory in waiting.  Your suffering is not in vain, your enduring hardship is not evil, but it is good.  For you do not have a God who is unable to sympathize with you in your weaknesses, but you have a God who has been tempted in every way, just as you are--yet was without sin. God says that our strength is made perfect in weakness.  Therefore let yourself be weak for once, let yourself be helpless.  Let God fight for you – let him fight your battles – and let Him speak for you – and defend you – and love you.                  

Rejoice loudly dear Christian, your God comes to you mounted on a colt the fowl of a donkey.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, Jesus is coming.  And yet Jesus is here to preach His Gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to free those who are trapped by bondage to sin.

Jesus rides to the cross, mounted on a beast of burden.  Cast your sins on him.  Take off your layers of pride and vanity, cast off works of darkness, and throw them at his feet.  Let go of your grudges against those whom you are called to love, and repent.  Jesus is riding to the cross to undo the mess you’ve made. Let us fix our eyes on Him, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God – that you might be where he is.

Because there is peace in heaven there is peace on earth.  And there is peace for you.  In the kingdom of God you don’t have to be a go-geter.  And you are not the master of your destiny.  Contrary to what the world thinks, God does not help those who help themselves.  He only helps the helpless.  And well, that you.  Be glad for that!  Good things come to those who wait.  And you will receive everything you want and more. Like a farmer, wait upon the rains of Holy Baptism that floods upon you daily.  Wait for the precious fruit of the altar, where drink from heaven is given for thirsty souls.  Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you live - now and in eternity.  Your Christ comes to you. In Jesus name. Amen.