A Basis for Joy (HTML)
IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 27, July 2 to July 8, 2001

A Sermon on John 3:22-36

by Rev. Russell B. Smith

This week, my Aunt Barbara sent me a newspaper clipping listing church bulletin bloopers. Here's a sampling:

  • The cost for attending the Fasting and Prayer conference includes meals.
  • Miss Charlene Jones sang "I Will Not Pass This Way Again," giving obvious pleasure to the congregation.
  • Ladies, don't forget the rummage sale. It's a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Don't forget your husbands.
  • The peacemaking conference scheduled for today has been canceled due to a conflict.
  • The sermon this morning: "Jesus Walks on the Water." The sermon tonight: "Searching for Jesus"
  • Barbara remains in the hospital and needs blood donors for more transfusions. She is also having trouble sleeping and requests tapes of Pastor Jack's sermons.

Those quotes had no direct relevance to my sermon, except that they brought some joy. I love my aunt Barbara, and I enjoyed hearing from her — that brought me joy. I love a good joke, and that brings me joy. And our focus in this text is on joy. Too often, the stereotype of Christians, particularly of us in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, is that of severe and sour. That's an unfortunate and untrue stereotype — Calvinists can be wonderfully joyful, and we're going to explore some of the basis for our joy this morning.

This week's text restates much of what has been said before. We have John repeating his statement "I am not the Christ." We see the divine nature of Jesus Christ restated. And we see again the truth that whoever believes in the son has everlasting life, and whoever does not believe has wrath. So, in many ways, this text is the apostle John's way of saying, "let's recap before we move on."

However this text also contributes something extra to our understanding of who Christ is and what our response to him should be. This text tells us that we're not in charge of the universe, and we should rejoice in this fact. The text also tells us who is in charge, and we should rejoice in that fact too. Interestingly, this passage conveys the need for rejoicing by using the imagery of a wedding, picking up on the imagery we saw earlier in chapter 2. All that having been said, let's dig into the text.

Verses 22-24 set the stage for us. They show Jesus coming down from the north to do ministry in Judea. We also get a time marker here: John the Baptist has not yet been thrown in prison. So, we see that this gospel is filling in a gap that the other gospels don't talk about — the ministry of John the Baptist between Jesus' Baptism and John's imprisonment. We have the pictures of these two preachers with their bands of disciples, both in the countryside of Judea, near Jerusalem, baptizing. Crowds were coming to both of them.

Then the story zooms in to focus on an argument: some Jews argue with John's disciples about purification. I can imagine the discussion. "Okay guys, what does this baptism really mean? Does it cleanse you from sin? After you're baptized are you completely pure? What becomes of the temple sacrifice? Have we been spilling all this blood needlessly for years?" "No, no, no. We're talking about a condition of your heart — repentance; we're talking about how you live — obedience." "Fine, but how do you atone for sin?" The argument got them flustered. They were expecting to usher in a new kingdom, and yet there were still these jerks coming out to argue with them, and this other guy is doing the same thing that their teacher does — baptizing — and he's getting bigger crowds. So they're frustrated and annoyed, and they go to John the Baptist, their teacher, and they ask him, "What's going on? This Jesus is baptizing; everyone's going to him. Isn't it time for us to take our ministry to the next level?"

And John, dear old John, gives just the response we should expect from him. Look at verses 27-30. He repeats what we knew he had said earlier: "I am not the Christ." Then he does something very interesting: he uses this wedding imagery. It's obvious from the context that John is talking about Christ as the bridegroom, but where does John the Baptist pick up this image? Our thoughts immediately go back to Chapter 2 with the wedding at Cana, but Christ is not pictured as the bridegroom there. It seems John's picture here comes from the Old Testament. The prophets repeatedly pictured Israel as the bride of their covenant God. The prophet who used this imagery most prominently was Hosea. Remember that God told Hosea to marry a prostitute. Hosea obeyed and married Gomer, but Gomer eventually went back to prostitution. Eventually, God told Hosea to take her back again. God used Hosea's marriage to make a point about the faithlessness of Israel, the Bride of God. In Hosea 2:16-20, we get this picture:

"'In that day,' declares the Lord, ‘you will call me "my husband"; you will no longer call me "my master." I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked… I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord."

Compare this to Ezekiel 16:8-14. This passage pictures Jerusalem as a cast-out orphan girl whom God sees in the street, takes in, cares for, and makes his bride. In this chapter, Jerusalem the bride is unfaithful and chases after other suitors, that is, other gods. But at the end of the chapter, we see God promising to take her back and to provide an atonement for all she has done.

So, by calling Christ the bridegroom, John is keying in on a picture used by the old testament prophets. And it was a picture that told of Israel's faithlessness, God's faithfulness, God's intention to know and to be known in the fullest sense, and God's sure determination to make the relationship work. John uses this image to say, "I am not the bridegroom. That guy over there is the bridegroom who has come to redeem his faithless people so they can enjoy an eternal relationship with him."

Think of the last wedding you attended. Remember how beautiful the bride was? Do you remember the sparkle that danced across the eyes of the bride and groom? Do you remember the tenderness with which they slipped their rings, those symbols of their covenant, upon each other's hands? Do you remember the smiles and the handshakes and the hugs at the reception? That was joy. John the Baptist says he, the friend of the bridegroom, rejoices in this wedding. People don't follow him anymore — so what? There are still a bunch of lunkheads out there who still don't get it — so what? His own followers are steamed at him because they don't think he's an effective leader — so what? The bridegroom is on the scene, and he's holding out his hand to his beloved — this is cause for celebration!

I was on a mission trip one time and got to talking with a Methodist minister. He told me that he almost quit the ministry until he had an incredible revelation. "What was that?" I asked. "I'm not God," he replied. At first that statement seemed an exercise in the obvious. But then it began to dawn on me what he meant. He wasn't God, and therefore he didn't have to control everything. He wasn't God, and therefore he could let go of his frustration at not meeting other people's expectations. He wasn't God, and therefore he was not responsible for what other people did. In the realization that he was not God, he was liberated from all the junk that other people tie on us and that we impose on ourselves. He was liberated to do what he was created to do: to worship and to enjoy God. That liberation brought him great joy.

That's the kind of freedom and joy that John the Baptist felt: the freedom to let go of himself and his wants and desires; the freedom that comes from being downwardly mobile, from seeking to decrease your stature rather than to increase it. It is freedom that comes from saying, "He must increase. I must decrease."

Musician Michael Card has a great song called The Things We Leave Behind. The first two verses go like this:

There sits Simon so foolishly wise
Proudly he's tending his nets
Then Jesus calls and the boats drift away
And all that he owns he forgets
But more than the nets he abandoned that day
He found that his pride was soon drifting away
And it's hard to imagine the freedom we find
From the things we leave behind

Matthew was mindful of taking the tax
And pressing the people to pay
But hearing the call he responded in faith
And followed the Light and the Way
And leaving the people so puzzled he found
The greed in his heart was no longer around
And its hard to imagine the freedom we find
From the things we leave behind
The joy that John the Baptist felt as the friend of the bridegroom was the joy in the freedom of leaving himself behind. We can partake of that joy by leaving our own stuff behind. Imagine the joy that would come if we released our pride, our agendas, our need to control, our craving for attention. We too, like John, can rejoice in the coming of the bridegroom.

Not only do we rejoice in the freedom that we have in the bridegroom, but we rejoice in the excellence of the bridegroom himself. Last month, Tammy and I saw Fiddler on the Roof. One of the famous numbers in that show is Matchmaker. In that song, the three sisters sing about the kind of husband they hope the village matchmaker finds for them. The eldest sister brings the sour note of realism pointing out the possibility for a lousy match. There is a very real sense of "getting a good catch" when it comes to a wedding.

Verses 31-36 tell us how great the bridegroom really is. He is above all. He is sent from God, and has the Spirit without measure. The Old Testament prophets were given a measure of the Spirit proportional to the immensity of their task. Christ has Spirit without measure. All things have been given into his hand.

Take a close look at verse 36. Notice that it speaks of eternal life for those who believe in Christ, and wrath for those who do not believe — and it speaks of both of these as present realities. Remember the passages from Hosea and Ezekiel we read earlier? Remember their expectation of a promised time when God would take back the faithless Israel, clean her up, and make her whole again? Here we see in Christ that it is a present reality. What is expected and hoped for in the Old Testament is here and now for those who believe in Christ. He is making his church clean and whole and good, and he's doing it now, today, in me and in you and in the church. Christ is excellent because of what he is doing in us, and that is a cause for celebration and joy.

As the bride of Christ, we gaze adoringly upon him as though it were our wedding day. How do we do that? When we come to worship, we reflect on the good things Christ has done for us. We contemplate the greatness of Christ who in his tender love picked us to pour his love upon. We search the Scriptures for pictures of his greatness, and we pray these pictures back to him just so he'll know how much we love him.

So we've seen that this passage focuses on joy. We take joy in the freedom that the bridegroom brings, and we take joy in the very excellence of the bridegroom himself.

C.S. Lewis wrote what he calls his spiritual biography, naming it "Surprised by Joy." In it he talks about how as a young man he would find joy in losing himself in various pursuits. Classic literature was one of those endeavors that he found would just melt the hours away. He found that the joy came not so much from the literature, but from the loss of self that came through the pursuit. It was his pursuit of his interests that brought him joy rather than the interest itself. And then Jesus got hold of him and made him a worshipper. And when he began to pursue Jesus, Lewis realized that the joy that came from the pursuit of his interests was just a taste, a foreshadow, an appetizer. It was a hint of the joy that comes from pursuing the only thing worth pursuing. Lewis, a brilliant Oxford professor and endearing writer, discovered this joy quite by surprise. He discovered joy in the loss of self and in the pursuit of the person of most excellence, Jesus Christ. You think about that. Amen.