John the Button Presser
Reading: John 1:6-9, 19-28
A Sermon which notes that all the bits of the reading about Jesus in verses 9-18 are cut out by the lectionary. It asks us to look at John.
Have you ever noticed something odd about your minister? I have a colleague who sometimes stops in the middle of his sermon, to think, and places his hand on his head… like this… You can tell me better than I can, what little quirks I have!
But let's imagine the hand on the head stuff is me. You've seen this a hundred times, and one day, I put my hand on my head, and for some reason, it really irritates you. It gets right under your skin and you feel quite grumpy.
Is there something bad about a hand on the head? Why did it bother you this time, when mostly you just smile to yourself— "that's Andrew, hand on his head again… no wonder he's getting a bald spot."
I find… that when things set me off, it's actually not usually the person and what they've done, … but it's something in me. Something about what they did pressed a button, or touched a sore spot in me— nothing to do with them, actually, and I get grumpy.
Now here's the important thing— let's turn this around: if you… remind me… of my sore spot that was hurt long ago, but I get grumpy at you… what does that achieve?
What I need to deal with is the sore spot… maybe the fact that I'm channelling the way I used to feel at school when someone said something hurtful. If I externalise… my problem, if I project it… onto you, the problem stays unhealed in me, and I visit a violence upon you when I blame you… for something that's about me… for something you didn't do! Just like our old cat, who used to get into trouble for jumping up on the table, and each time she got into trouble for that, she went and beat up the other cat— every time. That's externalising. All she needed to do was stay off the table.
What I have just described to us, is a picture of what's happening in the reading today between John and the Priests and Levites who have come from Jerusalem. It could sound like these folk are being conversational:
"G'day John. Say, who are you, really? Are you the Messiah? I mean, we're really interested in the theology of baptism…. … Oh, that's odd. So if you're not the Messiah, what's with the baptising, mate?
You know… just a chat while they're all in the queue at the checkout.
Except the word that's translated as "they asked him" about who he was, is the same word the Chief Priest uses when Jesus is on trial for his life. Mark D. Davis suggests a better word than ask is: interrogate. You will remember that John is testifying and witnessing and confessing in the reading. This is courtroom language.
So the men come from Jerusalem and interrogate him. Don't think of a conversation with John, think of "John in a metal ladder-back chair with his hands tied behind his back and a strong light shining on his face," to use Davis' words.
Why are they doing this?
Well, did you notice that although John is not the light of the world— that's Jesus— he is witnessing to the light? (vv8) And the light is shining into the lives of the religious leaders; it's showing them things about themselves they would rather not see. As this gospel says in Chapter 3, sometimes people "hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed…"
So John has provoked them— pushed their buttons, just as he will provoke Herod, and so, he is eventually murdered. In the gospels, John sits as a precursor to Jesus; a forerunner.
John witnesses to the light, and presses people's buttons. He is murdered.
Jesus is the light, and presses people's buttons. He is murdered.
What will we do when he shines a light on us, and presses our buttons? Will we look at what's pressing our buttons— will we ask why he makes us uncomfortable, why he angers us? Will we seek healing?
Or will we externalise our fear and pain, and tip it out on someone else?
You know when Jesus says, "When two or three of your are gathered together, I am in your midst… I am there with you?
What that means… is that when we're at church, getting our buttons pushed, Jesus is there, too. And we have a choice. We can look at the pain people cause us… and there's often a lot of it… and we can ask what we can do to seek healing— do you see that the people who irritate us are a gift of grace! They can even be light shining into us! … we can ask what we can do to seek healing
… or we can just externalise it and complain about the dreadful minister, or the painful person in the pew behind us… and we will miss the grace of God which comes to us in everything.
In the gospels, many of the Pharisees rejected Jesus when he pushed their buttons. They externalised their discomfort, and made it into a violence. They joined the crowd crying, "Crucify him."
And do you see what happened? Jesus was crucified, and it meant nothing, because death means nothing to God. Death doesn't exist for God. Death is not the end of human life; it's the beginning of one more chapter of our life with God.
But the Pharisees who externalised their violence… were left behind. Judgement is not God punishing us; judgement is God's very self… standing before us, and us refusing to walk into the light, and calling God evil instead.
There is one more thing to say. Because we Christians, like all people, have a history of externalising our fears and hatreds onto other people, our culture has hated Jewish people and made them out to be evil. That's where the Holocaust comes from. So we miss what John's Gospel is asking us every time the Pharisees show up in a bad light:
He is not talking about the real historical Pharisees, who were mostly people deeply committed to God. He is asking a question of us: Is this you? Are you rejecting the light, refusing its healing, blaming someone else? Where will that leave you?
And every time someone gets on my nerves, and I react back at them, instead of working out what's happening in me, I walk away from the light.
This is serious business. At the very beginning of the gospel, John provokes pharisaic people, and by the end of the gospel, pharisaic people engineer the death of Jesus.
What might I do? Which means, in the end… What will I do to myself when I walk away from the light which shines on me!? Amen.
Andrew Prior (2017)