Back in the preaching 'saddle' after a long Christmas & new year break.
Isaiah 49: 1-7
John 1: 29-42
Perhaps one of the best known images of John the Baptist is the Isenheim Altarpiece. The work is over 500 years old and is presently in the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace.
Even if you haven’t heard of it you might have seen the detail of John the Baptist from it.
John is shown in his camel hair tunic, rather unkempt and in need of a good hair cut, with one muscular arm extended and a long index finger pointing very definitely at the figure of Christ in the centre of the altarpiece. His words from John’s 3rd chapter are shown, in Latin, behind him “He must increase, but I must decrease”.
This is the John the Baptist we have met in our Gospel reading today.
When he sees Jesus, he tells his disciples and everyone around him “here is the Lamb of God”. Two of John’s disciples leave him to follow Jesus, but everything we are told about John suggests that rather than experiencing a very understandable jealousy, he would be delighted by this. John says “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me” and then, later in the gospel those words “He must increase, but I must decrease”. John spends his whole ministry pointing to Jesus.
Turn to God (points) here’s the lamb of God
Change your life (points) he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
Look for what God is doing in the world (points) here is the Son of God.
John is the human signpost, who spends his whole ministry pointing to Jesus.
As the new year gets under way we would do well to ask ourselves how we as Christians, and together as church, can be this sort of pointer and signpost to God’s love in Jesus Christ for the people around us.
But I know it can be really dispiriting, even terribly hard, sometimes, to be God’s people in the world.
There is so much suffering and bad news – war, terrorism, disease, addiction, poverty… how can we really help – surely it is all too much for us?
The good news, if we feel tired or uncertain or overwhelmed, is that we are definitely not alone.
Isaiah writes of his call to be God’s servant and then says “But …I have laboured in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”.
Yet God takes him and assures him that he will make him, with the whole nation of God’s people “a light to the nations”.
This week I was talking with someone who is feeling a call to serve God through answering a call to ministry in the URC. What is it that gives someone the confidence to start thinking about serving the church in that way?
She talked about a sense of ‘burning’ to tell other of God’s love, and we spoke of how amazing it is that God needs people like her .. and me... to show the world what love means. God needs her.. and me… and you in this world.
We are all called to be signposts of love. We should all stand, like John the Baptist, pointing.
But how do we best do that?
Let’s go back to the Isenheim altarpiece.
It was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, which specialised in hospital work. The monks of the monastery were noted for their care of plague sufferers as well as their treatment of skin diseases. The image of the crucified Christ at the centre of the altar-piece is pitted with plague-type sores.
For patients who sat before that altarpiece, John the Baptist pointed to this wounded, suffering, sore-covered Jesus, and showed those patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions.
Isn’t that what our whole suffering world needs? To know that God’s love is not distant or unfeeling or trapped in history. God understands the suffering of our world, has felt it and overcome it, and longs to soothe it even now.
John the Baptist pointed to Jesus Christ, here on this earth, among people, touching, healing, loving, teaching.
He said he knew this was God’s own Son because this was the one on whom the Holy Spirit has come to rest at his baptism, so he knew that the Spirit had enabled Jesus to show God fully to his world.
But before Jesus physically left his followers he gives them a final gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit rests on all of those who follow Jesus, so that they are more than just signposts, they are a living church, Christ’s own body, living to be God’s own.
We – God’s church – Christ’s people – here today – are promised and given that same Holy Spirit. Through the power and work of that Spirit we are made into Christ’s body – the hands and feet and mouths which will show a suffering world God’s love and care among them, with them, alongside them.
Howard Thurman, a mentor of Martin Luther King wrote:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”
As the memory of Christmas fades and this new year unfolds, God’s Spirit can help us to be pointers to Christ, like John the Baptist, and even to be Christ for our neighbours, so that God’s love can be shared.
So may God’s kingdom come,
In the name of Christ