January 19, 2014 - John 1.29-42

“Getting Personal”

John 1:29-42 (with Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9)

January 19, 2014


29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I 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.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).


Toward the end of The Varieties of Religious Experience, the great American philosopher William James contrasts a God who does "wholesale business" and a God who does "retail business." In his book on the essence of Christianity, Marcus Borg contrasts the wholesale God with the retail God.

The wholesale God, says Borg, is God abstracted from the language of any particular religious tradition. This is the God of philosophical theology and, I daresay, the God of lots of popular American Christianity. The Theologian Paul Tillich told us not to call God Father, but rather "Ultimate Reality," or "Being Itself." William James, who was reluctant to speak directly of God on any terms, once referred to God as, "The More." The wholesale God is what we talk about when we talk about what the word "God" means, what all our names for God point to, says Borg. The wholesale God is God emptied of much specificity, God as a large, abstract - and I daresay rather vague - concept.

I heard a person say the other day, "I find it rather naive to speak of God as a 'person.' It is better to talk about God as 'energy,' or 'force.'" To say anything more about God would be primitively to say too much about God.

"The force be with you." I think it was a Hollywood movie that said that, not the Bible!

On the other hand there is, says Borg, building on William James, the "retail God." Borg admits that this is the way that most traditional religions talk about God. This is God (to continue the analogy) of the church and synagogue, the retail outlets, the local distributors. The "retail God" tends to be personified. The "retail God" has personal characteristics - a proper name, a face, speaks, acts, and has distinctive attributes, just like a person.

Borg says that, "Problems arise only when we literalize or semiliteralize these personifications." This happens in both hard and soft ways. Hard literalization is when we take our personifications of God quite literally - that, for example, the phrase "the right hand of God" means that God really has hands. Borg says that, "Few Christians are literalists to this extent, though some are. For example, a couple of years ago, a group of Baptists separated themselves from the Baptist General Convention of Texas on the grounds that they believe that God is a gendered being, and specifically that God is a male being (of course)." Borg says, "of course, that's silly."

But there is a "softer literalization" of personal language, says Borg. Here, God may not have feet or hands but God is thought to be a person-like being. Borg says that there are, "many people in our time who need to hear about the 'wholesale God' in order to take the 'retail God' seriously."[1]

I hate to be sarcastic about this, but I will just say that I can sure understand why many people in our time want to hear about the wholesale God. The more vague, indistinct, mushy, and impersonal we can make God, the better for us! Then we can make God just about anything we want. We can render God into a projection of our sweet sentimentality and will never have to grow, change, or be born again.

I have noted over the last few years how many Christians seem to talk little about Jesus and talk a great deal about God. "We have our differences," they say, "but we all believe in God." In order to get unity we sacrifice God as a distinct, particular, personal being.

I'm sorry but I just don't think this will work. For one thing, any attempt to push this vague wholesale God, the invisible, silent one who runs some vast, vague distribution center somewhere, censors out about 90 percent of everything said about God in scripture. There, it's not the vague wholesale God whom we meet but the local, "retail God," the kindly shopkeeper at the corner store who knows your name, always notices you when you come in, who knows what kind of cheese you like, and what kind of cheese you don't like - to continue the analogy.

Look at today's scriptures - all of them. Each of them, in their own way, speaks of a God who sees, speaks, acts, moves, and intrudes. Isaiah the prophet recounts how, even before he was born, God knew him and had plans for him. Even in utero this God claimed his life. Paul, when challenged by some dissidents at one of his early congregations, defends his authority as a leader - not on the basis of his biblical fidelity, or his graduation from an accredited seminary - but rather on the basis that God Almighty had reached down and authorized him as an apostle. The word apostle means literally "someone who is sent from God." Paul says that he exercises authority by the call of God. And then there's today's Gospel from John. John the Baptist looks at Jesus and sees in him the very presence of God in the flesh, the personification of God among us.

I've used all three of this morning's lessons to make this point, but I could just as well have used any scripture that we read here on most any Sunday. Think of Sunday as our attempt to get personal with God, to give that word God, which can be terribly abstract and general, some specificity and concreteness. Sunday is when we tell God who we are and, more importantly, when we find out who God is.

Here's an analogy: Say that you are a friend of Mary Smith. When you are Mary's friend, part of what you love about her is her particular face, which you could easily recognize in a crowd, the way she laughs, the way she talks, the way she moves. People love our friends, not for their generalities, but in their personal specificity. "Humanity in general" does not move us, or energize us, or evoke love in us. Only Mary Smith can do that.

The same is true with God. Here, on Sunday, we get down to specifics. We really believe that in the specifics of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we have seen God, not as some idea, but as a person, a person walking among us, revealing the true, inner life of God, God's way with the world, for us.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a preacher that was going about his usual Sunday morning, making his way through his usual worship service.  Stand up, say a prayer, sit down, stand up sing a hymn, sit down, stand up, read, sit down, stand up to preach.  As he stepped up to preach, he opened his notes, and then looked out at the congregation.  Except this time, he really looked at them – all looking at him - or to him.  They were all looking at him with eyes that were waiting.  It was if he had never noticed it before.  He saw them looking to him for something he did not have at the moment.  He was stunned.  He was struck silent.  He stared at them – for a long time.  Cleared his throat, like he was getting ready to speak, but couldn’t.  Finally, he spoke.  “I have forgotten what I was going to say.”  Then, he turned around and sat down.  It wasn’t the longest sermon he ever preached, but it might have been one of his best, and it was certainly his most memorable.  It was as if he had never seen them before with the eyes of Jesus.  He realized that he did not really know them.  The weight of that knowledge cleaned out his mind and forced him to sit down.

Do you really know Jesus?  Do you know what it means for John the Baptist to say, “Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world!”  Perhaps we don’t because we have forgotten what it is to pay for our sins.  We feel so entitled.  We forget that what we deserve is to pay for our sins.  Only when we realize that will we be able to see Jesus for who he is.

Knowing the Son of God comes through revelation.  Knowing and seeing Jesus only comes when Jesus is revealed to us.  That is the revelation of God.  The scriptures tell us that Jesus is the revelation of God.  We know Jesus when Jesus reveals himself to us. 

Our scriptures, our experiences, our worship in word and ordinance, all of this points to Jesus, but does not fully describe him or circumscribe him.  There is simply too much of Jesus for us to ever fully know him.  Nevertheless, we do experience Christ, the one who comes to us, not to be defined by us, but rather to be revealed to us as the Lord of Lords.

There was a group of scholars that embarked on what they called the “search for the historical Jesus.”  As beneficial as that endeavor might have been, I believe it to be flawed on one primary point:  The real Jesus is not just historical.  The real Jesus is the living presence of God that keeps moving and eluding our grasp.  To try and nail Jesus down is impossible because Jesus is alive and at work.  A group within our own denomination insists that Jesus can only be known as they interpret him through the scriptures.  That is so backward it’s dangerous.  Jesus is the sole criterion by which we interpret the Bible, not the other way around.  In other words, Jesus is God.  The Bible is the book given to us by God.  We can’t elevate words about Jesus above him.  Jesus is alive. 

A former NFL quarterback is Brian Griese.  He played for the Bears, Broncos, Dolphins and Buccaneers.  I know him.  Well, I like to say that a lot.  I know Brian Griese.  But, it has been a while since I spoke with him.  But I am sure he would remember me.  We were at camp together for six whole weeks.  I was his counselor.  He was 12 years old.  That was 1987.  I haven’t talked to him since then.  He has changed a lot.  He’s done a lot of things since then.  His mother died, he played for Michigan and won the Rose Bowl, the MVP, went to the Pros, went to the Pro Bowl, and is now a college football analyst for ESPN. He’s done a lot of other stuff.  Of course, I haven’t shared those things with him, because I haven’t sought him out in 27 years.  I know Brian Griese, but do I really know Brian Griese? 

We treat Jesus like that.  We presume we know Jesus.  We have met him.  We have probably asked him into our hearts and all, but do we really know him now? 

You might say that the Jesus we don’t know is as important as the Jesus we do know.  To have a relationship with Christ means to be following him as his disciple.  To know Jesus means to be discovering new things about God as we follow Jesus.  I have discovered nothing new about Brian Griese over the last 27 years, except for what I have heard others say.  I pray my relationship with Jesus is never like that, and I pray the same for you.

If we don’t know Jesus as the Lamb of God, then we really don’t know Jesus.  Are you sure you know Jesus as the Lamb of God?  Are you sure that you are aware of what it means to have him pay for your sins?

John the Baptist spent years knowing Jesus.  But it wasn’t until he was in his ministry, preparing people for God’s kingdom that he really discovered Jesus.  A Christian that has ceased following Christ has ceased learning anything new about Christ, and has ceased growing as a Christian.  If you have given your life to Christ already, then the Jesus you don’t know should be of greater concern than the Jesus you do.  Read your Bible with open eyes, and let God get personal with you. 


[1] (Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Discovering a Life of Faith, HaperSanFrancisco, 2003, pp. 71-72.)

  December 2017  
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