John 1:6-8, 19-28
A Negative Gospel
By Dr. Mickey Anders
Would you rather be positive or negative? I think most of us would respond that we want to be positive. If there is anything that a Christian ought to be, it is positive. There are many things that we assert, and we are positive about them.
In our creeds, we list the things that we are positive about. One of the great creeds is the Nicene Creed, which begins, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen… We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God… We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son…”
In the church, we often make such positive assertions of what we do believe. So it is a strange thing for my title of the sermon today to be “A Negative Gospel.”
When I read the text for today from the lectionary, I started to move on to another one because I just preached on John the Baptist last Sunday. But then I caught something very unusual about this Scripture passage. In these two little paragraphs, there are nine negative statements. I kept coming across “no,” “not,” “neither,” and “nor.” Those are negative words. I realized that this is an unusual text because of these negative statements.
All of these negative words were important for the first listeners because there was some question in their minds about the relative importance of John the Baptist. John came first, preaching by the Jordan River, baptizing people. In Acts, we find that Apollos was one who knew only the baptism of John. We get the strong impression in Acts that John’s ministry continued after he baptized Jesus. There were a couple of John’s disciples who later followed Jesus. Then in Acts we find people who have received the baptism of John and have not heard of the baptism of Jesus. So there was some question about which was superior.
In the Gospel of Mark, there is only a brief statement that John baptized Jesus. The one who baptizes would normally be considered as the superior of the one being baptized. But when Matthew was written, we find an effort to show the superiority of Jesus. At the baptism we find that John was very hesitant to baptize Jesus and, in fact, wanted Jesus to baptize him. By the time the Gospel of John comes along, we find these nine negatives to emphasize that John was inferior to Jesus. I thought this was a fascinating negativity.
Twice in this passage we get the question, “Who are you?” And that is followed by the question, “What do you say about yourself?” So the burning question was, “Who was John the Baptist?”
Through all of these negatives, we get the picture of who John is. He says, “I am not the light.” The Gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus was the light of the world, but John was not the light. Next, the text says, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.'” We have a double negative here to emphasize that John was clearly not the Messiah.
Next that ask if he was Elijah, and he replies, “I am not.” They ask if he is the prophet, and he says, “No.”
I was fascinated by this negative portrayal of who John the Baptist was. He defines himself with negative statements rather than positive ones. It is a challenge to affirm what we are by stating the negative, what we are not.
Even his baptism is not the real baptism, because John says, “I baptize you with water.” In the other gospels, he adds, “There is one coming after me who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John may baptize, but this is not the real baptism. Finally, at the end of the passage, John says, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
There is even one other not, “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” I suspect there is a lot of truth to that statement, especially at Christmas time. We think of Jesus as the one born in a manger. But Jesus is not just a baby. We have all kinds of misconceptions about who Jesus is, so that it may well be true that he stands among us as one we do not know.
When we try to describe the Incarnation, we find it difficult to make positive statements. How can we explain that the Son of God gave up being God to become a human being for such a short period of time? We have difficulty explaining that. Even the theologians grasp at all kinds of language to try to explain the mysteries of our faith. Paul Tillich said God was the Ground of our Being. I think it was Rudolf Otto who used the phrase, “the mysterium tremendum,” the tremendous mystery. We can’t find words big enough, strong enough and powerful enough to describe the mystery at the heart of the Christmas message.
Today I want to tell you who Jesus is by telling you who he is not. I envision this like making a mold like craftsmen do. They fill the mold with hot metal and break away the mold to reveal the object. Today I want to make a mold using “not” statements like John did. What is Jesus not?
Each “not” statement will form another part of the mold. Jesus is that inside the mold.
First, I will say that Jesus was not just a great teacher. Many people will argue that Jesus was not the Son of God, but will admit that he was a great teacher. I think it was C.S. Lewis who pointed out the folly of such logic. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” and “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” If he said that and it wasn’t true, then C. S. Lewis says he had to be insane. A lot of people in the insane asylum will say they are God, but only Jesus said it, and it was true. Either he was who he said he was or he was an insane person. He couldn’t have been a great teacher and not be the Son of God. He was not just a great teacher.
He was not just a human being. He was an extraordinary person, but not just a human being. None of us are virgin born. The people who lived with him day by day came to the conclusion that this was not just another human being. Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the Son of God!” They realized he was not just human.
I will surprise you when I say, “He was not the expected Messiah.” That is a shocking statement, but what I mean is that he was not the Messiah the people expected. The Bible goes to great lengths to make that point. They expected a military Messiah who would overthrow the Roman government, but Jesus was not that Messiah. They expected a Messiah who would reestablish Israel in the greatness of David, but Jesus was not that Messiah. He was not the expected Messiah. Instead, he was a Suffering Servant.
We begin to make the mold of who Jesus was by saying who he was not.
I found it interesting that the question “Who are you?” is asked three times in this passage. There’s a challenge. Who do we define who we are as Christians by using negative statements? We usually define ourselves with positive statements like, “My name is…” or “My job is…” How do we define as a Christian ourselves with negative statements?
Christians are not afraid. When the angels came, they said, “Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.” One woman told me that she learned from her several very serious surgeries that she was not afraid to die. When we have Christ in our hearts, we no longer have to be afraid.
Christians are not alone. We may have no family left on the earth, but we are not alone. Ludie Pickett wrote a song in 1897 entitled, “Never Alone.” It says,
“I’ve seen the lightning flashing,
I’ve heard the thunder roll.
I’ve felt sin’s breakers dashing,
which almost conquered my soul.
I’ve heard the voice of my Savior,
bidding me still to fight on.
He promised never to leave me,
never to leave me alone!
No, never alone, no never alone,
He promised never to leave me,
He’ll claim me for His own;
No, never alone, no never alone.
He promised never to leave me,
Never to leave me alone.”
Christians are not without faith. We have faith in God. We may not be able to explain what it is, but we know we are not without faith. Hebrews says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We are not without faith.
Christians are not without hope. I am always touched by that verse from 1 Thessalonians 4:13, where Paul says, “I do not want you to be uninformed, my brothers and sisters, about those who have died, because I do not want you to grieve as those who have no hope.” We are not without hope.
Christians are not without love. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” Romans 8 tells us that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God. We are not without love.
Christians are not lost. We may be like sheep who wander after grass until they do not know where they are, but the Bible says we have a Good Shepherd. That Shepherd will leave the ninety and nine and come to find us! And that Shepherd knows the way home. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” We are not lost!
Christians are not condemned. John 3:17 says, “For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
We can define ourselves as Christians with that negative mold. The “not” statements build the mold in which we find our true selves. We are not alone, not afraid, not without faith, not without hope, not without love, not lost and not condemned. That tells who we are!
Since I am preaching a negative gospel, I will talk about another use of the word “not.” I want to suggest that in every family there is a negative ghost of a child. When we ask our child, “Who broke that cookie jar?” the answer is invariable in the negative – “Not me!” We ask, “Who spilled the milk on the carpet?” The answer is, “Not me!” “Not me” is the negative child responsible for so many things in any home.
How many times do we say or want to say, “Not me?” Keni Thomas has a country song entitled, “Not Me.” The first verse says volunteers are needed for the children’s baseball team, and every dad is thinking, “Not me.” And the song says, “this league is built on coaches who stood right there and said, ‘No me, not me, no way. With this job of mine I could never find the time. Not me. Not me.” And the chorus says, “The world becomes a better place when someone stands and leads the way. Steps forward when they’d rather say ‘Not me.'”
The second verse talks about a family of children whose parents have died. There is no next of kind, so the lot falls to the oldest sister who said, “‘I’ll raise them’ while a voice inside her screamed, ‘Not me. Not me. I can’t believe what’s happening. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Not me. Not me.” And the chorus adds, “The world becomes a better place when someone stands and leads the way. Steps forward when they’d rather say, ‘Not me.'”
We use “not me” too much. But I ask, “Why not me?” God calls each of us, and we need to ask ourselves, “Why not me?”
In Isaiah, the prophet stood before the temple with the cherubim and the earthquake when God asks, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for me?” We need to hear that call from God and ask ourselves, “Why not me?” We need to reply with Isaiah, “Here am I. Send me.”
I have one last negative question, “Why not now?” We say we are going to commitment ourselves to Christ, but not now. We are called of God to do something special, and we say that we will respond, but not now.
Why not me? Why not now?
When you start playing with the negatives, “no, not, neither, no,” we can define quite a bit about our lives. The negative words state a positive message. We are called of God to commit our lives to Jesus Christ.
Copyright 2005, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.