Sunday, January 19, 2020
Scripture: Isaiah 49:1-7 & John 1:29-42
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
There are Monty Python fans, and there are people who can’t stand Monty Python. I’m pro-Python. Growing up we had The Holy Grail on VHS cassette, and watched it often enough to have it memorized. As I was thinking about our biblical texts for today, the Bridge of Death scene popped into my mind. Fortunately for you – and me – we have the ability to show video, so I don’t have to act it out. Unless, of course, you can’t stand Monty Python, in which case your solace can be that this video is only thirty seconds long.
This sermon touches on the first two questions asked by the bridge keeper. What is your name, and what is your quest? Sadly, we don’t have time to dig into favorite color, the capital of Assyria, or the airspeed velocity of a laden swallow, but those answers are worth looking up in case you ever need to cross the Bridge of Death like King Arthur and his knights.
In the coming weeks we’ll keep looking at the question, Who is Jesus?, and this seems to be a question very present in both of our texts. Let’s begin by looking at Isaiah 49, which is the second servant song in Isaiah. We read the first one last week. What’s really interesting about these writings is that they can be read on many levels. They were written over 500 years before Jesus walked the earth, yet Christian interpreters see Jesus written all over them. Of course, there are other ways to look at them. This one has an obvious connection to the people of Israel in verse 3, “And [the Lord] said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” So, is the servant Israel? Yes.
But in earlier verses, the servant speaks about the birth of an individual – one whom the Lord knew before he was born, before he had a name, and who has a prophetic calling, “He made my mouth like a sharp sword” (49:2). So, is the servant Isaiah? Yes.
But also, interpreters have looked at this text and the other servant songs and see prophecy about Jesus in them. To those with ears to hear, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth” (49:6) sounds an awful lot like what we believe Jesus has done through the cross and the church. So, is the servant Jesus? Well, yes. Why can’t it be all three? Some may think that’s a controversial statement, but I believe it reveals how deep and long-term God’s plan of salvation is. It was in motion through Israel. It continues through Isaiah. And it culminates in Jesus.
So, who is Jesus? He is the One sent by God to draw all nations to the one true God. He is the one to bring healing and wholeness. In Isaiah’s words,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
7 Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Jesus brings light to the nations, and salvation to the ends of the earth. It’s a huge mission! In the end, to borrow Paul’s words in Philippians 2, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
There is power in the name of Jesus. We hear that in Paul’s statement. We hear that in the stories of the people healed in Jesus’ name. It’s why we end prayers with the phrase, “In Jesus’ name,” affirming that it is through Jesus’ mediation and work that these prayers are effective. The evangelist Billy Sunday claimed that there are 256 different names given to Jesus in the Bible, so it’s probably a good thing that Jesus didn’t have to answer the bridge keeper’s question, “What is your name?” He has so many names and titles that the bridge keeper wouldn’t have been able to keep things straight!
John’s gospel has many names for Jesus. In our text, Jesus gets called four different names in just thirteen verses. John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God” – twice! He also calls Jesus the “Son of God.” John’s disciples call Jesus “Rabbi,” which means teacher. Later they call him the “Messiah.” Who is Jesus?
Let’s start with “Lamb of God.” We’re pretty familiar with this title of Jesus, so much so that we’re comfortable with it. But, did you know that John 1 is the only place this title is used in the Bible? Sure, Jesus gets portrayed as a sacrificial lamb elsewhere, most notably Revelation, but this is the only place where this specific title gets used. John the Baptist points to Jesus as the lamb of God. In John’s gospel, Jesus and John haven’t interacted up until this point. John’s doing his thing in the wilderness and upon first laying his eyes on Jesus he makes this declaration. I think we hear John’s words as comforting. Lambs seem cute and cuddly, but I don’t think that’s what John meant. John says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Lambs and sin have plenty of biblical connection, particularly when it comes to a lamb being sacrificed for the sin of another. The lamb doesn’t sin but takes on the sin of another through its death. This is a dark title. In the words of one interpreter, “This isn’t how you’d describe a celebrity on a red carpet or a politician on his way to the platform where he had just been nominated for president. John could just as easily have said, “Behold, the one who is going down the tubes! Behold the loser, the victim, the dead man walking.” John keeps it up because he declares the same about Jesus the next day, and what is so interesting is that two of John’s own disciples hear this and immediately go after Jesus. These disciples call Jesus, “Rabbi,” and they treat him as such. Jesus has many roles and titles, and one of them is a teacher. Rabbis have disciples – learners who share life with the rabbi to learn how to live in the manner of the teacher. It’s more than head knowledge. It’s life change.
John also calls Jesus the “Son of God,” which is a really interesting designation for someone you’ve intimated is going to die. Like the Isaiah passage, this title has many echoes. It’s an image that connects to Israel in the Exodus, where God calls the nation “my firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22). It connects with the line of King David’s descendants (2 Sam. 7:14). It connects in with the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism, “This my son, the beloved!” It’s also something that the Roman Caesar called himself, so there’s something of a challenge or a rivalry in calling Jesus the “Son of God.” If he is, then that means that Caesar isn’t, which is a statement that sounds awfully treasonous to Rome. This title connects in well with “Messiah,” which is what John’s disciples call Jesus near the end of our passage. The Messiah is the anointed one – or Christ.
So, what is your name, Jesus? John unleashes a stream of options – Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, and Messiah. That’s saying a lot about someone who has never said a word for himself until verse 38. Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus, the center of our story, doesn’t say one word until verse 38? John the Baptist has done lots of talking. I wonder if John talked to his disciples the night after he first recognized Jesus. That night I wonder if he explained what he meant by Lamb of God and Son of God. It sure is interesting that these two disciples see Jesus and immediately start following him. Jesus didn’t call them to do so. Like two stray dogs, they start trailing him, so he finally turns and speaks. “What are you looking for?” he says. “What is it that you want?” In the words of the bridge keeper, “What is your quest?” Or to translate it more literally, “What are you seeking?” Such interesting first words to put on the lips of Jesus! And not exactly the kind of sales pitch we’d expect from someone who’s looking for disciples. Yet it’s a question that I think we all spend a lot of our lives trying to answer. What are you seeking? What are you spending your life on? I think we could spend a lifetime trying to answer the question Jesus starts with in John’s gospel, but I think I leave dwelling on that question for another day.
The disciples respond to Jesus’ question with one of their own. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus responds with an invitation, “Come and see,” and so they spend the day with Jesus. I find their question so interesting. Where are you staying? Shouldn’t they be asking about the meaning of life or about whether or not he’s Messiah – the one they’ve been waiting for? I’m particularly fascinated by their question because the Greek word for “staying,” which is menein, is one of the things that compelled me to go to seminary. You see, I was in a small group Bible study on John 15. It’s where Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower….Abide in me as I abide in you.” The word “abide” comes from the same word as “staying” in our passage. I was convinced that there must be something deeper going on in the Greek text that I was missing in English. I was wrong. This one is pretty straightforward!
To abide is to remain or to stay. To abide is to be with Jesus – to stay with him. I do like to dive down the rabbit hole of interesting Greek on this side of seminary, but I can tell you I’m grateful for that spark in that moment to want to know more because I have come to see staying with Jesus or remaining with Jesus as crucial to the Christian life. That’s what John’s disciples did with Jesus. “What are you seeking,” he said, and they responded, “Where are you staying?” In other words, we need to remain in your presence to know you.
After spending the day with him, they are convinced that he is the Messiah. One of them, Andrew, goes home and tells his brother, Simon, about his day with Jesus. He brings Simon to Jesus, and we’re back to the name thing again. This time Jesus gives Simon a new name. “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter)” (John 1:42). Jesus, who seems to be into nicknames calls Simon “Rock,” long before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson ever raised his eyebrow. Peter will remain with Jesus as his disciple, even through his failures. I find it so interesting that he gets a new identity upon encountering Jesus, the man of 256 names. Perhaps there is something in there for us too. When we follow Jesus we take on a new identity, like Peter. We are no longer the person we were before this Jesus thing really took root. We become new. We remain in Jesus – the true vine – because it is from him that we get life. Apart from him we are nothing.
What is your name? Or, who are you?
What is your quest? Or, what is it that you’re seeking?
Our text today shows us that these questions find their answers and fulfillment in Jesus alone. May it be so for us.