A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
January 19, 2014.
For as long as I can remember when it comes to looking for things, I’m terrible! When I’m the one cooking dinner, it takes me just as long to hunt down the ingredients I need as it does to actually prepare them. I dig around in the cabinets and pantry, looking for that oil or pasta or whatever, and after five or ten minutes, I give up and call in the reinforcements. Beth promptly comes in and within seconds, bing! Pasta? Pantry shelves, eye level. Oil? In the cabinet, as always. Eggs? In the refrigerator, right hand side. This is true with all sorts of things in our house – pens, flashlights, my own wallet, you name it. Sometimes I’ll hear Beth call out to me, “Michael could you bring me the … oh, never mind. It’ll be quicker if I go get it myself.” In fact, Beth used to tell people that she had children so that there would be somebody else in the family who could look and find things.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, there was a lot of looking and seeing described by the apostle John. Twelve times in fourteen verses, John used verbs like “look,” “see” and “reveal” in his portrayal of the baptism of Jesus and the selection of Jesus’ first followers. In this baptism story found in verses 29 to 34, John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and he said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Then, John explained that he was commissioned to baptize with water so that this Lamb of God might be revealed to Israel. And when Jesus was baptized, John saw the Holy Spirit come down and remain on him, so that he proclaimed: “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” In this episode, John the Baptist witnessed the Lamb, he observed the Son of God coming to him, and he saw what the Spirit of God had said about Jesus.
You’ve probably heard of the old saying, “Seeing is believing,” but that was not the case with John the Baptist. There’s something intriguing going on in this text. Even though John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin and identified him as the Lamb of God in verse 29, John confessed in verse 31 that “I myself did not know him.” And just in case we missed that, John confessed again in verse 33 that “I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’.” John the Baptist saw Jesus, but needed a lot of help knowing Jesus as the Son of God.
Are we any better? J.W. Woodward, who works at the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, once wrote: Each of us approaches the Scripture and Jesus with a certain perspective that colors and shapes the way we see him. One person said, “I’m going to give you three good reasons why I believe Jesus was Italian. He loved to talk with his hands, he had wine with every meal, and he used olive oil quite a bit.” Someone from California said, “I’m going to give you three reasons why I believe Jesus was Californian. He never cut his hair, he walked around barefoot all the time, and he started his own religion.” After that a woman gave the most compelling evidence of all: three proofs why Jesus was a woman. “He had to feed a crowd at a moment’s notice when there was no food, he kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who just didn’t get it, and even when he was dead he had to get up because there was more work for him to do.”
All joking aside, we are reminded that no human witness can see the complete picture of Jesus. We look, but we do not see, or we do not see fully. But during this season of Epiphany, a word which means “appearance” and “revelation,” we are also reminded that God has been revealed to us in human form in the person of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Gospel lesson this morning shows that the baptism of Jesus itself becomes an occasion of revelation to John the Baptist. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, John the Baptist was finally able to see the light and witness the Lamb of God. Then, he pointed his own disciples to look to the Lamb so that two of them asked Jesus: “Rabbi, teacher, where are you staying?” And Jesus replied: “Come, and you will see.”
What a gracious thing Jesus offered to those two seekers. Jesus was basically saying to them: “Come and see for yourself what I’m all about. My life is an open book for you to examine. Spend time with me and observe, and I will teach you about myself, not just by my words, but by the way I live.” In this invitation to “Come and see,” the Lamb of God did not coerce; the eternal living Word gave no lecture. In this invitation, what Emmanuel offered was Himself, “God with us” sharing time and life together so that his followers could get to know him. When John’s disciples went and saw where Jesus was staying and spent that day with him, they observed and witnessed the Lamb and that’s when they knew that they had found the Messiah.
As parents, we’ve seen so many examples of how children learn by observing and then imitating us and others. When we lived in Farmville, sometimes Beth’s dad would drive and take Wesley with him on errands. Other times, Wes would go over to his grandfather’s apartment to watch TV (we didn’t have it at our house). And sometimes they’d go together to watch Longwood play baseball. We thought it was great that they spent so much time together – but we did notice one side effect of all that togetherness: Wesley started talking like an old man! When he saw something neat or special, he’d say, “Great day!” When he encountered a problem or something difficult, he’d pull out the Norwegian phrase, “Oof dah!” And when he saw a car speeding up to go through a yellow light, he’d cry out, “Watch it, Buster!” We thought it was pretty amusing, and as Beth told her sisters, “Of all the habits Wes could have picked up from Dad, we got off pretty easy.”
Children often learn by imitation, and that was also the way that disciples learned from their rabbi teachers. Disciples literally followed the footsteps of the rabbi, observing all aspects of the teacher’s life and imitating actions. Yes, the rabbi offered information through teaching, but what the disciples learned was more “caught” than “taught.” It seems to me that in many modern-day churches, our discipleship programs are mostly about transferring information and gaining head knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, I think head knowledge is important. I’ve attended Sunday School most of my life. I’ve taken undergraduate and graduate courses on the Bible and Jesus. I continue to read and learn. But I’ve noticed that all that head knowledge had very little effect in transforming my life.
It was about four years or so, when I was in a discipleship group led by John Chandler, that I was challenged to not only seek information about Christ, but to learn to imitate and follow Christ, by prayerfully asking God to tell me what I should be doing to conform more to Christ’s likeness. In our discipleship group, we studied a scripture passage, and each person shared what God was revealing about his or her life through that passage. We prayerfully asked God to show us specific things we could do to apply the scripture in our lives, and we shared that with the group so that they could hold us accountable to the things we said we would do to follow Christ in a particular area. In that group, we were vulnerable with each other, we encouraged each other, we lovingly held each other accountable, and we showed grace when we failed to live up to our resolutions and we encouraged each other to try again. That kind of discipleship moved me from information to imitation to transformation. And as pastor of this church, this is the kind of discipleship that I feel called to nurture.
As followers of Christ, we are called to Witness the Lamb—witness in the sense of following Jesus, observing and imitating Him. As we imitate Christ, as individuals and as a community, we witness to the Lamb, we testify to others about what we have seen and we offer the invitation for others to “come and see.” Unfortunately, many people have come to see Christians in a very unfavorable light. For three years, the researcher David Kinnaman conducted interviews with sixteen to twenty-nine year olds, asking them to describe their real experiences with today’s Christians. Kinnaman recorded that 87% of his subjects described Christians as judgmental, 85% as hypocritical, and 75% as too political. Much closer to home, this week, as I was working on this sermon, I thought about how I should address the Sanctity of Human Life Day today and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday tomorrow. Some Baptist churches today will focus solely on the first, while making no mention of the second. Other churches will do exactly the opposite. Now, both topics are important and should be addressed, even though they are politically charged and socially polarizing. But I must also admit that I’ve been turned off by much of the rhetoric regarding these issues and others, because oftentimes, Christians condemn, lecture, insult against those with whom they disagree.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if, instead of inviting others to come and debate, to come and be lectured, a community of Christ followers might invite others to come and see them live out their faith by affirming the sanctity of all human life by caring for those among us regardless of age, race, ethnicity, social economic class, and sexual orientation. I wonder what kind of witness we might have if we cleaned up our own sins before we condemned the sins of others. Wouldn’t that be an appealing witness? Instead of “love the sinner and hate the sin,” why don’t we first ascribe to this dictum: “Love the sinner, and hate our own sin”?
“A generation after the first believers, the theologian Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) summarized the appeal of Christian community: “Those who once delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone . . . we who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.” Because of this witness, it is no wonder the Christian movement expanded very rapidly during the first few centuries.
How do we witness the Lamb? When people look at University Baptist, what do they see? When people look at your life and my life, do they see Jesus?
When we as a church participate in PACEM by providing shelter for homeless men in our community, will we give witness to the Lamb who comes to us naked, hungry, sick and homeless? When we as a church go to West Virginia this summer, will give witness to the Lamb who traveled a long distance to bring healing, hope, joy and love?
My vision for University Baptist is that when people see us, they will see a community seeking to share the love of Christ. When they want to learn more about this Christ, I pray we will say to them, “Come and see.” And when they come, I pray that they will see and experience the Spirit of Christ alive in this place.
This week, may we witness the Lamb who washed away our sins and who invites us into community with Him. And as we live in authentic community, may we witness to the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Amen.
 JR Woodward, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, p. 114.
 David Kinnaman, UnChristian.
 Dan Clendenin, “The Outrage of Outsiders: Why So Many People Dislike Christians,” posted Jan. 14, 2008 in http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080114JJ.shtml.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.