This morning, I want to begin a new sermon series, based on the gospel of John. In preparation for these lessons, I’ve been inspired by some things that Jeremy Marshall and Randy Harris have written, along with a host of others.
But our focus is going to be on what the apostle John has to say. In just a moment, we’re going to jump into the first chapter, but before we do that, I want to talk about the gospel of John as a whole.
As I’m sure you know, there are four gospels that tell the story of the life of Jesus on this earth. Three of them – Matthew, Mark and Luke – all tell that story in a very similar way. In fact, we call them the “synoptic” gospels which means they are “viewed from the same angle”. But Sesame Street would have sung the song, “One of these gospels is not like the others, One of these gospels doesn’t belong.”
Because the gospel of John is very different from the others. It doesn’t even start at the same point. Matthew, Mark and Luke all begin in Bethlehem. But John begins in a galaxy far, far away. You won’t find any parables in the gospel of John. You won’t read about Jesus’ birth or the temptations in the wilderness, or the transfiguration, or Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
On the other hand, you will find a lot of stories that the other gospel writers leave out. For example, Jesus’ first miracle of turning of water to wine, Nicodemus and his discussion with Jesus about the second birth, the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the washing of the disciples’ feet, and many, many other stories.
One of the reasons that the gospel of John is so different is because John wrote his gospel for a different reason. The gospel of Matthew was written to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Mark is a gospel of action. Luke was written to give a very orderly historical account of Jesus’ life, and especially to show how Jesus connected with the outcasts.
But John? Well, John tells us exactly why he wrote his gospel – “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31).
That almost makes it sounds like John was writing to unbelievers, but we know that he wasn’t. He was writing to Christians to encourage them to continue to believe. Whenever they faced persecutions and they were considering giving up their faith, John wanted to remind them exactly who it was they were following. Jesus wasn’t just a good man; Jesus was the Son of God.
Over the next several months, we’ll spend some time in John’s gospel, getting a clearer picture of who Jesus is, reminding ourselves of just who it is that we have committed our lives to follow.
Each week, I plan for us to watch a short segment of the movie, “The Gospel of John”. If you have your Bibles, feel free to turn to John 1:1-34. If you don’t have a Bible, that’s OK. Just listen as the reader reads the text for us.
Let me ask you a question – Why is the church here? What are we here for? Why are we here?
And I’m not just talking about your personal reasons for showing up on Sunday mornings. It could be that some of you are here because this is where your friends worship and you want to be with your friends. Some of you may be here simply because somebody else makes you come. Some of you could be here because you don’t want to pass up coffee and free doughnuts. We all have our reasons.
But when I ask the question, “Why are we here?”, I’m looking to go a little bit deeper. What’s the reason for the church? What’s our purpose? What’s the church supposed to be doing? Why are we here?
And I understand that there are a lot of possible answers to that question.
Some of you might say, “Well, the reason we’re here is to prepare ourselves for heaven, because when I die I want to go to heaven.” But that raises some other questions — What exactly is it that we’re supposed to be doing to get ready for the life to come? Be baptized? Go to church? Become better people? Learn everything there is to know about God and the Bible? Is that what we do to get to wherever it is we’re going? Is that really what the church is all about? A group of people who are in the world, but who are anxious to get somewhere else?
Have you ever been at a party or some other social gathering with someone who just couldn’t wait to get out of there? How much did you enjoy being around them? If our whole point as Christians and as the church is just to try to get somewhere else, then how much do you think people will enjoy being around us?
So maybe you say, “The church is here to make disciples. Not just to get ourselves to heaven, but to bring as many people with us as we can.” Which certainly sounds a lot less selfish. Instead of just viewing the world as a lame party we’re trying to escape; we’re telling our friends and our neighbors: “Hey—there’s this better party up the road! Come with me, and we’ll go together!”
But that still leaves us with this picture of the church as a group of people who always want to be somewhere else. And that can rub people the wrong way. It can give them the impression that we’re too good for them.
But then, maybe you don’t care if we rub people the wrong way. After all, Jesus said, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.14). So, yes, we need to be preparing for the life to come. And yes, we need to bring along as many people as we possibly can. But we shouldn’t be too hopeful because, in the end, only a few people are going to find the way.
And so, you want to make sure that you know the way. So maybe for you, the main purpose of the church is to make sure we know everything God wants us to know. And so, our focus needs to be having sound doctrine. We are the guardians of the path that leads to everlasting life. And so, you’re very concerned about how we interpret the Bible. Do we understand everything correctly? Are we getting it all right? And you want to make sure we know and we teach all the right things about baptism or divorce and remarriage or how old the earth is. It’s all equally important to you, because if you get any of it wrong, you lose everything.
But, at some point along the way, you find somebody else who understands things a little differently than you do. And, when that happens, you’re going to disagree. And you’re both going to have strong arguments in your favor. And when you can’t work it out, you’re going to go your separate ways. And each of you will be convinced that the other guy’s going to hell. So, is that what the church is here for?
Or maybe, you believe deep down that humans were created to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And you realize that when we’re fighting with each other over fine points of doctrine, we’re focused on ourselves and what we think — not on glorifying God. And so, for you, the church should be all about worship. Everything we do should be totally focused on praising and glorifying God. You feel like worship is a time when you can take the focus off yourself, off our world and its troubles, and just lose yourself worshiping God.
But, the problem is this — Does God really want us to forget about ourselves when we come to worship? Should worship be a time when we totally forget about all the suffering and the heartache outside our doors?
And so, maybe you say, “That’s absolutely right! The church should be focused on service. Serving God and each other and our neighbors.” Because you’ve seen that all the other answers cause us to turn inward, which isn’t healthy. When all of our attention is focused on ourselves, or on trying to get somewhere else, or arguing over who’s got the best theology, we’re not going to be a healthy, loving, growing church. So, we need to get out among the people and serve them, just like Jesus did.
But even that can be a problem. Because sometimes Jesus gets lost among all the needs we’re trying to address. In other words, we can share food and clothing and money with lots of people without ever mentioning Jesus. In fact, the truth is, you don’t even need the church to serve people. You can serve people all day long through the Boy Scouts or United Way or Kiwanis Club or any number of volunteer organizations.
Now, I don’t think any of those answers are bad or wrong. They’re just not complete. None of them, on their own, really answers the question, “Why are we here?”
But I do think that we can find an answer to that question in our text this morning, by looking at John the Baptist. And once we see what John the Baptist was doing there back then, I think we can get a pretty good idea of what we’re supposed to be doing today.
So, what was John the Baptist here for?
And I would suggest the answer is found in John 1:29. John saw Jesus walking up to him. And John had all these people gathered around him. And he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John wanted everyone to know who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do. I suppose you could say that John the Baptist was Jesus’ publicity agent.
In fact, that’s pretty much what he said. In John 1:31, he said, “For this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” All of John’s ministry — his preaching and teaching and baptizing — was focused on one goal: bringing people to Jesus.
John made Jesus known to the people. And Jesus would take care of the rest. Because listen to what John 1:18 says about why Jesus came.
“No one has ever seen God;
the only God, who is at the Father’s side,
he has made him known.”
John the Baptist came to make Jesus known. And Jesus came to make God known. John the Baptist showed Jesus to the people, and then Jesus showed God to the people.
In fact, the apostle John spends a lot of time in this first chapter making this very point. He starts off by referring to Jesus as “the Word”. The Word who was “with God” and, in fact, who “was God”. But, in verse 14, he says this Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
John’s use of the word “Word” to describe Jesus is significant. Because “word” is how we communicate, and Jesus was God’s way of communicating with us. The Word was made flesh so that we could understand God on our level.
And there is this recurring theme in John’s gospel where Jesus says time and again, “If you’ve seen me, then you’ve seen the Father.”
In John 14, for example, Philip is pleading with Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” And Jesus almost seems a little exasperated when he responds, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:8-9). Jesus is how God lets us see who he really is.
But, the disciples were slow to understand, and so was everyone else. One of the saddest lines in all the Bible is found in John 1:10, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.”
I think one of the most difficult things we can possibly experience here on this earth is to love someone who doesn’t recognize us. If you are a father or a mother with a young baby, it is an exciting day when that baby begins to lock eyes with you in recognition. But, as our loved ones begin to age, sometimes that recognition fades. It’s a painful thing, as Bob can tell you, to take care of a spouse, or a mother or a father with Alzheimer’s. You love them with all your heart, but there’s no recognition.
And so, I have to imagine that the apostle John had a tear in his eye when he wrote about Jesus, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11)
But, Jesus came anyway. Because the very core of the gospel story is this idea that God didn’t wait around for us to get our act together. God didn’t wait for us to figure God out.
That’s what the first chapter of John’s gospel wants us to know. Jesus, who is God’s Son and fully God, also became fully human. The infinite became finite. The eternal one entered time. The invisible became visible. God became flesh and blood and lived out our day-to-day existence to show us in a very concrete and practical way just who God is.
And, as a result, we don’t have to guess what God is like. We don’t have to sit around wondering what makes God happy, what makes God sad, and what makes God angry. We can just look at Jesus.
Now, I want to focus just a little bit more on John 1:29, because I think it may be the most important thing that John the Baptist said in our text. He told everyone that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
We’re not quite sure what John was specifically referring to when he called Jesus “the Lamb of God”. Perhaps he was thinking about Passover and the blood of the lamb that was painted on the door frame of their houses. Or maybe John was referring to that lamb that was offered as substitute for Isaac, because as Abraham said on that day, “God provides”.
Or maybe he was thinking about the lamb in Isaiah that, “like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” Or maybe it was the daily sacrifices that the Jews offered. Or maybe, John had in mind all of these things. Jesus is the Lamb of God.
But there’s more. John the Baptist said that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Now, there’s something very subtle here that you may miss if you’re not careful. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Notice that John didn’t say Jesus takes away the sins of the world (plural). He takes away the sin of the world (singular).
Perhaps I’m reading a bit too much into it, but it seems to me that there is a difference between “sin” and “sins”. Sins, plural, are the bad, rotten, selfish, destructive things we do. Killing, stealing, cheating on your partner—those are all sins.
But sin, singular, is a word that describes the attitude of rebellion, which results in our separation from God and from other people. Sins break rules. But sin is a word about a broken relationship. It describes an attitude where we focus on doing what we want, and as we turn inward, we turn away from God. Away from our neighbors and their needs.
Sin builds these walls around us — walls of shame, fear, insecurity, mistrust, hatred, anger and pride. So, we can’t see how beautiful God is, and how much God loves us. We don’t see all the beauty of God’s creation. We don’t see other people as they truly are. Because our vision is so clouded by sin.
So, I think when John the Baptist said that Jesus came to take away the sin of the world, he meant that Jesus came to heal the broken relationships between humans and God; the broken relationships between people; and even between humans and the rest of creation. Jesus came to tear down the barriers of shame and fear and hatred that sin has built up. So, that we can all finally see God and each other and our world the way that God intended for us to.
So, let’s go back to my original question: Why are we here?
I think we’re here to do what John the Baptist did. We’re here to be Jesus’ publicity agents. We’re here to make Jesus known. Known among ourselves. In our families. In our schools. And workplaces. And neighborhoods. Wherever we are.
The church is here to make Jesus known, so that Jesus can make God known. We’re here to proclaim, to testify that Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world.
And that’s not some slogan we paint on a picket sign or shout angrily through a bullhorn. It’s the gospel. It’s the good news that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life (John 3.16).
God didn’t wait for us to figure God out. God didn’t wait for us to get ourselves out of our mess. God didn’t leave us alone and angry and afraid in our sin. God came and lived among us through Jesus. To rescue us and heal us and embrace us with a perfect love. Through Jesus, the God who gave us life, now gives us eternal and abundant life.
That’s the gospel. And if that’s not the story you heard growing up — I hope it’s the story you’ll hear from now on. It’s the story I want this church to always tell. It’s the story I want to tell. The story I want you to tell. Because that’s what we’re here for.
But, when the church forgets our story, when we forget why we’re here, we start putting the focus in all sorts of other things. And if we find that we’re not attracting new people or we’re not keeping the people we already have, churches sometimes go into panic mode. They try to outdo the world and each other in providing worship experiences that sometimes resemble a Super Bowl half-time show. Or a program or ministry to scratch every itch every single person might have.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to be more engaging and creative with our worship and outreach. We certainly should. But we should never make the mistake of thinking that those are the things that will draw people to God.
Jesus is what will draw people. In fact, that’s exactly what he said: “When I am lifted up … I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12.32)
So, for the next few months, we’re going to be taking a journey through the gospel of John, to see how John lifts Jesus up. To see how John shows us Jesus, and Jesus, in turn, shows us God. If we’re going to be Jesus’ publicity agents, out in the world being his representatives, we need to get to know him better so that we can show and tell others just how wonderful he is.
And I hope that as we come to see Jesus more clearly, we’ll fall deeper in love with him. And you’ll want to make him known. Because that’s why you’re here. That’s why I’m here. It’s what we’re all here for.