Tag Archives: Gospel of John

The beginning of John 9:1-41

So here’s the beginning verses:

As he walked along,
he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him,
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 

Now on one level it is a very clear thing — in those days the reason someone might be born blind was because of a punishment for sin. Jesus is saying no, that’s not it. And that was considered (I am told) a radical thing to say and believe.

Yet would Jesus’ reason for the man being born blind might really be comforting? God made this man born blind so that eventually he will be healed by Jesus and thus show and serve God’s glory? Isn’t that really mean of God? Isn’t that God using bad for good; isn’t that unfair?

The man born blind makes no complaint. He’s glad to be healed, he’s frustrated at the confusion of his identity post-healing (as you would be), he’s frustrated by being asked over and over how “that man” healed him and who (and where) “that man” is. He ultimately believes “that man”, Jesus, to be the Son of Man (a declaration of being the Messiah) and worships him. You do not worship someone who is only human. The formerly blind man ends up seeing very clearly indeed.

So if he has no complaint about being used by God to reveal the glory of God, perhaps I should not either. It might be patronizing of me. Or it might be me stuck in this endless loop I seem to be in about wanting the world to be fair and nice and just and safe and good and when bad things happen, I don’t blame people*, I blame God.

Here’s what I imagine. Imagine the man’s mother, so young and hopeful and delighted to be okay after giving birth, and delighted to have her baby and delighted he is nursing and thriving. Except unlike other babies, his eyes don’t seem to learn to track. He doesn’t seem to recognize the light when it shines in his face. She holds him to the sun, putting her hand gently over his eyes and moving her hand away, and he laughs because he feels her hand, and the strength of her arm holding him, and the breeze blowing against his face. But his little eyes don’t get upset by the bright shine of the sun. It might take more months before she admits that he can’t see, that he will never see her face, he will never be the son they so longed for, that all he can be (in that place and time) is a beggar, an object of mercy and charity, or in bad circumstances, an object to ridicule and even steal from, take his money right out of his cloak spread on the ground. Imagine the tears she shed, no matter how many other children they had or have, because this child is facing a literally dark future. Imagine Jesus telling her — it was all set up just so I could prove that I am.

Would she be angry at Jesus/God?

Would she be glad to know why this happened to her son, and that it was set up as an honor?

All we end up knowing from the story, is she and her husband are afraid.

Would it help me in suffering, to know that it is for the glory of God? I hope so. I think it might. I pray that I never need to know. I think fear is a pretty honest and appropriate response to seeing the power and healing of God!

 

*Mostly. Sometimes, some things, sure. But not for being born blind, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s think about Jesus today

From John 1:6 – 9: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

Biblically speaking, the story there, as far as I know before God created the world, there was no light, because God said “Let there be light” to start the whole mess off. Isn’t this true of physics as well? Darkness is the default. Light is a gift. Even a tiny candle can break up the darkness. Yet that is not necessarily I think the same as saying that darkness is bad. Dark in the womb, but babies grow. Dark in winter but seeds are waiting, and some even need the dark and cold to ready them to sprout. yes? Night time fears are so much worse than daylight fears — that’s when we are all “one phone call from our knees” and we bless the light: Thank you God for creating this whole mess, this beautiful terrible amazing everything, and for walking with us in the midst of it, every step a step into light, into healing, into birth.

How brave of God Himself, how generous, how shocking, how loving: He lived for nine months enclosed safely in dark womb, a time that strikes me as exactly between very God and very human, a time that light rested in darkness and it was good.

Hooray for the birth of true light! Merry Christmas everyone!

A gift of peace

John said: “He must increase but I must decrease.” And this has been such a puzzle to me. Aren’t we not ranking things, firsts and lasts, isn’t the gospel message one of love and abundance?

This just sounds so un-abundant. But the very first bits of autumn are in the air where I live. The air in the morning is crisp, it is darker a bit sooner in the evening, the leaves aren’t turning but they are hinting at turning. I’ve had to start cutting out the dying plants. And it was a sudden thought about how nature increases and decreases that has sort of turned me about. You can’t rank an oak in winter, so gray and still, as being lesser than an oak in summer so mighty with life and greenness. They are same tree. It is increasing and decreasing. It’s a natural cycle; it is how it works.

So now I am thinking that’s more in line with what the Baptist meant – it is just natural and proper and orderly that he decrease, that this season of preparation has passed; Jesus is here, the Bridegroom is here, very human, very God. Here. It is time for this season of joy, healing, redeeming, unbinding, mending, whatever metaphor you like for the Jesus Season.

Or maybe I just came to peace with this bit of scripture – for no reason at all. Just a gift of peace!

ocean_rose

But is there increasing and decreasing in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Here’s what’s going on with me: I’m just completely stuck on John chapter 3, verse 30: “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” Because [as Jesus says] the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who go out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard; and they agree for the usual daily wage. And you all know the parable — Matthew chapter 20: 1 – 16 — the landowner ends up hiring all day long and paying everyone the same, sending them all into the vineyard. The Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t have ranks, yes? maybe?

I’ve been learning it by heart and as completely as I can in preparation for being lay reader next Sunday. This is a parable I’ve loved from the first time I heard it when I was in my thirties and a brand-new Christian. I took it to mean that Jesus will treat me just the same as someone who was born a Christian — he isn’t “counting”, he is “loving”. And even now when I read it, I hear it with such joy.

So if the Kingdom of Heaven is like this — not counting, just loving, then as natural and normal and proper as it for John the Baptist to decrease, well maybe something else is really going on. Or supposed to be going on. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is not about rank. Not about numbers. Not about lack. It’s about abundance — there will be fruit for all, work for all, a day’s reward for all, generosity more than we deserve.

So — I’m sadly stuck on the whole decrease thing. As joyful as the Baptizer was — he was as joyful as the best man at a wedding — perhaps he was wrong a little bit. Can things change without it being about loss?

John will decrease, what does that mean?

The Gospel of John chapter 3, verses 22 through 30 (or maybe through 36), the focus is again briefly on John the Baptist. The first several times I read this, it seems so taunting and mean. Like “Hey John you’re still here baptizing and preaching? Why? Jesus is here now, so go away.” Now I am reading it as a much more natural thing, a formal passing of the reigns of the story from John to Jesus. It repeats that John is not Messiah, it recaps that Jesus comes first both in time and in rank, it even goes back into “legal” language of testimony.

The shining thing here, to me, is that John the Baptist is not the least bit put out or sad or upset in any way that Jesus is taking the stage – getting more disciples, more followers, more attention. He describes himself as the “best man” at a wedding, and one who rejoices for the bride and groom, whose joy is fulfilled in their happiness. He brought Jesus, the bridegroom to the people of Israel, the bride – and this is ancient and powerful symbolic language even though it is unfamiliar and awkward to us. Or anyway unfamiliar and awkward to me. (Would we describe our country as a bride? If so what sort of bridegroom is she waiting for? See this imagery is strange, isn’t it? It’s okay you can disagree in the comments. I might just be having a failure of imagination. But it is very common imagery in scripture so it must have been ordinary to use it back in the day.)

I can picture this scene in my mind: John’s standing straight and tall, and grinning with delight, brimming with joy. Perhaps he has a hand on the back of one of his disciples, to calm him down the way you would an angry horse. Perhaps he points with his other hand, waves it in the direction of Jesus. “He’s going to grow and increase; I’m going to decrease. This is the will of God.” And more than the will of God, and more than the natural order of things. This fact makes John happy. This is good news of great joy for all the people: the Messiah is here. Go follow him already!

But….

Of course I’ve already written about John’s despair as he is trapped in prison in Matthew 11 and 14: look at how happy he is at the beginning about Jesus and then see and taste and feel his despair in Matthew 11 and 14. He had to send his disciples to ask if Jesus was really the messiah. He loses his confidence, his joy, his faith in what he earlier testified to: The spirit of God like a dove was on Jesus and Godself spoke. And a few years later…he isn’t so sure anymore.

Faith for us people, it comes and goes in waves and swirls and eddys and floods and trickles, yes? Even for John the Baptist.

None of us know the ending of our stories, we can hope we’ll die at home surrounded by loved ones and music and peace like a river.

But…

Dear God, let me like John be so pleased when other people come into their own, even if it seems to crowd the stage or push me off to the shadows. Let me rejoice. Let me beam with delight at their work and strength and beauty.

Christmas in August, this morning, now

This morning as I did a quick prayer for illumination and for the day, suddenly I remembered the Shepherds who “went to see/that thing they had been told/in Bethlehem”. They left their fields and flocks and went to town and found “the Babe/wrapped in swaddling clothes/and lying in a manger”. What newborns do Shepherds usually gather around? Lambs! They would care for the orphaned lambs by hand, wouldn’t they? They count them, watch them grow, see them. Shepherds found the baby Jesus lying in a manager and “made know what had been told to them”. But they were on the edges of society, uncouth, dirty, smelly — the townspeople were amazed because why would a bunch of Shepherds go strange like this? Leave their sheep? That’s like just dropping your wallet on the ground and walking away. Foolishness! But Mary pondered their words in her heart. The Shepherds gathered about her newborn and spoke of the Messiah, and Mary knew that was both amazingly joyful news, yet perhaps also something to fear, with a mother’s intuition.

So God this time is revealing His Messiah by baptism — in John’s Gospel I just realized there isn’t the “repent” language we’ve seen in the other gospels. Instead John so clearly says, “… I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” That is, he is baptizing so that God can reveal the Messiah. And He does, with the Spirit in the shape of a dove…..

But this is the same Lamb as the newborn the Shepherds gathered around — this is the Lamb of God. Maybe instead of a Lamb of sacrifice or Passover, neither of which quite fit, we should see a Lamb of birth, life, hope, mystery, change — we are so used to interpreting the phrase “…take away the sin of the world” by thinking of the Cross and pain and death. But first Godself came to us as a Baby, Godself in some mysterious way of transformation became born to us in a city of bread, and Angels sang of peace.

Maybe at this point in the story that death was optional — after all John didn’t know that was going to happen. What God can be killed? Why would a God let himself be killed? John is joyful and excited and remembering a Birth not pointing ahead to a death. This is pure joy!

“Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

No waiting for a Cross required; just see Him, love Him, follow Him. Just like the Shepherds.

Jesus takes away the sin of the world

Today let’s revisit this:

29 “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

My study bible has a confusing footnote that basically says lambs weren’t used as a sin offering and the Passover Lamb was not about sin.

This time instead of trying to parse the imagery of a lamb, let’s cut a bit deeper: what is the sin of the world?

Think of the time your heart was broken; think of superstorms and hurricanes; think of injustice — we don’t have to look very far the last couple of weeks to see that in the headline news. But of course injustice is there all the time, in systemic ways. Back in Jesus’ day, the Roman citizens had rights the rest of the world did not have, and this plays out for Paul later in the story. But our world today — and people far more qualified than me can trace and analyze every jot — is just as full of injustice.

Perhaps “brokenness” is the right word for the sin of the world. All too often people hear the word “sin” and think of what their culture or family deems wrong, immoral, different — and that may just be a time and place thing and not what is meant theologically (spiritually?) as sin. We have to dig deeper. And we can’t be all sweet about it, “oh God will work everything out for good.” “God’s plan is different from our ours.” Don’t you want to scream when someone says stuff like that? Or is that just me?

A poet I love defines sin as “missing the mark”. When did you and I fail to help? When did you and I fail in kindness? When did you and I fail to think before we spoke? When did the help you and I offered completely miss the point?

The poem is “On Slow Learning” by Scott Cairns and starts “If you’ve ever owned/a tortoise” and explains that however hard your well-meaning tortoise tries it “may find himself in his journeys/to be painfully far from the mark”.

And you forgive and help your tortoise.

Let’s move to the part where — Jesus, the Lamb, takes the sin of the world away. The joyous part! See John’s face light up with joy, with faith, with thankfulness and love. He’s so very happy to see Jesus. He’s been in the desert, he’s eaten the locusts, he’s baptized everyone he could for repentance, he’s been trying to hard to get people to understand and then, finally, then: There! Look! Behold!

Testified

My study bible is NRSV and uses firm language: Testified, testimony – John confesses, testifies, declares – at some point before or maybe during when the priests and Levites showed up, John baptized Jesus, the lamb of God. In the Gospel of John this event is off-stage. John is telling – testifying – to the truth of what was experienced:

“I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

Since the Gospel of John was written later than the others, perhaps the off-stage baptism reflects that, a sort of scrupulousness about what the writer has heard and seen. The testimony of John the Baptist would be very compelling, yes? The writer didn’t invent something he didn’t see, he found the record of someone who was there, the one doing the baptizing no less, and gives us that information. This also goes to the structure of these verses. The news that Jesus is the lamb of God, the Son of God, that the Holy Spirit descended upon him – that’s not where the story starts. It starts with documenting, identifying John the Baptist: not the messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. But he is one who has heard the Voice….and he also heard God regarding the dove and the Holy Spirit. An event of Godself breaking into the world was first announced and then described in this testimony.

I love going into a story and “seeing” it unfold, and feeling it, and wondering about all the players, as you realize by now if you’ve read the other blogs by me. But stepping back and looking at the structure is something a little different for me.

It’s pretty clear that this is written in a structured way, a serious way: (a) Who is telling us about this event, (b) can we trust him, (c) what did he say, testify, confess, declare?

I wish I knew exactly when the priests and Levites came for the testimony: after the baptism? For a span of time that encompassed the baptism of Jesus? The testimony we have is compressed, we don’t know where anyone slept or ate, it is hard to get a picture of what’s going on, yes? Are they actually by the water or in a little village? And none of these details matter to the writer, these sorts of details were not the authorial intention, yes?

In the Message bible the language is quite different: It isn’t a Voice in the Wilderness, it is Thunder. He “tells the plain truth”, he yelled out instead of declaring.

The Text this Week link to the Blue Letter Bible, uses “record” – “And this is the record of John….” And later “He bare record that this is the Son of God”.

It isn’t that any of the meaning in the different translations is different or less or more – it is that the NRSV is very declarative language. I need to remember that other perfectly wonderful translations use record, seen, witness, yell, look. To turn these verses from John 1: 19 – 28 or even to 34 into a Storytelling I have a choice of words, of tone of voice, of volume of voice. What might I do with my hands? How might I move about? How might you? I promise every storyteller will tell this differently.

But we’re all telling the same story and for the glory of God!

What about the dove?

Every time I think “oh I got that” about scripture I am wrong. It unfolds, it layers, it deepens, it ripens. Recently I treated myself to Consider the Birds by Debbie Blue and wouldn’t you know she starts right off with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus and to John testifying “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” which is just a few verses further on than the passage I’ve been dwelling in lately.  I’ve read this many times, I’ve heard and seen the image of God as a dove, many times, and I never once actually thought about it. Dove. Spirit from heaven live a dove. Love, dove, sweetness, bland. Right?

Yet not an eagle, not an ostrich, not a falcon, not a peacock — a dove. A symbol of purity and, don’t you think, of weakness? Debbie Blue drills into many many aspects of Dove-ness but the most interesting to me were the facts: archeologists have uncovered sites of humans breeding doves/pigeons (they are the same bird) several thousand years ago. Doves/pigeons were used for communication — sending messages — for thousands of years, as well as food and sacrifice. Doves like to have sex and thus they have lots of chicks but they also tend to mate for life. They kiss. They fight with each other too; they get aggregated and irritated at each other. A child can catch and kill a dove. A dove is not a predator. Doves/pigeons can be and are overlooked, taken for granted.

So God descended from heaven like a dove — small, fragile, useful, loving, easily caught, easily over-looked. Doves are mixed up with people, pigeons are a part of the story. Let’s never overlook the ordinary, it might just turn out to be a part of God.

A voice crying out in the wilderness

So what is that quote from Isaiah anywho? Isaiah 40 is a long – song? Poem? – beautifully describing who God is, and how incomparable to humans He is. Yet He has a relationship, a covenant, with a people. His people have served their term, paid their penalty, the exile from Jerusalem will come to an end, remember we are like dust, like grass, like grasshoppers, but God is faithful, wise, mighty and if we wait, then we will be given strength and be sent home. The language is truly beautiful, much more than my description of the words. The “story” of Isaiah 40 is not very modern, it is hard for us, for me anyway. Partly we’re used to the idea of being dust and grass, these are familiar images. Partly we rebel against this idea: we have agency, we have natural and unalienable rights including the right to pursue happiness. Wait on the Lord? Need strength from the Lord? The story of Isaiah 40 is far away from us.

Let’s just zoom in to verses 3 – 5:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all people shall see it together, For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The voice here is a voice of God – a voice from Heaven’s council that God has asked to speak to us, to comfort us. Words straight from God’s mouth.

Huh. John the Baptist is telling the investigators that he is a voice crying out in the wilderness – not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet – a voice sent by God himself.

And his message is to “make straight the way of the Lord” – meaning, according to Isaiah 40, make a grand big smooth easy road for God himself to walk on, for God to be seen (revealed), for “the glory of the Lord.”

What might be the glory of the Lord – okay I’ll toss out a few words: hope, love, grace, comfort, peace, justice?

But I think it is clear that John the Baptist has just told the investigators that God is coming, be ready.

The investigators get really anxious – this is not a proper message to take back to their bosses. But they do not ask him a third time who he is. They’ve gone from “Who are you?” to “Who are you?” and they don’t like the answers. So they ignore all the implications from Isaiah. That God is mighty and wise and faithful and loving and cares for us like a shepherd does his sheep and most especially, they ignore that God is “breaking into the world” right there in the wilderness. They don’t listen to John, and thus they are not hearing a voice sent by God.

What if they had? What if they had said, “really, God’s voice, a message from God? Let’s stick around and see what happens.” Or what if they had raced back to Jerusalem and made the Pharisees and everyone go out to Bethany across the Jordan and be baptized? Here’s where our human agency, our will and our choices come into play – in how we respond. Do we join in making the highway in the wilderness? Do we even ask the right questions?