Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Simple Invitation: Come and See

43(A) The next day Jesus decided(B) to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44Now(C) Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found(D) Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him of whom(E) Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus(F) of Nazareth,(G) the son of Joseph." 46Nathanael said to him,(H) "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." John 1

I was never much of a Lord of the Rings fan. I was more of a Star Wars guy. When Peter Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Ring” came out in 2001, it made a pop culture splash, but I didn’t go see the film, and didn’t feel as if I was missing anything.
In 2002, the next installment, called “The Two Towers” was released to theaters. Again, I didn’t really care much one way or the other. But some friends of mine who were really into the Ring stories invited me to a midnight showing, and I agreed to go. Keep in mind I had a pretty sketchy idea of the plot, and I was walking into part two without any real idea of what part one was about. It didn’t matter. All it took was the spectacular opening scene and I was hooked. I’m glad I went, because it introduced me to an imaginative world that I had never explored before, and I was pleased to learn that the story dealt with some worthwhile themes. Point is, I had to come and see for myself what all the fuss was about. Once I did, I got it, and I’m thankful for the enjoyment it’s given me.
I’m pretty certain that we share that characteristic. As human beings, we like to see for ourselves. Sometimes we’ll take the word of others at face value, but most of the time, we like to check things out for ourselves. We want to test things by our own criteria. We want to gauge our reaction to something, whether it’s a movie or a book or a sport or a game or even a church. We want to see for ourselves. It’s just the way we’re built.
A man named Philip understood this very well. Philip had come face to face with Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus had approached Philip with a life-changing invitation. “Follow me.” Something about this experience led Philip to the conclusion that Jesus was the one about whom Moses and the Law and the prophets had written. Jesus was the Prophet with a capital P. Jesus was the one who would take the throne of his ancestor David. Jesus was the Messiah. The time of God’s deliverance had come.
What do you do with that kind of news? You’ve got to share it with someone. You feel like you’ll burst if you don’t. So Philip thought of Nathanael and goes to find him. Did you notice all the finding going on in this passage? Jesus found Philip. Then Philip finds Nathanael in order to say, “We found the person the Scripture points to: it’s Jesus of Nazareth!”
Have you ever had someone just totally take the wind out of your sails with their less-than-enthused reaction? You’re dying to share some good news with someone, and they just shut you down with a sarcastic, negative comment? I wonder if that’s how Philip felt. We’ve located the Messiah…we know who he is...and Nathanael’s response is a classic bubble-burster: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Come on Philip, you’ve got to be kidding.
And right here is where Philip teaches us an incredible lesson. There were a number of different ways he could’ve reacted to Nathanael’s dissing of his discovery. He could’ve gotten angry and walked away. He could’ve said, “Forget it.” He could’ve engaged Nathanel in a theological debate, going point by point through the Scriptures, giving a clinching argument for Jesus’ identity. He could’ve done any of those things and more. But he didn’t. Instead, he just drops this on Nathanael: “Come and see.” Just a simple invitation: ‘Come and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.’
There is a lesson here about witnessing that I don’t want you to miss. So often I think we have the impression that witnessing only means “talking someone into believing.” That makes us stop before we start. We don’t know what to say or how to say it. We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Or it might just be the opposite—you love the truth so much that you’re willing to just drop the hammer on anyone who disagrees with you. You’ve got answers and you know how to use them. Both extremes can learn a better way from Philip and his simple invitation: “Come and see.”
Now it must be said that this invitation was a bit more concrete on Philip’s part. He could invite Nathanael to come see a flesh and blood person and listen to what that person had to say. But our invitation to come and see is really not that much different. Our invitation is this: Come and see Jesus in the place he has promised to be: in His Church.
We can expect the Nathanael question to that too. Lots of folks including some of our own family members, friends, and neighbors might say, “The Christian Church? St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church? Can any good come out of there? I’m not into organized religion. The church is full of hypocrites. They’re always asking for your money. I don’t have to go to church to be a good person. All the Christians I know are more judgmental and less forgiving than the non-Christians. Can any good come from the Church? How do you handle this Nathanael question?
Again, we could be offended, especially if there is some painful truth to what is being said. We could debate and try to win the argument and prove ourselves right—which might make us feel good, but also might hurt more than help. We can give up and withdraw and not say anything to the unbeliever and take the stance that they know where we are if they need us. (Not really an option). Or we can hold out our hands in hospitality with the invitation: “Come and see.” Come and see for yourself. Come and see if the stereotypes you have hold true. Come and see if the Christian message is what you think it is. Just come and see.
Making this invitation requires confidence. Philip had it in Jesus. He reasoned that if he could just get Nathanael and Jesus together, then the right things would happen. In this case, they did, and then some. Jesus exceeded Nathanael’s expectations—so much so that the man who accepted the invitation to come and see ends up confessing Jesus as the Son of God and the King of Israel!
If we believe that Jesus is really with us in His Word; If we believe that Jesus is really with us in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper; if we believe that Jesus has made a home in us, then we can make the same invitation with confidence, too. But it’s that last possibility that trips us up. We can get in the way of Jesus. We can, unfortunately, present a negative image to people of what Christianity is all about. I saw a book or an article title once that said: “I Don’t Have a Problem with Jesus; It’s His Followers I Can’t Stand.” Ouch! That hurts! But, could the person who wrote those words have a point?
If so, then we need to know that the invitation applies to us too. Come and see our sins in light of God’s Law. Come and see the punishment they deserve. Come and see the Son of God stoop down to pick up the heavy load of our sins—our sins, not his—and stagger under their weight up to the cross. Come and see Him die your death and take your shame and guilt and see Him bury them all in his grave. Come and see Him break out of His tomb, fully alive, to make you fully alive. Come and see Jesus. And once you’ve seen, bring others to see. Invite them to the places where Jesus awaits. Invite them to the places where the Holy Spirit is active and probing and working to create faith. Invite them and help them to meet a God who knows what we need, and gives us so much more. Let’s become imitators of Philip, making this simple invitation to all who will listen: “Come and see.” Amen.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Why Is Jesus in the Water?

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."

How often do you think about your baptism? If you said, “every day,” I applaud you. I also would say that you are in the minority of Christians—I may be wrong, and I hope I am—but I would guess that the majority of Jesus followers don’t dwell on their baptism a whole lot. That’s a shame. It’s like standing next to a limitless supply of energy and never plugging in. In a very real sense, to forget our baptism is to forget who we are.
But it is understandable, if you’re like me and you were baptized as a baby. How can we think about and dwell on something that we don’t remember? It’s not a memory I can access. For that reason, I think those who were baptized as babies may have a twinge of ‘sanctified jealousy’ for those who are baptized later in life, because it is an experience they can remember. That works both ways, though. Those who are baptized later in life may have a twinge of ‘sanctified jealousy’ towards those who have been a part of the family for so long. The point is, baptism is extremely important and deserves more thought and reflection than we usually give it. Baptism is a powerful way that God lays claim to us, whether we remember the event or not. An adopted child is adopted whether or not they remember the adoption process. They live in the results of that adoption daily: they have a home, they have parents, their needs are met, and so on. In the same way, a baptized person is adopted whether or not they remember the baptism. They live in the results of that baptism daily: they have a home with God and possess a living faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. Baptism matters because it establishes our identity. You are no longer a free agent. There’s no flying solo for you. You have been connected to Jesus through baptism. A powerful link has been forged between you and Jesus. He shares everything with you. His suffering and death. His resurrection and victorious life. Baptism creates this bond. We need to dust off the font and dwell on what God did to us there.
We have that opportunity today as we hear of Jesus’ own baptism. Now there is always the potential for confusion when we talk about Jesus’ baptism. Some might ask, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” If, as we believe, Jesus was the sinless Son of God, then why would he be on the receiving end of a sacrament that provides forgiveness of sins? The answer is found in the very purpose for which Jesus became one of us. Jesus did not need to be forgiven, but in His baptism, Jesus wades into the water of our sin. He gets covered with our dirt. He begins his work of doing things he didn’t have to do for people like us, who couldn’t do them. In the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus builds a reservoir of life, holding innumerable gallons of forgiveness of sins and rescue from death. Those precious gifts will flow to all who are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus needs to be baptized, not for himself, but for us, so that the channel can be dug and the connection can be made from his life to yours.
Mark records the vivid detail that awaited Jesus when he came up out of the water. He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. These things also happen to the baptized. For the truth is, were it not for Jesus and His willingness to do things he didn’t have to do, heaven would not be open to us. The doors would be shut and the gates locked. We would live the darkened lives of the self-absorbed and self-serving. If we had any thought of a heavenly life after this one, we would deceive ourselves into thinking we earned it. More likely, though, we would simply try to die with the most toys.
But thanks be to God in Christ, we are free from such a hopeless outlook! When you were baptized, heaven was torn open to you and the gates were flung wide. A cord of life was tied around you—and at the other end is your resurrected, living Lord. You and I live in a finite world—a world where things fall apart, break down, and die. But in Christ, you are infinite with Him. There is much trouble, sickness, death, and heartache in this finite world—more than enough to go around. But the baptized Christian endures all these things with the promise that you will outlast them all. You will live beyond these problems. In your baptismal connection to Jesus you will survive even the annihilation of this world to continue on with Him forever. This promise is made to all baptized Christians. There is more for you beyond this present life and baptism into Jesus seals it.
Also, at Jesus’ baptism, he saw the Spirit descending like a dove. This too happens to the baptized. The Holy Spirit enters a spiritually dead person and begins generating life—which is to say that he creates faith. This is an element of baptism that must not be overlooked. We need the Holy Spirit. We cannot believe in or appreciate, much less love God without the Spirit’s work in us. St. Paul writes, “No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12: 3) and St. Peter offered the solution to that problem in his Pentecost proclamation: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” We can’t believe in Jesus without the Holy Spirit. So God provides us with His Holy Spirit through the simple action of baptism. He keeps on doing what we could not do to give us what we could not earn.
The baptismal connection that you have with Jesus has been likened to the umbilical cord that connects a mother and child in the womb. Of course, we know that a mother supplies nutrients and oxygen to her child through that cord in a continuous flow, things that keep the child alive and cause growth. What you may not think of immediately is the fact that the child sends something back through the cord as well. The baby sends back poisonous wastes, and the mother eliminates them for her child.
Baptism is that connecting cord between Jesus and you. Through God’s extraordinary umbilical, baptismal connection, all the wastes of your sins flow continuously to Jesus and are removed forever by his shed blood—He’s absorbed all your poisonous sins into his body. In return, Jesus’ life-giving strength and perfection flow continuously to you. His life is always being renewed in you! And since you are connected with Christ Jesus in this way, you stand with Him as the Father says: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." The words apply to Jesus, and because of Him, they apply to you, too. You are God’s beloved child. He is well pleased with you. He says, “You are mine.” This is who you are. Live in your baptism—your connecting cord to Christ!