Signs and Signals
Today’s text comes from the first chapter of John. Just preceding the passage I am about to read, John the Baptist has come and has been questioned by the religious leaders about who he is. John has affirmed that he is not the Messiah, but that his role is to come and prepare the way for the Messiah.
New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
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 Chosen One.”
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). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
When I was a child growing up in Michigan, one of the times I loved was when my grandparents would come to visit. My grandparents lived in Evanston, IL on the north side of Chicago. They would usually come a couple of times a year to visit us, always on the train. I always knew when they were coming, even when I was only five or six because of the hustle and bustle of cleaning and preparation around the house. It was beyond the normal chaos.
I learned, even at that early age, that I was a bit of a skeptic. I have always been one of those people who need to see what is coming with their own eyes. To see it happen in order to really believe it. So, whenever my grandparents would come, I always insisted that I go to the train station to meet them because, unless I saw that train arrive, I wouldn’t really believe my grandparents were coming.
I remember standing on the platform, as close as my parents would let me stand to the tracks, watching and listening for the train. And no matter what time the sign inside the train station said the train was supposed to come, it didn’t matter to me until I saw the headlight of the engine coming around the corner. When I saw that headlight, I knew that Grandma and Grandpa were here, and I could run off to tell my siblings (who weren’t allowed to go out on the platform). And they believed it, too, because I had seen the train coming.
Today, in many ways, I’m still a “see it with my own eyes” kind of person. When I go to the airport for a flight, it doesn’t matter what time the video display says about when the incoming plane I will be boarding is arriving, until I see the baggage handlers and the people who wave the plane in standing outside the gate, I don’t believe the plane is really arriving. That’s my signal.
In fact, I so much rely on signs that I got a whistling tea kettle to tell me when the water is boiling. I even stand by the stove and wait until it whistles before I’ll take it off the heat, even when I can see the steam pouring out. I’m just one of those people who need signs to confirm what is happening.
I think it is part of human nature to rely on signs or signals. We tend to be people who need to see things, to experience them, in order to believe them. In many ways, we’re much like the disciple Thomas who said he wouldn’t believe that Jesus had really risen from the dead unless he touched the nail holes in Jesus’ hands and the spear hole in his side.
We are people who need evidence, who need signs of what is happening. The good news is that God knows what we are like. God knows that we are people who need those kinds of sings and that we need someone we trust to tell us when what was promised has arrived.
In today’s passage from the gospel of John, we get a chance to see God work in this way. I appreciate how John sets up this text. In his prologue, in verses 1-18 of this chapter, John goes to great pains to explain the reality of who Jesus is. Jesus is not just a man, Jesus is God. Jesus is the Word in the flesh. Jesus is the Messiah that the people had been waiting for for generations. Then John takes time to confirm the validity of the ministry of John the Baptist. He tells us that John the Baptist was the one God personally sent with a mission to do what he was doing – to ask people to repent and to baptize them. Finally, the unique part of the text I just read is that this is the story of John the Baptist telling about the baptism of Jesus. His witness brings the reality of the arrival of the Son of God, the long-expected Messiah, to light in front of one, John the Baptist, who God had proclaimed to be a valid eyewitness.
So, here in this short passage, God brings together for us just what we need – a sign and the testimony of a trustworthy witness that a promise has been fulfilled. God provides a sign – the exact sign that he had told John the Baptist God would give. God said, “When you see the Holy Spirit come down like a dove and remain on a man, that is the one I have sent. That is the Messiah.” John the Baptist knew the signal so when he saw the Spirit come down and settle on Jesus, he knew that the Messiah had arrived. Because of what John, the gospel writer tells us, we can trust John the Baptist’s eyewitness account of this event and know that the Messiah had truly arrived at that time.
Let’s take a look for a few minutes at what the Holy Spirit really testifies to in this passage. John says that the sign has two parts: the Spirit comes down and the Spirit remains. When the Spirit comes down, the Spirit confirms the identity of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The unique part of this passage is the part where the writer reports that the Spirit remains on Jesus. Even though that may not sound like such a strange concept to you and I, it would have been an unheard of thing to people in the first century. They would have been familiar with the Old Testament stories from Judges, Chronicles, Samuel, and others that describe the Spirit coming down to rest on a person temporarily; to give them the power to do what God asked them to do at that time. But, the Spirit didn’t come and affect anybody’s life in a significant way. It didn’t change who they were inside because it was an external sign, an external power from God.
At the time of this account of John the Baptist and Jesus, the people had waited an awfully long time for someone to come to tell them about what God was up to, about the Messiah. It had been four hundred years with no news, with no one to tell them what God’s plan was. You can imagine the excitement, then, when John the Baptist appeared from the wilderness in his came hair coat, eating locusts, and looking a bit wild-eyed. Finally they had someone who could point them in the right direction; someone who could tell them what God was up to.
The people had a great expectation at the arrival of the first prophet in so many years. The thought that, maybe, the Messiah was really coming, or that this man might even be the Messiah, was enough to get many people worked up, both in positive and negative ways. Many of the people were so amazed with what John and what he was doing that they might have missed the real Messiah – they were so busy wondering if John was the One.
Today, as post-Easter and post-Pentecost people who live in a time when the Holy Spirit has come down and does remain with those who believe in Jesus, we often take for granted the Spirit’s presence. We often take for granted what the Spirit does within us. We can so easily get caught up in our own lives, in who God is, and in who Jesus is that we miss the Spirit at work. We miss the sign that the Spirit gives us that the Messiah is alive in us, that Jesus is present in us wherever we go.
Discussions of the Holy Spirit are not among the hot topics of discussion, not even in Christian circles. There is a lot of discussion about Jesus and who he is, about what he did and does, but not many people talk at length about the Holy Spirit. What John does in his gospel is ink the coming of the Messiah with Holy Spirit. Throughout his gospel, John emphasizes the work of the Spirit in guiding and directing all that happens through the life and ministry of Jesus. John affirms over and over that the Holy Spirit is a sign, a signal that the Messiah has come. John also notes that Jesus came to baptize with the Holy Spirit, to initiate a new era, a new covenant, a new relationship between God and God’s people. The Spirit no longer comes and goes, but stays put, right with us, to energize us for ministry.
We are used to signals that announce the arrival of important people. We know that when you hear “Here Comes the Bride” it is time to stand up because the wedding is really starting. Or, when the Thanksgiving leftovers are put in the refrigerator, Christmas is just around the corner. Or, that when the train headlight comes around the bend, Grandma and Grandpa are here.
External signals are helpful, but when we consider issues of faith, they are not all that is available to us. It is a new era. No longer do we need to look for those signs outside of us that the Messiah is here with us because we now have an internal sign, an internal signal – the Holy Spirit – that lets us know that the light of the world has come. This is the signal that is always on, never off. God now dwells within us not only outside of us.
But it is more than this. The Holy Spirit is a signal not just that the Messiah has come into our world in general, but that Jesus Christ, the Son of God has come into our personal world, our personal life, to make a difference. The Spirit comes into our lives to give us power, to change us for the better, and to bring forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
However, there is a catch (there’s always a catch!). The Messiah doesn’t come into our lives completely on his own. Many think that because Jesus Christ has come into the world, he is also in our world. That’s not necessarily true. The only way Jesus can become part of your personal world is for you to respond to his invitation to come, to acknowledge that he is the Messiah, and to accept the eyewitness testimony of John the Baptist who says, “This is the One that God sent.” You have to choose to accept the signal given to you for yourself, to ask Jesus to be a part of your own personal life. When you do, the Spirit gives you spiritual eyes to see how he is at work in your life. The spirit also gives you the ability to point others to Jesus the Messiah.
In my own life I have seen the difference between knowing that Jesus is around and experiencing his presence in my life. When I recommitted my life to Jesus Christ in college, I felt a different presence that I had when I first accepted Jesus in high school because that was what you were supposed to do. I think the difference was that I didn’t understand that the Holy Spirit was part of the package. That when you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, when the Holy Spirit comes, you have God living within you. I assumed that Jesus was in my world because I acknowledged that he was in the world. Once I experienced the difference, I had a sense of peace and joy that I’d never known before.
The bottom line is that Jesus the Messiah has come into the world to bring light into the darkness. This is the message we hear at Christmas, it is what we celebrate at Easter, and it is what we are encouraged and challenged to celebrate every day of our lives.