Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

Rev. Sarah Buteux                                                                             
January 19, 2014
Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42

You can watch and listen to this sermon on our youtube channel here.

Something tells me it wasn’t easy for John to be the Baptist. The man lived out in the desert, where it’s hot. He wore a makeshift garment of camel’s hair, which had to be itchy. And he subsisted on nothing but locusts and honey, which is, well, gross.

But that’s not what I’m referring to when I say it wasn’t easy.

I think it must have been hard for John to be the Baptizer, the voice crying out in the wilderness, because the whole purpose of his job was to make himself obsolete, and when you’re that good at what you do it’s got to be hard to step down once you’re finished.

You see John was sent by God to announce the coming of the messiah.  His job was to get the people ready, lead them to repentance, usher them through a dramatic catharsis, baptize them, and then hand them over, ripe for the taking, to the coming messiah. That was his calling and he did it extremely well.

People came out in droves to see John, in large part because he’d gone rogue. John was born the son of a highly respected priest after all.  He should have been practicing his vocation safe within the courts of the temple in Jerusalem. But instead, John chose to minister to people out in the wilderness, about as far outside the temple establishment as one could get.

His whole ministry was sort of like a cross between a carnival side show and a tent revival, laced with just enough iconoclastic and insurrectionist rhetoric to lend the whole affair an air of danger and excitement.

And it worked.

The faithful flocked to the dessert en masse, leaving the temple courts in Jerusalem so conspicuously empty that even Roman soldiers and Jewish priests wandered out, ostensibly to gauge the threat level, only to find themselves taken in by John’s message as well.

People from all walks of life, be they Jew or Gentile, found themselves lined up round the block waiting to confess their sins and let John wash those sins away.

They looked to him for advice, they asked him for counsel, they responded to his words, and their lives were changed so much so, that when Jesus finally came, John’s personal disciples left to follow the Christ without so much as a backward glance.

"Look, here is the Lamb of God!" said John one day, as Jesus passed him by, and the Bible tells us that the “two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus,” just like that, no questions asked.

They didn’t ask John how he knew. They didn’t ask John what he meant. They didn’t even say, “hey John, thanks for the good word, it’s been nice knowing you man.”  They just turned around and followed Jesus.

It had to be hard.

It had to be hard to be that good, to be that charismatic, to be that effective, to see people’s lives changed that dramatically right in front of you as a result of your ministry, and then let them go.

But John did. John did because John understood something we in the church are always struggling to understand – pastors more than most, me - right now - probably more than anyone.

John understood that it wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about his preaching or his baptismal program, how much money came in during the offering or the number of people who had repented and turned their lives around as a result of his ministry.

It was about Jesus... helping people find Jesus.  It always had been.  It always would be. And John, God bless him, never lost sight of that.

His ministry reminds me of that quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery that Peter Wells shared with us during the visioning workshop:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks.  Rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

That’s what John did.  He didn’t teach his disciples how to baptize better or faster.  He didn’t teach them the seven habits of highly effective religious communities or how to be an Essene in 40 days or less.

He didn’t spend his evenings in meetings with his senior disciples drawing up plans for a brand new state of the art wilderness worship center with adequate parking and a better sound system, in order to accommodate his growing congregation.

No.  John taught his followers one thing, and one thing only. He taught them to long for the messiah… long for the messiah so much so that when Jesus finally appears all those people who had been following John leave him without a second thought.

They leave John and go after Jesus, which is extraordinary, because honestly, just because the messiah has come doesn’t mean you necessarily have to drop everything and follow him.

John’s disciples could very well have stayed with John. They could have hunkered down around their teacher and said, “Great. He’s here. Now you teach us more about him. Tell us what he’s going to do now John. Show us how we ought to respond to this guy, John. Please John, explain what this all means. We need you to help us, understand him.

Which is to say, John’s disciples could have turned their whole experience of Jesus’ arrival into a spectator sport, an intellectual exercise, or a religious occasion and they could have looked to John to mediate that experience for them.

But they don’t do that. They don’t do that at all, because these men –thanks to John - aren’t longing for a new belief system, prophetic proof, or a new way to practice their faith.

What these men are longing for – thanks to John - is a person.

What these men are longing for- thanks to John - is a relationship.

What these men are longing for – thanks to John – is not to know more about the messiah, but to simply know the messiah.

“What are you looking for?” asks Jesus.

“Where are you staying?” is their response, because thanks to John what they are looking for and who they are longing for, what they want and all they need, is Jesus.

Jesus, not John.

It had to be hard.

***

I think it’s fair to say that I’m not as good at this as John was. I’m not as tightly focused, and that’s one of many reasons why it is much harder for me to let go. I’m just not as good at this as John was, nor is the church for that matter.

And when I say church, I mean church with a big C; not just Hadley. I’m talking about the whole shebang. It’s all too easy for those of us who know and love and serve the church to get so busy collecting wood and assigning tasks that we lose sight of that endless immensity that is our true purpose and our ultimate goal. Am I right?

In fact, even those two words - “purpose” and “goal” - even those two words are distracting, because Jesus isn’t a purpose to be fulfilled or a goal to achieve. Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is God made flesh that we might actually know God. 

He’s not just the point, Jesus is a person, a person to whom we are invited to relate and to pray, a person we are invited to know ever more fully that we in turn might be fully known.

But damn it all if it isn’t easier to replace Christ with the Church, make ourselves so busy doing the work of the Lord, (as one of my early mentors used to say,) that we forget the Lord of the works. (We church people jutst love little turns of phrase like that).

It is so much easier to follow the church, serve the church, love the church, than it is to follow Jesus, serve Jesus, and love Jesus, because the church is familiar, the church is steadfast, the church is safe. Whereas Jesus, is ….not.

I love the C/church (big C and small c,) and most of you do too or you wouldn’t be here. I love the UCC and I love this congregation. I love theology and I love prayer, iconography and ritual, sermons and hymns. I could do this all day…. which is weird I know.

Heck I’ve even come to love meetings.  Not always, but here, for the most part even the meetings have been good because the people here are so good.

I can’t think of a better group with whom to gather wood or accomplish the many tasks that keep a church in good health. This is a wonderful community full of incredible people and I don’t ever want you to doubt that.

So wonderful, in fact, that we have to be extra careful to remind ourselves every now and again that church is not the point. As good and beautiful as all this is, church is still a means to the greater end that is knowing Christ and making him known.

That is our purpose as an institution and as followers of Jesus, to know the Christ and make him known.

John, God bless him, never lost sight of that, which is what made it possible for him to let go when he needed to. For you and me, I think it’s fair to say that after 9 years together it is maybe a little bit harder. So I want you to know right now that I could never leave you if I didn’t truly believe that God was calling me onward.

But here is the thing: if God is calling me then God is calling you too, calling you to open your minds to what will be and your hearts to whoever else may come.

God is calling you and me to hold all of this – all that we’ve worked so hard for and all that we love so deeply – God is calling us, always calling us, to hold everything about this church we cherish as loosely as we are able the better to grab hold of Jesus when he comes.

And the good news, for you and for me, and is that he does.

Christ came and Christ comes: even for those of us who cling to the culture or the beloved traditions of our church with a death grip.

Christ came and Christ comes even for those of us who get so overwhelmed by the tasks at hand that we can go for months without looking up or remembering why we do all this in the first place.

Christ came and Christ comes for those of us who fear change, who long for what was, who like things just the way they are thank you very much.

Christ came and Christ comes.

We may get distracted from our longing for him but Christ never ceases longing for us, coming to us, inviting us to put down the loads we are carrying or the tasks with which we are so busy, to “come and see.”

So keep your eyes upon Jesus.

Yes, I will be going soon, but I am far from the only one who can point you toward the Lamb of God.

There will be more pastors after me, and they’ll be good, but even the best of us are only as good as our ability to point you away from us…away from us toward the one who came and keeps coming the better to know and be known by us all.

Thanks be to God. Amen.