Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42.
January 15, 2023.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a butterfly hunter. Your life is spent in pursuit of the insect, and in particular, your desire is to hunt for a butterfly that is unknown. Your greatest hope is to find the rarest butterfly of all, the one that no one has ever seen, and that no one has yet proven even exists.
This is no easy task. There are many questions to be asked and answered. Where does this butterfly live? What is its native habitat? How shall you undertake this search?
If you are like most butterfly hunters, you will spend years narrowing down the possible places that this rarest of all butterflies might live. You will sharpen your skills in butterfly identification. You will spend hours observing butterfly behavior. You will grow your collection of butterflies for the purpose of comparative identification.
You will study butterfly metamorphosis and possible patterns of migration. You will explore butterfly habitats. You will wander the world year after year, in search of the rarest butterfly of all – the one that has, for now only been hoped for, but never seen.
Or. Maybe this would not be your process. In a moment of inspiration, you decide to search differently. Perhaps you appreciate that such a creature is a true gift from the Creator, and unveiling it will be a rare privilege and blessing. And this awareness sets your course.
You study and observe butterflies, but do not collect them. You become an advocate for habitat conservation. You lecture on why the world needs this butterfly, how it is something the world benefits from, though as yet it is difficult to say in what ways exactly.
Instead of travelling far and wide, you stay local. You offer your best insights into what this mysterious butterfly might look like on the basis of dim memories and glimpses of something that suggests its possibility. Your energies are spent in raising awareness of the likelihood that this rare creature does exist. And you invite others to wait and watch with you.
This makes you something of a pariah in professional circles. Your methodology is suspect.
Your work does not get approval in the great scientific societies; you do not get invited to contribute articles for their publications.
Instead people become aware of you through social media. Your reputation grows. And, despite the trolls who dismiss you as a fraud, many people decide to follow you. Because some people sense that your search is important and necessary, to reveal something the world needs to know.
Now. Imagine John the Baptist as that most peculiar hunter of the rare and unseen. God’s promised Messiah was that mysterious and much desired figure. John was not the only one waiting and watching for Israel’s Messiah to come. Many people undertook deep studies of the scriptures; spent their lives looking for God’s servant who was to come and fulfil the promises of the prophets to make Israel great and prosperous again.
And this was the way of searching and believing that was proper. It was academic and literal. Whole schools of prophecy were devoted to rigorous training in methods of searching for and teaching about God’s Messiah. They instructed people on exactly what to look for in a Messiah who would come to rescue and lead God’s people.
Although most people thought of the Messiah as coming for Israel only, Isaiah and other prophets saw God’s promised Messiah with a much more generous vision. The Messiah was God’s gift to all nations, beginning with Israel, searching out and caring for God’s wandering and lost ones. But ultimately the Messiah would be a light to guide people into the wholeness of being that God desires for all living creatures.
We don’t know at what religious school John studied, if any. We know that even John’s contemporaries were not certain what his professional standing was. Some suggested that he was a prophet. Others thought of him as a holy man of God who worked the edges of the system. But all seemed to recognize that John did things differently – outside the box.
John’s work began with people near the Jordan River. He called both the lowborn and the highborn to a renewed relationship with God as they awaited the fulfilment of God’s promise. He was the preparer of God’s Way. But he never associated his preparations with any species of Messiah that Israel expected on the basis of the experts and the historical records.
John was a rare spiritual visionary who did his work more through the means of inspiration than by training. He chose to work locally, to connect with people though the social media of his time. He invited people to prepare themselves, and by clearing all the debris and junk out of their minds and hearts, to look for God’s presence being revealed in their midst.
When Jesus came on the scene, John was ready and waiting. Here was a servant from God, not like anyone had ever seen or expected in Israel. He spoke a name and a mission for God’s Messiah that had never been heard before. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Did it surprise even John to say this name? He repeated it the next day. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” It caused two of John’s own followers to go after Jesus who asked them the defining question: “What are you looking for?” Their response is a question that perfectly lines up with what we should expect from students of John, “Teacher, where are you staying?
Because, after all, they had been trained by a most unusual man of God. John’s way of looking for God had not prepared them to see what they expected, but to expect and look for what no one had ever seen. These first disciples would be joined by others. They would learn from Jesus, God’s unexpected and uniquely dedicated servant, new ways of knowing and serving God.
God’s rarest creature, the gentle and kind Beloved Son, guides us from sin’s danger into safety – a new image of Israel’s Passover Lamb – his life forfeit, his blood shed, for us. Yet God’s great love, ever life-giving, would bring Jesus out of the closed tomb resplendent in glory. Which the butterfly symbolizes beautifully as on iridescent wings it rises into new life.