If you’ve been coming to this church for any length of time at all, you’ll have heard many times from this pulpit that the Christian message is about good news before it’s about good advice. That’s what the word ‘Gospel’ means: good news. Not that there isn’t good advice in the Christian message as well - there’s lots of it, in fact – but the good advice doesn’t come first. Let me put it another way: before God asks us to do anything for him, first of all there are some pretty amazing things that he has done for us, and wants to continue to do for us. And Jesus is right at the centre of that.
Today’s gospel passage contains good news about Jesus, and it comes through mainly in the names and titles that are used about him. I want to concentrate with you on three of them – Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus as the Lamb of God, and Jesus as the one who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit. Of course these are Jewish ideas, and so they were very accessible to people when the Gospel of John was first written, but they might not be so accessible for us today. So let me try to translate these names and titles into language that makes sense for us in the culture we live in today.
So let’s start with this one: in Jesus, God has finally given us a leader we can believe in.
We’ve become totally jaded on political leaders, haven’t we? We’re so used to being disappointed by them. Of course, all the hype during election campaigns doesn’t help; one of the shortcomings of democracy is that it’s necessary to get elected, and the temptation to promise the impossible in order to get elected is so strong as to be almost irresistible. How many times have we seen political leaders swept into power on a wave of optimism and enthusiasm, but then, a few short years later, they turn out to be just as flawed as the people they replaced, and everyone is disappointed yet again?
Love of power is one of the most potent forces in human history, and very few leaders are entirely devoid of it. That’s true today, and we see it in the Bible as well. The Old Testament tells the story of David, the shepherd boy who was chosen by God to be king of Israel, and yet the Bible refuses to whitewash him; it tells his story warts and all. In his case, the bad things didn’t outweigh the good qualities; he had a heart to seek the Lord and try to serve God, and he did try to lead Israel in the ways of God. But the kings who followed him were very much a mixed bag, and the mix was weighted far more toward the side of failure than success. By the time of Jesus, the sons of Herod the Great were ruling Israel, cooperating with the Romans to keep the wealth and power as much in their own hands as they could. I suspect that by then, very few people in Israel expected anything good to come out of their political leaders.
But the prophets of Israel told the people that this would not always be the case; God would send them a leader, a good king like David, from the royal line of David in fact, who would rescue them and set them free. Kings and priests in those days were anointed with olive oil as a sign of the power of God coming down on them to equip them for their work, and so they called this promised king ‘the Anointed One’ – in Hebrew, ‘the Messiah’, and in Greek, ‘the Christ’. And in today’s gospel reading, Andrew tells his brother Simon Peter that Jesus is that promised king: he says, ‘“We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed)’ (John 1:41).
But of course, Jesus refused to act like a worldly king. He didn’t try to form a government. He didn’t try to raise an army to drive out the Romans and liberate the people from their oppressors. He knew that the whole system of power politics and military confrontation was rotten to the core, and he had no desire to compete in that arena.
What Jesus did was what good leaders always do: he cast a compelling vision, and he inspired people to join him in celebrating it and living by it. He called that vision ‘the Kingdom of God’. It’s a vision of a world of justice and compassion, a world of equality and mercy, a world where the poor are satisfied, the mourners are comforted, and the meek inherit the earth. It’s a world where love is the highest value, and everyone lives by it, a world where we’re satisfied with what we have rather than continually wanting more, and where those who have share with those who don’t have, so that all have enough and no one has too much. It’s a world ruled by a king who chose to let his enemies kill him rather than killing them, because the one thing they could never destroy was his love for them.
How was this vision going to become a reality? Not in the usual way, through power and coercion. Jesus said that the kingdom of God was like yeast working its way through a lump of dough, or like seeds being scattered in the field. To spread this kingdom, he didn’t start a political party or send armies out from Jerusalem to conquer the world; what he did was to send out missionaries armed only with the power of love, and he told them to call people everywhere to become his followers and to teach them the way of life of the Kingdom of God.
You and I are probably Christians today because we have been captivated by this vision of Jesus, the message of God’s Kingdom. We come to church week by week because the words of Jesus inspire us; they give us hope that the future doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of the past. And week by week, we stand up and make our pledge of allegiance to God’s anointed King, God’s Messiah: we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord”. We look forward to the day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. And even though it seems crazy in the convoluted value systems of this world, we choose to live each day of our lives by the teaching of our true King, Jesus, because in him, God has finally given us a leader we can believe in.
That’s the first piece of good news I want you to notice in this passage. The second is this: in Jesus, God promises to forgive us our sins.
The funny thing about the modern world is that even though there has been a mass rejection of the idea of ‘sin’, we don’t seem to have been successful at getting rid of guilt. I don’t know about you, but I live with a sense of failure all the time! Never mind God’s standards or society’s standards: I don’t even live up to my own standards! Imagine how terrifying it would be if God had a voice recorder on which he had recorded all the judgements I’ve made of others and all the times I’ve criticized others for failing to live up to my standards. What if, on the Day of Judgement, all God did was to press ‘play’ and let everyone hear what I had said? I think I would have to hang my head in shame at how far short I had fallen.
We do not live in a merciful world. We live in a world where journalists are ready to pounce every time a politician makes a single mistake. We live in a world where the media holds out an impossible ideal of what life is all about, and then tells us to feel guilty because we don’t measure up to it. And for people of faith, we’re all too aware of the truth of the words we will speak in a few minutes:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you by thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have failed to do. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’.
Is it possible for God to forgive us? The Old Testament answer was, ‘Yes, it is, and he’s given you a system to make that happen’. Here’s how the system worked. You went down to Jerusalem, where the Temple was located – the one place on earth where you could be sure to encounter the presence of God. There you spent your hard-earned cash on a lamb with no blemish. You took that lamb to the priest, laid your hands on its head and confessed your sins, transferring the guilt to the lamb. Then the priest took your lamb and killed it by slitting its throat, offering it as a sacrifice for your sins. The lamb died in your place, and because of that you could go home, knowing that God would no longer keep a record of your sins or hold them against you.
This is a foreign idea to us today, because we aren’t in the habit of offering animal sacrifices like the people who lived in Jesus’ day. But we need to see that this is all about forgiveness, and how we can be assured that our sins are forgiven. And this is what John the Baptist is talking about in today’s Gospel, in verse 29:
The next day (John the Baptist) saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
And in verse 35:
The next day John was again standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God”.
John the Gospel writer is teaching us that this is what the Cross of Jesus is all about. It’s not a derailment of the plan, and it’s not a failure; it’s Jesus offering his life as the perfect sacrifice, the sacrifice that all the Old Testament animal sacrifices had been pointing to.
Think of what happens on that Good Friday. God comes to us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, and the representatives of the human race, the religious establishment, the political power structures of his time, all reject him and nail him to the Cross. How is God going to respond to this? Surely by taking vengeance on them and punishing them, don’t you think? No - he’s going to respond by loving his enemies and praying for those who hate him: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. The Cross, in other words, tells us that right at the heart of the Gospel is a God who loves his enemies, and forgives them, rather than taking vengeance on them and punishing them.
That’s good news for you and me. I fall short every day, and so do you. That is who I am, and God knows it, and yet Jesus prays for me as he prayed for his murderers, “Father, forgive”. And so, day by day, I can go to God and ask for a clean slate, and day by day, God gives me what I ask. As John says in his first letter:
‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).
So John the Gospel writer is announcing good news to us. He’s announcing that in Jesus, God has finally given us a leader we can believe in. He’s telling us that in Jesus, God offers free forgiveness to all who will turn to him and put their trust in him. Thirdly, let me point out that in Jesus, God gives us the strength to do the impossible.
We often hear that the Christian life is difficult, but a pastor friend of mine used to say, ‘the Christian life is not difficult – it’s impossible!’ You think he’s wrong? Try it and you’ll see! It is impossible for us to live by the teaching of Jesus if the only resource we have is our own strength and ingenuity. That’s because the Christian life is not designed to be lived that way. It’s designed to be fueled by a fire that we don’t light ourselves: the fire of the Holy Spirit. And so John the Baptist gives us this third piece of good news about Jesus:
“I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (v.33).
John’s baptism, of course, was very important. People heard his message about the coming of the kingdom of God; he called them to repent – to turn away from their sins and to live a new way of life – and as a sign of that decision, he called them to be baptized – to be plunged under the river Jordan, a symbolic drowning of the old life and coming up to the beginning of the new.
But now John is saying, ‘Folks, it’s just water. What Jesus has to offer is far better than that. He will plunge you, immerse you, fill you, and totally surround you with the power of God, the Holy Spirit’. And because of this, you will find yourself doing things you never thought you could do, saying things you never thought you could say, and changing gradually into a person you never thought you could be.
In the New Testament, this was something real and tangible, something people could see. In Ephesus Paul found some people who said they were followers of Jesus, but he immediately noticed something missing. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asked, and they replied, “We’ve never even heard of the Holy Spirit”. And to the Christians in Galatia he posed this question: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the Jewish Law, or by hearing the Gospel and believing it?” That would have been a nonsense question unless the Galatian Christians had experienced the Holy Spirit in a tangible way.
The good news is, that offer still stands. Jesus says that the heavenly Father gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. Ask and you will receive, he says; keep on seeking, and you will eventually find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. You and I, too, can experience the power of God filling us and giving us the ability to do things we could never do by ourselves.
So in Jesus God has finally given us a leader we can believe in. In Jesus, God has promised to forgive our sins and wipe the slate clean. And in Jesus, God has given us the power to do the impossible with the help of the Holy Spirit.
So what do you need to take home from this text today?
Maybe you are a person who has become jaded on empty promises and tired of leaders with feet of clay. Maybe you’ve given up looking for a vision that can fire you up and get you excited about the future. If so, maybe you need to take a fresh look at the King God has sent for us, a leader we can finally get excited about. Maybe you need to go back to the gospels and read them again, and ask God to give you a clearer picture of this strange and compelling and disturbing person who calls us, every one of us, to take up our cross and follow him.
Or maybe you are tired of feeling guilty. You are very well aware of your own failures, and you find yourself wondering whether God can have any patience left with you. Maybe you need to hear again the wonderful good news that Jesus’ prayer for you is ‘Father, forgive’. He says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). You don’t need to carry that burden of guilt a moment longer. You can lay it down at the foot of the Cross where the Lamb of God died for you, and you can receive God’s forgiveness through him.