Sermon for Camberwell Uniting Church
19th of January 2020
Prosperity theology is a popular contemporary heresy. This is the theology common to the enormous megachurches that says that righteousness leads to success, that we can tell of who and what God approves by measuring health, wealth, and happiness. As one Australian Pentecostal pastor says quite flatly and falsely on his website: ‘Wealth has always been a sign of the blessing and favour of God’. But it’s too easy for us to point at Pentecostal churches as proponents of the prosperity gospel. We in the Uniting Church can be just as guilty of it. We might not emphasise wealth as a sign of God’s favour, but we are equally likely to point to success as a sign that we are doing things right. Congregations that are growing are praised; congregations in decline are worried over. A congregation that welcomes numerous young families is asked for its secrets; a congregation with a small remnant of older people is seen as a problem for its Presbytery.
The trouble with this is that nothing in the life or the story of Jesus promises success, as today’s readings remind us. The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is the second of Isaiah’s ‘Servant Songs’. Last week, the ‘Servant’ was described as the one who would not ‘cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.’ This week we hear from the Servant directly: ‘The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.’ In today’s song it does seem that God has promised the Servant success: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel,’ God says, ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ God’s salvation is to be announced to all people and his justice is to fill the whole earth, and that will indeed be a huge success. But God makes this promise in response to the Servant’s confession of failure: ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity’. And God’s promise is made to a Servant described as: ‘one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers’. The early church saw in this Suffering Servant a forerunner of Jesus, the Messiah who had been executed by Rome in the most shameful way possible, on a cross. If closeness to God was to be measured by success alone, the despised and abhorred Servant would not have been able to say: ‘surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God’.
Today’s gospel reading comes from the beginning of the gospel according to John. John doesn’t tell a Nativity story, unlike Matthew and Luke, so the first human character in his telling of the gospel is John the Baptist, who in the first part of the story we hear from today was asked by the priests and Levites from Jerusalem whether he was the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet and answered no. To them John described himself in words from the prophet Isaiah: ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness’. Now we see what that meant. John is the one called to testify to the Lamb of God. It is John who sees the dove descend on Jesus, who knows that Jesus is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus is the Son of God. It is John who reveals Jesus to Israel, even though, as John says twice, he didn’t know him. ‘I myself did not know him; but I came baptising with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ John answers God’s call and finds that by doing this he has become a witness to the Messiah.
John’s faithful obedience to his call includes accepting that he must decrease so that Jesus may increase. John describes Jesus as ‘the one who comes after me’, which would usually be the way a teacher describes a disciple, but in this case John recognises and testifies that the one coming after him is the one who is greater, the one who was before him. Then, when John is standing with two of his own disciples, he sends his disciples to follow Jesus, gladly relinquishing them. This is not the action of a prudent church-planter, none of whom would relinquish followers to a competing teacher. But then nothing that we learn of John the Baptist tells us that he had an eye for success. The synoptic gospels, those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, instead tell us that John was later imprisoned for criticising King Herod and ultimately beheaded at the request of Herod’s wife. If success is meant to be a sign of God’s favour, then John the Baptist does not seem to have been particularly blessed.
John has proclaimed that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Son of God, and he sends his disciples to Jesus because he knows who Jesus is. But the disciples, while they leave John and follow Jesus, don’t yet have that same insight. They call Jesus Rabbi, teacher. They’ve followed one teacher, now they’re looking for another. They ask Jesus: ‘Where are you staying?’ They want to know where it is that this teacher teaches, and Jesus answers, ‘Come and see’. We don’t know what happens after that. All we do know is that after spending time with Jesus, Andrew goes looking for his brother and tells him that they have found the Messiah. John’s proclamation sent the disciples looking for a teacher; their own encounter with Jesus, their acceptance of his invitation to ‘come and see,’ leads them to recognise the Messiah. Here we finally do seem to have a story of success. Whatever Jesus says or does when the two disciples ‘come and see’ it was significant enough that Andrew immediately wants to share it with his brother, and Andrew’s evangelism works. He immediately increases Jesus’ followers by fifty percent!
But like John, Andrew’s part in this story is to ‘decrease’. According to this story, Andrew is one of the first two disciples to follow Jesus after his baptism. As the person who brings his brother to discipleship, he might have expected to remain the more important disciple of the two. But the brother he calls becomes Cephas, Peter, the rock on whom Jesus will build his Church. Andrew will remain part of the inner group of disciples, but he won’t be nearly as important as the brother he himself brings to faith.
Neither Andrew and the other disciple, nor Simon who will become Peter, knew what answering their call from God would lead to. Andrew and the other disciple did not know that by seeking out a new teacher they would find the Messiah. Peter did not know that by agreeing to accompany his brother to Jesus his entire world would be turned upside down. And Peter’s story, too, is a warning for those who think that following Jesus will lead to wealth, happiness, and success. Peter’s decision to accompany his brother to see the Messiah led to him following Jesus; betraying him; being forgiven and commissioned by the resurrected Christ; and then dying as a martyr. Answering God’s call can lead to unexpected places, and not necessarily conspicuously good ones.
‘God wants you to succeed,’ say numerous Christian websites. But if God is all about ‘success’, why do the gospels record the stories of John the Baptist and Simon Peter, men whose lives end in execution? And why on earth did God choose to enter the world in the way that he did?
Possibly the most interesting part of today’s reading is that one tiny line: ‘It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.’ John’s is the gospel of signs and symbols, but what does four o’clock in the afternoon (the tenth hour in Greek) mean? I fell down a rabbit hole exploring this; there have been many suggestions through the centuries. One is that because 10 is one of the perfect numbers, the tenth hour is the ‘perfect time’ to discover Jesus. Another is that it was fairly late in the afternoon, which explains why Andrew and the other disciple ‘remained with him that day’. But my favourite explanation is that the time is given because in Jesus God has entered into time, and so just as we humans can remember the moment when we heard that someone we love had died, or when a child was born, these two disciples could remember the very hour when they first encountered Jesus. It was one of the most significant moments of their life, and they never forgot the details of it. The Gospel of John begins with an echo of the Book of Genesis: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ But then John tells us that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’. Because the Word lived among human beings, as a human being himself, a creature of time, those human beings could remember the very hour they first encountered him: about four in the afternoon.
In the Letter to the Philippians Paul describes the incarnation this way: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross’. (Phil 2:5-8) Paul writes this to encourage the members of the church at Philippi to follow Christ’s example, and in today’s reading we see three people, John the Baptist, Andrew, and even eventually, after lots of mistakes, Simon Peter, whose lives do show that humility. None of their lives show the health, wealth and happiness that prosperity gospellers insist following God will bring. But then success is not a measure of our relationship with God, and our faithfulness cannot be measured by our achievement.
Choosing to follow Jesus does not guarantee us success in life. That’s obvious; after all, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, we follow a crucified Messiah, ‘a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’. (1 Cor 1:23) We worship the Word who took on flesh and entered time, who lived a human life and died a human death. All too often, when following Jesus, we can find ourselves, like the Suffering Servant, complaining that we ‘have laboured in vain, [and] spent our strength for nothing and vanity’. But, simultaneously, again like the Suffering Servant, even in the midst of failure, even when things have gone badly wrong, we are able to say: ‘surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.’ Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither success nor failure, wealth nor poverty, health nor sickness, happiness nor despair. God in Christ is always with us, and for that we give thanks to God. Amen.