Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 22, 2018
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Witnesses

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and John 1:6-8 and 19-28

 When something big is about to happen, you want to let people know.  Today we do that with advertising and previews.  For example, the new Star Wars movie just came out a few days ago, but Lord knows they’ve been telling us for a long time it’s coming!  

 Back in the first century world, there was no television, no radio, no internet, no magazines or newspapers, and no billboards.  How do you let people know that something big is coming?  One way was that you could send a herald, someone who would go out and proclaim near and far that a big thing is happening. 

 John the Baptist was God’s herald.  He was sent to tell everyone about “the light,” which is the phrase John the Evangelist uses here to describe Jesus.  So that people can believe. 

 John wasn’t the light.  That’s something we see in the Gospel of John, this repeated emphasis that John the Baptist was NOT the main attraction.  Every time John the Baptist is mentioned, there’s something in there to make it clear that he is not greater than Jesus.  Why?  Did John the Evangelist just not like him?  Jealous he had the same name or something?

 Well, John the Baptist was a big deal in his own right.  He was the first prophet of God to come to the Hebrew people in over 400 years.  Hadn’t been a prophet since Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets.  That drew a lot of attention.  I have to think that God did not send any prophets for such a long time just to heighten the excitement about a genuine prophet and the Messiah who came after him.  

 And John had pretty big following, both while he was alive and after he was dead. Acts chapter 19 tells how when Paul came to Ephesus, in Asia Minor, hundreds of miles from Judea, about 25 years after John’s death, he found disciples of John the Baptist.  Church historians record that for 200 years, there were still Hebrew people who called themselves followers of John the Baptist.  And of course, John was supposed to be pointing people beyond himself to Jesus and preparing them for Jesus’ arrival.

John attracted the attention of the religious elites:  The priests, Levites, and Pharisees.  These elites who come out to the wilderness to investigate John’s ministry and message are most likely members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council of 70 members in Jerusalem.  The “chief priests,” the eldest members of the most important

priestly families were members of the Sanhedrin.  Now the Pharisees were not well connected politically, but at least a few of them were members of the Sanhedrin.  Nicodemus, a Pharisee who became a follower of Jesus, was a member.  One of the responsibilities of the Sanhedrin was to investigate claims of prophecy, to see if they were really prophets of God or impostors.  So this is official business for them.

The priests may have been particularly interested in John because John was one of their own.  His father Zechariah was a priest.  John could have been a priest.  He wasn’t, or at least not at this time, but all he had to do was prove he was the son of a priest and no one could stop him from doing the job.  So if John is saying something “off the wall,” that would reflect on the priests as a whole.

The Pharisees, of course, we know from all throughout the Gospels.  They were one of a number of factions at work in first century Judea.  There were also Sadduccees and Herodians and Essenes and Zealots and Scribes.  Right now they are only one voice.  But by the time John wrote his Gospel, late in the first century, sometime after 80 AD, the Pharisees had emerged as the dominant theological group in Judaism.  

We know these guys are not fans of John.  At first they ask questions, but eventually, they reject both John and Jesus as being “from God.”  They “scoff” at John’s prophecies.  

We heard earlier from 1 Thessalonians, where Paul reminds believers not to scoff at prophecies.  If someone claims to have a message from God, then we had better not take that lightly.  We should not dismiss them.  But we should also not believe them without question.  We need to test everything so that we can hold onto the good but reject the evil.

How do we test things?  We test them against Scripture, first and foremost.  I think the fault of the Pharisees is that while they did value Scripture, they attached as much importance to their own traditions as to Scripture.  They put Scripture and tradition on equal footing.  There is nothing in the Old Testament that contradicted who Jesus was or what he taught.  But their traditions about Scripture said otherwise.  

How do we treat Scripture and tradition?  

John Wesley, who began the Methodist movement, is often credited with what people call the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” which says that we know God and God’s will

through four means:  Scripture, tradition, our own experience, and our reason, our thoughtful reflection.  It’s sometimes misreported that Wesley considered these four things to be equal.  And that is not the case.

Scripture is our primary means of knowing God and his will.  Tradition is more important that our own reason and experience.  It’s arrogant of us to think that our minds and our experience can know God better than the entire collective thinking and experience of the entire Church, which is what tradition is. 

Sometimes Wesley’s Quadrilateral is portrayed as a four legged stool.  The problem with that image is that the four legs are equal.  I tink a better way to understand it is that the Quadrilateral is a pyramid.  Scripture is the foundation of the pyramid.  Tradition is the middle.  And reason and experience are the top.  That picture keeps things in proper perspective:  Scripture first, then we gain more wisdom from the Church’s tradition, and finally we add the insights from our own reason and experience.  

The religious elites come to John the Baptist and ask, “Who are you?  Are the Messiah?”  No,not him.  

“Are you Elijah?”  The prophet Elijah, we are told, did not die but was taken up into heaven.  And Malachi 4:5 said that “Elijah would return before the Day of the Lord.”  So most Jews believed Elijah would come to announce the Messiah.  

John says no again.  He is not Elijah.  But he is a prophet who reminds us of Elijah, in the way that he lives in the wilderness, eats wild food, wears wild clothing, and so on.  

“Are you the Prophet?”  Some Jews believed that Jeremiah or Isaiah would come again before the Messiah.  More likely this is a reference to Deuteronomy 18, in which Moses foretold of a greater prophet to come who must be obeyed. 

“Well, then, who are you?”  And John finally says, “I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare a straight path for the Lord’s coming.’”  The quote is from Isaiah 40:3, and it speaks of a herald of a new Exodus, a new deliverance out of slavery.  A prophet like Moses, but even greater, is coming to redeem God’s people.  We know the exodus Jesus brings about is to redeem us from slavery to sin and death.

John the Baptist was a witness to what God was doing.  Witness is primarily a legal term, someone who is called upon to deliver faithful testimony, in this case, testimony on behalf of God.

John’s Gospel is full of people who bear witness.  There’s John the Baptist, God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and the Scriptures.  Jesus’ miracles are also lifted up as a witness.  And there are many people who encounter Jesus and then bear testimony:  Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, the rest of the disciples, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the lame man at the pool, the man born blind, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene.  Each of them gives testimony about what they saw or experienced in Jesus.

God wants you to be a witness, too.  God wants you to give faithful testimony about what you have experienced in Jesus.  We often get hung up thinking, “Well, I can’t talk about my faith.  What if people have questions I can’t answer?”  That’s not the job of a witness.  A witness just testifies truly about what they know.  And that’s something all of us can do.  If we know Jesus, if he has changed our lives, if he has given us peace, joy, purpose in life, then we can testify about those things.  We can tell other people what he has done.  We might not be able to answer every question, but that is not our job.  We don’t have all the answers.  We just know the one who does. 

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