Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Beginning with me, ending with You


Lord’s Day Message:
Beginning with me, ending with You

John 1:6-8; 19-28
6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.
7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe.
8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.
20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”
21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
   He said, “I am not.”
   “Are you the Prophet?”
   He answered, “No.”
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
24 Now some Pharisees who had been sent
25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know.
27 He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.


Introduction
The first thing most parents do today after their child is born is to formally name them.  They pretty much won’t let you out of a hospital without a name to go with the new Social Security Number.   That’s what we do in America.  There are other places in the world where they still won’t give you a name until you’re at least two.  It is considered bad luck because of the high infant mortality. 

Throughout Advent and most of the winter, we’re going to be looking at Beginnings.  And I can’t think of a greater beginning than a birth.  There’s so much promise attached.  Any of you who have ever become parents know the feeling of looking down at those two beautiful eyes (even if your child still looks vaguely like a lizard) and finally knowing the meaning of the love of God.  Instantly, before this child has done anything good or bad, you would walk over burning coals for them.  Before they’ve had the chance to disappoint you or talk back to you or in some other way make your life miserable, right at this very moment you know that nothing they could do would ever change how you feel about them.  You’d sooner die than let someone take them away.   

I was born at 6:05 pm on November 2nd, 1955.  And from not long after that until today, my name has been Jonathan.  All the time I was growing up, I believed my name was some long form of John.  So you can imagine my shock about three years ago, when I looked it up online and discovered the following entry:  of Hebrew origin, and the meaning of Jonathan is "gift of God". Related to Nathan.  I’m a Nathan!  I’m not a John.  That really took some getting used to.  It’s kind of like living all your life thinking your family was of Scottish descent and having someone come and tell you your ancestors were Irish, which also happened to me about 10 years ago. 

The good news about my first name is that Nathan, John, or Jonathan, they all mean the same thing.  “God has given”, or “gift of God.”

Beginning with Me (vs. 6-8) – The Character of a Gift
Before you begin to think I’m particularly self-centered, I’m not the John we want to focus on this morning, and thank God for that.  But if we look deeply for a few moments at the call of John the Baptist the way that John the Gospel writer brings it to us, we’ll quickly see that we are all gifts from God if we will accept our calling in Christ.  What we can learn from John the Baptist is what Jesus said about him in Luke 7:28, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 

It isn’t a riddle, though it sounds like one.  What Jesus was saying should, at the very least awe us, because his intention was unequivocal: up to the very day Jesus spoke those words, in God’s way of looking at things, there had been no greater man in the whole revelation story of God’s dealing with his people than John.  He was greater than Elijah.  He was greater than David.  He was greater than Abraham.  He was greater than Isaac or Jacob, Gideon or Samson, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezra, Nehemiah, or any of the great Old Testament believers.  And the Kingdom of God is at hand.  And it will be populated by people greater even than John the Baptist. 

Jesus is quick to add that the great believers are not Popes or Kings or denominational leaders.  They are not the powerful, as the world marks power.  When Jesus uses the words, “the least,” he is talking about the poor, the bereaved, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.  These are the ones he called blessed when he spoke to the masses who gathered on a hillside in Galilee to hear what we call the Sermon on the Mount.   He says that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  The Kingdom of God belongs to such as you, and if we will accept what Jesus is calling us to today we will step out of this place today and into the Kingdom of God; we will begin to claim a Kingdom  that is not ours by divine right, but by divine grant.

Now there are three things the Apostle wants us to know as we look at John’s call and ours.  We want to look at the Character of a Gift, the Cry of a Gift, and the Call of a Gift.  The Character of a Gift, the Cry of a Gift, and the Call of a Gift. 

If you’re not already there, turn back to the Gospel of John, chapter 1, beginning at verse 6.  By the way, over the past three weeks we’ve been rehearsing what is called the prolog to John’s gospel at the greeting time at the beginning of worship.  Each week we’ve been adding another phrase to the testimony that John gives us.  And by Christmas Eve we will be witnessing to the coming of God’s Light of Revelation into the world as we speak together the whole of the first four verses.

Beginning at verse 6 though, John shifts his message from his initial testimony about Jesus to give us a bit of background on how the Light broke into the world.  Curiously, John doesn’t back up to Jesus birth, not because it has no bearing on the story; Matthew and Luke make the necessity of the circumstances of Christ’s birth abundantly clear.  John’s gospel begins the story with the testimony of John the Baptist because for him the true light that enlightens every person is first fully revealed at Jesus’ baptism, and always comes through individual witness to personal encounter with Christ.   

He says, “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.  The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”

Now remember, John’s name means Gift of God.  So, let’s pick out three things about the Character of a Gift that God wants us to know. 

Look at that word in verse 6, “sent.”  There was a man sent from God.   In the original Greek in which John’s gospel was probably written, the word is appostello, simply “to send.”  But when Jesus gathered his disciples, and there were at least 70 people directly associated with Jesus’ ministry whom he called his disciples, Mark tells us that out of that group, Jesus chose 12, “(whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach”  (Mark 3:14 ESV)

Apostles

Apostello

Sent ones.

So there was a man, an apostle, a sent one.  The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 10 that in order for anyone to be a “John,” a Gift from God, they have to be sent: “And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who publish glad tidings!” (Romans 10:15, quoting Isaiah 52:7 ESV)   And this is not a New Testament idea, because Paul there is quoting Isaiah 52.  What an amazing opportunity it is to find that you are a sent one, that you who are the least in the Kingdom of God go forth in the power and spirit of the Apostles, that you are a “John” – a Gift from God.

A Gift from God is always sent.  Do not wonder, beloved, if God is sending you.  If you have the testimony of Christ within you, you… are… sent.  The only question that remains is whether you will accept God’s gift to you and BE God’s gift to the world.   Have you ever had the experience, about a week after Christmas, of putting something in your closet and discovering a still-wrapped gift on a shelf there?  It used to happen in our house almost every year.  The gift had been sent, but we had neglected to share it.  How many times have you sat with someone and as the conversation unfolded you thought, “Wow, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about Jesus.”  But because of a hundred and one reasons you give yourself, you never actually say his name; instead you talk about the weather.   Every time that happens, the gift that you are was sent, but it was not shared.  The moment of profound grace passes by.   You step out of the conversation and put the Gift of God, still wrapped, back on the shelf in your closet for another season.

There was an apostle, a sent-one from God, whose name was Given, shared from God.

Now comes the most surprising part of the Character of a Gift.  Verse 8 says, “He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”  I know that Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).  But beloved, always remember that your light is a borrowed beacon that you only have because Christ is in you.  There was a man sent from God whose name was John.  He himself was not the light.  And Patti, Jim, Beth, Buzz, Barbara, and all you other “Johns” here this morning: you are not the light.  The extent to which your speech is salted with pithy stories about yourself is the extent to which you will be covering the Light of God. 

You are not the light, but you are the candle.  I used to sit in church and marvel at how the candles in the chancel could be lit for a whole hour and not burn down a bit!  I marveled that way until one day I was following a deacon around while they were setting up for church realized these candles are false fronts.  They are spring-loaded, and there’s a very real candle inside these plastic candles that is being consumed even as we speak and sing and pray.  The Gift of God must be spent before it will be of any use in the world.   You are not the flame.  You are the candle on which the flame burns.  Do not be afraid to be used up, spent, and burned out.  God will reload the candle you are when placed on the altar and burned.

Let God spend you.  The text says John came as a witness to the light.  The word translated here as witness is the Greek word for martyr.  And I don’t think it is too harsh to say that most of us are very good at being witnesses – martyrs – to our own pain, our own needs, our own joys and frustrations, but are afraid to be martyrs for Christ because we’re afraid no one will notice US.  Beloved, John, the Gift from God said, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”  Be a candle for God.  As the old hymn says,

“By the light of burning martyrs, Jesus bleeding feet I track
Toiling up new Calvarys ever, with the cross that turns not back.”
“Once to Every man and nation”. 
James Russell Lowell.  December 11, 1845.

The Gift of God must be sent.  The Gift of God must be shared.  The Gift of God must be spent or it is no gift at all. That is the Character of a Gift. 


Living in between (vs. 19-23) – The Cry of a Gift
Because the Character, the nature of a gift is to be sent and shared and spent, we need to see how that happens.  Skip down in Chapter 1 to verse 19.  We’re going to see what a “John”, a Gift from God does while Living in Between. 

Living in between?  Living in between what and what?  I told you at the outset: my name is John.  The Gospel always begins with God naming you and me.  In Isaiah 43:1 God tells us, “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1 ESV)  The gospel always begins with me.  And just like the candle, the gospel is not about me, it is about Christ.  And so as I live in between beginning with me and ending somewhere else, here is what I will do if I want to be a “John:”

Pick up the text at verse 19.  Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.  He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”  They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”  Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

There are four things John does.  I’ll pick them out for us. In verse 20, he confessed.  In verse 21, he said, and then he answered.  And in verse 23, he replied.  At every turn in John’s life, quite simply, when given the opportunity, he opened his mouth. 

But notice what he opened his mouth and said.   In verse 20 he confessed, “I am not the Christ.”  In verse 21 he said, “I am not Elijah,” and again he answered, “I am not the Prophet.”  And finally in verse 23 he replied (quoting Isaiah 40), “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

What does a Gift from God do while living in between?  At every successive moment a Gift hears God say as he said to the Prophet in Isaiah 40, verse 3, “Cry!”  And the Gift from God continually asks, how will this next moment testify to Christ?  How will the next thing I do make a straight path for the Lord?  And with ever greater confidence, the Johns learn that living in between means that I must decrease and he must increase.  And more and more they cry out with their words and their lives, testifying that Christ has come into the world and that all that this life holds is through him and for him.  The Johns of this world have learned to stand face to face with Christ and say, “Beginning with me, Ending with you.”  The Johns of this world make an ironic practice of doing something they confess they are unworthy to do: they spend their life stooping down and untying Jesus’ sandals.  They recognize that they are the poor, the bereaved, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.  And so they stoop down and untie the sandals of the poor, the bereaved, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. 

Ending with You (vs. 24-28) – The Call of a Gift
Beloved, if there is any doubt left in your mind, that… is… your… Call.   How you exercise your call will be as different and varied as are the lives of those among you with ears to hear what God is saying to you this morning.   Verses 24-28 of John 1 demonstrate how that Call worked out in the life of John the Baptist.  His was a ministry of preaching and baptizing.   He had learned what the gift was that God had given him, and he shared that gift and let himself be spent using the gift God had given him.  And in between, all the while he continued to confess Christ, “Among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 

Preach and Baptize.  Stoop down and untie.  Preach and Baptize.  Repeat.

A Gift of God learns to do something specific that witnesses for Christ – a gifting – what we today would call a ministry, but which John the Baptist simply called life.  Remember, his name was simply John.  But people so associated him with the thing God had given him to do that witnessed to Christ, they began to call him “John, the Baptizer.” 

What will they call you?  Will you be known as Bob the Encourager, Alice, Feeder of the Poor, William the Giver, Tom the Defender, Mary who Housed the Homeless?  Will you encourage, feed, give, defend, house, and then stoop down, untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal, and get up and do it again, and again, and again?  That is the Call of the Gift of God.  That is your Call, Beloved when you say to Jesus Beginning with me, Ending with you (Jesus).  That is your Call John, Gift of God.

AMEN.

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