Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Cleaning Up a Dirty Word

On Cleaning Up a Dirty Word
John 1:29-42
Ordinary 3
January 16, 2011
William G. Carter

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When 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?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.

It is a dirty word. Foul. Distasteful. Ugly. In mixed company, it makes us uncomfortable. Polite people do not bring it up in conversation. When released into the air, it will affect the atmosphere. It will ruin appetites. It will turn stomachs. The word always provokes a reaction. It is that kind of word.

I am talking about a dirty word. It has been smudged, soiled, and dragged through the dirt. Some would even say it smells. People who know the word and its history prefer to tone it down. They seek a softer synonym. Others would not be so gentle. They would reach in the tool chest, find an Exacto knife, and remove it from every place where it appears in print.

All the same, it’s the word that we will talk about today. Like it or not, it is the church’s word. No one else could have dreamed it up, but we did. It’s all ours. This word belongs to the church.

Many of our words have been defiled. Years ago, vandals broke into the vault where the church keeps all of its important words. Good words were vandalized. One of those words was "charisma." It was one of our words. “Charisma” was once a holy word. It meant “a gift of grace.” But vandals broke in and stole our word. They stole it. Now it means “a photogenic smile” or “the ability to look good on television.” They use that word to sell toothpaste or to get votes for people from Washington to Wasilla. “Charisma.” That used to be one of our words. We were robbed.

And that’s not our word for today. Some might say today’s word was defiled, but more likely it has been left on the shelf. In some closets, it is covered with dust two inches thick. It’s no wonder that the word was put out for a garage sale where it was sold for 65 cents. It was word and we gave it away.

I’m sure you know what word I’m talking about. The word is evangelism. Evangelism.

It’s not a word we use very much. Instead we talk about “church growth,” about increasing the number of bodies that fill this room, and the number of names that go on a list. In some churches, church growth is a strategy. There are people who study these things, and then they sell the plan to unsuspecting church people, and claim it is evangelism. But it isn’t evangelism.

There was a think-tank in California that said, “If you want to grow your church, find out who you are, and then look for people just like you.” Forget what the apostle Paul said about being all things to all people. Just be you (after you figure out who you are), and then sell it. Buy up some billboards, print up brochures, do a growth campaign – that’s evangelism.

Except, of course, that isn’t evangelism. It’s marketing.

What is evangelism? Many aren’t sure they want to know. As one of my friends once said, it is, for many people, “a nose-wrinkling word, a term they hold in approximately the same regard as the phrase ‘professional wrestling.’ Both are considered to be activities that draw large, uncritical crowds, involve a measure of sham, work on irrational emotions, and could end up hurting somebody.”

That’s how a lot of people regard the word. They think of some celebrity show-stopper in a rented arena, packing in busloads of folks who already agree with the speaker, hustling them by the overpriced booths of books and CD, all under the guise of making a sales pitch for God. The more forceful, the better.

Some of us grew up with some of this – by the 1850’s, worship services were rearranged. After centuries of having the sermon in the middle of the service followed by communion, in some churches, the sermon was moved to the end. Of all the various kinds of sermons that it could be, it became only one kind of sermon – an intense, emotional appeal demanding a decision. Week after week, that was it. No ongoing Christian formation, no exploration of the many kinds of scripture, no encouragement for prayer or acts of mercy. Everything was reduced to a sales pitch. That’s what a lot of people came to believe about evangelism – and that’s probably why, in some corners, the word grew covered with dust.

It reminds me of a comic strip that I once clipped out. It was an old “Peanuts” strip, and Sally and Linus were walking home from school. “I would have made a good evangelist,” said Sally. “You know that kid who sits behind me at school? I convinced him that my religion is better than his religion.” Linus says, “How did you do that?”

She replies, “I hit him with my lunch box.” For a lot of people, that’s evangelism: winning frightened souls through intimidation. But listen, according to our text, that’s not evangelism.

Our story does have an Official Evangelist. It’s John the Baptist. In the Fourth Gospel, he is a public relations expert on Jesus. He provides advance publicity for the Lord. He writes the press releases. He interprets Jesus’ significance to the public. One day he points and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Two of the people who are hanging around John actually turn and look. He’s been telling them about Jesus second-hand. They decide to take a closer look at the real thing.

Now, one of the curious things about our text is that John didn’t even “know” Jesus. Twice he says, “I did not know him.” That’s strange, isn’t it? When push comes to shove, John says, “Listen, I am just the preacher. I do a lot of talking, in the hope that the Lamb of God will actually come. I can’t make him come. He has to show up on his own. I can tell you he is, even if I don’t actually know him.”

Please realize this is the Gospel of John. It has a different angle of view, even upon all the John the Baptist stories that we hear every December as we’re getting ready for Christmas. John the Gospel-Writer does not say that John the Baptist has any special wisdom. He does have a Word to speak, and he does have a promise that he will recognize the Messiah at the right time. And when he finally does recognize the Messiah, what grand message does John say? He says, “Look, here he is!”

Is that it? That’s it. There is nothing manipulative about it. Nothing forceful, nothing overstated, nothing obnoxious, nothing pushy. Here’s the sum of the evangelist’s Word. He says, “Look!”

In a Christian sense, evangelism is always an invitation. It’s an invitation to look, an invitation to investigate, an invitation to explore and see if it’s all true. It’s an invitation. Ever notice that if you force somebody to come to church, it doesn’t always take?

In fact, sometimes people will stop by, and decide very quickly that this Church Stuff is not their cup of tea. Well, how can they know yet? Speaking of the casual critics of his day, G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” You have to give a look – a long look – and not merely a passing glance.

Well, another interesting thing about today’s story is that Jesus himself is an evangelist. If evangelism is an invitation, Jesus makes an invitation of his own. John said, “Look!” Jesus says, “Come and see!” Look – and – see. That really is the heart of it. John points to Jesus, and Jesus says, “Come; come and see.” And it doesn’t happen right away.

No, the story has a bump or two in it. John points to Jesus and says, “Look!” So two of his followers go and have a look. And Jesus turns around and says, “What are you looking for?” They don’t know. They are just looking. The two of them fumble around to find an answer, “Teacher, where are you staying?” And that’s when he says, “Come and see.”

And then the Fourth Gospel says something that is a little bit clumsy. So “they came and saw where he was staying and they remained with him that day.” Now, that doesn’t sound clumsy to you because it’s been translated. A team of translators smoothed that out when they put that into English, but here’s how the conversation really goes in Greek:

John: “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
Jesus: “What are you looking for?”
The disciples: “Uh, rabbi, uh, where are you abiding?”
Jesus: “Come and see!”

“They came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day.”

To “abide” is to stay, to remain, to dwell with. The sense here is to spend a complete day with Jesus – when there is other work to be done, other commitments to keep, but you stay with Jesus.

This is an important word for the Gospel of John. It is a deeply spiritual word. It signals a living relationship. Again Jesus will speak of “abiding” – “abide in me, and I in you” – “as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, you will bear fruit if you abide in me” – “If you abide in me, and I in you, ask whatever you will” – “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.”

And here: “They came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day.”

Evangelism is an invitation to stay with Jesus. To remain with him. To keep with him every day, as you move through the day. It is not a forced relationship. Nor is it a fake relationship. It is not a one-time decision, but a continuing connection. Very little of this is restricted to a church building. But I have noticed that the people who stay with Jesus are always going to be about that invitation, about staying with him, and about inviting others to “come and see.”

“Come and see” – I know a place where people love Jesus, a place where that love changes them. “Come and see” – I know a place where people invite you to be the person God created you to be. If I might speak for myself, that’s far more appealing than saying, “Join my organization,” or “Join my club.”

What do we want? What do we really want? I want to know that I can stay with Jesus. I want him to take away the sins of the world – and to take away my sins. I want to know that he loves me, that he has good work for me to do. I don’t want to be the notch on somebody else’s belt, or the target of somebody’s marketing campaign. I don’t want to be a number or a statistic. I want to be a child of God in the presence of the Lamb who is our Shepherd.

This is the heart of our invitation. I can make it only if I know it. If I know it, you can be sure I will make it. Jesus Christ is the Life of the World. This is the heart of our “eu-angelion,” literally our “good word,” our evangelism, our invitation. Come and see.

It’s the invitation to a journey. We don’t understand it all at once. But as somebody has said, "There are little moments when vast things happen." We can't yet see the whole picture. We don't see the implications. We don't completely know what is going on. But we do know we are in the presence of the Life of the World.

Here, in the first chapter of John, Jesus picks up four disciples. As they stay with him, they start saying the most amazing things about him. They call him Rabbi. They name him as Messiah (the Anointed One). He is the One about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. He is the Son of God, the King of Israel. These are the highest affirmations of faith in the entire Gospel of John. Where do these people get such depth of understanding? We don't know. All we know is that they stay with Jesus. Along the way the truth about him begins to get clearer.

Come and see.

As Native Americans once said to the Christian settlers: “Is your church built upon sacred ground? Then we will come.”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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