Sermon Text: John 1:19-28
Can you imagine believing in the one true God, worshiping Him in the one true way, and being a member of the one true religion that He set up, and still missing Christ? Still missing out on salvation, missing out on knowing the Lord Jesus Christ?
That’s what struck me about this passage today. When we look at this passage from the Gospel of John, we see the Pharisees coming and talking to John. And this was not some sort of evangelistic session like we would think of today, where we’re going to try to convince somebody in the existence of God. This is not the sort of thing where we’re trying to convince somebody that there is a correct way to worship Him. And this is not the type of situation where we are trying to convince somebody that there is a Messiah. The Pharisees already believed all these things.
Think about it: the Pharisees already believed in Yahweh. They believed in the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. They believed in the God who led Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt. There were lots of other false gods, lots of other pagan gods that were worshiped by the Edomites and the Philistines and the Egyptians. Pharisees didn’t worship any of those. The Pharisees knew that there was one true God, and they knew the correct one. They knew which God it was that they should worship.
There were many other ways to worship a god: There was the cult of Molech, where people would sacrifice their own children in the fire, to this false pagan god. There were [Asherah] poles, where these pagan gods were carved into these poles of wood and people would bow down to worship, burn incense. Pharisees didn’t do any of that. They had the correct way of worshiping God. You see, when Moses had gone up the mountain, it says in scripture that God showed him a pattern.
Moses got to see what heavenly worship was like, how God was worshiped in heaven, and so from what he saw on the mountain top, he went down and he took that pattern, and that’s where the Israelites got the tabernacle. And hundreds of years later, that same pattern was copied again in the Jerusalem temple.
Old Testament Jewish worship was patterned after heavenly worship. There were priests, there were robes, there was incense, there was chanting of the Psalms. Does any of this sound familiar? A lot of the same things that we still do today because our worship is still patterned after heavenly worship.
The Pharisees were not out worshiping Molech. The Pharisees were not out bowing down to Asherah poles. They were worshiping according to the temple system that God himself — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — had setup through Moses and then again through Solomon in the temple. So they kept God right, they had the worship style right, and they actually had the religion itself right.
You see, there were some [other] people that believed in Yahweh. There have been people in the past who not only believed in Yahweh and believed in worshiping Him in the type of way that He required, but certain groups of the Samaritans, for example, would break off, and they believed, “Well, instead of having the temple in Jerusalem, we really ought to have the temple on Mount Gerazim.” In fact, to this day, there is a small group of what they call the Samaritan sect and they have their own copy of the Pentateuch, their own copy of the first five books of the Bible, and to this day they still sacrifice sheep. You want a taste of what Old Testament sacrificial worship might have looked like? You can actually go over to the Middle East today, find this small group of Samaritans and to this day they still worship God through the sacrifice of sheep. But they had become a sect, they had broken off. They were no longer in communion; they were no longer part of Orthodox Judaism.
But, see, the Pharisees didn’t have this problem. The Pharisees were still part of the actual religion that God himself had set up. This wasn’t some schismatic sect, this wasn’t some breakaway group that kept using the same name for God and that kept using the same style of worship, but just did in their own way and their own place and their own time. No, this was the real deal. Orthodox Judaism in the Old Testament was the one true religion.
If you wanted to follow God prior to the coming of Christ, the right thing to do was to worship Him according to Orthodox Judaism. If you were a Baal worshipper, you needed to stop worshiping Baal, and you needed to worship God according to Orthodox Judaism. If you were living in Edom, if you were living in Philistia, if you were living in Egypt, no matter what it was that you were raised as, if you wanted to be a part of the one true religion, then you needed to become part of Orthodox Judaism. And people did this. You could actually convert from being a Gentile to being a Jew. You would become circumcised, you would be baptized—that was very common, as well—and you would start participating in the temple worship. You would start participating in sacrificial worship. And for all practical purposes, you would become a Jew, because it was not so much about genetics and descent as it was about being part of that common faith, being part of that one religion God had set up.
And so you look at these three things and the Pharisees had it all. The Pharisees were worshiping the one true God. They were worshiping Him in the one true way that God had commanded, and they were part of the one true religion, and they missed Christ.
You see, when they came to talk to John, they didn’t ask him whether God exists. They didn’t ask him whether temple worship was godly or not. They didn’t ask him if Orthodox Judaism was correct or not. Both they and John agreed on all those things. But they asked him, “Are you the Christ?” Now, notice they even believed there had to be a Messiah. They knew that there was a coming One. They agreed with John on that. They just didn’t know who. John said, “I’m not the Christ, but there stands one among you who you know not, and I’m not even worthy to undo the latchet on His sandals. I’m not even worthy to be His slave.”
Now there are words right there that I never want to hear. I never want Christ to be in my midst and to have a prophet of God tell me that I don’t know Him — to say, “Jesus is among you, but you know Him not.” You see, God was walking right among the Pharisees, worshiping in the same synagogues, worshiping in the same temple, but they knew Him not. They knew Him not as the Messiah.
I think these are sobering words, because I fear that the same thing can happen to us today in the Orthodox Church. Yes, when we talk to those outside the Church, there are cases where we need to tell them, “Yes, God does exist. Yes, there actually is a way that God has asked to be worshiped. God did not just say, ‘Go worship Me any way you please, do whatever you want.’ Yes, there actually is one true Church.”
But what about when we talk to fellow Orthodox Christians? What about when we look ourselves in the mirror? How often are we ourselves in this room — myself included — how often have we been guilty of boasting? “I’m already in. I’m in like Flynn. Everything’s cool, man. I don’t need to worry anymore because I’ve got the right God, I’ve got the right way of worshiping God, and I’m in the one true Church. I’m in!” Well, by those criteria, the Pharisees were in. And they missed Christ.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us some very sobering words. He says that “In that day, many will say unto Me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not do many wonderful things in Your name?'” Now notice this: they’re calling Him Lord. They know who He is. And they’re even pointing back to their own lives and saying, “Look, we did all these things for You.” And He’ll say, “Depart from me. I never knew you.” You can be worshiping the correct God. You can be worshiping Him in the correct way. You can even be in the correct Church, and still miss Christ. Now how did this happen? Because whatever it is that they did, I don’t want to do.
We’re just two days away from Christmas, when we celebrate His first coming into the world: God becoming man, and then finally being born into the world, of a virgin. We celebrate that because we don’t want to miss Christ. We celebrate that because we want to recognize His coming. Every day, we want to be remembering Christmas. Every day, we want to be remembering Pascha—Easter. And every day we want to be looking forward to the second coming. Throughout our lives, from the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep, we always want to be recognizing Christ. We don’t want to miss him.
How did the Pharisees miss Christ? You see, they tried to study their way to Christ. They tried to think their way to Christ. Based on their understanding of the Old Testament scriptures’ prophecies, and based on perhaps their personal desires to be out from under the thumb of Rome, the Roman Empire, they had this expectation of a warrior Christ, a warrior Messiah. Someone who was going to come and release them from the bondage to—not to sin—but to release them from the bondage of the political power of Rome. They were looking for a Jesus who was going to fix the problems that bothered them the most at that time. They weren’t so concerned about their souls. They weren’t so concerned about people loving one another, and sacrificing for one another. Their main concern was, “We don’t like it that Rome is in power and that we’re not, and since this is the biggest thing that bugs us, that’s obviously what Jesus came to save us from.”
Jesus did not meet their expectations of who the Messiah would be, which gave them two options: you can either accept who He is as the Son of God, you can either accept Him as the Messiah, and based on what you see and what you learn from Him, you can change your mind about who Messiah’s supposed to be. You can take your learning, you can take your theories, and just toss them out the window, and you can just walk with Christ, even if it leads to Golgotha. Even if it does not lead you to immediate political victory. Or, you can say, “Well, I thought Christ was going to be this warrior Messiah. I thought He was gonna release us from Rome. I thought that He was going to do all these wonderful things, and since He’s not doing those things, ha, He must not be the Christ.”
Now, it’s easy for us to shake our finger and say, “Oh, you naughty, evil, vile, wicked Pharisees.” Obviously we would never make such a mistake, would we? Or do we? How often do we do the exact same thing? You see, we’re all happy to worship the name of Jesus. But you see, I could go down south of the border, hire some guy named <<Spanish pronunciation>> Jesus, who spells his name the same way. You could put your trust in “Jesus,” and he would not be able to save you. It’s very important that the Jesus you trust in is the real guy. The real Messiah. The One who He actually is, not the One who you want Him to be.
“Well, yeah, I’ve watched TV, I’ve seen them TV preachers, and I’m expecting that if I come to Christ, He’s going to make my life a whole lot easier. My finances are going to get better, my marriage is going to get better, people are going to like me more. I’m not going to be sick anymore, I’m going to be healed.”
If you come to Christ with those expectations, you’re likely to have some disappointments, at least for a while. He doesn’t miraculously heal everybody on the spot. He doesn’t heal our emotional problems and our relationship problems with a snap of a finger. There are exceptions to this. There are times that He does miracles, and we glorify Him, we thank Him for that. But in many cases, the healing that we get from sickness comes not in this life, but it comes in our death when we go to be with Him and in the Resurrection, when we get our new bodies. In many cases the healing to our relationships does occur, but it occurs imperceptibly slowly over many years, not overnight. And I thank God for the miraculous exceptions to these kinds of things, but we cannot come to Christ expecting Him to make the world all sunshine and roses today. Because the Christ that does those kind of things is not the Christ of the Bible, it’s not the Christ of the Orthodox Church. And if we come to Him with those kinds of expectations, we are not likely to live the life of prayer and patience that we should. And I don’t just mean patience with God and His timing; I mean patience with our fellow man. See, if we expect God to fix everything for us now, well, we’re likely to act that way with everybody else, too. “I expect you to fix your problems right now. Shape up. You’d better get better right now, or you’re outta here. Before I’m going to have anything more to do with you, you’d better just fix everything right now. Hurry up!”
Do we ever treat each other this way? Our friends, our family, our children, our spouse? You see, the less patient we are with God, the less patient we’re going to be with everybody else. The less love we’re going to show, the less respect we’re going to show. And according to Scripture, where do you meet Christ but in your fellow man? “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, you have done it,” He says, “unto Me.” Unto Him. It means whatever you do to me, you’ve done it to Christ. Whatever you do to Harry, you’ve done to Christ. Whatever you to Jeni, or to Xander, or to Becca, or to Julie, or to Russ, you’ve done to Christ.
Think about that the next time you talk in a snotty tone of voice to another person. “Oh, they’re nothing, they’re just six years old,” or, “They’re nothing, they’re just my husband” or “just my wife.” Would you talk that way to Christ? The next time your spouse is having emotional pain or suffering, the next time your child is going through something really difficult, show them the same compassion, show them the same patience, show them the same love that you would show to Christ if He were physically here right now, because He is. Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these, His brethren, you have done it unto Him.
We need to get away from worshiping Christ merely according to what our minds want Him to be, merely according to what we expect Him to be. And we need to actually start loving Christ, by walking with Him, by serving our fellow man. I don’t want to be like the Pharisees. I don’t want to be in the one true Church, worshiping the one true God the one true way, and still miss Christ, and to still miss heaven, because all of the trappings of religion: all of the robes, all of the incense, all of the Bible reading and Bible memorization, all of the praying, all the chanting in the world, will not get you to heaven, will not conform you to the likeness of Christ. It gives us the context, which shows us the way. But you still have to walk that path.
If you read the Scriptures, if you listen to the teachings of the Church fathers, and the teachings of the Church, it gives you a map. It gives you a map to heaven. Here’s here, and here’s heaven, and here’s the road that you take from one to the other. But you know what? You can sit down at home for hours, and plot the course on the map from here to San Francisco, and you can map out every turn. You could write down where every QuickStop is along the way, and every gas station. You could document it. You could memorize it. You could chant it, and that would not get you to San Francisco. A map doesn’t help you unless you follow it.
The one true God, the one true way of worshiping God, and the one true Church are here to point the way, and Christ is the Way. It shows us what to do. It gives us the teachings that we need to heed. But ultimately, if we’re going to be conformed to the image of Christ, it’s going to be in our day-to-day — Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday — dying to self, sacrificing for others. Laying down our desires, laying down our hopes, laying down our lives if need be, so that we can show love, and mercy to our fellow man, and by doing that, show love to Christ, and by doing that, be conformed to the image of Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is one.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, December 23, 2012, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.