We’re by the river Jordan this week, just like we were last week. John the writer drops us down by the Jordan with John the Baptist, and in this first chapter of his Gospel he shows us three days of a cumulative story, all focused around increasingly important testimony to who Jesus is. Now three days is a sort of natural rhythm. When there’s a Monday holiday, like this week, we often call it a three day weekend. Or conferences tend to run three days: the first day settling in, the second for all the content, and the third for the take-home application.
We didn’t get day one in the Gospel this morning, but some of you will know the story. On day one, we saw John the Baptist baptizing crowds, and priests and Levites come out to him from Jerusalem. They want to know who this guy thinks he is. And interestingly, his answer comes in a negative form. “I am not the Christ.” I’ll tell you this much about the Messiah, says John: I’m not him. But they can’t just go back to Jerusalem and tell their higher-ups who John the Baptist is not. So they push him a little; “What do you say about yourself?” And this is where John quotes a famous line from Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” Someone, he says, is coming after him, someone as yet unrecognized.
…So there’s day one, an essentially negative witness: He’s not me. And a hint: he’s better than me.
And this is where our Gospel for today begins, with what happens the next day after that. So here we are on day 2 of our three-day conference, and day 2 is full of content. John the Baptist begins to deliver a positive testimony to who Christ is. We get a deeper recognition here, and in fact John the writer helps us notice that by filling day 2 with vision verbs. We hear words about “seeing” over and over as truths about Jesus start bursting forth in front of us like so many fireworks.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said “Behold the Lamb of God!... This is the one I meant…. I saw the Spirit come down like a dove and remain on him… I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” A much more positive and direct witness than we got on day one, and in fact it’s so rich that I want to unpack it in a bit more detail with you. First, notice that John admits that he wasn’t able to grasp who Jesus is on his own. He mentioned that twice. I myself did not know him, he says; he’s only able to understand what’s going on because God showed it to him. God told him to look for the Spirit descending and remaining on someone, and he saw the Spirit remain on Jesus.
What’s so special about the Spirit remaining? It shows that Jesus is much more than another one in the line of Old Testament leaders on whom the Spirit descended for a particular task. The Spirit doesn’t descend onto him and then go away again; no, the Spirit remains with Jesus, settles in permanently and for good. And somehow God helps John see this and understand that it’s something new, beyond his prior experience. So John begins to make these statements about Jesus: He is the Son of God -- He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. -- He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
Now you could go to great lengths analyzing every phrase in these statements and theorizing about what exactly they are intended to convey this early in the story. But the amazing thing is that when you take them together, they evoke for us maybe the three greatest facets of the whole mystery of Christ. Don’t they?
John says: He’s the Son of God: there’s Incarnation, the way in which the human Jesus also shares the divine nature of his Father. John says: He’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world: there’s Atonement, when the death and resurrection of Christ reconcile us with God. John says: He’s the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit: There’s the outpouring of the Spirit which empowers us as Christ’s disciples to continue his ministry.
Or for liturgical Christians, what’s John evoking? Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. You have the whole year in embryo. Those great realities around which our whole life together organizes itself. He is the Son of God. -- He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. -- He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. …In Chapter one! From John the Baptist! Before Jesus himself does one single thing in the story!
But that’s only day two. Day three is yet to come. You remember I said what’s revealed about Christ is increasingly important over this three day process, and I want to show you how. On the third day we see John standing with two of his disciples, and Jesus passes by. They see him at a distance. And John the Baptist says, Guys. That’s him.
“What do you mean, that’s him?” …. “That’s him. The Lamb of God. That guy right there. Christmas Easter Pentecost, the whole thing all wrapped into one? -- that’s him.” And at that, these two disciples leave their master in a moment. But they don’t walk right up to Jesus; they’re too nervous and excited. They just kind of trail him. There are no crowds around Jesus at this point; he’s not a celebrity yet, he hasn’t done any miracles. Being followed is probably still unusual for him. And so pretty soon he turns around and asks “What do you want?” They ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” and he just tells them, “Why don’t you come see?”
Now from an initial glance that could seem like only a minor scene. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s what tops day two. And I’ll tell you why. They follow him. They go after him, and they stay where he’s staying, they remain, and it says, “they spend that day with him.” They don’t just hear about Jesus, they don’t just listen to truths; they follow. They enroll as his apprentices. As amazing as day two is, we don’t stay there; we actually get to enroll. We can’t just admire Jesus; we have to spend our days with him. Day two happens so that we can enroll; we see the beauty and reality of what God has done in Jesus so that we can then follow him as apprentices into the places where he is most needed.
And in that sense, the question they ask turns out to be really deep. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” When’s the last time you asked Jesus that question? I know who Christianity says you are, but where do I enroll? Where are you involved? What situation are you drawn to and drawing me to? A colleague at the homeless shelter where I worked after college used to say, “Jesus is the Way, but we have to walk in it.”
“Rabbi, where are you staying?” Now of course as liturgical Christians, we think of Jesus staying in his Eucharistic presence in the Tabernacle. And our Tabernacle has certainly been on my mind the past 48 hours. Some of you saw in the special mini-Messenger yesterday the notice that at Evening Prayer this Friday, one of the candles apparently threw off a spark onto the altar that smoldered into the linens and could have caused awful damage, were it not for the quick thinking of David Cisneros, who was here officiating. All that happened was that we lost some linens (though the beautiful green superfrontal is OK, the burlap that attaches it isn’t, which is why you don’t see it today), and we have some blackening of the wood of the altar where the shellac was, and especially along the front of the Tabernacle up here. You can see it easily if you look.
The Blessed Sacrament was untouched, thank God, but I found it very moving, to think of this small disaster, this thing that could have been so heartbreaking, affecting the Tabernacle. Because Jesus is one who is found, precisely, in the places that can be heartbreaking and damaging and painful. That’s where he always goes: to the Cross, so that he can enter into all our deaths and bring them to resurrection. When we were here yesterday with Team 3 of the altar guild cleaning up the wood, Kim McQueen very beautifully said, “Maybe we should just leave it the way it is,” as a symbol of that truth. You know, where else would Jesus have been, other than saying, “If you are to have pain, if there is to be damage, let me be in the middle of it?”
“Rabbi, where are you staying?” Yes, he’s in the tabernacle, thank God, but he’s not only there. After all, the tabernacle, and all that we do in this building, is mostly day two, right? Here, we see and soak in the reality of who God is and what he has done, Christmas Easter Pentecost, the whole thing, recalibrating our internal compass so that it points to God and not to us. Day two is very special, and you can’t skip over it. But it exists for the sake of day three, when we find out where Jesus is staying and sign up for apprenticeship to him, and are led into experiences and situations where we go with him to the places that can be heartbreaking and damaging and challenging and spend the day with him to act as his apprentices there.
John the Baptist is right: Jesus is the Son of God. Amen. Jesus is the atoning Lamb. Amen. Jesus is the Baptizer with the Spirit. Amen. Jesus is the Way. Amen. But we have to walk in it.