The Second Sunday after Epiphany January 17, 2010


Pay Attention

John 1:29-42a

Scripture Readings

Isaiah 49:1-6
1 Corinthians 1:1-9


272, 146, 48, 49

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

May the love of God the Father fill you with wonder; may the sacrifice of God the Son fill you with gratitude; and may the indwelling of the Holy Spirit fill you with faith, hope, and love. Amen.

Dear Fellow Christians:

I’m pretty sure I know why many young people today tend to withdraw into their own private world from time to time and simply tune out everything but their own private thoughts. They have grown up in an age of “information overload” and have learned to adapt. They have learned to survive and cope in a world where the vast majority of information has no apparent value and where they are nonetheless assaulted relentlessly during nearly every waking moment.

And it’s not just young people. We have all been forced to develop a certain system of categorizing and then storing or rejecting information, and everyone does this just a little differently. Consciously or not, we all make certain “retain or discard” decisions, moment by moment, every day of our lives. We decide what information we see as valuable and what we regard as trash. We then try to retain the good and discard the worthless. If, for example, a football fanatic starts to go on and on about “counter-gaps” and the merits of the Tampa-two defense, who would blame you if you glassed over and allowed the statement to disappear into the black hole of “I have no idea what he’s talking about and I don’t really care.” This would not be considered important information by most Americans. If, on the other hand, that same sports guy started talking about how Best Buy was giving away free digital cameras, laptops, and big screen HD TVs, you might tend to pay attention.

This sort of thing seems to develop its own pattern in our brains, and our own individual preferences remain in place until something happens to change those patterns. You are not, for example, all that interested in technical information about leukemia until the doctor walks in and announces that your spouse has it. From then on you can’t hear or learn enough about it. Your ears are suddenly tuned to pick up any and every scrap of information on the subject.

Today we want to change our listening patterns, in part because the same sort of “tune-out” frequently occurs when we study our Bibles. We have a bad habit of ignoring information that we should regard as vital and paying attention only when crisis strikes. We don’t tend to spend very much time or effort trying to grasp and retain the things that we read in the Bible, allowing instead an appalling number of truths and insights to slip off into the wispy world of “Hmm, I wonder what that means.”

God’s Word deserves better than that and our souls need more than that. In fact it is rather foolish for us to imagine that there is anything in God’s Word that is not worthy of our intense study and meditation. There is no part of God’s Word that is unworthy of our best effort at fully grasping what the Lord is teaching us. Today, we will be encouraged to pay attention—to hear and read God’s Word with understanding, to grasp and apply that Word, and to act upon it. The text that will guide and direct our study is found in the Gospel account of John, the first chapter:

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’ I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water.” And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.” Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which is to say, when translated, “Teacher”), “where are You staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour). One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.

So far the verbally inspired words of our God. Since we know and believe that these are the words of our perfect God and not the words of fallible man, therefore, we give these truths our undivided attention as we pray: “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.

Before we go on, think back for a moment to the hymn that we just sang before the sermon The hymn—Lamb of God, Pure and Holy—simply repeats the same words in all three verses with only a slight variation at the end. So what did you think as you made your way through that hymn? I remember as a boy thinking that it was sort of a waste to spend the time and effort to sing the same verse three times in a row. I think differently now. I realize now that it often takes me two times through before I even start to pay attention, and even when I am paying attention I am reminded of different truths each time through. The same sort of thing happens in our worship liturgy when we sing “Lord have mercy…Christ have mercy…Lord have mercy” all in a row, or “Oh Christ, Thou Lamb of God…” three times in a row.

We would do well to acknowledge that we have a problem when it comes to spiritual laziness. There are many things in life—many bits of information—that are safely forgotten or neglected. There is no shame, for example, in being really bad at Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. Not so with God’s Word. Yet though we can all agree on this point, still we quite often read our Bibles (assuming we do read them) with little or no thought as if simply sounding out the words holds great merit or benefit for us. Scripture teaches us with perfect consistency that Christianity is a matter of the heart and that the thoughtless and heartless observance of certain rituals is of little or no spiritual value. We would also do well to ask ourselves what in this world we could possibly spend our time and energy on that is more important than paying attention to God’s Word and thereby feeding our eternal souls.

I have little doubt that what we are seeing is just another natural product of our passive entertainment lifestyle. We have grown accustomed to an unhealthy dose of mindlessness in our lives. Nearly all television shows are designed to be watched in mental neutral. So also music, novels, computer games, and movies are almost all geared toward thoughtless, passive stimulation of anything but productive, edifying thought. This creates a new and difficult challenge for modern Christians as we struggle to let the Word of God occupy a higher, nobler position in our lives—as we struggle simply to pay attention at all the right times.

Today’s text offers some evidence of the lack of thought and understanding that also afflicted even the godly men of Jesus’ day. Here we find the great John the Baptist doing what he was called to do in and around the Jordan River—which was to call the Jews to repentance and to baptize the penitent in preparation for the coming Messiah. As John was baptizing, Jesus Himself came to him and John makes a rather incredible statement: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world![v.29]

How many times have we referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God” without ever stopping to consider what that title means? Although I have reminded myself of what this phrase really means many times in the past, my rather imprecise estimate is that I still say or sing the term at least 100 times without thought or meaning for each time I really hear and contemplate those amazing words.

John’s reference to Jesus as the Lamb of God was a startling statement to the ears of those who first heard him use the term, in part because they understood the significance of the term. It was astonishing because the people who first heard John the Baptist say these words understood that a sacrificial lamb was only necessary for the man who had sinned. In Leviticus 4 and 5 we read about the sacrifices God required of those who had fallen into sin. If a man sinned, he was to choose an unblemished lamb from his flock and sacrifice the prescribed parts of it to the Lord. Thus the “lamb of Jacob,” for example, would be the lamb a man named Jacob offered in acknowledgment of his sin and as a public display of his repentance.

Now look again at the term John the Baptist used to describe Jesus: The Lamb of God. What did God need with a lamb? God had no sin. He, therefore, needed to make no sacrifice. He needed no lamb.

The term John coined for Jesus is, in fact, purest Gospel. It explains in a single phrase exactly what our God has done for us. Though our Creator had no sin of his own and was in no way to blame for the sin of man and Devil, He nonetheless provided the remedy for man’s sin. The remedy, amazingly, was His own Son whom God the Father sacrificed for the sum total of all the sins of His rebellious creation. God the Father saved every single one of us by sending His own Son to pay for our sins. Who could possibly have imagined such a plan for our salvation?

We cheat ourselves and we deny the Word of God full admission into our own hearts whenever we fail to reflect on such a things. We repeat phrases that are both good and true (like grace and faith and redemption), but we rob ourselves of their power and meaning through our own thoughtlessness and laziness. So also we read passages like “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself(2 Corinthians 5:19) with barely a thought as to the incredible truth these words convey. Think of it! God sacrificed His holy Son to pay the debt of His rebellious creation—to pay my debt, your debt. God Himself did that for us.

The fact that we today tend to ignore and therefore miss some invaluable truths isn’t really new, is it? John’s disciples undoubtedly heard his great testimony and endorsement of Jesus the first time he said it. Yet, they still remained with John. John had to repeat his striking witness again the next day, and this time we see the kind of hearing our God wants to see in each one of us. This time Andrew (Simon Peter’s brother) and another disciple act upon the words of truth that they heard from John. This time they forsake the great forerunner in favor of the One whose way John had been called to prepare. Our text says simply, “The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.[v. 37] That is the kind of hearing our Father wants to see in each of us. Not the mere thoughtless, heartless, passive reception of words, but the true, “take it to heart” hearing of those words of truth together with the heartfelt action that results from such true hearing.

Nor do we want to pass over the masterful question Jesus asks of these two men as though Jesus’ question lacks importance or depth—both to them and to us. Note that He does not ask them,Whom do you seek?” but “What do you seek?[v.38] With this simple question the Good Master encouraged Andrew and his companion to search the depths of their hearts. Perhaps they didn’t even know the answer to Jesus’ question, but they soon came to know where such answers could be found and they followed the only One who could teach them.

Dear Christians, the Word of God—including also this Word of God—is more than just history. God’s Word is, and is intended to be, living and active in our hearts, minds, and actions. For example, we are to hear the title used by John the Baptist to describe Jesus and marvel anew at the depth and meaning of such a title—God, sending His own Son as the innocent sacrifice for our sins. We are to hear our dear Lord Jesus asking of us the very same question that he asked of Andrew: “What is it that you seek during your time of grace on this earth?” With great shame we recognize and acknowledge that we have often struggled in vain for what is of no value. So also Jesus asks us not whom we seek (for we all know the answer to that question). He bids us examine what we are seeking as His children.

Let the honest answer for each of us be that we are seeking to rise to our calling as ambassadors of Jesus Christ on earth, and that we regard ourselves as pilgrims, just passing through.

God grant that each of us might listen carefully and truly hear every single word of our Savior on this and every day, and that each one of us might respond with the faithful sort of action demonstrated by Andrew in our text. Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl

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