If you have ever had to recruit someone for a job, you will probably have asked applicants for two important documents. Firstly, you will have seen their CV, a Curriculum Vitae that describes the applicant’s personal background, their professional qualifications and their previous work experience. After all, before you give someone a position of responsibility you will want to know who they are, what they know and what they’ve done before.
But you will also want to know what others think of them. Before you start paying someone a salary you will want to know what they’re like as a person. For example, are they punctual, well-organised and polite – or are they always late, lazy and generally a bit of a liability? And so as well as a CV, employers usually ask job applicants for references from their former employers. Whatever line of work you are in, a strong candidate will have an impressive CV and an excellent character reference.
Today we begin a new sermon series in John’s Gospel. John was the last of the four Gospels to be written, an eyewitness account of the foundational events of the Christian faith. John uses different language to Matthew, Mark and Luke, and has a unique literary style – almost poetic in parts. John’s Gospel may be beautifully written, but just like the other three Gospels it remains firmly grounded in history. All the evidence suggests that it was written by the apostle John – a Galiliean fisherman with first-hand experience of the amazing events he describes.
And John’s Gospel begins today by giving us a unique CV and a remarkable character reference. You see, this Gospel wants to introduce us to someone you wouldn’t just give a job to, but someone you would want to put in charge of your life. John wants us to meet someone who’s worth entrusting with our eternal destiny. That someone is of course Jesus Christ. And so as we look at the opening chapter of John’s Gospel today, I want us to be reminded of Jesus’ remarkable CV – his great pedigree as God’s “Word” who became flesh. And I want us to be introduced to the astonishing reference that Jesus received from his first witness, John the Baptist
But before we dive in, let me pray: Heavenly Father, please open our eyes to recognise the truth in your written word. And open our hearts to respond rightly to what we read. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
- The Word of God – The Father’s perfect ‘selfie’ (v.1-8)
September is a month of new beginnings isn’t it? It’s the month when children return to school, when many adults return to work after August holidays, and when many church activities resume after their summer break. (Do pick up a copy of our new Autumn Termcard, if you’ve not already done so, to find out what’s on here over the next few months.)
For me personally, September always includes a new beginning. My birthday is actually today, 6th September, so this month always marks another year since my life began back in 1976.
But the person we are introduced to in John chapter 1 had no beginning. In words we probably all know from Christmas Carol Services, John chapter 1 verse 1 tells us that “In the beginning was the Word”. Before the cosmos was created, before the universe began - before time itself - there was the Word. A Word with an unparalleled CV.
In verse 2 we are told that this Word was “with God in the beginning”. In one sense this should come as no surprise. If you are in any way familiar with the Old Testament, especially the book of Genesis, you will know that God has always acted through his word. The Old Testament teaches clearly that when God speaks, things happen. God’s words are the way he get things done. In Genesis chapter 1, for example, we’re told that when God “spoke” our world was made. And sure enough, in verse 3 of John’s Gospel this morning we’re told again that it was “through” God’s Word that “all things were made”. So far so good.
But the big surprise comes in verse 2 today. Because it says that God’s “Word” is not a Star Wars-style force or a sound frequency, but a person. Did you notice that the Word is referred to as a “he” not an “it” – as a “him” not a “thing”. The Word was - and is - a thinking, feeling person. A mind not merely a force.
In verse 1 and 2 we are told twice that this person – this Word - was in a relationship “with” God. At the heart of the universe is a relationship between God and his Word, a relationship that the rest of the Bible compares to a relationship between a loving Father and his Son. Our cosmos is not a product of chance, but a creation that comes from the Father and the Son. When my son James and I make things together we usually come up with Lego model or a toy car. But when God the Father and his Son got going, our universe was the outcome!
And just in case that isn’t enough to make your head spin, we need to wrestle with the fact that the “Word was God” himself! Verse 1 is clear that the Word is fully divine, fully God, just like his Father. He is not an inferior being or a lesser creation, but co-equal and co-eternal with his Father - a perfect likeness in every way.
Do you know what a “selfie” is? It’s a new expression that’s entered our language in recent years. A selfie is when you take a picture of yourself with your mobile phone, usually in some special place or with a special person. I must confess to taking a selfie myself a few weeks ago, when I was with Helen at the top of the Shard tower in central London. (You can now even buy “selfie sticks” that enable you to hold your phone the right distance from your face to get the perfect picture. Perhaps a little excessive!) But whatever you may think of human ‘selfies’, God’s Son is the Father’s perfect ‘selfie’. To see him is to see the Father.
And the great news for us is that God’s Word, God’s perfect Son, became one of us. As John’s Gospel says so famously, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. It is staggering to think that the eternal Word entered time. That the Son of God became a son of Mary. That the Lord of the universe lived a human life as Jesus Christ.
And so in so in the second half of our Bible passage this morning (from verse 19 onwards) we move from eternity into history. We move from events that happened before the beginning of time, to events in time. And our attention moves from the Word, to his witness. To a man whose name was John. Not John the apostle who wrote this Gospel, but John the Baptist.
- The Witness to the Word – John the Baptist (v.19-34)
I wonder what you make of Jeremy Corbyn, and his campaign to lead the Labour party? Whatever you think of his political beliefs, his leadership campaign has been something of a phenomenon. (Its astonishing to think that by this time next week he could be the official Leader of the Opposition!) This bearded backbencher has come out of obscurity and into the media spotlight. Corbyn has come out of the political wilderness and captured the public’s imagination. Crowds have flocked to his campaign rallies, and people are intrigued to know who he is and what he stands for.
A similar situation surrounded John the Baptist 2000 years ago. He too was a bearded man who came out of nowhere and captured his nation’s attention. John the Baptist was a man many thought could be a God-given leader for Israel, a man who might be destined for great things. John dressed in camel hair and ate wild honey and locusts. And from his base beside the Jordan River he called people to repent of their sins and seek God’s forgiveness. And as a sign of their sincerity, he challenged people to submit to baptism in the waters of the Jordan. Crowds flocked to hear him, and in verse 19 of our passage this morning we learn that John had even come to the attention of the religious hierarchy. Like a press pack descending on a politician, “priests and Levites” came to interview John and “ask him who he was.” Was he the messiah? Was he Elijah? Was he a great prophet?
Verses 20 and 21 tell us that John the Baptist’s reply to all those questions was “No!” He wasn’t a messiah sent by God to throw the Roman army out of Israel. Nor was he Elijah or any other Old Testament hero back from the past. Exasperated, the religious authorities ask John “So who are you? What do you say about yourself?” (v.22). John’s reply is that he has come as a witness to the Word made flesh. He has been sent by God the Father to proclaim the coming of the Son. He has come to provide a character reference for the Lord Jesus Christ. “I am a voice of one calling in the desert” says John, “make straight the way for the Lord” (v.23). God’s Word, God’s Son, is on his way!
In the verses that follow, John the Baptist repeats many of the claims about Jesus, about the Word of God, that we saw at the start of our passage. For example, in verse 27 John affirms Jesus’s pre-eminence - “I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals” he says. And in verse 30 John affirms Jesus’s pre-existence - “he who comes after me has surpassed me, because he was before me.” John’s character reference for Jesus comes to a climax in verse 34, when he says: “I have seen and I testify that he is the Son of God”.
So far so good. But what can John the Baptist tell us about Jesus’s mission, about the reason why the word became flesh. To use political metaphors, what does John tell us about Jesus’s manifesto, his policy programme? No one votes for a politician without knowing what they stand for, and John doesn’t expect us to follow Jesus without knowing why he’s come - what he has to offer. So John makes two statements about Jesus’ mission in our passage today. He tells us that Jesus has come to take away sin and to give us God’s Spirit
You may have seen in the news that the world’s biggest sheep was found in Australia this week. It had been wandering in the bush near Canberra for years, and had grown so much wool that it weighed over forty kilograms and could hardly walk. A champion sheep shearer was needed to lighten its load!
Another famous sheep appears in verse 29 of our passage this morning, because John describes Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. John called Jesus a Lamb not because he had a penchant for wool, but because Christ had come to be a new Passover Lamb for God’s people.
Hopefully you remember the events of the Exodus, when a Passover lamb died so that God’s people could go free. Free from slavery in Egypt and free to travel to God’s promised land. The Passover lamb was killed and had its blood daubed on the doorposts of Israelites homes. This blood ensured that God ‘passed over’ the Israelites and kept them safe when he struck down the firstborn sons of Egypt. The Passover lamb died so God’s people could be saved and set free.
So by calling Jesus the “Lamb” of God, John was telling his hearers that Jesus had been sent by his Father to die and set his people free. Not free from slavery in Egypt this time, but free from sin. The Word of God had come into our world to die like the Passover lamb did, so that sins could be forgiven. A prediction that came true three years later when Christ died on the cross, taking away the guilt of all who would believe in him.
The final statement John the Baptist makes about Jesus is that he has come to give people God’s Spirit. John himself was good at baptising people with water, but in verse 33 he says that only Jesus can “baptise with the Holy Spirit”. John knew that only God’s Son can give God’s people God’s Spirit.
You see, forgiveness from sin isn’t the end of the Christian story. If we have come to Christ for forgiveness we still need God’s help to resist sin in future. We need God’s help to keep on trusting and following Jesus when times are tough and in the face of temptation. And we still need God’s help to give us glorious new bodies when our lives in this world come to an end. What we need, in other words, is the gift of God’s Holy Spirit within us. A gift that only Jesus can give. A gift that is received by every Christian when we first believe.
Conclusion: Why John wrote…
As I finish this morning, I wonder what you make of the CV and character reference for Jesus presented in John chapter 1. Does it make you believe that he was more than merely a Carpenter from Nazareth? Does it make you hungry to know him more? I hope so. But whatever your feelings are at this moment, please stick with us over the coming weeks as we work our way through John’s Gospel. Because it records words and miracles by Jesus that should strengthen weak faith, and even awaken faith in those who may currently have none.
After all, that’s the reason why John wrote his Gospel for us. To help us believe in Jesus, and keep on believing. Let me end this morning by quoting some words from John chapter 20. Words written to explain why John wrote what he did: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (v.30-31).