I recently switched on the television and there before me once again was an episode of the famous 1990s series Seinfeld. I think that Seinfeld will probably be shown on television until the end of time. If you didn’t watch Seinfeld in its glory years, you might not appreciate the power of this story, but if you did, you will get it! This particular episode was the one where George Costanza, the perpetual loser, bought a new car – well, a used one! It was a shiny LeBaron convertible. George was very proud and cocky about this car. One day he opened the glove box and found, to his absolute amazement, that the previous owner was none other than the famous actor Jon Voight. George went around telling everyone, “You know, this was Jon Voight’s car.” He was unbearable, insufferable, telling everyone about the provenance of this vehicle until one person, wiser than he, got in and noticed that Jon’s was spelled differently than that of the actor Jon Voigt. The John Voigt who had owned this car had been a dentist! Suddenly, the provenance of the car went out the window, and George lost his love for it. Eventually it was set on fire by someone hitting the engine. Classic end to a story!
What was interesting about this was that you realize how the provenance of something gives it real meaning and value, that the face value and first observations might not be accurate. We’ve gone through the Christmas season, with its wonderful pageants, communion services, and great times with families and friends, singing carols and hymn, celebrating Epiphany and the arrival of the Wise Me. We have celebrated the revelation of God reappearing, but now we reach a moment where we need to know the provenance of all of this because ultimately, when all the wonder of Christmas has ended, we are faced with that ever present question: “Who is this that we have just celebrated and received?”
Well, the answer to this comes in the story from the Gospel of John. It is now some thirty years after the birth and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. We don’t know what happened in the intervening years and the arrival of John the Baptist on the scene, which announced the beginning of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, books have been written speculating about who Jesus was and where he had been as a child. Clearly, the evidence shows that he must have gone to Egypt, for he fled from Herod – we know that! He must have eventually arrived in Nazareth, where his father was a well-known carpenter. We know that. But any further speculation is purely that, and I would advise you to read anything about that cautiously as fiction and speculation, and not reality. We don’t know until the arrival of John the Baptist very much about Jesus of Nazareth. Now, in this telling moment, we have John giving us the provenance of Jesus. John’s arrival announces and makes sense of everything that we have just celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany. If we go back into time and look at Epiphany and Christmas through the lens of John and John the Baptist, we get a real sense of its importance.
Likewise, when we look at the future ministry of Jesus, we see also the importance of the ministry of Jesus again from the announcement of John the Baptist. About six years ago, the Reverend Canon Peter Walker, who is the rector of Grace Church-on-the-Hill just up the road, delivered a wonderful sermon here when we had the ecumenical exchange services, and he preached on this very text. I phoned him this week to tell him that I had re-read the sermon and how excellent it was, and would he mind if I quoted it? He was quite pleased! I want to quote him, because he suggested that John the Baptist was really in a sense like the finger of God pointing to Jesus. He likened John the Baptist to the great tradition in Shakespearean plays, particularly years ago before there were cover notes and books describing the plays. In the early days when they were performed at Stratford or the Globe Theatre, an actor would come on to the stage early on in the performance to introduce the main characters to the audience. He would give some of the background, or the provenance of this lead character. Sometimes, the actor would come on again during the play, to explain what is happening to the audience in case they have forgotten the key points of the protagonist. Canon Walker says that John the Baptist is just like that actor who enters the stage. John goes out of his way to say, “I am not the one you have been waiting for. I am not the one who has been sent by God. That is Jesus!” We talked about that last week. He points to Jesus and makes it abundantly clear that he is the way and he is the One. But like the actor, he introduces the main character to everybody in the audience, who of course were Jewish and at the time his own followers, for John the Baptist had his own following.
Then, John gives one of the most intimate and powerful theological descriptions of Jesus anywhere in the Bible. He describes the arrival of Jesus in four ways. He says, first of all, he is “The Lamb of God.” This, of course, is a reference to Exodus, where the blood of the lamb was put on the door during the Passover, and those inside doors with the blood on it were saved. Jesus is the Lamb of God, the means of saving the people. But he also said, “He is the One who takes away the sins of the world.” This is a reference to The Old Testament notion of atonement, where on one day in the year the High Priest goes into the Holy of Holies and takes the sins of the people and offers them to God in order that they may be forgiven. John is saying that Jesus is the One who forgives the sins of the world. He also says that before me, Jesus was. Now, we know that chronologically that is not the case. John the Baptist and Jesus are cousins, and John is older than Jesus. What he means is that Jesus is the one who has been sent by the One who exists before all – in other words, from God himself. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, it said, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word has become flesh.” For John the Baptist, Jesus is the embodiment of the Word of God. He is the incarnation; he existed even before himself. Then he says, “The reason and the purpose that I have come is in order that the people of Israel might find that this Christ has been revealed to them.” In other words, it is a deep theological statement that the people of his time would understand. They would comprehend everything he is saying: “He is the Lamb of God, he takes away the sins of the world, he was before me, and he has come in order that Israel might know.” And then, to top it all off, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus to confirm the provenance of who this person is. This is a powerful moment!
The text you notice doesn’t stop there; it keeps on going into some really interesting things, what I call “The Power of the Question.” Very recently and only just published, Frank Sesno, the former anchor of CNN News, who is now at Georgetown University, wrote a book entitled Ask More. In it, he suggests that reporters in particular don’t ask enough questions, but are satisfied with superficial answers, and they do not probe more deeply into reality. Maybe he was getting at the fact that journalists have a lot to answer for over the last while in terms of their coverage of politics, particularly south of the border. It is a trend not to ask the deep questions, but rather to be quick to make context statements. This is a flaw in journalism at the moment: not to ask the probing questions. Historians ask the probing questions. Scientists ask the probing questions. Theologians should ask the probing questions. There is power in the question.
Sometimes, it just takes a simple question and alone that will suffice. I realized that just before Christmas when I went to purchase a clicker for a computer to be used for a screen presentation on the Trinity. I just pressed the button and the screen image changed. I went to a tech store to buy this clicker, and there was a very enthusiastic young man behind the desk who greeted me. He seemed thrilled and wanted to explain to me what a clicker is and how it works. Then he said, “What kind of computer do you have?” I told him about my laptop, and he said, “Oh, that is a very good laptop, and you want to know why?”
I said, “Well, I guess.”
So he told me why in excruciating detail, and then he said, “Oh, and does anyone else use this?”
I said, “Yes.”
He asked, “What type of computers do they have?”
I told him, and he got even more excited about what they had. He told me that I should buy a new one like theirs. Eventually, after about twenty to twenty-five minutes, I had run out of patience and was tired of the tech talk. I needed a copy of Francisco’s Dao’s new work, Tech Talk to English Dictionary. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about! By the time I was finished, I walked away and I still didn’t have my clicker!
I went to a competing store where another young man greeted me. He says, “What are you looking for?”
I said, “A clicker.”
He said, “Line 3, down there, on Aisle 11 you will find one. Would you like me to take you there?”
I said, “I certainly would!”
He took me and he said, “There is this one and there is that one.”
I said, “Which one is better?”
He said, “That one.”
So I said, “I will take that one! Thank you very much indeed!”
We went to the counter and two-and-a-half minutes later, I had my clicker! The first guy had said to me by the way, “Oh, you do know that there is an app for that if you want to know how to use it.” Realizing that I might have to install an app, I said to the second assistant, “Do I need an app for this?”
He laughed and he said, “If you need an app for this, sir, you have got more problems than you realize! You just turn it on!”
So, there you go: twenty minutes of nonsense; two-and-a-half minutes of bliss!
Why? Because he asked the question: “What are you looking for?” Simple! Jesus comes across Andrew and another follower of John the Baptist, who is not named, but was probably John, who wrote the Gospel, not John the Baptist – John the Evangelist, the beloved. He says to these two, who are quite keen on knowing who Jesus is, “What are you looking for?”
They then said, “Rabbi! Rabbi!”
Jesus then talked to them, and they wanted to know where he lived, and Jesus simply said, “Come and see.”
Then, for the rest of the day, we are told they spent time together. It was Jesus, you see, who asked the probing question: “What are you looking for?” He knew that the people of Israel were looking for something. Some of them were looking for a new Elijah to come and set them free from the power of Rome. Some were looking for a Moses, for a new Exodus. Some were looking for another King David. Some may have been looking for another prophetess, like Deborah. They were looking for a Messiah, someone who would liberate them. After they had spent all this time together, Andrew and John probably came to the realization that Jesus was the Messiah.
They only got to know that by spending time with him. In our lives we don’t have an opportunity to go to Christ’s home to sit down, have some wine and cheese and bread, and talk about the events of the world. But what we do have are gifts that are great: to spend time with Christ. At the beginning of a New Year this is maybe the time for us to think about asking the question “What are we looking for?” and to answer it by prayer, by the opportunity to speak openly to Christ, to have the Scriptures and to open them up to us so that he can have reveal himself to us through his Word, but also, and no New Year would go by without my mentioning him once, Dietrich Bonhoeffer always said, “You find Christ in community; you find him in the Church; you find him in the body of believers; you find him in worship. This is where you find him.” You find him in acts of charity. You find him in works for justice. You find him in the works with the poor. You find him in the serving of his people. You find him in communities. If we will open ourselves in prayer and Scripture and in the community, he will speak to us, he will come to us. We just have to know what we are looking for.
There is also here the power of the invitation. Some years ago, in another sermon, I mentioned the power of invitation, and it is not one you can cover over easily in The New Testament. Time and time again, Jesus invites people to come and see him; he invites them to meet God; he invites others to meet others. The power of the invitation is everywhere in The New Testament. Here we have one of the classic examples. We have Andrew, who has now spent time with Jesus, has heard the theology from John that he is “The Lamb of God” and he concludes that he is the Messiah. Who does he tell first? His older brother, Peter. I have always been proud of my name, not that it sounds any better than anybody else’s or has any sense of wealth or power attached to it, simply because Andrew was the introducer. He was the one who made the invitation, who matched people together, and the people that he matched together in this case were his brother Peter and Jesus. When Peter and Jesus met, something profound happened. Peter became known as Cephas or “the rock” and, in this invitation by Andrew, Christianity ended up being taken, along with the works of the Apostle Paul, into the Gentile world. It was Peter who gave the first address at Pentecost. It was Peter who stood before the crowds and told people about Jesus. It was Peter who was willing to suffer and die himself for the sake of Jesus of Nazareth. But it was one person and one invitation that changed everything.
I know you are saying, “That is fine, but really, in our day and age, is that really an appropriate thing? Should I be trying to connect people with Jesus? Should I be a connector and inviter? After all, what difference does one voice make, what difference can one person do in this great universe of the changes and slides and the advents and the progression of religion and the diminishing of religion, both happening throughout the world simultaneously? Where are we in our singular invitation in the midst of all of this?” Well, I read something fascinating by Peter Tan some time ago. Peter Tan showed the power of one. He wrote the following, and this is staggering folks:
In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England. In 1649, one vote called Charles I to England to be executed. In 1845, one vote brought Texas into the Union of the United States. In 1868, one vote saved President Andrew Johnson from impeachment. In 1875, one vote changed France from a monarchy into a Republic. In 1876, one vote gave Rutherford B. Hayes the Presidency of the United States of America. And, in 1923, one vote gave a certain Adolf Hitler control of the National Socialist Party in Germany.
Now, if you think that one vote, one person, or one invitation does not make a difference, think again! One person, John the Baptist, broke onto the scene and told the world who Jesus was. One person who followed John the Baptist believed that Christ was the Messiah. One person was invited to follow Jesus of Nazareth on the invitation of one brother, and that one person changed the face of Christianity.
So, here we are at the beginning of a New Year. All the great projects, all the great plans, all the great movements and advertising programs, all the great things that we have at our disposal pale compared to the influence of one invitation! The question is: are you prepared to give it? And if you are prepared to give it, I am sorry, there is no App for this! You have to do it on your own with Christ! Amen.