ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JANUARY 15, 2017
COME AND SEE
1 Corinthians 2: 1 & 2; John 1: 29- 46
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Recently Terry was speaking to a minister from northern Nigeria. The man shared that in that region, Christians are consistently under threat for their faith by Boko Haram, whose goal it is to eradicate all things “Western” (including people who follow a “western” religion) and to create an Islamic caliphate under sharia law by any means. (I would add that other minority religions are also persecuted but this man focused on his fellow Christians) He spoke of many incidents of persecution – from verbal threats to job losses to the burning of thousands of churches, schools, businesses, cars and personal properties to physical and sexual abuse to violent deaths. Dayo’s family is from Oyo State in the western part of Nigeria (bright pink – bottom left) where it’s more peaceful and we’re grateful to God for that. Since she’s closer to the situation in Nigeria I asked her about the minister’s comments. She responded, “Yes, it’s true what the minister was saying and to buttress his point, I have a family friend who lived in Kano state for 35 years (deep red – central northern region). Then Muslims came to wage war on the Christians. God was on their side in the sense that they were friends with the Muslims on their street who warned them to leave the city; others were not so lucky.” I give credit to those neighbours who endangered their own lives for this family. While there are places in Nigeria where people live in harmony, the Christians in the north have been heavily targeted for the last 6 years. As Dayo summed up, “as a Christian you either stay [and face persecution] or you leave”. As recently as the 23rd and 24th of December 2016 while preparing to celebrate Christmas, a faith community of 1000 Christians was massacred. According to the news report Boko Haram went into the village of Gwoza, Borno, blocked the exits from the town and shot, burned alive, cooked alive, and hacked to death the trapped inhabitants (deep blue – northern right hand corner). The minister reflected that Christians in Nigeria need to know “what they believe and why they believe; they need to be focused.” He told of one occasion when arsonists burned a church, leaving it in ruins. That Sunday the congregation gathered within the remains of their now roof-less building for an “Open to heaven” service. To proclaim “Jesus is my Lord” in such an environment is not a statement that is lightly made and yet, Christians in northern Nigeria are so convicted of that truth they’re willing to lay down their lives in Jesus’ name.
Hearing of such accounts naturally make us wonder how we would hold up in such a situation yet this raises bigger questions: As Christians in the West, do we know what we believe and why we believe? Are we focused? Put another way: Do we truly believe Jesus is Lord? Do we believe Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6)? Do we believe that the world – other people, our family, friends and neighbours, have an urgent need for Christ? Or has Jesus become optional?
Today’s gospel reading begins with John’s statement of faith in Jesus as the Messiah. You recall that against his better judgement, John had baptized Jesus. When Jesus came out of the water, the Holy Spirit – in the form of a dove – landed on Jesus. A voice from heaven declared Jesus to be, “My Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1: 10 & 11). John had been looking for this very sign. He had been told by the Holy Spirit, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1: 33) The next day when John encountered Jesus he declared him to be “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (vs. 29) and stated “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (vs. 34) John was certain Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. He was focused. John’s conviction led him to continue to prepare the way for people to receive Jesus. He encouraged his own followers to leave him and follow Jesus. They were curious. They had questions. Jesus invited them to “come and see” (vs. 39) for themselves who he was. According to John one of those men was Andrew. He was so convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, he invited his brother Simon Peter to “come and see”. Jesus then invited Phillip to follow him. Philip went to Nathaniel inviting him to “come and see” (vs. 46), declaring “we have found him about whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth” (vs. 46) All of these men knew what they believed and why they believed; they focused their lives on following Jesus and declaring his lordship. This clarity and focus had one affect – they called their friends to meet him. They invited them to “come and see”.
There are many things in those few verses that make me uncomfortable, not because I don’t believe them but because I know that affirming them may incite hostility and criticism. We live in a complicated world where declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, unique from any other person or spiritual leader, is not politically correct. To say “Jesus is God’s chosen sacrifice” invites reaction. It implies we believe our God is THE God. Furthermore, what kind of God choses one person over another? What God needs a sacrifice? And what God sacrifices his own child? To suggest the salvation of the world rests on Jesus alone is seen as a narrow view. Who says the world and all the people in it need to be saved from something (look around – where on earth would we get that idea?). Christians who believe Jesus is that Saviour are arrogant, exclusive people who think they alone hold the keys to the afterlife which either doesn’t exist and we’re delusional, or it does, so everyone should get to go there; or at least everyone we love and approve of. Of course, there’s nothing arrogant about thinking you should decide who goes to heaven. When we add to this the grind of life; our unfulfilled hopes; unanswered prayers; the wounds and the emptiness that is part of our human experience, doubts creep in. It’s tough out there! Not nearly as tough as Nigeria, but tough enough.
Such opposition and doubts result in three things – we begin to question if Jesus is really as unique and critically important as orthodox Christianity says he is; we learn to keep our mouths closed to avoid conflict and we stop inviting people to “come and see”. We lose focus. Many Christians today no longer know what we believe or why we believe. We’re not sure there’s anything worth coming to see. The most visible example of this is Rev. Gretta Vosper, the United Church Minister who self-identifies as an atheist. When asked if Jesus existed, she replied, “Probably. And he was probably crucified. But was he the divine Son of God? No. Was he supernatural? No. These are invented theological ideas.” The Westar Institute which includes many Christian scholars has concluded, “Jesus of Nazareth was born during the reign of Herod the Great; His mother’s name was Mary, and he had a human father who may or may not have been Joseph; Jesus was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem; Jesus was an wandering sage who shared meals with social outcasts; Jesus practiced faith healing, relieving afflictions we now consider psychosomatic; He did not walk on water, feed the multitude with loaves and fishes, change water into wine or raise Lazarus from the dead; Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem and crucified by the Romans for a public nuisance, not for claiming to be the Son of God; The empty tomb is a fiction – Jesus was not raised from the dead.” Many “christians” consider Jesus to be a great moral teacher but not divine. Others come to church to be with their friends; “community”, not Jesus, is central to them. Still others want to worship God but reject Jesus as their or anyone else’s Saviour. And perhaps the majority of Christians believe in Jesus but consider their beliefs to be “private”. We believe in Jesus but not enough to believe that others are lost without him and certainly not with a burning desire to see others come to faith in Christ. Our faith in Jesus doesn’t compel us to invite others to “come and see”. We’ve become “lukewarm” (Revelation 3:16) about the core of our faith – we’ve become lukewarm about Jesus. We have “abandoned our first love” (Rev 2: 4). Gretta Vosper sums it up quite nicely, “People don’t care about ‘god’; they care about security.” The question is: what do we care about? Security or Christ? What is our focus?
When Charles Spurgeon came as minister to the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, his first words from the pulpit were, “I would propose that the subject of the ministry of this congregation, as long as this pulpit exists, and as long as this building is frequented by worshipers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ. I’m never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist; I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist; but if asked what I believe, I reply, “Jesus Christ.” Your previous pastor has left a heritage which is admirable and excellent in its way. But the legacy to which I bind myself forever, God helping me, is Jesus Christ, who is the arm and substance of the gospel; who is, in Himself, all theology, the incarnation of every precious truth.” Under Spurgeon’s ministry people came and saw. What will be the legacy of our congregation?