St Michael’s 22nd January 2017
Readings – 1 Chronicles 17:1-15; John 1:24-34
Well, as some of you know, Lynda and I are about to set off on an awfully big adventure, and time is fast running out to make sure we have everything we need. Over the past couple of weeks we have gradually been filling our suitcases with odds and ends, making lists of what we need to pack and generally trying to get our heads round the fact that in just over a week we will be flying half way round the world.
But of course all our preparations will be useless if we turn up at the airport without our passports and our visas. You can plan the world’s greatest holiday and have a bucket list of everything you’re going to do, but if you can’t prove you are who you say you are, you won’t be let in. It’s as simple as that.
Now last week, Lynda powerfully preached on the theme of grace and taught us that grace is not getting what you deserve, but receiving from God that which you can never earn for yourself. It is mercy, not merit, the free gift of God to all who believe and receive. And I really hope that if you were here last week, you took her message on board. You see, whatever else I may say this morning, you need to understand entry into the Kingdom of God does not depend on who you are. Getting into heaven, receiving eternal life, whatever you want to call it, is not like flying to another country and proving that you are good enough to get in. It’s about understanding who Jesus is and what He has done for you.
That is why throughout the first chapter of his gospel the apostle John is so concerned to establish the identity of Jesus. So in the very first verse he talks about Jesus as the Word of God. In the very last verse he talks about Jesus as the Son of Man. In fact, the whole chapter is stuffed full of many different titles to describe Jesus and if you want to do some homework, I suggest that later on you read the whole chapter in one sitting and see just how many terms John uses. John wants to hammer home the point that if you want to understand the Christian faith you have to start with Jesus and recognise exactly who He is.
As you read this chapter, it’s also important to realise that the John we heard about in our reading is not the same John who wrote the gospel. The John we read about here is John the Baptist. Now by the time John the apostle was writing there were some people who were starting to see John the Baptist as their main man, and make him the centre of their faith. John the apostle writes his gospel in such a way as to leave us in no doubt: the role of John the Baptist was to point others to Jesus, and to help them understand His real identity.
So how exactly does John the Baptist describe Jesus?
Let’s look more closely at verse 29: The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Now to us describing someone as the Lamb of God sounds very strange, and I guess if you were to tell your friends and neighbours that Jesus is the Lamb of God, you wouldn’t get much in the way of a response. But to those who heard John’s words, what he was saying was extremely significant. They had been brought up with the religion of the Old Testament and they were used to the idea that lambs and goats and bulls were sacrificed regularly to the Lord.
I realise that for us all this talk of animal sacrifice can sound weird at best, and at worst, appalling and barbaric. But there was a sound logic behind the system of sacrifices that I think we can relate to, particularly if, like me, we’re English.
Imagine for a moment you realise you’ve said or done something particularly wrong or stupid to your nearest and dearest. What’s the first thing you do? Well, of course, you say, “I’m sorry”. But being English, you tend to say, “I’m sorry” rather a lot. “Did I step on your foot? I’m sorry”. “Are you feeling unwell? I’m sorry”. “I didn’t hear what you said, I’m sorry”. Quite rightly, your nearest and dearest wants to know that you mean what you say. So your words aren’t enough. You have to do something to make things right, and usually that involves an element of sacrifice, whether it’s buying a bunch of flowers, or booking a table at a restaurant, or whatever else is right in that particular situation.
Now the people of Israel were also aware it was all too easy just to say sorry to God and not mean it. So what sacrifice could they offer which showed they really did want a new relationship with God? Well, they lived in a society where everyone earned their living from the land. You raised sheep in order to survive and to get some income. So giving God the best or firstborn lamb of the flock was a really costly business. For us, it would like giving God the first paycheque of the year. It would be an expression of sorrow and also of faith, trusting that God would accept such an offering and somehow make things right between us and Him.
Of course the problem with such sacrifices is that they only had a limited effect. You could offer the best of your flock, but not too long after that, the chances are, you’d make a mess of your relationship with God once again. Not only that, but you could only offer those sacrifices if you already belonged to the people of Israel. Such a way of getting right with God was generally denied to people who could not prove themselves as children of Abraham. Not even the most elaborate system of sacrifices could get round they fact they only had a limited effect for a limited number of people.
Now I hope you can start to see why it is so significant that John points to Jesus and says: Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John is telling us that Jesus is the perfect sacrifice who will deal with the problem of all our wrongdoing and stupidity once and for all. How? Because He is the perfect sacrifice once for all.
Later on in the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews, addressing a Jewish audience, writes these words: Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. (Heb 10:11-12) Why? Since on the cross He completed the work God the Father had given Him to do, and paid the price we could not pay for the wrong we ourselves had committed.
And yet, and yet… time after time, I hear people say things like, “Well, I can accept Jesus died for me on the cross, but He could never forgive me this”. Or “I’m sure the Christian faith is wonderful but I’m not good enough to receive God’s forgiveness”. Actually, the whole point of the Christian faith is that Jesus dies for us not because we are good enough, because none of us are. That’s why we need the grace and mercy I talked about at the beginning of my sermon. We need to get right away from the idea that somehow we can earn God’s favour and Jesus’ death is only for certain people. And we also need to get away from the idea that there are some sins which Jesus can forgive, but not others. This Jesus, the Lamb of God, offered for all time one sacrifice for every type of sin. It’s when we know we are bad enough that we are in position to receive His forgiveness and have that new relationship with God the Father all of us need. So let me ask: do you know Jesus died for you? And that in Him every wrong thought and deed and action has been forgiven? Even yours?
So the first thing John the Baptist tells us is that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But there’s more.
Because the second thing John the Baptist tells us is that this Jesus is the Messiah, or the anointed one of God. Verse 32: Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.”
Now how many people remember watching the queen’s coronation? (I think I might have to put you in the over-70 age bracket if you do!). There is one special moment in the service, where Archbishop Fisher anoints the queen’s head with oil. This custom takes us right back to Old Testament times when the king appointed by God was also anointed with a special oil. This was a sign that the Holy Spirit had come upon the king and he had been set part for the special task of leading God’s people.
And the reason why this anointing in the Old Testament was special was because in those times the Holy Spirit came upon particular people for a particular task at a particular point of time. For most people access to God only came through the priests and the system of sacrifices. You can begin to see why there developed a longing when the Holy Spirit would available to everyone, and, as the prophet Joel promised, God would pour out His Spirit on all people.
This again is where the ministry of Jesus is so important. Jesus came not just another as another prophet or king who was only filled with the Holy Spirit for a limited period of time. He was actually conceived by the very power of the Holy Spirit and was even at that point of his human life anointed by God for the very special task He had been given. So when John tells us how he saw the Holy Spirit come down and remain on Jesus, he is confirming that this Jesus is the one anointed by God permanently, to be the promised king ruling over us forever.
And because Jesus is Himself the one permanently anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit, He is also the one who is able to baptise us with the Holy Spirit. As John goes on to say in verse 33: I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptise with the Holy Spirit’. Now I know that for some people the idea of being baptised with the Holy Spirit sounds kind of scary, and I realise that some Christians have turned the idea of Spirit baptism into some kind of exotic experience for the chosen few. But baptism with the Holy Spirit is in essence very simple. It is God filling us with His presence so that we can have access to Him as our Heavenly Father day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. And when I say, “us”, I mean simply anyone who receives and believes in God’s grace given to us by Jesus’ death on the cross.
Because God’s gift of the Holy Spirit really is for everyone and again, it is so important that we understand this. You see, too many people even today have what I might call an Old Testament view of worship. They believe that in order to have access to God they have to follow the right religious rituals and go through the priest or the vicar. They think the Holy Spirit is for other people, not ordinary Christians in the pew. And I might add, the church has all too often colluded in this understanding, by making the Christian faith a matter of religious duty and elevating certain people above the rest of the congregation.
We urgently need to recover a New Testament view of worship where we teach and preach clearly the Holy Spirit is the gift of God the Father to all who believe and trust in His Son, Jesus. Let me say it again: baptism in the Holy Spirit and indeed Paul tells us plainly in Romans 8, verse 9: if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.
Of course we need vicars and other leaders to direct God’s people and rightly preach His word. We need the church as the place where together we gather in God’s presence as the body of Christ. But nothing we say or do as a church will be any good unless each one of us has been baptised in the Holy Spirit and know the reality of God’s grace. So let’s move right away from the idea that the Holy Spirit or the grace of God are only for special Christians. God’s grace, God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, is available for you, whoever you are, whatever your situation this morning. All you have to do is to believe and to receive.
So Jesus is the Lamb of God. Jesus is the Messiah. And thirdly, Jesus is the Son of God. As John the Baptist goes on to say in verse 34: I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.
Now you may be aware that recently a row broke out at Glasgow Cathedral when the Quran was read at a service on Epiphany. The aim behind the service was to promote interfaith understanding and so it seemed like a good idea to someone to invite a Muslim scholar to give a reading. The trouble was, this scholar read a passage which specifically denies Jesus as being the only Son of God. Because, you see, the idea that Jesus is the only Son of God is something that is deeply offensive to other religions. You cannot mix up, say, Islam and Christianity, and get agreement about who Jesus is, and this is why the service in Glasgow Cathedral was profoundly mistaken.
The fact Jesus is the only Son of God really is not up for negotiation. If Jesus is not the Son of God, then He cannot be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. If Jesus is not the Son of God, then He cannot be the Messiah who baptises us with the Holy Spirit. That is why we need to hold on to the unique identity of Jesus.
And there is another really important reason why we need to hold on to Jesus as the only Son of God. This week we have seen the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. (I still find it hard to write about President Trump, but maybe that’s just me). Quite rightly many people are concerned what the future holds. The world seems a more uncertain, and a more fearful place. The coming year seems perhaps a little more threatening than the one before.
Yet if we have accepted Jesus as the Son of God, then ultimately we have no reason to be afraid. In our Old Testament reading, we heard how God promised David a Son whose throne will be established forever. Yes, presidents may come, and presidents may go. There will be wars and rumours of wars. There will be disasters and acts of terrors. But Jesus is reigning on the throne of God. Despite how it may seem, He is in control, and all of history is in His hands. That’s why we can say with the prophet Habakkuk:
Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. (Heb 3:17-18).
Because despite what may happen, Jesus is the Lamb of God, is the Messiah, is the Son of God. And I hope that you can see by now that knowing who Jesus is should make a real and practical difference to every moment of every hour.
So to finish, think for a moment about your Monday morning. When you wake up tomorrow, will you know that no matter what a mess you will make of things in the coming week, Jesus has paid the price for your every sin? Will you know Jesus has baptised you with the Holy Spirit and that God will never leave you or forsake you? Will you know that Jesus reigns over all and is in control of every detail in your life?
Let’s pause, then, this morning to take a fresh look at Jesus and then I’ll pray …