SERMON: The Nature of God (John 1:1-5)
1. Once Upon a Time…
I remember my first introduction to television well. It was the 1950s, and I was sitting at home on the couch (with the measles). And the very first programme that I saw was ‘The Picture Book’ from the BBC series ‘Watch With Mother’. The presenter was a lady, and that week, and every week that followed, when it came to storytime she would introduce the story in exactly the same way: ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’. She’d then pause to allow you to nod or say ‘Yes’. Then she’d continue: ‘Then I’ll begin’.
And that quite innocuous line, for some reason or another, has stayed with me. Indeed, it’s a line that was used in the same manner that fairy stories used to begin with: ‘Once upon a time’. It was designed to settle the listener down, and to prepare them for the matter of what would happen next.
Of course, my watching habits quickly progressed to the other ‘Watch With Mother’ shows like: Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, and (my favourite) The Woodentops. Nevertheless, those words ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’ have stayed with me even up to the present day.
2. In the Beginning…
Now we can all smile—and I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers things like that—but in a sense don’t we have words in the bible that do the same thing. The words ‘In the beginning…’.
However when those three words ‘In the beginning…’ were used, they were designed, not to introduce a story for our amusement, or even a fairy story, but were designed to grab people’s attention. To prepare those listening for something serious that was about to follow.
And they were used in the very first book of the bible—to introduce the beginning of God’s creation of the world. And they were used in the New Testament (in the Gospel of John)—to describe a new beginning, and to describe the place of Jesus within it. And they were used deliberately by John, to show that the two stories were very much linked.
B. IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD
1. In the Beginning was the Word (1a)
Because the very first thing John does in his Gospel is to equate the two events together.
‘In the beginning was the Word . . .’
In the book of Genesis, God is said to have existed before the creation of the world. And, as John puts it, the ‘Word’ existed before the world was created as well. Indeed John, later, picks up the themes of light and darkness, which God created in the very first day of creation (Genesis 1:3-5). And he relates them to the activity of the ‘Word’ in those first days.
The first point that John makes, then, is that before the world was created, there were at least two distinct personalities that existed—God (the creator, as per the Genesis story), and the ‘Word’ (whom John later names as Jesus). And later if we were to read on in John’s Gospel, he would include a third personality—that of the Holy Spirit.
The point that John makes, then, is that the kind of God that Christians believe in, is the kind of God that transcends this created world. People are not to put their faith in the so-called ‘gods’ who have come into existence since the creation of the world. Or even put their faith in gods they have created themselves. Because a true God is one who is not subordinate to anything in this created universe. And the magnitude of what that means, should be expressed, in every Christian’s life.
2. And the Word was with God (1b)
The second thing that John does in his Gospel is to tie together the relationship of God the creator (in Genesis), with that of the ‘Word’ (in his own Gospel).
‘and the Word was with God.’
Now as far as John was concerned these weren’t two separate gods who did their own thing, and went their own separate ways. No! The Word (Jesus) enjoyed an intimate relationship with the creator God.
The second point that John makes, then, is that in the beginning, before creation even began, there was a close connection between the God (of the Old Testament) and the ‘Word’ of the New (Jesus). Yes, they were two distinctly separate personalities—they weren’t identical. But they were at one with each other.
And, as a consequence, that should be reflected in the kind of God that Christian’s believe in too. Of course, as I said before, John later in his Gospel introduces the third member of the trio—the Holy Spirit. But the truth is that for any Christian to worship God in all his fullness, the recognition of each of the different personalities within the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and their relationship to one another, has to be part of their expression.
3. And the Word was God (1c-2)
The third thing that John does in his Gospel, is to dig a little deeper in the relationship between God and the ‘Word’. Indeed he doesn’t simply suggest that God and the ‘Word’ were equals. On the contrary, John suggests that, in some way, the God of the Old Testament and the ‘Word’ of the new were one.
‘and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.’
John was not just saying that there was something divine about Jesus. He was actually affirming that, in some way, Jesus was God himself.
Now, for all Jews (including John), the idea of their only being one God was something they clung to and defended fiercely. They might have been ground down under the heel by their Roman conquerors, but for the Jews, the Romans were no more than ignorant idolaters, because they believed in many gods. If there was one thing that the Jews knew with unshakeable certainty, it was that there was, and could be, only one God.
As a consequence, the point that John makes is that the kind of God that all Christians should believe in, should reflect the idea that the ‘Word’ (Jesus) was not just a human baby born into the world—in the same way that you and I were. But that Jesus existed in godly form before the creation of the world. And, indeed, in some way was, at least, part of God himself.
Now, that’s not an easy concept for anyone to understand—let alone express in the Christian faith. And the Genesis story doesn’t really help us in this matter either. But then right from the start Genesis assumes that its readers have a good knowledge of the nature of God, and it doesn’t try to explain it at all.
Nevertheless, in these first few verses of John’s Gospel, John gives us an inkling of a description of the nature of God—which, perhaps, could be best described by what in history would become the idea of the Trinity: One God, but three distinct personalities. Something beyond our comprehension. But something, equally, deserving of the need of appropriate expression in our lives.
4. Everything came into being through him (3-5)
And then, having placed the ‘Word’ (Jesus) outside of history, and as part of the Godhead itself, the fourth thing that John does is to describe Jesus’s place in the creation of the world.
‘Everything came into being through him. Indeed, nothing came into being without him. In him was life, and this life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.’
As far as John was concerned everything owes its existence to Jesus. Having said that, John was also very careful to differentiate between the roles of the Father and the Son. The world was not made by Jesus, but it was made through him. Both the Father and Jesus, having their distinctive parts to play.
And the same goes for the creation of life—the most significant element in all creation. As far as John was concerned, all of us, you and me, owe our existence to the Father—and the Son by whom we were created. But John goes a step further. Because Jesus not only brought life (in terms of our physical being), but he, now, brings light too (providing what we need for our eternal well-being as well).
What John is saying, therefore, is that the kind of God that Christians should believe in, is one where the expression of dependence for life and dependence for eternal well-being are acknowledged and appreciated.
God’s creation, as we know it, is not eternal—it has a limited life span. But the light that Jesus brings—is eternal. And it is that which brings us salvation.
In the first five verses of John’s Gospel, then, we have some very powerful imagery. The book of Genesis may well spell out the six days of creation—and in some detail. But the one thing that it doesn’t spell out is the nature of God himself.
Genesis assumes its readers already have that picture. But John’s Gospel makes no such assumption. And so in the first five verses John spells out for his readers: The existence of the Word (Jesus) before creation; the relationship between Jesus and the God of creation; the idea of them being two distinct personalities—whilst at the same time there only being one God; and Jesus’s unique place not only in creation but being the light of the world as well.
In other words, John deals with the very weighty issue of who Jesus really is, and why we need to depend upon him for our eternal salvation.
And as a consequence, an appropriate question for us today would be, ‘How should a Christian respond to the kind of God and the kind of ‘Word’ described by John? What should we do to respond to the images of God that John describes?’
And to answer that question, I’m going to suggest four things:
1. In the Beginning was the Word
And the first thing is that much is often made of us being made in God’s image (whatever that means)—and how mankind is distinct from the rest of creation. But, having said that, the fact is that there are a number of differences between us and God too. Not least of which is that God pre-existed creation, and, by nature, he has a tremendous creative power,
Now in some churches God is held in great reverence and awe. (Or using an Old Testament expression ‘fear’). There is an emphasis on the nature of who he is: his power, his holiness, the things that make him distinct from us, and for all that he stands for.
As a consequence, if our response to God is to be truly appropriate, then it must include reverence and awe. It must include the concept of the ‘holiness’ of God. Because God is not someone to take lightly. And we do so at our own peril.
2. And the Word was with God
But having said that, the second thing is that the Father and Jesus had an intimate relationship. That they were two—but at one. And the fact that man has been created in God’s image, suggests that we need to take into account the more compassionate and caring side of God as well.
Indeed in some churches, Jesus is expressed more as a friend and a colleague, rather than a God to be feared. Someone who walks with people and shares their sorrows and their joys.
And if our response to God is to be truly appropriate, we need that too. Because, if we miss out on the intimate side of God—the companion on the way, the one who wants to come to our rescue—then, we really are denying an essential part of who he is.
3. And the Word was God
But mix these two ideas together and we get a third thing. Because if God and the ‘Word’ are in one sense two distinct personalities (and if we add in the Holy Spirit—three distinct personalities), and yet at the same time, there is only one God, we should quickly come to the idea that somehow we have a balancing act to do. And we need to keep all the different aspects in perspective.
Yes! We need to express reverence and awe. And yes, at the same time, we need to express the intimacy of a personal relationship. (And add in here, the need to exercise the gifts that Holy Spirit brings—as John mentions later in his Gospel). But if we can take all that, and get it into some sort of balance, then we really will be starting to get some way towards making a balanced (and an appropriate) response to God for ourselves.
Because to emphasis one aspect to the detriment of another, means that we’ve got everything out of balance, and have failed to see the whole picture.
4. Everything Came into Being Through Him
And then, the fourth thing is that just as the Word (Jesus) did not create things himself, but the Father created things through him—he used Jesus in his creative work—then we should allow God to use us in his continuing involvement in the world. We need to play our part in the redemption of the world as well.
The instruction that God gave man at creation was: “Be fruitful, multiply in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Govern over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and over every living thing that crawls along the ground.” Genesis 1:28b).
And the words of Jesus to some disciples: “Come, follow me. I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17).
Both commands require our involvement and our willing participation in God’s work. As a consequence, our responsibilities are very clear. We are not just to sit back and think about what God has done for us. Our role is to be very active indeed.
Being the people that God created us to be, can be pretty scary. However if we can get our expression of God right—and in balance—then we really have nothing to be frightened of at all.
Now I started off today telling you about an insignificant event in my life. But one that has stayed with me. Those words: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” What we’ve ended up with, though, is with the expression “In the beginning…” And with a few verses of scripture that are anything but insignificant.
Indeed, in five short verses—the first five verses of John’s Gospel—we have opened up for us nothing less than a picture of the nature of God himself. And this is not just some sort of made-up God—one moulded to meet our purposes—this is a God who existed before creation itself.
What we have to do, then, is to consider our response to our creator and redeemer. We also need to consider whether our current response is adequate, or whether it falls short of an appropriate response to John’s picture of just who God really is.
Posted: 13th October 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Blocking the Light (John 1:6-18)
When we think about light, what do we think about? Do we think of the first day of creation, when God made light (Genesis 1:3-5)? Or do we think of the fourth day of creation when God made the sun and the moon (Genesis 1:14-19). Do we think in terms of a day, which can be either bright or dull? Or do we think in terms of light which can be natural or artificial?
Light can mean many things to many people. And depending upon our moods and circumstances, it can mean many things to us too. After all, we can step into it, and we can hide from it. With artificial light, we can switch it on and switch it off; we can turn it down and we can even extinguish it. We can do lots of things with light.
But one of the things that the Apostle John did was to call Jesus by it. But what did John mean by doing so, and what should it mean for us?
B. JESUS IS THE LIGHT
1. Jesus is the Light (9a)
Well in many ways the Apostle John describes Jesus as the Light, because of the essential nature of light. After all, light is the agent that stimulates the receptors in the brain and make things visible. But John goes further than that, because John describes Jesus as “the true light who gives light to all mankind” (9a).
In other words, for John, Jesus was different to everyone else who had gone before. Yes, there had been other lights. There had people who had revealed elements of the truth; there had been people who had shown glimpses of reality; and there had been people who had revealed some light, only to lead people astray. But only Jesus was (and is) the true light. But more than that, only Jesus was able to illuminate all mankind.
Yes, the Word gave (and gives) light to those who believe, but there is an element in which he has also revealed God’s existence and purposes to the rest of mankind as well. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul describes: “From the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they may be, have been clearly discerned, being perceived through the things he has made, so that the ungodly and unrighteous are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
Light then, can mean many things. But for the Apostle John it is a word to describe Jesus, because it works in so many ways. As a consequence the Apostle John could then go on to describe what Jesus did, in terms of, how he came to earth and the nature of the light that he brought—revealing sin and pointing people to a relationship with God.
2. Distractions from the Light (6-8)
Now one of the things I have always found most curious, is that in John’s Gospel we have this prologue which is all of eighteen verses long, which, on the surface at least, seems to want to describe the nature and purpose of God’s son, Jesus. And to me that is as it should be. But when we read it, not even half the way through it, in verses 6 to 8, we have a description not of Jesus, but of John the Baptist.
So from the heights of the first five verses of what could have been a magnificent prologue describing Jesus in his fullness, we are faced with three verses that switch our attention away from Jesus, and on to John the Baptist. We have a distraction, and a distraction of the Apostle John’s making. But why?
Well the answer is, we will probably never know. But the inference is that the Apostle John felt that he needed to deal with a problem. And the problem was that despite Jesus coming to earth, and despite him shining his light in the world, not everyone accepted that Jesus was the Messiah.
Indeed, in the Gospel of Luke we have a story of some followers of John the Baptist, who questioned whether it was John who was the Messiah (Luke 3:15). Luke also records in Acts that a Jew named Apollos knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:24-26). And later, Paul came across a group of twelve men who only knew John’s teaching (Acts 19:1-7). It’s not surprising, then, to learn that at the time John was writing his Gospel there were still people attached to what they believed was the teaching of the Baptist, and indeed that a movement associated with the Baptist was in the region where this gospel was written.
Of course, yes, the Apostle John could have included his comment about John the Baptist, because he was an old-style prophet who pointed the way to the Messiah. But if that was the case, why didn’t he include some of the other prophets, who also pointed the way? And why did he go to such lengths to describe what John wasn’t—that John wasn’t the light, but only a witness to the light?
The interruption in the flow of describing God’s “Word,” Jesus, then, in what could have been a magnificent prologue, was quite deliberate. And it indicates the purpose of the prologue. Indeed, the prologue was about describing who Jesus was, and then contrasting that with how he was received. And in particular it was about describing the different ways that the Light can be detracted from, covered up and rejected.
3. Rejection of the Light (9b-14)
Which is why, having dealt with “the problem of the followers of John the Baptist,” the Apostle John then continued with the more widespread problem—the more general rejection of the Light of the world.
Jesus may indeed have been the word of God who took on human nature, but that didn’t mean he was received well. Indeed John’s comment is that the response of people in general, was that they wanted nothing to do with him. Even his own people—his fellow Jews—the people who were waiting for the Messiah, and knew the signs to look for, rejected him.
But despite that, and maybe even because of it, the Apostle John was concerned that the good news should not be extinguished from our sight. As a consequence he reiterated that God did indeed become flesh; that Jesus did live among us; and if we open our eyes to him, we can indeed see his glory.
4. A Timely Reminder (15-18)
And so the Apostle John concludes with a reminder of who Jesus was (and is). He comments that Jesus is far superior to John the Baptist; that the new covenant is far superior to the Law of Moses; and only through faith in Jesus can we see God.
In the first five verses of the prologue, then, the Apostle John set the scene. He established Jesus as the Word of God (1) standing with the Father. He described him as the Life (4) referring back to creation, but including the spiritual life even of today. And he described him as the Light (4) revealing all, and showing the way to God. And yet in these verses, 6 to 18, we seem to hit a bump—the bump of reality. Because mixed in what Jesus did, we have described for us people who have gone off track, people who think that they know better, and people who want nothing to do with God’s “Word,” Jesus.
So depending upon whenever we think the Gospel was written—whether in 50 AD, 70 AD or 85 AD, we have a snapshot of the reception that Jesus received in his ministry, and a snapshot of what the church was up against well after the death of Jesus.
Now in a sense, the prologue to John’s Gospel is just like the Nicene Creed that we might still say today. It’s a statement of faith, created because of an underlying problem. It’s just that John makes it far more obvious what that problem was. But then John wanted it to be very clear—people had gone off track, and others had responded to Jesus in a very inappropriate and negative way.
And to me that should ring alarm bells for all of us. Because whilst John’s prologue reminds us that God went to great lengths to come to the rescue of his people, the reality is that people still don’t get it. Furthermore, the inference is that whilst people outside the church might want to block God out or even extinguish the light, people within the church—people who should know better—are at risk of becoming distracted and losing the plot too.
1. Jesus is the Light
And yet, didn’t Jesus come so that we could know God? Didn’t Jesus come to show us the way to God and to save us from the consequences of our sin? Didn’t Jesus come so that we might become children of God? And didn’t Jesus come so that we could receive one blessing after another from our creator?
Well that’s what the Apostle John tells us. And yet what this prologue suggests is that it is so easy to get it wrong.
2. Distractions from the Light
What the Apostle John’s teaching about the followers of John the Baptist indicates, then, is that here will invariably be people who will be distracted away from the Christian faith. There will be people who choose to take a different path, and there will be people who will do so by misunderstanding the teaching of the person that they purport to be following. (Because I’m sure that it wasn’t John the Baptist’s intention to start a new religion all of his own.)
However, even within the church people may get off track. Indeed, they may become so distracted from Jesus’s teaching that they completely lose focus on the Light of the world.
And that certainly happened in New Testament times. And we can thank the Apostle Paul for pointing out one such distraction. Indeed the debate in Corinth was on who was better—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12)—is a good example of where members of the Church can become so focussed on the personalities within it, that they lose sight of the main goal.
Similarly in Thessalonica the church became so distracted by the second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11), that the people became lazy—they stopped pulling their weight. So Paul had to encourage them to get back on track, to become focussed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and to encourage each other in the faith.
It’s very easy for people to become distracted, to lose focus on the person of Jesus. And if you don’t think that either of these things happens today, then I would suggest that you take a look at many of our struggling churches today. Because many of our churches today suffer from we might call “personality disorder”—people in authority (assumed or given) who are pulling one way or another. There are also many people in our churches who are not using their God-given gifts to build up the church community.
The result? Well there is the visible sign of people dictating what the church can and can’t do. There is in-fighting, division, and personality clashes. There are churches that are going nowhere, except down. But the most serious issue of all, is that Jesus’s light is being blocked and distorted, and in some cases is being made totally unrecognisable.
3. Rejection of the Light
And if that weren’t enough, what the Apostle John’s teaching about the reaction of people in general indicates, is that people are constantly looking for ways to cover up the light, turn it down, and even extinguish it. Of course, it’s a common problem outside the church, particularly where people want to mould God in their own image, if they want anything to do with him at all. But it’s also a problem within the church too.
After all, when confronted about church and the need for salvation, the response of people is often to think only in terms of buildings. When confronted with the idea of the need to be faithful in giving to God, the response is often in terms of fundraising. When confronted with the need to care for the poor, the solution is often seen in terms of administering government handouts. And when confronting the people with the need to loosen up the church to embrace the unchurched, the response invariably is for people to dig their heels in.
Both inside and outside the church there is a tendency to extinguish the Light—to reject the Light of the world. Now in a sense that is quite understandable from those who want to reinvent God or extinguish him completely. But in the church it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately my experience within the church has been that churches invariably respond to spiritual issues with worldly responses. And so the church becomes just as guilty, as the general public, of quenching the Light; of reducing, and even extinguishing the Christian faith in its poor responses to serious spiritual issues.
4. A Timely Reminder
As a consequence we need the reminder of the Apostle John’s conclusion. We need to recall why we are here. And we need to let go of all the distractions, and the things that block, extinguish and shade the Light.
We need to expose the light, not extinguish it. And so we need to dismiss any personality cults, we need to stop looking for worldly solutions to spiritual problems, and we need to pull our weight, and be the people of faith that God intended.
Of course that won’t be easy, because there will be a lot of things we will have to unlearn. But what we need to do is let Jesus be the Light; we need to let God lead us into the future; and we need to be willing to go wherever he should take us. But we need to do that, no matter how uncomfortable that might make us.
But what does that mean in practical terms? Well I was heartened the other day when talking to a lady from a different parish—a three-centred parish—but a parish which faces many of the issues I’ve just described. And her solution? Well it is to sell all three centres and start again.
Now may sound like a drastic solution. But she recognised there were far too many vested interests in the church buildings, furniture, styles of worship etc. that prevented the church from growing. Indeed current practices were simply blocking the Light, with the effect that if nothing was done, in the not too distant future, that all three churches would need to be closed. But more importantly, in order to remove all obstacles stopping the Light shining, she was prepared to let go, even of the things that she held dear.
Yes, of course, her solution is drastic. But sometimes drastic measures are required, particularly when we are faced with the two primary issues raised in John’s prologue. Because, firstly, people do go off at tangents (and often because of strong personalities), and they do distract from the Light. And, secondly, people do try to adjust the Light to make God and the church more palatable. And if our role is to do everything we can to ensure that God’s Light shines as brightly in the world as possible, it may mean that we need to let go of the things that we love, in order for God’s Light to shine.
The Apostle John’s prologue, then, whilst it doesn’t deliver the heights that it could have done, nevertheless balances the idea of who Jesus was (and is) with the sobering reminder of how easy it is to get off track. The Apostle John used Light to describe the Messiah, but mixed in with that he showed how easily people are distracted from it, and how easily they corrupt it, dim it, cover it up, and even try to extinguish it.
John’s challenge, then, is that we should not be the ones to either re-direct or obscure the Light; that we should not be the obstacle responsible for diming it. Indeed, we are the ones who should be taking every step to make sure that the Light shines as brightly as it can. But are we up to the challenge?
Posted: 30th September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: A Nobody With A Mission (John 1:6-8, 19-28)
1. The Importance of Identify
There are a number of ways we can identify people today. We can identify people through their colour, their race, their political beliefs, and their religion. We can identify people by their jobs, by their social standing, by where they live, and by the kind of people with whom they surround themselves. And we can identify people by their social behaviour, by their interaction in society, and even by their criminal record.
Identifying people is important in our society. And being able to identify ourselves is very important too. For example if we want to obtain a driving licence, if we want to get married, if we want to claim some sort of government benefit, or if we want to do one of a number of things, one of the things we have to do is to prove who we are.
However, despite all the fuss we make about identifying others, and despite all the lengths we may go to prove our own identification, none of the things that I’ve mentioned may describe just who people are and what makes them tick.
And one of those people who prove this point is John the Baptist.
2. The Need to Identify John (19)
Now John’s situation was that he brought a lot of attention on himself. He had become a very popular figure. And his preaching was a talking point in many circles. As a consequence, the authorities—particularly the religious authorities—were more than curious to work out who John really was.
Of course, the background to their concern was something related to all new religious movements. For they knew from experience that new religious movements were trouble. They tended to result in disorder and often lead to trouble with the Romans authorities. Problems they would rather do without.
And as a consequence, they couldn’t ignore John, who had attracted such a following. They needed to know more about John—about who he was. And so they sent a delegation to him to find out.
Now they may well have found out in advance that John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They may well have found out his background and where he lived. They may well have found out that he was a cousin of Jesus of Nazareth (although that would have meant very little at the time). But there was something more to John than all of that. John was a puzzle—he didn’t conform. And so they made it their concern to find out what John was all about. And so they sent a delegation to John to ask him, ‘Who are you?’
B. JOHN THE BAPTIST
1. John’s True Identity (20-23)
a). He Wasn’t the Messiah
Now no-one is reported to have asked him directly whether he was the Messiah. But John discerned the drift of their inquiry. Messianic talk was in the air, and so he framed his answer accordingly.
He was not the Messiah. John’s reply was serious. And he vigorously reputed any such idea that he might hold such a lofty position. On the contrary, he claimed, he had a much more subordinate role.
b). He Wasn’t Elijah
Then having eliminated the possibility of him claiming to be the Messiah, the delegation pressed on. They were determined to find out just who John said that he was.
Now it had been foretold by the prophet Malachi, that before the great and terrible day of the Lord, God would send Elijah the prophet. In other words, it was understood that before the Messiah would come, Elijah would come again. So, accordingly when John had made it clear that he was not the Messiah, his interrogators asked him whether he was the prophet Elijah instead. And again John expressed a denial.
Now his denial has puzzled many over the years. Because Jesus himself explicitly asserted that John was ‘the Elijah, who was to come’ (Matthew 11:14). However, evidently, John was not aware of that. And he didn’t see himself in the role of Elijah at all.
c). He Wasn’t the Prophet
John’s denial, however, provoked a third question. If he wasn’t the Messiah, and he wasn’t Elijah, then was he ‘The Prophet?’
Now, the Jews expected all sorts of prophets to appear before the coming of the Messiah—and in particular ‘The Prophet’ that was described in the book of Deuteronomy (18:15-21). It was ‘The Prophet’ who was expected to speak truly God’s words, and it was ‘The Prophet’ who was expected to show the people the way. But John denied that he was ‘The Prophet’ too.
d). He was a Nobody – But a Witness
Now up to this point, all John had done was to give a list of denials. The delegation had come to find out, not just about John’s pedigree, but who he was. But all they had found out, so far, was that he was not the Messiah, that he was not Elijah, and that he was not The Prophet. And with John still preaching, still drawing crowds into the wilderness, and still baptising, the delegation would have been very unhappy with their progress—and with their lack of anything substantial to put in their report.
At the same time, however, John’s answers to their questions had got shorter and shorter, reflecting the fact that he wasn’t happy about the situation either. And he certainly hadn’t appreciated being interrogated about his identification either.
So, instead of asking John, again, whether he was anyone specific, the delegation changed tack. And they asked him, ‘Who are you?’—but this time with the meaning, ‘Just who do you say that you are?’
To which John replied, by quoting the prophet Isaiah (40:3): ‘I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’
In other words, what John was saying about himself was that he was no-one important. He wasn’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or The Prophet, or anyone like that. All he was, was a voice—and a voice with only one thing to say, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ John was a nobody, but a nobody just doing his duty to God. And his duty was to warn people of the coming Messiah—calling them to be ready. And part of that need to be ready, was the need to remove the obstacles that got in the people’s way to a full relationship with God.
As far as John was concerned, he wasn’t anyone special at all. But he was concerned about carrying out his duty to God, despite any risk to his own safety.
2. His Identity Revealed (24-27)
Now, John’s answer would not have pleased the delegation. After all, they, and the people they represented, were the very people who put obstacles in people’s ways. And traditions, laws, class structures, and other barriers were the very things they wanted to maintain. But the delegation was puzzled too. Because in their thinking, ‘If John was a nobody, then why did he baptise? What authority did he have to do such a thing?’
Now, there was nothing new about baptism. Baptism was used in Judaism as a regular rite in the admission of converts from other religions. Baptism was used as a way of removing the ‘spiritual’ pollutants contracted in the Gentile world. And baptism is what was expected that the Messiah, Elijah or ‘The Prophet’ would do. But that hardly explained why John was calling people to be baptised in his own ministry.
Furthermore, all Jews were prepared to accept the view that Gentiles were defiled and needed cleansing. But John was baptising Jews as well. And, to put Jews in the same class as Gentiles, well that was too much. The Jews were God’s people already. So, it was all very perplexing. And consequently some in the delegation wanted to pursue the matter further.
So they changed tack, again: ‘If John was not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet, why did he baptise?’ To which John simply stated, ‘As a means to point people to the Messiah.” And of course, for John, that would have just as much relevance for the Jews as it was to the Gentiles.
As far as John was concerned, baptism with water was not an end in itself. It wouldn’t save or convert anyone. Rather, baptism was used, simply to point people to the Messiah. John’s interest was in the Messiah and in nothing less.
The Messiah would shortly make himself known. But in comparison, John, was a nobody. Indeed, John, would not be worthy to even take on the role of a slave, and loosen the Messiah’s sandals.
And at this point the interrogation of John the Baptist finished. The delegation had come to find out just who John was. But they weren’t interested in his parentage or his family history or anything like that. What they wanted to know was, who John really was and what it was that made him tick. And the only answer they got, was that John thought he was a nobody. But a nobody who was keen to do the will of God.
Others—his disciples and followers and even Jesus (later on)—may have thought he was more than that. But as far as John was concerned, he was no-one special. His only role in life was to point people to the Messiah. And he had to do that despite any personal risk to himself.
1. Who Are We? (1)
When we consider the story of John the Baptist, then. Yes, we have a story of an extraordinary man. But it’s a story of a man who was very humble, and whose only motivation was to point people to Jesus.
But that was John, what about us? If a delegation came to us, and asked us who we are, what would our reply be?
Of course we could describe our background in terms of our family background, where we live, the kind of work that we do or have done. We could talk about our economic and social status. We might be able to say that we are of English descent, or a dinky-di Aussie, or point to other roots. And we might even be able to bring out some identification, with various personal details on it. But when pressed by the delegation to get to the nub of who we are—and what makes us tick—who would we say that we are?
2. Who Was John? (2)
Now when John was asked who he was, firstly all he did was to dismiss the idea that he was anyone important—despite what he did, and despite his very public profile. As far as John was concerned, he was no-one very important at all. And then, having said that, he simply told and demonstrated that all he was someone doing his duty to God.
But is that the same description that we could use to describe ourselves too? Because you know it should be. Because despite the fact that Jesus (later) said some wonderful things about John, he could only do so, because of John’s attitude of humility, and only because of his dedication to his mission.
John the Baptist recognised that as far as the Messiah was concerned, he wasn’t good enough to even take on the role of a slave and loosen one of his thongs. And that says something of the humility that God expects to be the central focus of all of our lives today.
3. Who Are We (2)
Because, in this life there are two ways of looking at things. We can think that we are special and that we deserve respect and honour, we can insist that we deserve special treatment, and we can insist on respect that fits our position in life. Or we can ignore all of that and know our place, with God at the head and us being insignificant in comparison—and with us continuing to get on with doing God’s will anyway.
But even then, some people may think that we have special talents and abilities. Some people may think that we are special. (And it is nice when what we do is recognised). Nevertheless, it is our attitude to life that is important. The recognition of where we fit in, in the scheme of things. That we aren’t any more special than any other person. And that our sole purpose in life is to point others to Jesus.
Because that’s the way all Christian’s should be. We should all follow John’s example.
And if we all lived our lives that way, what a difference it would make to our own lives. And what a difference it would make to the church too.
Now, as I said at the beginning, there are a number of ways we can identify people today. We can identify people through their colour, their race, their religion. We can identify people through the work that they do. We can identify people through their social standing. And we can also identify people through their social behaviour.
And in addition to identifying others, identifying ourselves is also a very important part of our culture. Indeed, we need to identify who we are in regard to a range of goods and services that are available.
Unfortunately, even with all of that, none of those things really tells us who people really are and what makes them tick. And consequently, further investigation is required to work out just who people are and where they fit in.
John the Baptist was an enigma to the religious authorities. They just didn’t understand him at all. But then John was different. He didn’t think highly of himself. Indeed, he considered himself to be a nobody. But he was a nobody who was prepared to do his duty to God and point people to the coming Messiah.
That is who John was. But, what about us?
Because, yes, some people might think we are special. Others might appreciate any special talents and gifts we may have. But as far as we, as individuals, are concerned, all we should be concerned about is being nobodies. But nobodies who are doing their duty to God and pointing people to the Messiah too.
Posted: 20th October 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: What's in a Name? (John 1:45-51)
Abram was renamed Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Joseph was renamed Zaphenath-Paneah, Hoshea became Joshua, Gideon became known as Jerub-Baal, and God called Solomon Jedidiah. In addition in New Testament times it was quite normal to have more than one name. Indeed Jews in New Testament times would have had a Greek name as well as their Hebrew or Aramaic name; and they would have had Latinised versions of their names too.
So Jesus (which is a Greek) would have been known as Yeshua (in Hebrew); and Paul (a Greek name) was also known as Saul (a Hebrew name). And Peter … well for Peter, it gets even more complicated. Because Peter (a Greek name) was also known as Simeon (Hebrew) or Simon (Greek) and Cephas (also Greek).
It shouldn’t surprise us then that Bartholomew (a Greek name) has also generally been considered to be the Nathanael (a Hebrew name) of John’s Gospel. And the primary reason for that is the connection with Philip, who introduced him to Jesus.
Now you might be wondering what’s all this about names? So what if people had several names. What’s that got to do with us? Well, like it or not even today we have several names. Indeed we are given at least two at our birth. And some of us have acquired quite a few other names since then too.
Monks and nuns, even today, take on a new name when making their vows. And the idea is to distinguish their new life from their old. And as Christians, the early tradition was that when you became a believer, you adopted a new name—a Christian name—a name that was different to name you were given at birth. Again the idea was to distinguish our new life from our old. But the practice is where we get the term “christening” from.
Of course, as you probably realise, something has gone terribly wrong with the idea of “Christian” names and “Christening”—and it probably went wrong in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless the idea of distinguishing our new life, our life of faith, from our old life still stands. After all, we are supposed to move away from the old, and to identify with a very different lifestyle—a lifestyle with God at the centre. We are supposed to live lives distinct and different to the kind of lives that we lived before we believed. And many, not all, of the changes of name in the Bible reflect that fact.
So what’s in a name? Well names can mean nothing, or they can mean everything. And we can thank Bartholomew (‘son of Talmai’), who was also known as Nathanael (‘gift of God’), a native of Cana of Galilee, an Apostle, and close friend of Philip for reminding us of that (Matthew 10:1–4; Mark 3:13–19; Luke 6:12–16; Acts 1:4, 12, 13).
Posted: 23rd August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
1. Misuse of the Bible
Have you ever been told that something written in the Bible has a particular purpose or meaning, only to find out later that that’s not what it’s about at all? Has anyone ever tried to convince you of something—tried desperately to prove their point—and used a passage of scripture to make their case, only for you to discover that they have twisted the whole purpose and meaning of the passage?
Does that sound familiar? I’m sure it does. Because it seems today that some people love the things that they do and engage themselves in the world so much, that they will desperately argue anything, even from the Bible, to prove that they are right.
And one of the things that has been misused, in recent times, is the biblical view of weddings and marriage. And not just from one side of the same-sex marriage debate either—but from both sides.
And that’s sad, because when we read a story like the Wedding at Cana—one of the stories that has been used and abused—it’s clear that it’s not a story of a wedding ceremony. Indeed, it’s not really a story about a wedding at all.
B. THE WEDDING AT CANA
And the first clue that this it is not really a story of a wedding, is that we are told in John 2:1 that that the wedding began on “the third day.” And to understand that reference, we need to go back in John’s Gospel a few days.
Because, in chapter 1 we are told that John the Baptist was quizzed about whether he was the Messiah or not (John 1:19-28). Then, the very next day, we are told that Jesus came to John, and John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” (John 1:29-34).
The day after that, however—day one in Jesus’s ministry—Jesus was baptised by John, and some of John’s disciples came over to Jesus (John 1:35-42). And the day after that—day two—Jesus called Philip and Nathanael to be his disciples (John 1:43-51).
Day three, then, is a reference to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. At this stage, he hadn’t had a chance to establish himself with his disciples, let alone speak to the public. Is it any wonder, then, that he would expressed reluctance, when approached by his mother to perform a miracle (v4).
Having said that, we shouldn’t be surprised to find Jesus at a wedding.
A wedding feast was a great social occasion. And it was considered a serious offence not to go. So, Jesus, at this very early stage in his ministry, would not have wanted to cause offence. He would not have wanted to put people offside. And he certainly would not have wanted to be the cause of any social embarrassment.
Which is ironic, really. Because what his mother, Mary, effectively asked him to do, was to save someone else from social embarrassment. Because it was a definite no-no to run out of wine.
Now running out of wine might seem a bit of an odd thing to happen—a bit of bad planning. However, wedding celebrations sometimes continued for a whole week, and supplying sufficient wine would certainly have been a drain on the resources of those concerned. So here we have Jesus responding with compassion.
There were some stone jars, which were used for ceremonial washing. And rather large stone jars too. But then they needed to be. Jews became ceremonially defiled by ordinary life, through the normal course of the day. So, with a large crowd, they would have needed large jars, and particularly so if the celebrations were to continue for a week. The jars were also not full, indicating that at this point they were probably some way through the celebration.
So Jesus told the servants to fill them with water. Which they did, and the water turned into wine—indeed, the best wine of the wedding celebration.
And with that, John concludes the story with a comment—the miracle was not so much a miracle, but a “sign,”—a “sign” pointing to Jesus. In other words, for John, it’s not what happened that was important. It’s not where it happened, or what Jesus did. It was to whom the miracle was pointing—that was what was important for John.
The Wedding at Cana, which began on day three of Jesus’s ministry, then, is not a story of a wedding. The wedding was merely the backdrop to something much greater. It was Jesus that John wanted to point his readers to. The wedding just happened to be the location in which the story took place.
C. THE STRUCTURE OF JOHN’S GOSPEL
And we can confirm that by examining the structure of John’s Gospel. Because, John’s Gospel—one of the four Gospels—is very different to the other three.
All four gospels were written from different perspectives, as you’d expect. And they each had access to different eye witnesses. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke also borrowed material from a common source—which is why there is so much similarity between the three.
John’s Gospel, however, is very different. Because, yes, John “the disciple whom Jesus loved” included his own personal eye witness account. But he also wrote his Gospel in a very different and structured way. John was not interested in detailing everything that Jesus did from birth to death to resurrection. The sequence of events was not important. Nor was listing everything that Jesus did. What John wanted to do was to simply point people to Jesus.
As a consequence, he structured his whole gospel around seven “signs”—of which the Wedding at Cana is the first. (He also used seven sayings, all beginning “I am”—I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the good shepherd, etc.) In regard to the signs, however, what was important to John, was not the signs themselves, but who those signs were pointing to—Jesus.
And if you look at the seven signs—in the order that John presents them—you will notice that there is a something of a progression—from changing water into wine, to healing two individuals—the first who was sick, and the next who was disabled. Jesus then feds five thousand (plus) people. He defies nature by walking on water. He heals a man born blind (something which was believed only the Messiah could do). And then he raises Lazarus from the dead. As the Gospel progresses John’s signs get bigger and bigger and bigger.
Now sadly, this is the sort of perspective that you miss out on, if you only read the Bible in short bursts—which is the modern tendency, even in church. But John structured his whole gospel to make his point. And his point is that everything that Jesus did and said pointed to him being the Messiah.
It’s not the miracles that were important, or even the circumstances in which they were performed—it’s the person who did them. And that is what the Wedding at Cana, and the whole of John’s Gospel is all about.
D. WEDDINGS AND THE CHURCH
So, if John’s whole focus was on pointing people to Jesus, where does that leave us today? And more specifically where does that leave us in the whole wedding and marriage debate? After all, with the recent changes to the Marriage Act, the Anglican Church in Tasmania is now embarking on the debate: “Should the church continue to be involved in marriage ceremonies? And if so, what is the extent to which they should be involved?”
It’s a very controversial topic, particularly as wedding ceremonies are part of the church’s current practice that some people so love. And some would argue that it’s one of the reasons for the need for the church’s continuing existence today.
1. The Wedding at Cana
So much so, that the story of the Wedding at Cana, has been used to argue the case for the continuing role of the church in the conduct of weddings.
Indeed, I have heard the passage used as an example of the importance of wedding ceremonies. I’ve heard it used as an example of the importance of such ceremonies having religious content. And I’ve heard it used to suggest the need for the church’s continuing involvement.
And yet, the story of the Wedding at Cana says none of those things. The story provides no information about any marriage ceremony—only the reception. And there is no indication that there was any overt religious content to the celebration—only that Jesus was present.
The story of the Wedding at Cana, is about pointing people to Jesus, not about defending current church practice.
2. Old Testament Practice
So if the Wedding at Cana, doesn’t really help, what about the references to weddings and marriage in the Bible?
Well if we add in all the other references to weddings and marriages in the Bible, all we can see is what a big hole the church has dug for itself.
After all, in Genesis 2:24 we have a comment on the universal gift of God of marriage. However, there is no comment of any the need for a ceremony of any description.
In Genesis 24:67 we have a description of Isaac bringing Rebekah into his deceased mother’s tent, where he “married” her, without any indication that anyone else was present.
And in Genesis 29:22-23 we are told of a pre-wedding feast. However, reading between the lines it would appear that Laban wanted to get Jacob so drunk, that he couldn’t tell which of two sisters he was taking to bed. As a result, Jacob woke up the next morning only to discover that he had married the wrong sister—Leah not Rachel.
3. New Testament Practice
When we come to the wedding at Cana, then, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised to discover that there had been a development in terms of wedding celebrations—from nothing (in the case of Isaac) into something far more formal—and in the case of Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) into something quite elaborate. But there is no biblical evidence to support any history of any kind of ceremony at all.
It’s like the community had grown to like having a big party to celebrate the occasion. After which, the couple would then go off and marry each other, with no other person being present. No paperwork. No ceremony.
So where did all the pledges, rings, dowries, joining of hands and kissing come from—the things that people love? Well even Ignatius later in the first century only seemed to know about them in the context of becoming engaged. Because he too is remarkably silent in terms of any marriage ceremony.
In the great wedding debate, then—whatever solution the church comes up with—pointing people to Jesus should be our priority. That’s the point of the story of the Wedding at Cana. Whatever our views on weddings and marriage, whether we think the church should be involved in ceremonies or not, our priority should always be, to point people to Jesus.
But how do we do that, in terms of the current wedding debate?
Well some would suggest that we should be involved. Because conducting weddings of people outside of the church provides a perfect opportunity to share the Gospel. And there is great merit in that argument.
However, others would argue that the church has no place in administering a Marriage Act on behalf of the Commonwealth Government. Particularly when it conflicts with the principles behind God’s gift of marriage, and the practice encourages the belief that conducting weddings is a fundamental reason for the church’s existence.
Furthermore, some could also legitimately add, that the Marriage Act conflicts with Christian belief on the grounds of prohibited relationships. It allows relationships that the Bible excludes. And it excludes relationships that the Bible allows. And that was true, even before the same-sex marriage debate.
The current practice of the church, then, sends out some very mixed messages. But then that’s what happens when the church becomes part of a culture that insists on requiring couples to do things that are not required by God, and were not even part of biblical practice.
The church and state, weddings and marriages … As you can see, the whole thing is a mess. It’s a minefield. On the one side there are twenty-first-century expectations—with the pressure to keep doing the things that people love. On the other side, there is the biblical issue of doing things God’s way and, in particular, the need to point people to Jesus.
The recent same-sex marriage debate has opened a can of worms. And one side of the debate is just as guilty of abusing the Bible as the other.
But where does that leave the church, and its involvement in weddings. today?
Because if God gave marriage as a gift to all mankind, and it was unencumbered from the need of any ceremony, where does that leave us? If, in the Bible, the idea of some sort of community celebration grew, but there was still no ceremony—how should we respond? And if, there is a conflict, beyond the same-sex marriage debate, with the list of prohibited relationships—how then do we view our involvement in wedding ceremonies today?
Well, where it leaves us, and where our whole focus should always be, is to do only those things that point people to Jesus. Whatever the situation, that should be the focal point of everything we do.
How, then, do we hold on to the things that we love? The things that we like to do?
Well we can’t. It doesn’t work that way.
Because, if we start from the things that we love, we so easily get off track. Our customs—the things we love—can be a real trap. Instead, we have to start from the perspective of being people pointing others to Jesus. And we have to run with that, and see where God takes us.
The story of the Wedding at Cana is not about a wedding—although many people have used and abused it for that purpose. It’s about a “sign” pointing people to Jesus.
But are all our sign posts clear? Do our beliefs and practices point to Jesus at every turn? Or are we lost in the confusion of church and state, and the things we love, in our practices?
Because, that is what we need to review.
Posted: 16th January 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Six Steps to Making a Difference (John 4:5-26)
Whether we watch, listen to, or read the news, there are a number of features which appear to be common to every bulletin and newspaper. There are stories of hatred and prejudice. There are stories of misunderstandings. There are stories of people talking at crossed purposes. There are stories which reflect differences in moral standards. There are stories where people are having difficulty facing reality and trying to disguise it by constantly changing the subject. And there are stories of religious differences and all that that entails.
And whilst it’s easy to think, “What a mess! What has the world come to these days? The problems are just too big. And, as individuals, can we really make a difference,” maybe we should ask the question, “Well . . . what can we do about it?”
And the reason I say that is that although life has always been like all those things I’ve mentioned, Jesus has shown us the difference that one person can make. And I’d like to illustrate that from a story in the bible.
B. A SAMARITAN PERSPECTIVE
And the story I’d like to refer to is the story of the meeting of Jesus with a Samaritan woman at a well.
1. Prejudice (5-9)
Because first of all, it’s a story, which has as its basis the problem of hatred and prejudice.
And this was because Jews not only hated Samaritans, but there was no love lost by the Samaritans either. And this bitterness had been continuing between the two groups for over seven hundred years.
In the days of the Assyrian empire, half of the inhabitants of Samaria had been taken captive and deported in large numbers, and in their place were brought other people from around the empire. As a consequence, the Jews believed that the Samaritans were a mixed breed—their blood wasn’t pure. And as a result of the Samaritans mixing with foreigners brought into the land, their version of the Jewish faith had been corrupted too.
And unfortunately, despite Samaritan beliefs becoming more and more orthodox over time, and despite the occasional offer of friendship by the Samaritans, open hostility continued between the two groups. Consequently both Jews and Samaritans tried hard to avoid each other.
Occasionally, however, when a Jew was in a hurry to get from north to south, they took a short cut through Samaria. And that is exactly what Jesus did in this instance. And that was how Jesus’s confrontation with the Samaritan woman began.
And so, at the beginning of the story, when Jesus asked the woman for a drink from the well, her reaction was predictable: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (9a)
2. Misunderstanding (10-12)
But prejudice is not only thing that is underlying this story. This story also has misunderstanding.
The mind of the woman at the well was set on one thing only: getting water from the well. So when Jesus started talking about needing “living water,” all she could think about was how impossible it was for Jesus to draw water out of the well, when the well was about a hundred feet deep and he had nothing with which to draw it out.
As a consequence, the misunderstanding occurred because she really wasn’t listening to what it was that Jesus was saying.
3. Crossed Purposes (13-15)
However, it’s a story about talking at crossed purposes too.
Indeed, the woman, who had to travel a long way from home to get water from the well, longed for the day when the journey to the well would no longer be necessary. She yearned for a day when there was an endless supply of water on tap—water that she no longer had to fetch and carry, particularly from a well so far from home.
As a consequence, that fact coloured what she heard Jesus saying. She didn’t understand that Jesus was talking to her on a spiritual plane at all.
4. Different Moral Standards (16-18)
Furthermore, the fact that she had to travel some distance to get water, tells us that this is also a story of a clash of moral standards.
Now the Jews believed that a person could be divorced twice, three times at most, and the Samaritan’s probably held similar beliefs. However this woman had been married five times, and she was now living with someone who was not her husband at all.
And it is at this point that we get a true inkling of who this woman really is. This wasn’t just any Samaritan woman at the well, this was a woman with a very bad reputation, even amongst her own people. And this explains why she chose to use a well so far away from home, well away from her own local well. It also explains why she was getting water at noon, rather than the more usual sunset.
This woman was not even acceptable to the majority of her own people, her morals were so low. And, therefore, she had chosen the time and the place deliberately to avoid other women of her own town and even of her own race.
5. Changing the Subject (19-24)
And yet the story doesn’t even end there. Because this story is also a story of a woman who had trouble facing up to her own shortcomings. Because rather than face the history of her relationships, she deliberately kept trying to change the subject.
She tried to divert the focus away from herself and onto the differences between the Jews and the Samaritans. She began a debate on the things that divided and had caused so much hatred over the centuries between the Jews and the Samaritans.
6. Religious Differences (25-26)
And that brings us to the fact that this story is also a story about ignorance of beliefs.
Because the Samaritan’s were waiting for the Messiah, just like the Jews. But they had no information about him. Their bibles were different. Indeed, the Samaritans only used the first five books of the bible, which said very little about the Messiah. Whereas the Jews, with the advantage of the Psalms, and the Prophets, had much more detailed descriptions of whom to look for.
So, when we watch, or listen to, or read the news, there are a number of common themes that seem to run through every bulletin or newspaper. Themes of hatred and prejudice, themes of misunderstandings and talking at crossed purposes, themes of people having difficulty facing reality, and themes of religious differences. And yet, in this one story from the life of Jesus, we have a story with the lot. But then the woman at the well, wasn’t just an ordinary Samaritan.
C. FROM JESUS’S PERSPECTIVE
Now, of course, from the perspective of Jesus, he had recently faced a very different encounter. He had been talking with Nicodemus, an eminent representative of Orthodox Judaism—a class who whole-heartedly despised Samaritans. As a consequence, his meeting with a Samaritan could not have been of any greater contrast.
Yet Jesus showed no hatred or prejudice, despite the common practice of other Jews. He had no difficulty in talking to the woman, even though, culturally, women were considered inferior to men. And he didn’t hold back from asking the woman for a drink, even though the mere holding of the jar of water would have made him ceremonially unclean.
Consequently, what we can see in Jesus is a determination to cut through the seven hundred odd years of hatred and prejudice; to cut through all the religious and cultural differences; to cut through all misunderstandings and the woman’s resistance to face reality; and to show the woman that there really was another way.
Yes, she may have been a woman who was despised by her own people and Jews alike. She may even have made many attempts to avoid the issues. But regardless of that, Jesus tried again and again to show that there was another way. And that he wasn’t going to be put off by all the barriers that the Jews had put up, that the Samaritans had put up, and that she was putting up. He cared for her too much for that. So he persisted; he brought her back time and time again, letting her know that there were alternatives to her current existence. He showed her that he cared.
It’s an impressive story. It’s an impressive story of prejudice, misunderstandings, and hatred. But it’s also an impressive story of how Jesus broke down all those barriers. So, when we reflect on our world and the mess it’s in today, it’s also a story we would do well to pay heed.
1. Hatred and Prejudice
Regarding hatred and prejudice . . . Jesus lived amongst other Jews with seven hundred plus years of prejudice up their sleeves. And yet he was having none of it. Consequently, he was able to treat the woman at the well as somebody that he cared for. And that is the challenge for us today too.
Now prejudice can be found all over the place. There’s prejudice with colour, race, sex, culture, religion, and basically everything in life. But like Jesus, we are called on to put all that aside, so that we can tell people about the alternatives in life; to show the depth of our faith in the way we care.
Of course that may go against the grain of the people who live around us. Nevertheless mixing with others—those we may not normally associate ourselves with and, perhaps, don’t even agree with—is an important part of our call.
Regarding misunderstanding . . . Jesus broke through the barriers of misunderstanding. And he did so by persisting with the discussion until she understood. The woman had her mind only on drawing water to drink, but Jesus continued the discussion until it was clear what needing “living water” meant.
Now misunderstandings happen all the time. But they usually happen because someone says or does something and the matter is not followed up. Consequently when misunderstandings occur there is no real attempt to either correct a person’s misunderstanding or to fix up the damage. But that was not a situation that Jesus was prepared to accept. And so he continued the discussion with the aim of correcting those misunderstandings.
Now today there are some really strange ideas about and many of them result from misunderstandings. Consequently to help clarify what is meant, to cut through the misunderstandings, is a very important aspect of our role as believers.
3. Crossed Purposes
Regarding talking at crossed purposes . . . The hidden agenda the woman had at the well was that she was waiting for a time when she wouldn’t have to travel so far to get water. Indeed it so consumed her thinking that it coloured what Jesus was saying. But Jesus was persistent and he retold his message in various different ways until his message finally got through.
Being persistent, then, and finding different ways to uncover the truth, is a vital part of our mission. We need to retell the truth in a variety of ways until it finally gets through.
4. Different Moral Standards
Regarding different moral standards . . . Interestingly, Jesus, didn’t point the finger at the woman at the well. Rather, he got the woman to re-evaluate her own life and left it up to her to make any appropriate changes.
Now, it’s very easy in this world to judge others by their morals. That’s what some people do all the time. But the only way that people are likely to change is if they want to—if they can accept the need to raise their standards themselves. And that’s the principal that Jesus used in this story. And the one that we need to adopt too.
5. Changing the Subject
Regarding changing the subject . . . The woman constantly changed the subject. She tried to avoid the real issues by throwing in anything that would take the focus of herself. So Jesus’s approach was to constantly return her to the subject in hand. Jesus was clear what the real issues were and, consequently, he tried his best not to get waylaid onto something else.
When we face the situation of talking to others about resolving issues, then, it’s amazing how people get uncomfortable and often try to change the topic. It’s like it’s all too hard or all too embarrassing. However, like Jesus, we need to be constantly on our toes and keep steering the conversation back to the issue at hand.
6. Religious Differences
And, regarding differences in religious beliefs . . . Even when the woman and Jesus were talking about the same Jewish religion, Jesus was keen to correct her understanding of the faith and return her to the true way. Now this is probably the most important part of the story, because all that Jesus had said and done hinges on this idea. Because without a true faith, none of the other things are truly possible at all.
Now today there are a variety of understandings of the Christian Faith which are commonly understood even in our own culture. And even amongst people who irregularly and even regularly attend church there are differences amongst their core beliefs. And yet to try to bring peace to the world without including faith in the true gospel . . . Well, we would be just wasting our time. For there can only be real peace when a restored relationship with God is at the heart.
Consequently, like Jesus we would be failing in our duty as believers if we fail to include a challenge of faith. A challenge that should try to correct those misunderstandings too.
Six clues, then, that we can apply to our own world and to our own situations. Now, obviously, not every effort of ours will be successful, not every effort will work. But then Jesus’s approach with the woman at the well was not guaranteed to work either.
However, in Jesus’s case it did work, and it worked spectacularly. Jesus not only made a huge difference to the Samaritan woman, but when she returned to her Samaritan village, it had a flow on effect to many people in that Samaritan village too.
Consequently Jesus’s example should encourage us to believe that, despite all the obstacles, we can make a big difference too.
So whether we watch, listen to, or read the news, there are a number of features which appear to be common to every bulletin and newspaper. There are stories of hatred and prejudice. There are stories of misunderstandings. There are stories of people talking at crossed purposes. There are stories which reflect a difference in moral standards. There are stories where people are having difficulty facing reality and trying to disguise it by constantly changing the subject. And there are stories of religious differences and all that that entails.
Indeed, the same six issues that we saw in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
But Jesus did make a difference in that story. He told her about the Messiah, and he showed her that he cared. The challenge is: It is now our turn to use those principles and to do exactly the same.
Posted: 9th May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Levels of Belief (John 4:46-54)
Of course the answer to the dilemma of belief is obvious. People mean different things by the term. That is why there is a great discrepancy between those who say they believe and those who go to church. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop people saying that they believe, no matter on what level they belong.
And an example of that couldn’t be better illustrated than in the story of the man in John’s gospel. Because in it we see a man who seems to have faith—and would probably have said that he was a believer—but as we examine the story, it’s really not like that at all.
Now the story begins with a man whose son was dying on his bed, at home in Capernaum (46). The man was a nobleman of Herod’s court—probably a Jew. And he’d evidently heard that Jesus had used miraculous powers to change water into wine. As a consequence, he was hoping that Jesus would do another miracle—that he would cure his son. So, when the officer heard of Jesus’s arrival in Cana, he immediately went to meet him (47). His need was great, and he pressed Jesus to go with him.
Jesus, on the other hand, was more concerned that people were missing the point of his ministry (48). That they were looking for the miraculous not for faith. So he made a few comments—not just to the man, but to the people around him as well. To which, the nobleman did not defend himself or argue (49), he simply expressed his continuing anxiety for his son.
As a result, Jesus’s reply to the man would probably have come as a shock (50). The man had expressed the need for Jesus to go with him to heal his son. He evidently thought that Jesus needed to be present to perform the cure. But all Jesus did was to tell the man to go home, and that his son had been cured. And perhaps, surprisingly, in what seems like an act of faith, the man did not stand and argue. He didn’t stay and insist that Jesus go with him. He simply took Jesus at his word, turned around and went home.
And then, as the man journeyed home, he met his servants coming to meet him (51-53). He was then told that his son was cured. And when he asked his servants the time his son had got better, it matched exactly the time that Jesus had said that his son would live. And, as a result, we are told that he and his whole household believed.
Now from a superficial level, the official seems to have demonstrated an unwavering faith— solid as a rock—throughout the whole process. He’d heard about the miracle of the water into wine, and so he had come to Jesus hoping that he would perform a miracle for his son. Indeed, when told to go home he didn’t argue, he did exactly as he was told. And, when his son was cured, he and his household, we’re told, believed in Jesus.
But as I say, that’s what it seems at first glance. But is that really what the passage says? And the reason I ask this, is because in the gospel of John the term “believing” is expressed in three different ways. And this puts a whole new perspective on the story.
Because, firstly, John uses the term, in regard to accepting the facts of the situation—believing the events that happen. Secondly, John uses the term in regard to the acceptance of what people say is true. And thirdly, John uses the term in regard to people believing in Jesus—an activity which takes people out of themselves and makes them one with Christ. An activity that requires personal trust and a reliance on Jesus for salvation, and for everyday life.
Consequently, with that in mind, we need to reassess the story, and be open to a completely different view.
Because, in this story we actually have all three stages of belief. Firstly, the man believed in the facts of the things that had occurred. He’d heard that Jesus had changed the water into wine. And he believed it to be true, so he acted on what he’d heard. Secondly, he believed Jesus, when he told him that his son would live. He accepted Jesus’s words, as though they were true. That is why he was able to return home without question. And, thirdly, when his son was healed, as a result of the miracle that had taken place, only then, did he and his whole household believe in Jesus, and become followers for the first time.
Now you can see the difference in the stories. This isn’t a story of a man who is rock solid in his beliefs all the way through. This is a story of a man who was on a steep learning curve, and whose progressed through the three different levels of belief. Because only at the end did he express a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And, with that in mind, let’s go back to our own dilemma, and the problem of people professing the faith in the world today. Because John’s three levels of faith in this story are the same as the three levels that are evident in people today.
Indeed, firstly, there are people who have heard about the historical Jesus, and the facts of his existence. And, maybe in some way, that is reflected in the way that they live their lives. But secondly, there are those who believe what the church has said to be true. But that doesn’t mean they have made the ultimate connection. And then, thirdly, there are those who have put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. And to these people, and only to these people, they have been rewarded with the gift of eternal life.
Now living in a world where so many people claim to have belief, may seem very odd at times. Particularly, when it is disconnected from active membership of God’s church. However it should be something of which we should all be aware. After all, how can we help those who claim to have faith, if we don’t understand which level they’re on? And to whom should we share the true faith, if we don’t know their need?
Posted: 30th November 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Tragedy or Opportunity? (John 9:1-41)
I never cease to be amazed at the strange things that people believe, particularly when it comes to religious beliefs. Indeed, even with a book of words inspired by God—that most have easy access to—we can still see and hear some very strange ideas.
The reality is, of course, that we cannot possibly know it all. For no matter how much we know, there will always be more to learn. And to some degree that’s fine, as long as we commit ourselves to learning more and teaching others what we have learnt.
What is strange, however, is the way that even after we have identified a problem that others have committed, we continue to repeat those same mistakes again and again and again.
Of course, sometimes we might give them a little twist. Yet the mistakes that we find in others we easily do ourselves; we realise the mistakes in others, and yet we so easily fall into the same old traps.
We all do it, you and me alike. And to illustrate the kind of thing that I’m referring to, I want to refer to this passage from John.
B. A MAJOR MISUNDERSTANDING
Because immediately the story begins, we are faced with one of the howlers of the bible. For in the very second verse of the passage, the disciples, who had been around Jesus for a while, demonstrated their lack of knowledge, by twisting God’s ways. Indeed, faced with the man born blind, they asked the question—which the majority of Jews would have asked at that time—”Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Yes, as soon as the disciples became aware of the man’s situation, they began to look for the cause. And despite the many options that were available to them, they instantly came up with the conclusion that God was punishing the man for one of two reasons: Either he had sinned whilst he was in his mother’s womb, or that he was being punished for something his parents had done.
Now we can smile at their attitude. We may even be tempted to think ourselves superior to that of the disciples. But how often these days when something goes wrong, do we hear those words: “What have I done to deserve this?” “He was a good man, he didn’t deserve that,” or some other such saying? When something goes wrong, how often do our first instincts blame God for what has gone wrong? How often do we look to God to find out for what we are being punished? And how often do people spend hours, and days, and weeks, and years, and even decades dwelling on the reasons for what went wrong?
Now, of course, the reality is that when things do go wrong, there can be a variety of causes. And we can identify the result of sin as the cause in the majority of cases. And God disciplining us, like a loving father wanting to bring us back to the fold, can be one such cause. But then so can: The consequences of our own actions, the consequences of other people’s actions, the consequences of what the community has done, and the consequences of the way our sinful nature has corrupted the world as a whole. What we suffer can be the result of sins a long time back in the past, even before our own time, as well as being the result of recent mistakes.
But sin is not the only cause. Because we also have the testing of God, as he gives us opportunities to grow and to show our loyalty. Of which, the testing of Abraham in being willing to sacrifice his son and heir is just one example.
In other words when things go wrong, the causes of our problems—which are usually steeped in sin of one description or another—can be many and varied. And therefore God’s direct action should not always be the first to get the blame.
But let’s get back to the disciples’ question for a moment: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Now, as I said, the sad thing about this question is that it picked up the common ideas of the people of the day. It was based on God’s words delivered at the giving of the ten commandments in 1446 BC. “for I the LORD your God, am a jealous God. I will punish the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and the fourth generation…” But unfortunately, it ignored God’s words which followed: “…of those who hate me but show covenant love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5b-6).
In other words, God had said that he wouldn’t tolerate families where the father had no time for God, and the sons, the grandsons, and their sons had no time for God either. It didn’t relate to situations where the father had sinned, and the son hadn’t carried on the sin at all.
And yet despite that, there was a common saying in use eight hundred years later in the days of Ezekiel around 580 BC: “The fathers eat sour grapes, but the sons’ teeth are blunted” (Ezekiel 18:2b). AT that time God responded by saying, “You will no longer use this proverb in Israel . . . Look, all life is mine; the father’s life and the son’s life . . . Only the one who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:3b-4). And yet, sadly, 600 years still further on, the disciples were still expressing the same woefully incorrect sentiments.
It is not a good idea, then, to instantly blame God for his direct hand in our woes. There can be many and varied causes to the things that we suffer. Yes, at times, it may be good to do some soul searching and self-examination. But we need to be very careful when we are looking around trying to find someone to blame. Indeed, we need to make sure that we don’t fall into the same old trap that we see in others. And we certainly need to make sure that we are certain of our facts before blaming God for our predicament.
C. A SECONDARY MISUNDERSTANDING
However, whilst we can heed the warning evident in the disciples’ understanding of sin and suffering, that is not the only thing this story has to offer.
Because, Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples for their misunderstanding’ He didn’t even correct it. It’s like it wasn’t relevant, and that there were far more important issues to deal with. Instead, he simply told them the actual position of the man: “Neither this man sinned nor his parents. It was in order that the works of God might be revealed in him.”
Now I’m sure, the disciples would have been stunned, just as many people today may be stunned when they hear this story. After all, how could God deliberately bring or allow a child to come into the world to suffer? And I’ve heard many a people today express those kinds of thoughts.
But, in the context of this story, those sorts of sentiments not only show a misunderstanding of the situation, but they misunderstand God too. Because whilst others, including the disciples would have seen the man’s situation as a tragedy, from God’s (and Jesus’s) point of view it was an opportunity. An opportunity for the man to grow in faith, and an opportunity for the world to see God’s works in action.
Our problem is that God doesn’t see things the way we do… Or perhaps more properly, it’s the other way around . . . We don’t see things the way that God sees them, and perhaps the way that we should see them.
Now the man born blind is not the only time in the Bible where God uses a disability to work his purposes. The apostle Paul had his so-called thorn in the flesh. But the apostle Paul recognised that it served a purpose: “To keep me from exalting myself, I was given a thorn in the flesh—a messenger of Satan—to torment me, to keep me from exalting myself. I called upon the Lord three times to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:7b-9). Paul in turn was then able to minister to Timothy who had a weak stomach. The words of Paul to Timothy: “Do not drink water any longer. Instead, take a little wine for your stomach and frequent ailments.” (1 Tim 5:23).
But in each case, whether it was the blind man, Paul, or Timothy, it’s not that God didn’t care about their disability or ailment. It’s just that, for God, there was something far more important that needed to be considered. God loves his creation; he loves his people. But as you know and I know, every one of us is different and responds to different things in different ways.
As a consequence, with our salvation—our eternal life with him—being God’s primary goal, what these examples teach us, is that God is prepared to use every way possible that he thinks and knows that will help us respond to him, and help others respond to him too. And that includes allowing the man in our story to be born blind.
But, most importantly, the story doesn’t end there. Because, in our example, God didn’t just allow the man to be born, and then left him alone for the rest of his life. No! He involved himself in the man’s life. And the rest of the story makes some interesting reading, not least of all because Jesus did a very unusual thing.
The story of the man born blind is a different healing miracle to most. In most healing miracles, the person who required healing, approached Jesus, and not the other way around. So, for example, in the story of the ten lepers, it was the lepers who called out from a distance for help. And in the story of the paralytic, it was his friends who went to the trouble to bring the paralytic near.
But this miracle is different. This time, it was Jesus who took the initiative, not the man. It was Jesus who approached the man first. And in fact this time Jesus didn’t even ask the man if he wanted to be healed. He went ahead and did his part in the miracle anyway.
Now, yes of course, the man being born blind is a tragedy. But then so is Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and Timothy’s weak stomach. But can we see these stories from God’s point of view? Can we get beyond the tragedies and look at them as opportunities? Can we see the lengths that God is prepared to go to, to bring his people into the fold? And, applying that further, in our own lives, can we see beyond our own personal tragedies and see them as opportunities to grow, and opportunities for God?
Thinking like God is a very radical thing. Indeed it can turn our whole world upside down. But every tragedy can be an opportunity. It’s just a matter of how we look at things. Because opportunities to grow are very much part of the way that God thinks.
D. RESPONSES TO ADVERSITY
Now, I don’t want to say a lot about the rest of the story. The important parts of the story are in those first few verses. But having got the major misunderstanding out of the way, and having shown that God did care but had a greater purpose, did it work? Was God right in allowing the man to be born blind? Was the suffering the man went through worthwhile?
Because, yes, Jesus could do certain things. He could demonstrate what it was that he wanted to do. He could spit on the ground, make some mud, and put it on the man’s eyes. (Making it clear to the blind man that he wanted to do something about his physical blindness). And he could tell the man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. But the rest was totally out of Jesus’s hands. It was up to the man himself.
After all, the man could have just sat there. He could have decided that staying blind meant he could continue to earn an income begging, because he certainly wouldn’t have had any other skills to earn a living. And no-one would give money to a formerly blind man who could now see. He could even have wiped the mud from his eyes or washed the mud out somewhere different to where he was told.
But none of those alternatives happened. Indeed, the man did exactly what Jesus said. He contributed to his own healing. And consequently we’re told that he received his physical sight. But more than that . . . As the story develops, and as we watch the man take one step after another, he received more than just his physical healing.
The man’s neighbours were all excited and couldn’t believe he was the same man they had known since a baby. And it wasn’t long before the religious leaders heard about him too. And the more he and his parents were quizzed—about whether he had really been blind and who given him his sight—the clearer the man became about what had happened, and who Jesus really was.
So when Jesus finally revealed himself as the Messiah, he was able to say without hesitation, “‘Lord, I believe,’ and he paid him reverence.”
Now I don’t know about you, but at this point any discussion of whether it was fair for God to allow the man to be born blind should be tossed out of the window. The ultimate aim for all of us, is that we should have an active relationship with our God and creator. But how we get there will be different for each and every one of us. And only God knows what we need in order to respond.
As a consequence some of us may feel at times that we have had a tap on the shoulder. Some of us will have visions. Some of us will feel a presence. And some of may have a life changing experience—an opportunity to reassess our whole reason for living. But whatever our experience, it will different for each of us.
But there is one thing that is guaranteed, and that is that the hand of God will be there somewhere. So, if God knows that a certain person needs to born blind, in order to respond, then who are we to argue?
Now is that a tragedy or an opportunity? I guess that depends upon whose eyes you are looking through.
So whether it is the man born blind, the apostle Paul, Timothy, or even ourselves, the important thing is, that no matter what we are going through, and no matter what the cause, God wants us to use those experiences to help us grow.
Now that doesn’t mean that any transformation, from unbeliever to believer (and beyond) will be easy. Even the blind man had to face a very hostile reaction from the Pharisees. But despite that, and maybe because of it, he grew in faith, until he was able to come face to face with Jesus and proclaim his undying faith. And so should we.
And with that the story is brought back full circle. Because what did Jesus say was the point of the man being born blind? So that he could witness to others about the works of God.
When things go wrong, then, do we cry out, “Why me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?” Do we dwell on what when wrong because it’s like it’s the only thing that matters? Or do we realise that there are many reasons for the things that we suffer, and God’s direct hand is not always the cause.
Do we see the tragedies of life only as tragedies? Or do we see them as opportunities—opportunities to grow and opportunities for God?
The story of the man born blind is a story of a man who did not mope around when he was given his opportunity. Rather he grabbed his opportunity with both hands. And as a consequence it wasn’t just his eyesight that was restored. Similarly with the apostle Paul. Because he came to accept his thorn in the flesh, he was able to use it as a tool for growth.
And then there’s us . . . Well are our tragedies and ailments, tragedies or opportunities? Do we continue to say, “Why me?” “What have I done to deserve that,” and even blame God for all our misfortunes. Do spend time and energy consumed with the cause? Or do we see our situations through God’s eyes, as opportunities to grow in the love of God?
Tragedies or Opportunities? Two ways of looking at the same situation. Which is the one that we choose?
Posted: 6th February 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Another Counsellor (John 14:16)
These days we seem to have become a nation of Do-It-Yourself-ers. Or that’s what the TV tries to tell us. If something breaks, we try to fix it:
If there’s a problem with the car, we become mechanics. If we have a minor electrical fault or the sink is blocked, we become electricians or plumbers. If our clothes need darning or repair, we become dressmakers. If there’s a legal problem, well, more and more these days people are doing their own conveyancing, writing their own wills without the assistance of a solicitor, and representing themselves in court. And with health …? Well think of the number of alternatives there are these days without having to consult a doctor.
Of course, some people like to steer clear of all that sort of thing and are happy to call in the experts. But many, particularly when faced with a call out charge of $50 or more, before anything is actually done, prefer to have a go themselves. And for those inexperienced and facing a completely new task for the first time, there is always a manual to follow or a range of advice that is available.
Of course, in many instances Do-It-Yourself is fine, and a lot of satisfaction can be obtained in completing something you have done yourself. (And if all else fails you can always call in a professional.) But what if the issue involved is not of a material nature, but spiritual? How much, then, should we be dependent upon our own abilities? How much should we depend on the advice of others? And how much should we rely on simply reading the manual?
B. BACKGROUND TO THE GOSPEL
Now this would have been an issue that the disciples had to face. Because, if Jesus was going to go away, and where he was going they couldn’t follow, what would they do?
This was a group who had given up everything—their homes, their livelihood, their families, and even their lifestyles—several years before. They’d dedicated themselves to follow Jesus. They’d witnessed many miracles. They’d seen his compassion, and the way he cared for others. He’d taught them about God. And he’d sent them out to minister to others. With all that they’d gone through, then, to be told that he was about to leave would have been devastating.
As a consequence, their first reaction would have been unbelief. But that was probably followed by the questions: “What was to happen next? What would they do?” “Did this mean their source of spiritual advice was gone, and that they were now on their own?” “Did they need to become Do-It-Yourself Christians?”
They weren’t confident. They really didn’t understand what was going on. So, who could they turn to for help in spiritual matters? After all, the religious leaders of the day were worse than useless. So, who could they call on for professional help?
C. “ANOTHER COUNSELLOR”
It’s not difficult to imagine the disciples floundering. And perhaps that’s why Jesus’s response to the situation was to immediately assure them that just because he was going, didn’t mean he was going to leave them alone. Indeed, he began to describe “another counsellor” who was to be sent to them, to help them in spiritual matters. Someone who would be very much like himself.
But there would be differences, and some conditions.
1. The “Counsellor” Announced
Firstly, the counsellor would only be sent to them on condition that Jesus went away (16:7). The departure of Jesus may have seemed to the disciples a disastrous bit of news, however Jesus told them it was to be for their benefit.
The coming death of Jesus was critical. It was part of God’s plan to bring about salvation for mankind. Only if Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of the world, could men receive the Spirit in all its fullness. The work of the Spirit in the believer was a consequence of the saving work of Jesus, and not something separate from it. Jesus had to die, in order for the Spirit to be given.
Secondly, the counsellor would be sent in the name of Jesus (14:26). The Spirit was regarded as being connected in the most intimate way with both the Father and the Son. He was to be sent by the Father, but in the name of the Son. And his mission derived from both. Indeed, the Spirit’s role would be to continue the work of Christ, here on earth.
And thirdly, the counsellor would not only be with them continually, but, in some way, dwell within them (14:16f). Unlike Jesus’s bodily presence, which had to be withdrawn from them, this new state of affairs would be permanent. The Spirit, once given, would not be withdrawn.
For a group of people who had become so dependent upon Jesus, the promise of more expert help—a replacement—must have been reassuring. But then, they were not used to being Do-It-Yourself Christians. It was totally foreign to them.
2. The Role of the “Counsellor”
So they would also have taken heart in the role that Jesus told them that the counsellor was supposed to play:
Firstly, the counsellor was to bear witness to Jesus (15:26). Just as Jesus proclaimed the necessity of the Messiah to die in order that sins could be forgiven, so the Spirit’s role was to testify to the truth of what Jesus proclaimed. In essence this was the continuation of Jesus’s work in the world.
Secondly, the counsellor was to work in unbelievers. Namely, to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement (16:8). To convince people that they do not meet God’s high standards and that they fail to keep God’s commandments. In this role he was to act like a prosecutor at a trial, trying to convince people that they are out of touch with God and their created purpose, and that they need to acknowledge the truth about sin, righteousness and judgement.
Thirdly, the counsellor’s role was to be more than just a prosecutor. He would also have the role of being an advocate. Someone who would act as counsel and defend believers in the heavenly court. But he was not to be just a legal representative. He was to be a friend at court, performing functions that would not be required in any earthly court. He was to be a legal helper, and a friend who would do whatever was necessary to forward their best interests.
And, fourthly, the counsellor’s role would be to be a teacher, and to remind them of all that Jesus had said (14:26). Jesus acknowledged that the disciples had not grasped the significance of a good deal of what he had taught them, and it was likely that they would let slip some of the things they didn’t understand. The counsellor’s role, therefore, was to fill in the gaps. It was not to teach them something different to what Jesus had taught. On the contrary his role was to recall Jesus’s teaching.
So, just as the disciples’ world was falling apart, after Jesus had told them he was leaving them and when it began to look as though they were spiritually on their own, Jesus talked in some depth about “another Counsellor”. Someone who would be sent to replace him. But effectively someone in whom they could depend upon for their spiritual needs.
Now that’s quite a promise that Jesus made to his disciples. And even though in the next twenty-four hours the disciples betrayed him, denied him and ran away, after the resurrection, at Pentecost, the disciples were witnesses to the fact that Jesus did keep his promise, and, indeed, they received this “another counsellor” for themselves. And as history goes, what a difference it made to the disciples and to the early church.
The disciples weren’t left to their own devises. They didn’t have to depend on themselves for spiritual guidance and growth. They didn’t have to rely on other spiritual people, or even rely on a manual. They were given the Holy Spirit to lead and guide them, and to depend upon.
But that was the disciples, and that was the early church. But what about us today? In our Do-It-Yourself world, where there is a tendency to go off and do our own thing, this should be an important issue for us to consider too.
1. Dependence on the Holy Spirit
Because, first of all, it’s not just the disciples who were in need of spiritual support, we need it too. We need someone to stand up as a witness of the things that Jesus said and did. And that’s probably more important now than it was to the disciples back then. After all, we weren’t there. They were.
We still need someone to convict us of sin, righteousness and judgement. The disciples were unable to save themselves, and neither are we. We still need someone who will be our advocate, speaking on our behalf to God. We need a friend to argue our case. And we need someone we can rely on to teach us what Jesus said, and to help us understand the implications for ourselves.
So, yes, we still need that spiritual support.
2. Not an Optional Extra
Secondly, with the natural reaction to go our own way and to live independent lives, we need to accept that we cannot come close to God using our own strength and abilities. If the bible teaches us anything, it teaches that we cannot do this in our strength.
Yes, we can use our initiative, we can call on the advice of others and we can read the manual, but calling on the Holy Spirit to help us is not an optional extra. It is something we need to do and do continually.
And, if there are obstacles that block our way, we need to ask for help to put those obstacles aside.
3. The Cost of Discipleship
And, thirdly, the cost.
Well in one sense, any Do-It-Yourself-er should be happy. The counsellor is free. The Holy Spirit costs nothing. It’s what God gives us when we become a Christian.
But, having said that, we also need to recognise that the counsellor can be very costly. Particularly, as he begins to convince us of our weaknesses and failings, and as we are called on to change our habits, our way of life, our priorities, and our whole way of looking at things. The very nature of the Spirit’s role in our lives means that we will change, as bit-by-bit we become more Christ-like.
So, yes, we might be a nation of Do-It-Yourself-ers, fixing cars, being electricians and plumbers, being dressmakers, doing all our own legal work, and even playing with our health. But if there is one thing the bible teaches, is that we cannot Do-It-Yourself in terms of our spiritual lives. We cannot save ourselves. And we delude ourselves if we say that we can.
We need a counsellor. We need someone to tell us about Jesus. We need someone to convict us of our mistakes. We need someone who will plead our case. And we need someone to teach us all the things that are necessary for a healthy relationship with God. And God has provided that person, to be with us and to dwell in us.
So today, how much do we make use of our counsellor? How much do we listen to his advice? How seriously do we take his prodding? And how much do we resist? The Holy Spirit may make us uncomfortable from time to time, but he’s not an optional extra. And we’re only fooling ourselves if we say he is.
Posted 22nd February 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Problem of Loneliness (John 15:1-17)
One of the problems in life, today, is loneliness. And for people who are living on their own, who don’t see anyone else for days at a time, that’s quite understandable. Of course, some people live on their own by choice, but others . . . Well seeing and meeting others is just not part of their normal routine.
But then you don’t have to be alone to be lonely. Indeed, many people can feel lonely even in a crowded room, with people milling around them, and surrounded by people who want to care.
Loneliness, an inner emptiness, which is often accompanied by sadness, discouragement, sense of isolation, anxiety, and an intense desire to be wanted or needed by someone, can be a real problem. Yet it’s not a modern phenomenon.
Indeed, in the Old Testament, Jacob, Moses, Job, Nehemiah, Elijah, and Jeremiah all suffered from loneliness. And even in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul called out from prison for company and support. Consequently if you have ever felt lonely, you’re in good company, for some of the greats of the bible have also felt the depths of loneliness.
And while even the bible acknowledges the problem of loneliness, it does tend to take a much more positive view. Indeed, from a base of loneliness, it takes us on a journey for the need of communion with God. And for Christians, the emphasis is on the need to love, help, encourage, forgive, and care for one another.
Now perhaps, you can see where this is leading . . . Because there’s one character that I didn’t include in my list of lonely people from the bible. And perhaps I should have because it is Jesus himself. Indeed, Jesus typifies someone who can be surrounded by people but can still be terribly lonely.
Imagine! Jesus was walking on the road to Jerusalem, one last time, knowing what was in store at the end of the road. And as he walked along, telling his disciples what he was about to go through, were the disciples listening? Were they consoling him? Were they sticking with him every inch of the way? No! It’s like they were off in a world of their own. They hardly heard a word that Jesus was speaking. And, as a consequence, we get this image of Jesus, surrounded by people, but as lonely as can be.
But Jesus was determined not to let his loneliness get the better of him. He also knew that his disciples would go through the same thing. So, forgetting about himself, he used the opportunity to teach his disciples something of what true friendship meant.
He Jesus reminded them that he was their friend. And if he hadn’t shown them enough up to that point, he spelt it out all over again: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (9). He said. “There is no greater love than this: That someone should lay down his life for his friends” (13). He then continued, “I no longer call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master is doing. But I call you friends, because everything I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you” (15).
Now what Jesus was describing was friendship. But not just any friendship—not the kind that could be picked up or dropped whenever it suited. No, this was a friendship based on commitment—commitment to his friends. But commitment based on the same principles, and at same level, as God the father was committed to him.
But in return for his friendship, he expected something in return. And his expectation was that the disciples would offer the same level of friendship and commitment to him, as well as to one another.
Jesus’s words: “Remain in my love. You will remain in my love if you observe my commandments, just as I have observed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (9-10). “This is my commandment: That you love one another as I have loved you” (12). “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (14). “This is my command to you: Love each other” (17).
Jesus’s words leave no room for loneliness. On the contrary what he expects is a life full of activity and meaning.
The solution to the problem of loneliness, then, is a growing relationship with God and a growing relationship with each other. We need them both. Miss one of them out and it doesn’t work. Because being committed to God, without fellowship with each other, is a recipe for loneliness. And so too is a commitment to others, but where God is ignored.
Posted: 28th May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Three Responses to the Resurrection (John 20:1-9; Revelation 3:14-22)
I always think that Easter is an odd time. And I say that because of the different ways that people observe it. For some, it makes no difference to them whatsoever. Except, of course, that the shops being closed on Good Friday is a nuisance. But apart from that nothing is different. For others, it’s a time for a break; an opportunity to get away from the normal routine. And for some, perhaps only a small minority, it’s the religious significance that is most important. Because it’s an opportunity to celebrate the most important festival in the Christian Calendar.
The celebration of Easter, then, provokes a variety of responses. As a consequence, what I’d like to do, is to present three scenarios based on possible responses to the resurrection and see exactly where they lead.
B. SCENARIO 1: IT NEVER HAPPENED
1. It Never Happened
And the first scenario is: That the resurrection never happened.
Now, obviously, even at the time of the event this would have been the most popular theory. After all, Mary Magdalene herself had gone to the tomb to embalm a dead body, and the rest of the disciples believed that everything they had worked towards was over. Indeed, after Jesus’s death on Good Friday, no-one believed that Jesus would rise from the dead, least of all the disciples. And what’s more, the authorities weren’t concerned about a resurrected saviour either. All they were concerned about, was someone stealing the dead body and starting the myth that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.
Consequently, as far as the followers of Jesus were concerned, after the crucifixion, yes, they had been around a great man and a great man of God come to that. But on Good Friday all their hopes and dreams—everything that they had lived for—had come to a crashing halt. And quite frankly they didn’t know what to do next, except to hide from the authorities in fear that they might be executed too.
If Jesus had never been resurrected, then, the group of disciples would eventually have scattered. When all the fuss had died down, and it was safe for them to do so, they would have returned home to their original occupations. They would then, presumably, have begun their search for purpose in life all over again. There would have been no group of followers left risking their lives for a lie. There would have been no hope. And the church would never have been formed.
And, of course, that would mean for us, today, that no one would be sitting in church.
Because, firstly, the hope that the disciples had believed in, would never have been passed down. We would not have been told of the opportunity of a restored relationship with God, and the concept of eternal life with God would, therefore, be just a dream. Secondly, there would be no church because the people of God would not exist. As a result, thirdly, there would be no church buildings for us to sit in, historical or modern. And, fourthly, many of the organisations that we treasure today would never have come into existence.
So, apart from the lack of a spiritual message of hope, it would mean that we would be living a very dark world indeed.
Because if the church had never existed, schools and hospitals today would probably be very different. The Red Cross would not have been founded; St John’s Ambulance would not have come into existence; and the Flying Doctor Service would never have been created. Because although those organisations are no longer run by the church, they began their life amongst the communities of believers.
Furthermore, there would be no organisations like World Vision, the City Mission, or any other missionary organisations. And as a high proportion of the caring compassionate work done in Australia and abroad is done by Christians, much of the work of caring would probably not be being done either.
3. Current State of Affairs
Consequently, if Jesus had never been resurrected from the dead, not only would the hope of a restored relationship with God been lost, but the chances are that this would be a bleak and dismal world indeed, if we hadn’t destroyed it already.
And yet the strange thing is that most people today carry on life as though they couldn’t care if Jesus had risen from the dead or not. And the result of this we can see all around us. Because despite the influence of Christians over the years, sharing the message of hope and trying to make this world a better place, there are still plenty of people who are only in it for themselves. And consequently they do a very good job of trying to destroy this world for everyone but themselves.
The disciples’ hopes may have been dashed temporarily. But a world that believes that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead or simply doesn’t care whether he did or not, is a very dark world indeed.
C. IT DID HAPPEN – BUT WE’VE GOT DISTRACTED
1. It Did Happen
The second scenario that I’d like to present is: That the resurrection did happen, that people have taken it seriously, but after a while have got caught up with other distractions.
Now this is a scenario that has actually happened, and it first happened within the first fifty years of the resurrection of Jesus. Because after Jesus was resurrected and the church was established, there was whole flurry of activity, and much of it spurred on by the members of the church who were being persecuted. Because despite persecution, the church’s members went out and told others about Jesus. And in doing so they taught the idea of regularly meeting together to worship, teach, encourage, and care for one another.
But then, bit by bit, the first flush of enthusiasm died down, and unfortunately other distractions crept in. And the apostle John, amongst others, recorded some of the distractions for us: People stopped caring; their enthusiasm for Christ and the people around them waned (Revelation 2:4). People were tempted with false teaching; people wanted to adjust the Christian faith to suit themselves (Revelation 2:9). Some people’s ethics became pretty twisted and sexual immorality became a real issue (Revelation 2: 14, 20). And many were accused of being half hearted in their beliefs (Revelation 3:2), just sitting around and doing nothing to promote the faith.
Now the reality is that this scenario—of believing that the resurrection did happen but falling away to other distractions—effectively denies the resurrection just as effectively as if it had never been accepted in the first place. Yes, there may be pockets of genuine believers who are faithful, but generally it leaves a faith that is dead, and a church that is dying. And God’s assessment of that kind of faith—that kind of church—is suitably recorded by the Apostle John. “I know your deeds. I know that you are neither hot nor cold, and I wish you were one or the other. So because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will vomit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16).
3. Current State of Affairs
Now, sadly, into this scenario we could well fit the church, as it is generally represented in western society today. Because, yes, there are pockets of people and pockets of congregations that are alive. But generally as we look around, we can see people and churches who may have been enthusiastic to start with but, over time, have been distracted and lost their first love.
We can see that the message of the gospel has been changed, and what it means to be a Christian has been reinterpreted from the need to have faith to one where only doing good works need to be done (without the need for regular worship or faith). And the idea of good works, in terms of being like Christ in the world, has changed too. Because the emphasis has moved away from caring for the poor and the outcasts, to things like cleaning and fundraising.
Furthermore, we can see that the urgency of participating and sharing in the gospel has been lost. And that is reflected in the lack of regular worship and the lack of sharing of the faith. Where the emphasis is more on faith being a private matter, and where regular interaction with others is an option extra.
And further, we can see that the need to care for one-another has been lost too. And that shows in the lack of meeting together to encourage, build up, and to care for one another.
The end result of this kind of scenario—that the resurrection did happen but the people have given in to other distractions—is that many churches are featured by their small congregations. And often the practice is that the church is more of a club than a worshipping community. As a result, there is very little spiritual aspect to the life of such churches at all.
Now today’s church in the west may not be persecuted like the early church. But we have become comfortable, too comfortable. And consequently the western church as a whole has had the tendency to lose the plot.
After the resurrection, the disciples’ hopes were soon restored. And they, enthusiastically, went out of their way to share the faith. However, in no-time the corruption of the faith set in.
Consequently, we need to heed the warning. Because if God’s assessment of the corrupted church is of disaster, and that he would spit them out of his mouth, then that is a warning that we need to pay special attention to, today, as well.
D. IT HAPPENED – AND IT STILL MATTERS
1. It Happened – and it Still Matters
Now, of course, the third scenario is: That Jesus was resurrected from the dead and it still matters.
When the disciples realised that Jesus had risen from the dead, something special happened. Despite their Jewish background, the realisation of what the resurrection meant changed their lives. Apart from having confidence in God that his promises were true, the disciples re-evaluated every aspect of their lives. And they saw, not how their faith fitted into their lives, but how their lives fitted in to their faith.
Consequently, very quickly many of the traditions that they had previously held in the highest esteem got tossed out of the window. They changed their corporate worship day from the Sabbath to the Sunday. For the sake of gentile believers, they scrapped most of the food rules. Rules about working on the Sabbath and rules about circumcision got dropped. And the traditional festivals they previously celebrated got canned as being no longer relevant. The Apostles (including Paul) came to realise that there was only one thing that mattered, and that was worshipping and being obedient to God.
There may have been all sorts of ways that the faith was practised in the past, there may have been all kinds of things which people had found helpful, but if they ceased to be helpful—as they were to an rapidly expanding church—then they were effectively obstacles to faith.
In other words the implications of accepting the resurrection and living a resurrected faith, is to be constantly listening to God. Indeed, we need to be open to God’s ways of doing things, not necessarily the ways we have come to love.
3. Current State of Affairs
So, if we want to be a people and a church, today, that is true to the resurrection, then the only thing that matters is to worship God and to follow his instructions. It’s not about how we’ve done things in the past or how we like things done. It’s a matter of what God wants of us and what he wants us to do.
And what God has consistently wanted us to do, is to have faith in him and not to rely on ourselves. It is to worship him and not to be distracted with other things. It is to obey him and not to put restrictions on our willingness to be involved. And it is to care for one another and not to abandon those who need our support and care. And all of these, without the unnecessary baggage that often comes along.
The challenge today, then, is not only to acknowledge that the resurrection did happen, but to conduct ourselves in a way that is true to the faith, whilst making it relevant for the people of today.
Three possible scenarios to the resurrection, then. The first was based on the attitude that Jesus died and that was it, end of story, the resurrection never happened. And we can see that many people live in the world today on this basis. The second was the idea that the resurrection did happen, people did believe but then they became distracted. And this is the scenario that plagues the life of the western church today. And the third scenario is that the resurrection did happen and that it still matters.
Now only the third scenario spells out where the church should be today. But it is a position that many people, even if they accept it in theory find it very difficult to accept. And yet it is the only one which ensures that the faith continues and that the good news will continue to be spread. It is also the only way that will guarantee the existence of the church into the future.
So today, we are faced with the question, “What do we believe happened that first Easter Day?” Was Jesus resurrected or not? And if we do believe, or have believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, where do we stand in the faith right now?
Posted: 22nd May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Pointing the Way (John)
First sign: Turning water into wine (2:1-11)
Second sign: Healing the official’s son (4:46-54)
Third sign: The healing of a lame man (5:1-18)
Fourth sign: Feeding of the five thousand (6:1-15)
Fifth sign: Jesus walks on water (6:16-21)
Sixth sign: The healing of a man born blind (9:1-41)
Seventh sign: The raising of Lazarus (11:1-57)
For the apostle John, the miracles were great, but more important was that they pointed to the miracle worker—to Jesus himself. As a consequence John’s emphasis is not on the miracles themselves, but on the one who performed them. And as I thought about that, I wondered whether we do the same.
After all, there are times when we all might pray for a miracle of one kind or another. But when our prayers are answered, do we get so engrossed in the miracle that we miss the sign pointing to the Messiah? Because that is the trap that the people of Jesus’s day fell into. As a consequence they wanted miracle, after miracle, after miracle.
It’s very important then to recognise that miracles are signposts pointing to Jesus. And we need to be alert to all the opportunities given to us to have an encounter with the Messiah.
Posted: 11th October 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis