Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Seeking Jesus"

In the old Christmas classic film Miracle on 34th Street[i], the story begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. An elderly gentleman named Kris Kringle takes the place of an actor who was payed to play Santa Claus, yet who got drunk and couldn’t work. He did so well on the parade float that they hired him to work in the store. Everything was going well until people who were looking for hard-to-find toys brought their kids through the store to sit on his lap. If Macy’s didn’t have the toys the parents were looking for, Kris sent the shoppers to Gimbel’s Department Store. This made the customers very happy, yet it made the Macy’s management furious. They told Kris that he was supposed to keep the customers shopping at Macy’s at all costs, and never send them elsewhere, even if what they were looking for could only be found at Gimbel’s. But Kris was undaunted. He was happier to see the shoppers find the toys they wanted even if it was elsewhere, than to see them dissatisfied yet loyal to Macy’s.

We find a similar problem in the third chapter of John’s gospel, only the customers aren’t looking for a toy truck or baby doll. They’re looking for the Messiah. They aren’t looking for sales that will save them money. They’re looking for a different kind of salvation. In verses 22-35, John is Macy’s and Jesus is Gimbel’s. The people are going elsewhere to find what they’re looking for, and some of John’s people are upset about it. But John, like Kris Kringle, isn’t upset about it at all. In fact, he’s the one who sent them away. This migration from John to Jesus gets started in the first chapter, where the prophet shouts, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world..I testify that he is the chosen one of God (John 1:29, 34[ii])” John himself testifies that Jesus is the Messiah, so why should he be upset when his followers seek messianic hope in Jesus rather than in John? Now, in John 3:27-28, 30, the baptizer says, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him… He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”

You see, John understands that Jesus can’t gain followers if they aren’t given to him from God. Likewise, as the people seek the Messiah, it would be impossible to find him in Jesus if the Spirit of God weren’t leading them. The people are seeking the Christ because the image of God that resides in them is unfulfilled unless it finds God in the world. They first seek this God-experience in John, who provides baptism and teaching. While his ministry is certainly God-inspired, it pales in comparison to the ministry of Jesus, who is God-incarnate.  So, naturally, the people shift their attention from the teacher to the Master Teacher.

Far from pouting that the people have found another to be the Messiah instead of him, John rejoices. He, too, has been seeking the Messiah. Now that he has discovered that the Chosen One is his own cousin Jesus, John feels delighted, like the best man at a wedding. Just as the best man is pleased for the groom’s happiness, so John is delighted that others have found the same Christ that he has found. I perform lots of weddings. People are snapping pictures of the bride and the groom right and left. After the ceremony, there are usually more photographs. Usually, there’s a picture of the bride, the groom, and me. But do you think I get bent out of shape that they don’t want more pictures with me in them?  Of course not—because it’s not about me. It’s about the couple. As a friend of the bride and groom, I’m content to simply enjoy their joy. In the same way, John says that all the attention ought to be on Jesus, and getting the Bride of Christ to follow Him. John said that he was glad because of it.

This passage talks about the people seeking Jesus, John seeking Jesus, and also about any today who seek Him. Verse 36 is one of those verses that gives both hope and a warning: “…Anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.” Just like John 3:16 promises eternal life to all who believe in Jesus, so this verse does the same. Yet how do we square the second part of this verse that talks about God’s angry judgment, with John 3:17 that says God didn’t send His son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him? Is there a way we can understand this, that preserves our understanding of the love of God for the whole world?

If I imagine myself at a shoe store, I have literally hundreds of choices that are in my size. Yet, only one pair of shoes could be exactly what I am looking for. I try this one on for size, and it isn't the right fit. I look at that pair, but the style doesn't suit me. God knows that Jesus is the perfect fit for my soul. Yet, if I seek God with my ego rather than with my spirit, I may very well end up walking out of the shoe store with the wrong pair.  The wrong pair of shoes can be painful! This is what John refers to as "God's angry judgment." It isn't a God who wants to hurl lightning bolts, but a God who allows us to experience the pain of our wrong decisions, simply so that we'll go back to the shoe store and exchange the mistake for the right fit. Where is God in all this? God is in me, directing me to the Messiah, who is the perfect fit for my soul. Nothing else will do. Without God in me (the Holy Spirit), I would never find Christ. Verse 34 says, "God gives him the Spirit without limit."  Praise God--once I've found Christ, the same can be said of me! Then God in me seeks God in others even more. This "God seeking God" is described as "eternal life."

[i] Miracle on 34th Street. 1947.  Twentieth Century Fox.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

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