John 1:19-42: This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”[g] 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,[h] nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed[j]). 42 He brought Simon[k] to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter[l]).
A few weeks ago, in the Discourse, people were holding a national debate of real public significance—the heavyweights made their positions known and people bunkered down into their respective camps and the arguments were passionate and vehement. People had to know…are the Marvel superhero movies cinema or not? Some people said yes, they’re entertaining and inventive, within all the magic and aliens they tell real human stories. Others said no, these aren’t really movies, they’re some new category of entertainment as capitalism reduces everything down to the great dyad of Amazon and Disney.
There’s something about superheroes that definitely strikes a nerve, this idea that there are people who are more than just people, who can swoop in and save the day, who can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves because we obviously know that what we’re working with here isn’t good enough. A number of critics have pointed out the the Marvel movies became popular largely during the Obama administration, and so maybe they reflect a kind of liberal fantasy about finally having good management, that if we just got the right people who are inherently better or more intelligent than your average Joe into positions of power they’ll do the right thing. And what that means for the rest of us is we’re just supposed to keep our mouths shut and do our jobs and make sure we’re not too disruptive.
Part of the reason that I find this whole phenomenon interesting is that I think a lot of people imagine God working in basically the same way. As if the Israelites are in Egypt crying out, “I want to speak to the manager” and then God sends Moses to give them a discount so that they’ll come back next time (“We’ve got a branch opening up in Babylon soon”).
Or take our story this morning, which starts with John describing Jesus’ baptism, John says to this group of people, “I must become less, Jesus must become greater. I’m not really doing anything, I’m not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal, I baptize with water, he’s going to baptize with the Holy Spirit.” And then he describes how the heavens break open and the Holy Spirit descends in this mystical vision of how Jesus is a God.
And that is what we confess as Christians, that God becomes incarnate in Jesus, that God is at work in the world, that there is a grace exceeding our imaginations and capacities, that we’re not left to our own devices. But what I’d like to consider today is how that grace works in our midst, how Jesus reveals God to us.
Because I think a lot of us have been taught that it makes a kind of sense to describe Jesus as a superhero, the God from outside of the machine breaking in to save the day. There’s a whole stream of theology that is vehement that you don’t participate in your salvation, you are basically a worthless worm who Captain Logos has to get out of eternal damnation which is absolutely what you deserve. That’s one way of reading, “I must become less, he must become greater,” that really the best thing that could happen to me is that I become invisible.
If that’s who Jesus is, if that’s how grace works, if salvation is in spite of us (to spite the rest of us), then that tells us a lot about who God is. That’s going to shape our practices and what it means for us to witness in the world. If Jesus is a hero, then we’re going to find Christ in what we consider to be heroic—and it turns out there’s always certain people who must become less and certain other people who get to show us who God is. So, a lot of churches, a lot of movements in the history of the church have been built around charismatic leaders, who are really good at rallying large groups of people with their beautiful oratory or their intelligence. For all of the evangelical griping you might hear about traditions with hierarchies, where the priests represent a spiritual elite, a lot of the evangelical movement was built around slick white men who marketed the Gospel well, and so a lot of our spiritual instincts are to look for those kinds of heroes who bear the faith for us. It’s almost natural in a tradition that emphasizes the sermon so much, that the sermon is the Gospel and the Gospel is life, so whoever’s giving the sermon naturally becomes associated with their message. That’s part of why here at Jubilee we share the pulpit and we take communion every week—because whatever the preacher says matters but Jesus is present at the table so you don’t have to agree with this or even understand this to experience the Gospel.
But you hear this kind of thing, looking for a hero, when people talk about the future of the church. Who’s going to be the next Billy Graham? Or who’s gonna be the next Dr. King? Nevermind the army of people who made their work—on very different projects—possible. For a lot of us, the future of the church is bound up in finding heroes.
And this shapes our witness, too and the ways we try to shape the world. Whenever a new outrage happens, there’s a host of people with phone numbers and scripts saying, “call your senators, call your representatives!” Or “We have to get this candidate into the White House, they’re our only hope!” Now we should care about who the most powerful person is the world is and I do think it’s a good thing to bug the crap out of every politician, but if that’s all we’ve got, if our only hope is that there’s a competent manager somewhere who can sort things out for us, then we’re admitting we’re powerless before we’ve even tried to exercise our power.
This is why I think it’s so important that our story this morning does not present Jesus as some kind of superhero. He is God in the flesh, but when God reveals who God is in the flesh, God doesn’t immediately swoop over our heads and fix everything for us. The majesty and beauty of the baptismal moment, of the divine voice speaking benediction and delight, flows directly into the calling of the disciples.
John tells the story of Jesus baptism, of this recognition that God’s very presence is embodied in our midst, and in that moment, Jesus walks by. And these guys, start following him. At first, we don’t even know these people’s names. They’re not people of status. No one had heard of them or their families. They’re just fishers, workers, who spend their days mending nets and then flinging them into the waters. They’re the kind of people who in superhero movies get buildings dropped on them in the background, who are basically invisible.
But these are the people who start following Jesus. Literally. Just following him down the road. And the storyteller says Jesus turned around and saw them. He saw them. He doesn’t ignore them, he doesn’t allow them to fade into the background while he goes to Jerusalem or Rome to work things out with the adults. He sees them. This is remarkable. There’s this saying that history is written by the winners: that in the history of the world most of what gets written down is chosen by the people who have the money to pay people to write things down. It’s only in the last hundred years that others have started trying to write people’s histories, asking what life was like for regular people. But here, in the Scriptures we read that this motley crew of nobodies comes to Jesus and he sees them. And he doesn’t just see them, he asks, “What are you looking for?” What do you see? And then he invites them to join him.
My friends, God sees you. The CEO might not see you, the boss might not see you, the men in charge might not see you, the collections agent might not see you, the person taking your report might not see you, that doctor might not see you, your parents might not see you, there are any number of powers and principalities in this world that want you to feel so so small that you cannot be seen, but the God who made everything out of nothing, for whom a thousand years is a day, and a mile a mite, God sees you! And not only does God see you, God wants to know what you see, God wants you to share your vision and your desires, your hurts and your pain, your hope and your love so that we all know we’re not invisible either.
When Jesus reveals God in the flesh, the direct outpouring of that event is not heroism, it’s solidarity. It’s not someone bigger and stronger and just better doing what we can’t while we cheer him on.
God’s revelation is a carpenter calling to a bunch of fishermen saying, “Hey let’s walk together. What do you want to do?” Jesus is not a charismatic individual who casts a spell over the masses: “He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” He tells weird little stories that no one understands, he makes big messes in the Temple when people are trying to get ready for the holidays, he doesn’t argue for his righteousness when he’s on trial, he doesn’t win any battles, he gets crucified, and he doesn’t even put up a fight while he’s dying. Jesus doesn’t come to be a hero, which means you don’t have to be a hero either, and our life together, the future of the church, whatever, will not be secured by another charismatic white dude telling us all what to do because that’s not the kind of God that God is.
God is Jesus, who teaches us that we don’t need a hero, we just need each other because wherever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name God’s presence is already with us. And this is how God works: Jesus rises from the waters of baptism to call disciples just as he rises from the grave to breathe the Holy Spirit upon the church.
This is why at Jubilee we want to pay off each others debts and we want to support our members and our neighbors who are unionizing. It’s why we want to say not just “we see you” but “what do you think we should do?” to our LGBTQ+ members. If God is Jesus who is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and who comes as a worker to join us in our struggles, who pours the Holy Spirit upon creation, then we’re not going to be the church we want to be because of any charismatic leader—we will be that kind of church if we recognize that we all need each other and we all lean on each other to provide the kind of care that our world in so many way is not set up to give.
My friends, we don’t need a hero and we don’t have to be shamed by the ways we are not heroic—not smart enough, not strong enough, not able enough, not wealthy enough, not good enough. Our problems will not be solved by another Billy Graham or Superman or any one politician so long as our role in their work is just to go about our business. We worship the God who is revealed in our midst, and who within that revelation calls each and every one of us, looking each of us in the eyes and saying “You are the rock on which I will build my church. There’s no salvation for anyone if you’re not a part of it. So, what do you think we should do?” Amen.