Jesus in John: an Advent Incarnational Study
Prepared for Lovely Lane UMC congregation for the Advent 2016 season
By Pastor Travis Knoll
Please feel free to share with attribution and without charge
Grace and peace, brothers and sisters. This year I have decided to do something a little different for Advent. Instead of pulling quotes from the lectionary and creating devotions on them, I have instead decided to consider the various names, roles, and titles of Jesus given in the gospel of John. By focussing on these, I hope we can all find a richer appreciation for who Jesus is, and thus be better prepared to receive him in the manger this Christmas.
A list of such names and titles could vary depending upon translation, reader, or attentiveness. For me, this list of titles and names includes: Word, Light, Life, God visible, Lamb of God, Son of God, The King of Israel, Wedding Guest, Knower of our hearts, Rabbi, Son of Man, Only Son, Bridegroom, Bread of life, The Holy One of God, Messiah, Judge, Lord, Good shepherd, Resurrection and life, The way, the truth, and the life, The true vine, The gardener, and My Lord and my God! These various titles are of various depth and complexity, so the devotional material for each will vary in length and time required to consider them. This can be either a weakness or a strength – please feel free to do them in a different order to allow for your schedule to be accommodated.
The reference numbers at the end of the title or name for each day are the chapter and verse wherein that title or name can be found. I recommend that you look them up in John for context and perspective before you read the devotional.
At the end of this road, I pray that we will each have a greater appreciation for the person of Jesus, and thus find in his coming once again this Christmas additional meaning and hope.
Grace and peace,
November 28, 2016 – Word 1:1
As a child, this passage at the opening of the gospel of John was one of the very first passages I committed to memory. The power and poetry of this passage have in a very powerful way formed my identity – In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God… and the word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The Word of God is such a powerful image that it has invaded TV culture in a variety of forms. Captain Jean-Luc Picard routinely says “make it so”. And it is so. Exactly echoing the power of the spoken word of God in Genesis echoed here in John. To have one’s word as law is to be powerful – to speak and everyone listens (a la EF Hutton) is to be wise and powerful in the extreme. These and others are popular cultural references to the creation story in Genesis echoed here.
John, by rooting his gospel in genesis makes the claim that Jesus was instrumental in creation, and co-equal with God – that this plan to invade mortal life with God’s revelatory entry is not something that came up late but was instead the plan from the very foundations of creation. God knew that creation was going to cost – and yet created anyway. Gladly does God come to reverse the process of the fall by accepting the penalty for sin into God’s own life – and this is not a response to the fall, but the plan from the beginning.
Prayer: God, thank you for coming down to show us yourself and your love in our broken world. Amen.
November 29, 2016 – Light 1:4 8:12 12:44
In John 1, the contrast with darkness, and the power of light are highlighted. In chapter 8 Jesus claims the title and is rejected, in Chapter 12 Jesus offers light to those trapped in darkness.
Light is interestingly different in a world without casually available electricity and artificial lighting. In our modern world we actually worry about “light pollution” almost as much as we do about poor or under lit issues. This is true until the darkness causes a problem – hiding a mugger, increasing our fear, or causing us to stumble and fall. Then light becomes much more significant. In a significant way, having college kids at home offers me a peculiar perspective on our artificial lights, as my sons seem to love staying up to ridiculous hours to work and play, getting up far later than the sun as a consequence.
When we traveled across the country, one of the opportunities we put onto our schedule was stargazing in South Dakota – one of the darkest places in the lower 48. In our cities, and surrounding suburbs, the light bleeding out into the night sky obliterates so much of the majesty and grandeur of the starry heavens.
In fact, it can be hard for us to experience real darkness at all – go caving and turn off your headlights to discover what real darkness feels like – it is remarkable. Our dependence upon sight is striking, and can only really be understood by losing access for a time.
To give light to those who sit in darkness, to give sight to the blind (another recurrent event in John), these change our world in remarkable ways. Ways that can be harder to comprehend in an incandescent world. Jesus coming to bring light into the darkness – and to offer it to us – that is the plan of God revealed – and when we find ourselves stumbling in the darkness, it can be comforting to know that God cares enough to fix it.
Prayer: God, help us to find our way out of the darkness of our spiritual lives and into the light of Christ this Christmas. Amen.
November 30, 2016 – Life 1:4
This title will also be a feature of John 14 (the way, the truth, and the life) but since it comes here so early and separate, we will focus on this now. Jesus is literally life itself. Paul in another place will say that for him to die is gain, but to live is Christ. In a significant way, we have enthroned in our language this idea – at the hospital the “machine” we use to breathe in with intentionality to prevent pneumonia is called an inspirometer – to breathe in is to be inspired – like catching our breath to recover from exertion or fear, or to literally be overwhelmed by awe.
I recently saw once again a kitchen message board that said “life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.” I am not quite sure about this, though I do love those moments when God reveals him/herself in a new and powerful way. To breathe in literally is to inspire, and to breathe out your last literally is to expire.
These words refer, of course, to the Genesis 2 story of the creation of Adam, a mud man given breath by God, who “breathed into him” life. For us, Jesus himself is the life – the one whose example and love can lift us out of our broken and crippled lives into the kind of abundance and joy that are entirely foreign to this world. In Jesus, and Jesus alone, do I find life. This does not mean that I literally believe I will die without Jesus, but instead means that life is enriched, enlarged, engaged, and experienced in such greater depth and power with Jesus that nothing I can even imagine could make me give this relationship up. The disciples will say “you have the words of life, where else would we go?” when confronted by the challenge of leaving when things get hard. I agree.
Prayer: God, as I sit and breathe today, help me to remember how much richer life is in partnership, in love, and in joy with you through the gift of your son, and in the reminder, help me to breathe gratefully. Amen.
December 1, 2016 – God visible 1:18
No one has ever seen God – it is God the only son who has made him known.
We like to be able to see things – when we finally understand a concept in Mathematics, Philosophy, or some other difficult subject we say “I see!” Lightbulb moments are what some describe these moments of inspiration. We love pictures, maps, diagrams, and movies – “Just show me” we ask.
But God is not like that – we simply do not get to see the image – instead, we have been given a person, the person of Jesus, to show us the father in heaven. We can understand a person, even if he is a bit of a peculiar one. We can see his actions, hear his words, see his miracles and listen to his heart-beat. In this way, Jesus becomes for us a model, an example, a proof-of-concept call to live differently because just as Jesus knew God, we are invited to know God through him.
I have heard the Bible described as a love letter from God, and I suppose that it is. But even more so, Jesus is God’s very nature, love, forgiveness, and person revealed – and that nature is love. So in Jesus, God’s love for us is perfectly revealed and we can see it. In chapter 14 Philip will say to Jesus “show us the father.” And Jesus will tell him to look at Jesus himself. Like Philip, we can see the fullness of God’s love, forgiveness, invitation, and call in Jesus. This advent, may we look to the manger to see God in action, in passion, and in hope.
Prayer: God, like Philip we long to see you. In Jesus, help us to know you deeply, to love you passionately, and to follow you eagerly. Amen.
December 2, 2016 – Lamb of God 1:29
John says upon seeing Jesus – here is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. We can easily miss the significance of this. Israel has been given the covenant, made visible and real through the temple worship in Jerusalem. In the temple, rams, goats, lambs, birds, and other animals are routinely sacrificed to pay for the sins of the people and to sustain their relationship with God. In the formation of Israel, in their national birth story, Moses calls down the angel of death and it is the blood of a lamb on the doorposts that saves the firstborn of Israel.
The lamb of God is protection, provision, relationship, and covenant. It is the symbol of the covenant that creates the core identity of Israel. In their fear and confusion, Aaron builds Israel a golden lamb as an object of worship as Moses is on the mountain with God. Jesus as the lamb of God foreshadows his death on the cross, and how in that action he will save the world, and deliver his people from death.
Jesus is revealed in the substitutionary sacrifice for us. Jesus is the lamb of God.
Prayer: God, we hardly know what to say in the face of the depth of your love for us as revealed in the cross. Thank you. Amen
December 3, 2016 – Son of God 1:34
John testifies about Jesus. This is the Son of God – the one for whom we have been waiting. The one John was sent to prepare the way for.
When Jesus is asked by the sanhedrin later about this title, they react to his acceptance of the term in 10:36 with picking up stones and preparing to kill him. Clearly they felt that in accepting this title was claiming to be a God himself.
This title also had political implications, which were surely not lost on the Sanhedrin. In the Roman world of the day, Augustus on his coinage used the title son of god (fili deus) for himself. This lent Augustus the legitimacy of the adopted son of Julius, who had been identified by the Senate as a God. Peter, in other gospels, says that Jesus is the son of the living God, in contrast to this claim by Augustus to be the son of the dead God Julius Caesar. If the Sanhedrin were worried about anything, they certainly feared irritating the Roman authorities and thereby losing their power and status.
For us, the title Son of God is powerful and clear – Jesus says elsewhere that I and my father are one. In this unity we are freed to actually worship Jesus as God. This title perhaps more than any other demonstrates how different Christianity is than most other religions – we don’t see Jesus as a messenger, prophet, or avatar, but instead as God made flesh living among us.
The Son of God has come down to show us the father. To help us to see and relate with the unseen God: Alleluia!
Prayer: God, thank you for sending your Son to us to show us your love and compassion in action. Amen.
December 5, 2016 -The King of Israel 1:49
When Nathanael gives Jesus this title, it is a call to arms and a politically dangerous thing to say. Technically, Herod is the King of the Jews under the authority of their Roman overlords. Herod is known to be jealous of his title and prerogatives (just ask the children of Bethlehem) and challenging the secular authorities with casual use of this term is problematic.
It is also the case that Jesus has none of the outward signs of kingship – he doesn’t have an army, a palace, nobles bending the knee, a tax base, a walled city or any meaningful territory. Why, then, does Nathanael use this term?
Jesus had shown that he knew Nathanael’s heart – an Israelite with no guile. When asked how he knew, Jesus told Nathanael that before he was under the fig tree (a reference to his infancy) Jesus knew him. Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see much greater signs than these including angels descending and descending on Jesus…
So what of it? Is Jesus the king of the Jews? Pilate will ask him this very question, and Jesus will give only oblique answers. In fact, the jury is still very much out. Most of Israel refuses to acknowledge Jesus as King and Lord. We tend to see Kingship as a political term, and reject it because it ignores the consent of the governed, a bedrock principle for most today. This King, however, does not compel obedience, even as he asks for it. Only those who call Jesus Lord and who obey his commands know Jesus as their King. The others of us must wait until that great and glorious day of the Lord’s return – when all will bend the knee and confess. Until then, this Kingship is hidden, but very much alive.
Prayer: God, help us this day to both claim Jesus as our Lord and King, and to give us guidance and strength to obey his commands. Amen.
December 6, 2016 – Son of Man 1:51 3:13 8:28
Yesterday I pulled a fast one. I said that Jesus said to Nathanael that he would see angels ascending and descending on Jesus, but the actual words were: “upon the Son of Man”.
This phrase is a complicated one. In Ezekiel, this phrase is the title God gives to Ezekiel to emphasize the difference between them. God speaks to the Son of Man, who obeys his voice. Yet in the vision of the chariot in Ezekiel, and even more directly in that of Daniel – the phrase comes to mean something else entirely -
from Daniel 7 “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.”
This sets up a contrast between the literal and the figurative meanings of this phrase – in one way, Son of Man is a contrast to God – meaning human, mortal, not divine. In another, it means “appears” like a man – but clearly referring to God’s chosen eternal king of all people, nations, and languages. When Jesus uses this phrase in connection to the King of the Jews title, it can hardly have been intended to convey mortality, but instead must have meant the second meaning – the chosen eternal King of the Ancient of Days (God). This is similarly true of the quotes from chapters 3 and 8. Jesus knows who has been to visit the Ancient of Days in heaven, and calls for us to see a greater truth behind the surface appearance.
Prayer: God, help us to see in Jesus the form of humanity and the presence of divinity, authority, and love. When we see Jesus, help us to see him as your chosen eternal king.
December 7, 2016 – Wedding Guest 2:1-12
This “title” is perhaps cheating. Yet I felt that Jesus’ first miracle merited comment and inclusion even though this title is a bit of a stretch. In this familiar story, Jesus and some of his disciples are guests at a wedding when a disaster strikes – the wine runs out. Jesus’ mother tells him to fix it, and the servants to do whatever he tells them. Jesus instructs them to fill the jars with water and serve that to the guests.
Of course, this creates the compliments to the host – you saved the best wine for last!
In Israel, wine is always always always a symbol for joy and festivities. Only under the influence of puritan, protestant folks much later do we find wine looked at as potentially evil and disreputable. My uncle told me when I was 15 that if a drop of alcohol passed my lips, I could not be saved. I was born in Italy, so sadly, this warning came too late. How sad it is, however, to have a symbol of joy and celebration turned into a curse and a sin. Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine. Only later have we learned to turn joy into fear through excessive legalism.
It can be easy for us to see in titles like “Son of God” and even “Son of Man” an incredible distance between ourselves and Jesus. In this ordinary episode of life, we see Jesus accepting commands from his mother and acting to provide for his friend, we see that Jesus was indeed fully human. In his miracle, we see that God actually cares about us, even in such small details of life.
Prayer: Thank you, God, for caring even about such small things in our lives – and for giving us this first example of your power through Jesus Christ in meeting our ordinary needs. Amen.
December 8, 2016 – Knower of our hearts 2:25
For a second day in a row I have sort of cheated. This is more of a description than it is a title. Yet I think it is worthwhile for us to consider this phrase: “Jesus needed no one to testify about anyone, he himself knew what was in everyone.”
I once heard a pastor say that a person’s character was best revealed if those who know them best love them most. By this standard, I have no idea how I measure up, and to be frank, I think this description ascribes too much weight to the opinions of others which are fundamentally unknowable. In this one regard, however, I will agree with our unknown pastor – in God we are known fully, deeply, intimately, and exhaustively, and we are loved with an everlasting love in spite of that.
I cannot trust my deepest thoughts to most of the people I meet, because I don’t know what they will do with them – they can be a powerful weapon against me, after all. But I am known, and accepted, and even loved sacrificially in spite of being known in all of my failures by God. Jesus knows my heart, and loves me anyway. Halleluia!
Prayer: God, it is so very very good to know that while others may love me or not, you always do. Thank you. Amen.
December 9, 2016 – Rabbi 1:38, 3:2
Rabbi means teacher – and is often translated as such in the text. In our two specific references in John, we have disciples of John the Baptist and Nicodemus addressing Jesus in this fashion. Each of these speakers wishes to learn from Jesus, and so calling him teacher is a specific wish for a particular kind of relationship with him. The disciples of John want to follow and learn – and are invited to come and see. Nicodemus wants to learn about life, hope, and God from this miracle worker and teacher of the people, and yet is frustrated by the elliptical and lyrical way that Jesus responds. “Born again”? How can I do that? How impoverished the church would be without this chapter, though.
Jesus, who has been with God the father, the Ancient of Days, the Alpha and Omega, this Jesus can tell us about the truth behind the scenes – can communicate about the powerful, transforming love of God, and God’s desire for our salvation. This Jesus can indeed teach us how to live, love, serve, and worship in spirit and in truth – while finding peace, joy, hope, and a calling to pursue. Teacher? Absolutely. I continue to study at his feet. May we all do so until we ourselves go where he is.
Prayer: God, thank you for sending Jesus to teach us how to live, love, forgive, and receive forgiveness. Amen
December 10, 2016 – Only Son 3:16-17
No study of John can possibly avoid these perhaps most famous words ever spoken in English (j/k). I know that these two verses were the very first I was asked to commit to memory as a student in Sunday School. I am still glad that I was asked to memorize them together, because I fear that neglecting 17 is a terrible shame – we need to remember explicitly that God did not come to condemn, but to save.
The Only Son – given for us, so we can have eternal life. We are all God’s adopted children, but it is Jesus is not adopted, he was with God in the beginning – he is begotten, not made as our creed puts it. In this way he is the Only Son of God. Yet it was the will of his father to bruise him, and by his stripes we are healed.
This Only Son was given for us and for our sins. Because of this incredible gift, we are able every time we celebrate communion to say “In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven”. Because he, the Only Son of God, was given. Not for our sins only, either, but for the sins of the entire world – whoever believes, they are saved. Amen, and Amen.
Prayer: Remind me, dear God, that your incredible gift of yourself for us and for our salvation was not for us only, but for all who believe. Help our unbelief! Amen.
December 12, 2016 – Bridegroom 3:29
John the Baptist is asked once again about Jesus. He says that as the friend of the bridegroom, his job is to fade as the bridegroom steps to the fore. Jesus will, in chapter 14 use this analogy to tell his disciples where he is going – to prepare a place. When a couple were betrothed (promised to each other) the bridegroom would go to build a home, while the bride would wait and prepare household items to take with her. To get ready to say goodbye to home and family and to move into her bridegroom’s home and form a new family.
Jesus prepares a place, and we wait like a bride for his return. During the waiting, it can seem like it isn’t real – we are still at home, aren’t we? Will the bridegroom come, or have we been forgotten? Yet this world we live in is not our home – our home is with Jesus – until he comes, we must simply prepare ourselves – gathering habits and practices from the household of God so we will be ready to live there.
Things like obedience, mercy, love, forgiveness, and fellowship with all of God’s children are kingdom habits we should diligently prepare ourselves for using by practicing them here and now. Besides, it is fun to see the confusion on the faces of others, isn’t it? :) Brides, prepare, your bridegroom comes at an hour we do not know – so be ready.
Prayer: God, help us to pack the habits you desire into our hope chest, and to remember that this world with all of its expectations and competitions is not our home. Amen.
December 13, 2016 – Bread of life 6:35-51
Jesus says he is the bread of life that can satisfy us forever. Unlike the manna from heaven, which one eats and then gets hungry again, the one who eats bread that Jesus offers will never again hunger. What satisfies the human heart? What is it that does not simply grow stale and leave us hungering for more? Advertisers loves to tell us that if we just buy this car, that perfume, or these shoes our lives will be complete. Those who have ever bought a pair of shoes, a car, or a perfume may begin to have some doubts.
Consumerism is a never-satisfied master – it will never be enough, and if you must have x to be satisfied today, when you get it, tomorrow you will need y to be satisfied tomorrow. Like all of the deadly sins, greed cannot be satisfied – and so it becomes a trap that consumes its possessor. What is it that fulfills?
Jesus. Jesus alone. Only Jesus can satisfy the hungry heart – a relationship of love, acceptance, calling, encouragement, hope, and forgiveness. This alone can satisfy the isolation and heartache built into the human heart. Jesus is the answer. The answer that satisfies. The answer that brings peace for today, tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Prayer: God, thank you for giving us a solution to the isolation and loneliness we created by separating ourselves from you. Thank you for giving us Jesus. Amen.
December 14, 2016 – The Holy One of God 6:69
“Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
To be Holy is to be set apart. To be set apart for sacred purpose. Church buildings are, to some degree, sacred spaces, and are therefore holy. Vestments, communion ware, candelabras, altars, pulpits, etc. can all be dedicated to God and God’s purposes – and thus become holy.
Can a person be holy? If they are fully dedicated, consumed by the task of living out their relationship with God and doing God’s will, then are they Holy? For myself, I can tell you that I lack utterly the capacity to completely commit myself to a particular course. I ALWAYS look back, and reask the question. “Is this really the right thing?” Should I change course and head that way today? What does today (this hour) or this moment call for? Nothing in my life is permanent, settled, or determined.
So, I know that I cannot be fully dedicated to anything, though I can grow MORE dedicated over time. In this way, I believe that I head toward perfection. Yet, at every step along the way, I fall short of that perfection, and thus of holiness.
Jesus, however, did not fall short. He had completed the journey to perfection, and thus had become Holy, not in part, but the whole. Jesus is the Holy One of God.
Prayer: God, thank you, God for this amazing demonstration of the potential within us. Thank you for Jesus. Amen.
December 15, 2016 – Messiah 7:26 20:31
Messiah is the transliteration of the Hebrew word for anointed. The transliteration of the Greek word for the same thing is christ. In Israel three different kinds of people were anointed: kings, prophets, and priests. This sets up an interesting question in relation to Jesus – if Jesus is anointed, what particular role is he anointed for?
On the road to Jerusalem, the people proclaimed him king (Son of David). This was what the Sanhedrin were worried about – a political revolt in Israel would cost them their relationship and power through Rome. Some said he was a prophet – and came to see his miracles and listen to his teaching. Some thought he was a priest who came to cleanse the temple.
Which of these meanings do we hold today? The book of Hebrews talks about Jesus as the Great High Priest. Many of Jesus’ teachings clearly hearken to the prophets who helped the people to understand the actual desires of God. Jesus has also told us that he would come again as King and Lord. So the answer is all of the above – we hold them all to apply to Jesus – the anointed messiah of God.
Prayer: God, thank you for sending your son, and for anointing him as Prophet, Priest, and King. Amen.
December 16, 2016 – Judge 8:1-11
This again is not fully a title given to Jesus in this text. Yet in this passage Jesus is asked to fulfill this role. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus, reminded him of the Mosaic code, and asked him to pronounce judgement. The very first thing that comes to mind is this: if this woman was caught in adultery, where is the man? This is a question that wouldn’t have occurred to its 1st century hearers, but is sort of remarkable for us.
Moving on, Jesus is faced with a quandary – why did they bring her to Jesus in the first place? They wanted to drive a wedge between Jesus and the people. By making him a judge, he becomes less than their hero. He becomes one of “them” – those who sit over the people rather than one among them. What does Jesus do? Jesus bent down and wrote in the dust with his finger. I once heard a pastor speculate that Jesus was writing the names of the mistresses of the scribes and Pharisees in the dust. That speculation is delicious, but we really don’t know what he wrote. My favorite thought is Micah 6:8, but again, we don’t know. Eventually, after being badgered by the scribes and Pharisees, he stands to pronounce judgement – “let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” and then goes back to writing in the dirt.
When he returns his focus to the woman, her accusers have gone. To her, he says “Neither do I condemn you. God your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Both parts of this are critical – we should not judge, but we should also not pretend that what she did was ok. God wants more for her, just not more stones.
Prayer: God, thank you for your call to us to be better, but not to feel guilt, shame, and to use punishment to increase the suffering among us. Amen.
December 17, 2016 – Lord 9:38 20:20 21:7
One of the earliest affirmations of faith was the phrase “Jesus is Lord.” It is used in the gospels regularly by the disciples and others whom he comes into contact. The man born blind was one such. He addresses Jesus as Lord – a title of authority and relationship of unequals. Jesus is clearly the person of power in this relationship because he is the healer, the one who fixes the blot upon the family and the loss of function within this man – the blindness that wasn’t punishment, but rather he was born blind to reveal the power of God.
We prefer not to think that our suffering is beyond our understanding – how much more comforting to think that we are in control, even if that means we have done wrong. This man, however, suffered for years, as did his parents and family who were presumed guilty, so that God’s power can be revealed. When it is, he calls Jesus Lord. That makes him one of the first converts into a new faith.
We, too, are invited to come into relationship with God. Not a relationship of equals, but one of servant and Lord. Mostly, we feel that we should be above being a servant, because we are as good as the next guy. That kind of thinking won’t work here. Jesus is not the next guy – he is the power of God revealed. When we come into relationship with the power of God revealed, we should not expect to be partners. We should call God Lord. Christians have been doing so for thousands of years.
Prayer: God, help us to remember that we are not your peer, but are your beloved children and servants. Help us to glory in that life giving relationship, and to find rest in you. Amen.
December 19, 2016 – Good shepherd 10:11
Being compared to a sheep is hard. Some may not know much about sheep, but from close experience, I can tell you that they are dumb. Truly, profoundly idiotic. They wander off when distracted by a chewy thistle. Wander off to risk, danger, and death because they don’t realize what isolation does to them. They need a shepherd.
But not all shepherds are created equal – some care for their sheep, and others are not so very committed. What kind of commitment is required? According to Jesus, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. That is commitment. A sheep fold is like the letter c – a moat/hill in a near circle with leaves, spikes, etc to discourage predators outside while the sheep are inside. Across the opening of the C, the shepherd sleeps. His own body is the gate for the defense of the sheep. If a wolf, lion or bear comes to eat the sheep, he must cross the body of the shepherd. This metaphor isn’t really a metaphor – it is a literal reality – the shepherd “lays down his life” for his sheep – to put himself between the sheep and the teeth and claws of those who may eat them.
Prayer: God, under your protection I know that I will ultimately, permanently be safe. Thank you. Amen.
December 20, 2016 – Resurrection and life 11:25
This title is claimed by Jesus during his resurrection of Lazarus from death. This miracle, just over the hill from Jerusalem, creates a HUGE buzz and makes the Sanhedrin begin to plot not only to kill Jesus, but also to kill Lazarus. The claim to be the resurrection and the life is in itself fantastic. That it was made while actually resurrecting Lazarus was an earthquake, and sets up the confrontation between Jesus and the high priest a week later.
When I was a debater, I was confronted with David Hume’s syllogism that “more evidence should be demanded for less likely events.” Since life from death is pretty unlikely, we should demand incredible evidence. The problem for the Sanhedrin in this story is that such incredible evidence was sitting there and talking to his guests and friends – Lazarus was alive. That is why not only must Jesus die, but so must Lazarus.
We, however, are not able to talk with Lazarus, who presumably has in fact died again of natural causes. How then, can we believe in this incredible promise? For me, I believe that the evidence for this claim of Jesus’ is in fact incredible. Evidence includes transformed lives, hope and strength in the midst of struggle and pain. When the Amish forgive the murder of the children at their school, God is visible, and the evidence mounts.
I am fully persuaded – even without seeing Lazarus, I have seen life from death. I believe.
Prayer: God, help us to find life, hope, and purpose in a life that can steal all of these from us in the drip drip of suffering and pain. Help us to live. Amen.
December 21, 2016 – The way 14:6
In this spectacular chapter, most often read and studied at funerals, we find Jesus making the promise that he goes to prepare a place for us, and will come again to take us with him. In my father’s house… God will never leave us nor forsake us, and we have a home not here in this world. Thomas says that he doesn’t know the way to Jesus’ father’s house. Jesus then speaks one of the most powerful phrases ever spoken: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the father but by me.”
In my last church, on my door I had a “One Way” street sign pointed up. This is sometimes controversial since some want to claim that all roads up the mountain lead to the top. Jesus would have had a hard time with this, of course, if the John is to be believed. The way – how can a person be a way? Jesus said that our job was to come, follow me. If we follow, then he is the guide. If he is the guide, then he is the one deciding how and where we will end up.
Too often we think that a map is a “way” forward. But in fact Jesus says that the way is a person – the person of Jesus. Jesus is not the way to Tipperary, but the way to heaven – to his father’s house. When traveling in a strange country, we need a native guide – we need somebody who has been there and knows the terrain. If we can find somebody who knows the turf, we can relax and allow them to guide us on right paths.
Jesus is the way.
Prayer: God we want the directions and to go on our own. But you have provided a person to show us how to find you. We cannot get to you on our own. Help us to follow Jesus as he leads us home. Amen.
December 22, 2016 – the truth 14:6 18:38
Pilate will ask “what is truth” which is a great question for the debate society, but in the context of Jesus is the wrong question – Jesus says that he himself is the truth – so not what, but who. Aristotle and the greeks loved abstract thinking, axioms and theorems, postulates and conclusions. If-then. All useful if you can assume the axioms. But life is rarely like that – sometimes such “thought towers” or if you prefer grander words “magisteria” can prove useful – Mathematics is essentially one such intellectual abstraction. We do math not because of its beauty and “truth” but because it happens to be useful for solving real world problems. The logic of Aristotle can have some utility as well, but we tend to imagine that if we find a useful way to use that way of thinking, it is “true”. However, whether or not math or aristotelian logic is true is a blind alley. Whether they are useful is undeniable.
The Jews, however, root their life choices not in abstract logic, but in a vital relationship with God – in whom their hope lies. When can we say that a relationship is “truth”? Certainly some relationships are not truth – relationships that tend to destroy one or the other person involved – unhealthy and destructive relationships are in a significant way “false” or life-destroying. Conversely, we could say that relationships that encourage and enrich life for all involved could be said to be true. If this is the measure we use, or an acceptable language to describe relationships, then the claim of Jesus to be “truth” must be understood as a claim that in our relationship with Jesus, we will be both blessed and a blessing. That we can become more fully what we were made to be than we are now.
This is exactly how I experience my relationship with Jesus. In this way, I can say that Jesus is the truth.
Prayer: God, we are broken in so many different ways and places. In our relationship with Jesus, may we find a kind of wholeness that can restore your image in us. Amen.
December 23, 2016 – The true vine 15:1
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Later, the branches are warned that they only produce fruit when connected in harmonious ways with the vine – the minerals from the soil must be married to the energy of the sun captured by the leaves on the branches or no fruit grows.
In just the same way, when we connect to the true vine, we are connected to needed water and minerals for us to combine with the direct light of God to produce in our lives and in our world the fruit of the spirit. The branch is either faithful or unfaithful with its resources. Branches that fail to properly use what they are given must be removed and are useful only for burning. Branches that do produce must be pruned to produce even more. This process can be hard. I know this from experience. However, I am fairly certain that it is MUCH better than the fire.
One beautiful aspect of this is the abiding – the branch abides in its connection to the vine, the sun, and the vinedresser – under those circumstances the fruit is the natural result. The branch isn’t asked to be what it is not, but rather to fully realize its own purpose. To be what it was intended to be.
I can personally think of nothing I would prefer more – to be what I was made to be fully and fruitfully.
Prayer: God, help me to become more of what you had hoped for in me, and help me to abide in your grace when the pruning knife comes close. Amen.
December 24, 2016 – The gardener 20:15
This is one last “dubious” title given to Jesus. Mary is weeping outside the tomb, and sees Jesus, and mistaking him for a gardener asks him where he has taken the body. His answer is my favorite word in the Bible: “Mary!”
When Jesus speaks our name, we recognize him. If we are confused, and hear our name called, we resonate. God in scripture tells us that he has called us by name – that he loves us individually and personally. It is because God calls us by name that we can say things like “in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” in our liturgy. God knows your name, and cares about you. Jesus speaks it, and we know him.
The gardener – the misunderstood Jesus – the mistaken identity – all are broken in that one loving word.
In another story Jesus is known not in conversation and debate, but in the breaking of the bread.
I often am confused and misunderstand, then I hear my name spoken in love, and all becomes clear.
Prayer: God, help us to hear our own names spoken in love from your lips. Help us to remember whose we are. Amen.
December 25, 2016 – My Lord and my God! 20:28
What is this, an extra devotional? I thought Sundays we weren’t going to have one? One last title I felt was needed before we conclude this devotional period. When Thomas finally meets the resurrected Jesus, and is invited to place his fingers in the hand-wounds, and his hand in Jesus’ side – he responds with this phrase.
When we truly encounter Jesus, we cannot help but respond similarly.
At the end of our journey through John, experiencing the living Jesus among us, may this Christmas be for us an experience similar to Thomas’s – may we find ourselves overwhelmed by his presence, love, and power. May his forgiveness overflow and transform us. May we in awe and wonder utter the phrase: My Lord and My God!