You’ve Got To Meet This Guy John 1:29-42

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Have you ever been so excited that you can’t wait to tell someone else about a new thing you’ve discovered? Maybe it is a new restaurant, a dish at this restaurant, hearing a new band, a song by this band, a particular vineyard, and a unique grape they use to make a new pinot noir. It could be any of those things or something else. Whatever it is, you’ve been turned on. Now everyone you meet, from family to friends, has to hear about your trip to this restaurant, how good this one particular dish was, how the chef combined flavors in a unique way that created a virtual nuclear explosion of taste on your pallet unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before, the dish was plated like a Salvador Dali painting, and before this person does anything else, they have to make a reservation and go with you to this restaurant at their next available moment. You want to be there with them to see the look on their face when they are served an appetizer of lemon caviar on raw oysters with mignonettes followed by pressure-cooked vegetables, roasted fillet, potato confit, beef just, and bone marrow. Then you want to say, “See, I told you, wasn’t this the best thing you’ve ever eaten!”

That’s what this passage is about, that kind of encounter. Instead of some innovative gastronomy, the one thing you’ve become so incredibly excited to share with the world is a person whose name is Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve all been that excited about something in our lives. It may have been the last time you bought a new truck or car. Perhaps it was the place you stayed on your previous fishing trip. You’ve felt the energy and enthusiasm of an event or an encounter. You know what it is like to be unable to keep good news bottled up and to yourself. So here’s my first question this morning. Have you ever felt that way about Jesus? In your entire life, have you ever been so excited about your relationship with Jesus that you couldn’t shut up about Jesus and had to say, “I’ve got to tell someone else about Jesus?” We tell people about the new bigger engine in our trucks or how we got a new roof on our church. We tell people about where we went on vacation, how we had a great time, and how they ought to go there and enjoy it in the same way we did. Think of all the heartfelt and exciting recommendations you give day after day. When was the last time you said to someone, “Oh my God, you have got to meet this guy Jesus; he changed my life! Let’s go now or at your first free moment; I’ve got to see your face when you talk to him.”

People used to put bumper stickers or license plates on cars saying, “Follow me to church,” but those are not the same. I can’t tell you the last time a bumper sticker changed my life. I’ve never voted for anyone or changed my opinion about anything because of a bumper sticker. With my bifocals, I can’t read bumper stickers or vanity plates. I can, however, respond to conversations. Come and see; we hear the disciples saying. Come and see; I know what it means. When was the last time we spoke to someone, “Come and see?” When was the last time you wanted to see Jesus? Do you want to have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus? Are we afraid of how the conversation might go? Some of us might be worried about what he wants to talk about. We’re comfortable talking to him in prayer. Come and see opens the door to the possibility of him talking back. Yes! Amen! That’s where our Christianity and our faith start to get exciting.

When the disciple found Jesus, what did they see? What did they see in him? That’s the question that has fascinated me most about this passage. They heed the call to “come and see” Jesus. I wonder about their first impressions of the man who was destined to save the world, this humble rabbi, identified by John as a “teacher” in their eyes; what did Jesus look like (physically), and who did he seem to be (spiritually)? These are meaningful questions because whatever they saw was necessary (and substantial) enough to cause them to drop everything, become his students, follow him, and start telling more people to come and see the carpenter-turned-teacher from Nazareth.  
So how did he appear? I picture him exuding kindness, approachability, and love. You know those people. Whether by genetics or life experience, some people carry a countenance that disarms critics, invites conversation, and welcomes questions. Regardless of whatever charisma their words or spirit may convey, their body language and gestures include others in their world. I believe the gospels offer this image of Jesus.

A man who readily held children and brought lepers into his life was open to everyone who was all too willing to reject anyone who defied religious norms and traditions. Here was God in the world, something these people had yet to fully comprehend, not existing above or beyond creation but entirely within the world. This wasn’t magic, smoke, and mirrors. Jesus was flesh and blood. Simon, Andrew, and John weren’t following a ghost, a spirit, or the appearance of a man. Something about this man was different, they might not have been able to put their finger on it at that moment, but they knew it when they saw it, so they went. They came, they saw, and they believed. It’s worked the same way ever since. He spurs something in us that makes us want to be better than we are at the current moment and tell others about this experience of kindles, love, and acceptance. We’ve never known something that could only come from God because God knows people don’t treat each other this way.

The other question this passage raises is this: “What does Jesus see in us?” I hope he sees potential. We’re a motley crew, we modern-day Galilean fishermen. Just look at us. Despite our differences in age, genetics, skills, diversity of opinions, and taste in basketball teams and music Jesus looks at us and still sees possibilities. Jesus looks at us unlike anyone else, except maybe your Mama and Daddy look (or looked) at you. You are worth being loved no matter what. Nothing you can do or say would drive me away, separate me from you, or make me turn my back on you. He looks so hard at you that he almost says, “I’d die for you.” Paul put it this way; there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. In Romans, Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I believe Jesus sees love in us.

As I’ve said on many occasions, the gospel writers make a big deal of Jesus knowing people’s names. Jesus is not a “hey you, worship me” kind of God. We’re not just numbers on a divine spreadsheet of followers. When we use the phrase “personal relationship,” we mean a personal relationship and all it entails. He walks with me, talks with me, and chucks me on the chin while the car defrosts in the morning. Yet so often, that person is one-sided; we know him. We phrase it this way: we know Jesus. We’ve met him. We’ve let him into our lives. That’s how we talk. Our language places us as the ones choosing to allow us entrance or access to the most vital areas of our existence, our souls. We accept salvation. Not to make too fine of a theological point, but Methodists believe that Jesus saved us all on the cross, and what happens down the road is that we realize that Jesus is already in here, and we didn’t know it. We don’t need to let him in; he’s been here the whole time. There was never a time Jesus wasn’t in our lives; we just weren’t aware that he was there. So when Jesus sees us, he sees people already on his team; we don’t know we’re on the bench and about to be put into the game.  

You may pick up a nickname when someone gets to know you. Sometimes we get nicknames during childhood that stick our entire lives. I’m sure you all know a Bubba in their 50s or 60’s that’s been Bubba since they were in the third grade. Here I’m talking about real nicknames that friends give each other because they reflect a person’s personality. People who don’t know each other well don’t give each other nicknames. Generic nicknames like hoss,  chief, sport and big guy don’t count. I’m talking about real nicknames. This is what Jesus does to the disciples, specifically Peter, in this passage. Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Cephas.” Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Rocky, Rocky Johnson. Cephas/Peter means Rock, and he was the son of John. That’s Peter’s name, Rock Johnson. Not only did Jesus know his name, but he felt so comfortable and familiar with him to give him a nickname immediately. What do you think your Jesus nickname might be? Think about it this week; email me and let me know.

Get excited about Jesus! Someone brought you here to come and see. Could you tell someone else to come and see? Jesus is already at work in people’s lives, waiting to hear about this next big thing that we can’t keep to ourselves any longer, this Jesus, this carpenter, the teacher from Nazareth. He sees us and knows in ways no one else ever will. Whom will you tell?

–Richard Bryant

Advent 2: It Was Never Easy Being Johnny – Matthew 3:1-12

The road to Graceland goes through Tupelo, Mississippi.

The road to Bethlehem goes through John the Baptizer.

It must have been hard to be John the Baptizer. I don’t mean the odd diet and living in the harsh desert environment. John chose to be an ascetic. He willingly embraced the Hebrew prophetic lifestyle. I am saying that it was hard to be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine living in the shadow of the person who defined how civilization came to define history? Before him, time was measured in one manner. After his birth, we changed how years were counted. How easy was it to relate to Jesus in your family, especially if you had even the faintest understanding of his role?

Mark’s gospel tells readers that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Imagine the unique qualities of those relationships. What did you know or not know of your brother’s humanity or his divinity? These questions fascinated the early church. The infancy gospels, noncanonical works telling stories of Jesus’ childhood and family, tried to fill in the gaps surrounding Jesus’ missing childhood years. They are weird and read more like science fiction than the accepted miracle stories of Jesus walking on water or feeding multitudes.

What’s notable about Mark’s account (3:31-35) is that his mother, brothers, sisters, and broader family are worried about Jesus. They know he’s coming off as crazy. Some of those in Nazareth didn’t take kindly to the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter making grand theological arguments. To claim to be able to heal and even hint at a messianic identity put his life (and their family’s) in danger. Besides, wasn’t his cousin John the real religious one in the family? Didn’t he leave home, live alone in the wilderness, and pursue God with a small group of devoted followers? John was the guy, the prophet in the family, right? Jesus worked in the shop and made speeches in the synagogue. John, the man they hadn’t seen in years, the distant cousin, the black sheep, he’s the one with real religious potential.   

Yes, it was never easy being John the Baptizer. You knew you were destined for big things. God had given you a message on par with the most critical and socially challenging prophets in the Hebrew Bible. People heard your words and responded accordingly. The rich were uncomfortable. The poor listened to you, and it was unmistakable; God was on their side and would not let them down. You preached a need for a fresh start when everyone else was comfortable with a miserable, dirty, rotten status quo. You lived with such integrity and ferocity that some people came to believe that you, John, a poor boy from Galilee, might be the one to free Israel in the manner of Moses or Joshua. John knew he was a prophet and prophet alone. Someone else from Galilee would come and, like Elijah and Elisha, take his mantle and continue his work after his death. Because prophets do not live long, especially those who make rich people angry, hold a mirror up to reality, and ask the world to practice what they preach.

John was human, like all of us. John has no claim to divinity. He was an eccentric yet effective preacher. He said all the right things, did everything he was supposed to do, and would never see how Jesus would take his vision to a place he never imagined. John’s life was no rose garden and should not be idealized. Yes, it was never easy for John the Baptizer. Like a country music singer (think Jimmie Rogers or the Carter Family) from the mid-1950s who led to people like Elvis and Johnny Cash (whom only a few die-hard fans remember), he lived hard, died harder, and wrote songs that people would sing forever. Without John the Baptizer, we might not know Jesus. We need him because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We need John to see Jesus and Jesus to hear John.

–Richard Bryant

Increase Our Faith (and other stories from the Road) Luke 17

 

It is the second stage of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus tells the disciples of an easily ignored idea in scripture: forgiveness is endless, and causing someone else to sin is about as bad as it gets. Forgive those who’ve wronged you and repented into a seven-time seven multiple of infinite forgiveness; that’s a mind-blowing proposition. Consider the implications; we are to forgive others as God forgives us. (Lord’s Prayer, anyone?)

How can one not cause others to sin if we’ve decided (contrary to Jesus’ teaching) that grace and forgiveness will end with us? How is “sin” not the inevitable next step if you’re going to play God (at the micro-level) and decide whose repentance is worthy of acceptance? Causing others to sin is part and parcel of living in a world where we ration forgiveness and carry grudges from now until the time we die. Jesus’ point seems to be this: if you want a sin strategy, we need a forgiveness plan. Forgiveness takes on many names, “repair, restoration, healing,” and so on. However, you can’t spell forgiveness without love. I know there’s no “l.” I dare you though, to do it any other way.

Out of this critical conversation, the disciples pose a question only the disciples of Jesus Christ could ask, “Increase our faith!” It’s not even a question; it’s an imperative demand like a child having a tantrum. (The Greek is downright ugly.) You want Jesus to increase your faith? Does Jesus utter a secret “faith” phrase? How does one “increase” an abstract quality unique to any given individual? Have you thought this through?

Faith comes by lived experience with the resurrected Christ, not by someone waving a magic wand and turning us into more faithful Christians. Would that kind of Christianity even be fun?  (Remind me again how faith grew on the road to Emmaus? Was it by scripture study and breaking bread? Did Jesus push the secret faith button to make them believe?)

Faith is intensely personal. However, if our faith only grows from external sources, how committed are we? Once the music fads change, we lose the wristbands, and the fashionable Christian t-shirts no longer fit; where is our faith? Maybe we weren’t that faithful in the first place. We might have been religious. Were we faithful?

Our faith grows, over time. We don’t make imperative tantrums to demand Jesus give us our way. Instead, faith is lived and practiced every day in a relationship with Jesus. Faith is a together proposition. It always has been.

Faith needs forgiveness. Faithful people forgive people. If we want more faith, be more forgiving. Oh, but that’s hard. It involves loving our enemies, being uncomfortable, and living by the Beatitudes. As we see in Luke 17, we’d prefer to tell Jesus what we demand, stomp our feet, and wait on him to say the magic words. Let me know how that goes.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Tangible Things Jesus Does (Luke 13:10-17)

We don’t have to invent or infer Jesus’ actions.  There’s no need to guess or ask, “What would Jesus do?”  We know.  Read the gospels.  The New Testament offers specific examples of Jesus’ behavior, beliefs, and deeds.  For example, there is little mystery as to Jesus’ attitudes toward the poor, elderly, or the sick.  If one wants to follow Jesus, read and contextualize his words for our day and time.

In this week’s gospel passage we see several different areas that are regularly emphasized in Jesus’ life and ministry.

  1.  Jesus teaches in the synagogue.  Contextually, this means he’s in the church or a worship experience.  Jesus goes to synagogue, participates, leads, and is active in worship.  Presence is important.  Sharing in Psalms, scripture, and community matter.  Jesus is modeling best practice.  He doesn’t find God on the Sea of Galilee. He goes to a worship space.  We can learn something from Jesus.  He’s our role model.
  2. The woman he heals is also in the common worship space.  We’re not told (as we are in other instances) that she’s there to be healed.  She’s simply present (despite her pain and infirmity) in the worshiping community.   It’s important to draw near to God.  The healing is an outgrowth of the worship.
  3. All time is holy.  Jesus is attacked for healing the woman on the sabbath.  Humanity’s concept of linear time is opposed to the divine idea of circular time (kairos vs. chronos time).  We forget that God works in the moment.  All time is Gods.  Jesus reminds the synagogue staff: human need (i.e. people in pain) outweighs any rules we think we are trying to enforce on God’s behalf.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Luke 12:49-56 A First Look At A Tough Read

Luke 12:49-56 is a challenging passage to read, let alone preach. Anything that begins with Jesus talking about “casting fire” on the Earth is enough to make me slow down. Honestly, it’s different, and instead of keeping it arms-length and moving on, let’s go in for a closer look.

Why does Jesus seem so abrupt in Luke 12? I’m not sure he’s abrupt as much as he’s frustrated. Jesus knows his time on Earth is short, and from just reading the text, Jesus says he is under stress. He’s getting closer to Jerusalem, Passover, and the inevitable clash between what he represents and the religious authorities. There is so much on his mind. At this stage in his ministry, I believe Jesus is hoping for a broader sense of engagement with his teachings. He wants the crowds (Luke indicates at the beginning of the chapter that thousands are following Jesus) and the disciples to understand his message. Every preacher wants the people to plug in and “get it”.  From Jesus’ perspective, it doesn’t appear that those in the crowd have fully understood the confrontational aspects and possibly divisive nature of his ministry. By the time we get to verse 49, Jesus comes right out and says what he means. There are no parables or stories. If we follow Jesus, the implications could lead to division in our families or households. These verses do not mean Jesus is coming to divide families from each other.  Nor is Jesus’ goal to foster war. The Prince of Peace is the Prince of Peace. Humanity will know peace because Christ knew violence on the cross. Everything in this passage is ultimately pointing us to the Cross. Do we understand what’s about to happen to Jesus or not? Can we read the signs? Do we get what’s about to occur?  Have we considered the implications of what Christ’s death and resurrection will mean for humanity?

Jesus reinforces what we’ve known since we joined the church. Following Jesus calls each of us to make a choice, sometimes hard choices. It is never easy to be a full-time disciple of Jesus Christ. Walking in Jesus’ footsteps is demanding. Jesus’ lifestyle and teachings conflict with the dominant values of our society. It’s easier to go along, get along, and accept the world as we’ve inherited it. Jesus says, “as is” isn’t good enough, even in our families. Our belief in the triune God sets us apart and reveals differences between ourselves and those we are closest too. In those moments, we trust the love of God to heal the brokenness between us and bring us back together.

Richard Lowell Bryant