Some Splaining to Do
"I Love Lucy" was playing in a memory care unit and there was Cuban born Desi Arnaz telling the ditzy Lucille Ball, "You've got some splaining to do." The Holy Spirit has some splaining to do as Jesus starts His public ministry.
He starts with explaining John's ministry, and it's not what you think. John the Baptist is first and foremost all about the Baptism of Jesus rather than all those coming out to him. But to put it in the right perspective he tells the people that he the forerunner is really second. This is significant. Although John was born 6 months before Jesus, he says Jesus was "before me." He explains earlier in the chapter, "He has a higher rank than I for He existed before me." Cue the "Twilight Zone" music. John is the forerunner of One who has always existed. He's the forerunner not just of the One "born of the Virgin Mary" but of "true God begotten of the Father from eternity."
Luther said the most important aspect of John was his finger. He would say that John was the perfect finger pointer. I don't think there is a positive way to use that expression in English today. "Don't start finger pointing." "Don't point your finger at me." But John pointed his finger at the one who was known as the Son of a carpenter from Nazareth and said, "Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
Notice John doesn't say "takes away the sins [plural] of the world." That's because the Holy Spirit isn't thinking of sin the way we do. "I do this thing, that thing, and this over here wrong but the rest is pretty good or at least passable." Nope. Sin dominates all of this fallen world. With every mortal breath, we breathe sin in and out. John points his finger at Jesus and says, "There's the One who is carrying away what can't be carried from a fallen world." It's like saying Jesus is carrying away wetness from water or white from rice.
To explain John's ministry, it's not enough to say he was the forerunner who was second or the perfect finger pointer. He was also the painter who painted with water. When my kids were young, you gave them water and a paint brush, and they applied the water to a white page with an outline on it and a colored pictured was revealed. That's what John says his Baptism was for. "The reason I came baptizing with water was that the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world might be revealed to Israel."
You understand that John's Baptism didn't make Jesus the Lamb of God? That's a heresy of the early church still around today. No, John's Baptism revealed who was God's Lamb, who was the Messiah the One anointed by God to save humanity, the One where the Holy Spirit was located. Jesus stood in line, not distinguishable from the hundreds of sinners waiting to be baptized, but when baptismal waters were poured on Jesus heaven was torn open, the Holy Spirit descended as a Dove, and the Father boomed from heaven, "This is My beloved Son." When God makes a point it's hard to miss it, and He did so with a man who painted by Water.
That splains John's ministry, but John's ministry is all about revealing Jesus, so Jesus' ministry is the one we really want explained. You might think of Him as the Bird Catcher for humanity. I've tried catching birds many ways. The box and the stick, a net that drops down. I read that the ancients would paint branches with a sticky substance so once the bird perched it couldn't fly. It's not easy to catch a bird, and it was impossible for sinful humanity to catch the Bird we needed: the Holy Spirit.
Unless you have the Holy Spirit when you breathe your last, when your final breath is expelled here, the next breath you take will be of Sulphur and brimstone in hell. Without the Holy Spirit here, every step you take, ever move you make breathes out more and more of that precious substance called life till you drop dead.
How are you going to get that Holy Spirit? How often my kids chased pigeons never once to catch one? They'd get O so close and that bird would fly, usually not very far at all. That's all sinners. They chase the Spirit that is Life thinking they can catch it in money, in things, in love, in feelings, in success, and it always alludes them. Even when they've caught all that can be caught in this life, at death they don't soar to world's unknown on the wings of the Spirit. No, their heart, soul, and life remain anchored to some mundane thing here below like Citizen Kane and his sled.
The Man Jesus who as God the Son was never without the Holy Spirit, receives the Holy Spirit for fallen humanity. He catches the Bird of Paradise that we can't no matter how hard we try or how badly we want to. The Holy Spirit can land on Jesus because He is a Perfect Man. Dove don't land on decaying, dead things. Vultures do; crows do; Crackles do, but dove don't. Among all the people being baptized only One could catch the Holy Spirit, the Perfect Man Jesus. There He is; the Bird that is forgiveness, life, and salvation is perched right there on Jesus.
Jesus isn't only the Bird Catcher. He's the Shepherd who gathers sheep by being a Lamb. Notice how it takes John's disciples twice being told, "Jesus is the Lamb of God" before they follow? That's because they were looking for the Messiah to be a Shepherd. The Old Testament promised that the Lord would come and shepherd His people. He wouldn't leave them like sheep without a shepherd. He would shepherd them to green pastures and still waters restoring their souls. But John doesn't point fingers at a shepherd but a lamb.
Shepherds save by force, by violence, by driving away evil. Lambs save by dying, by their blood being painted over your door so the Angel of Death passes over, by having their blood poured on the altar of God. The disciples are getting their first taste of the Theology of the Cross rather than the Theology of Glory. Peter will eventually get it when he writes years from now, "You were redeemed from the empty way of life you inherited from your fatherswith the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without spot." The ministry of Jesus is explained not by the revelry of "Onward Christian Soldiers" or the triumphalism of "Lift High the Cross," but by "sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone-cold tomb."
Jesus is the Shepherd who is a Lamb, and He is the Garbage Collector who is also a Friend. This reflects the 2 ways you can understand "takes away the sin of the world." This can refer to Jesus carrying them away from the world as the garbage man does the trash from your house or taking away their guilt and punishment by paying for them as a friend might pay off a loan for you.
Both images are here and both are to be reveled in. Think of all your sin too manifold, too many, too mighty for you to move. Here the beep, beep of the garbage truck backing up to pick it all up and carry that mess, that stench, that weight far away from you. Or think of all your sin as one bill after another piling up: Past Due, Overdue, Final Notice. Here comes the Friend with His Paid in Full stamp and down it comes time after time on every one of your sins, and don't worry He won't run out of ink because the red Paid in Full stamp is inked with His own blood.
So far, the text has explained the ministry of John and Jesus. The last to be explained is the New Testament ministry. In one sense, if you've been listening, you know what it is. But our text shows not only the very first steps but the missteps of the New Testament Ministry. You know you have a New Testament minister if before he asks you to follow him, you can see that he is following Jesus. I'll give you a clue. If he doesn't mention Jesus very much, or Jesus isn't the doer of things for you but the receiver of things from you, he isn't representing the ministry of the New Testament, and if he is a she, she can't be. It was a good enough reason for the ancient Church to say, Jesus didn't select any women for pastors, so we can't. It was a good enough reason for the modern church till the 19th century.
The New Testament ministry is taught by Jesus before teaching others. It took at least two times for the first disciples of John to realize that they were done with John and it was time to move on to Jesus. It's interesting that they don't approach Jesus as the Lamb of God, that's who He is, but as Rabbi, Teacher, that's what He does. It's interesting that there are a few fumbling steps and outright missteps. "Where are you staying?" is a funny question. What? Do you think they're interested in checking out Jesus' "pad," "place," "crib," or new home? And Jesus' answer is cryptic, "Come and you will see." Do you picture Jesus as saying, "And here's the kitchen; notice the granite countertops; here's the living room. Do you like the open floorplan?" No, the One who made a point of saying later that He had no place to lay His head is not about where He is staying.
But Jesus does say, "Come and you will see," and what do we see a New Testament minister coming away having seen? He comes away from spending a day with the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, with the world's Perfect Bird Catcher, Garbage Collector, and Friend, and concludes we have found the Christ. We've found the Messiah, the One promised 4,000 years earlier who would crush the head of the serpent and get us back into the Garden. We've found the One who is not only the answer to our devil, but to sin and death too.
The New Testament ministry is not about imparting good feelings, positive feelings, making people feel good about themselves, but about imparting truth, the truth that no sinner can live without. It's about finger pointing to Jesus who carries away your garbage and pays for you having made the mess. The New Testament ministry is about painting the forgiveness of sins using the Water and the Blood of Christ. And if you're in the New Testament ministry or sitting at the feet of one who is not doing the above, you got not only some splaining to do but some repenting. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday after the Epiphany (20170115); John 1: 29-41