The Bridegroom’s Joyful Friend
by Rev. Jonathan Gale
1st Sept 2013
Isaiah 33: 13 – 22
13 Hear, you who are far away, what I have done;
and you who are near, acknowledge my might.
14 The sinners in Zion are afraid;
trembling has seized the godless:
‘Who among us can live with the devouring fire?
Who among us can live with everlasting flames?’
15 Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly,
who despise the gain of oppression,
who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it,
who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed
and shut their eyes from looking on evil,
16 they will live on the heights;
their refuge will be the fortresses of rocks;
their food will be supplied, their water assured.
The Land of the Majestic King
17 Your eyes will see the king in his beauty;
they will behold a land that stretches far away.
18 Your mind will muse on the terror:
‘Where is the one who counted?
Where is the one who weighed the tribute?
Where is the one who counted the towers?’
19 No longer will you see the insolent people,
the people of an obscure speech that you cannot comprehend,
stammering in a language that you cannot understand.
20 Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals!
Your eyes will see Jerusalem,
a quiet habitation, an immovable tent,
whose stakes will never be pulled up,
and none of whose ropes will be broken.
21 But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
nor stately ship can pass.
22 For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler,
the Lord is our king; he will save us.
John 3: 22 – 36
Jesus and John the Baptist
22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized— 24John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.
25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ 27John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” 29He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.’
The One Who Comes from Heaven
31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. 33Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. 34He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. 36Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.
I’ve entitled this sermon, The Bridegroom’s Joyful Friend. Now you might wonder where that comes from but it is hidden in our reading and my hope is that you might be able to identify with this person.
I was seriously struck by something CS Lewis once said; that the more we become like Jesus, the more we become ourselves. What was striking was that one would think that if everyone was becoming more like Jesus we’d all be little Jesus clones. Far from it! The profound insight Lewis has is that the more we become like Jesus, the more we grow into that unique person God created us to be and the happier and more fulfilled we are.
The world teaches us that we need to assert ourselves, demand our rights, not give an inch. In contrast to this Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 22, just after they were caught arguing amongst themselves as to which one was the greatest, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
He’s saying, become like me.
Now John the Baptist’s disciples were just as into the “me first” syndrome. They hear that Jesus has begun baptising and 26They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’
John’s reply no doubt surprises them: 27John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” 29He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.’
Now there’s an attitude I want to dispel immediately. There was a time in the history of the English church when in certain theological quarters a dour face and the obsequious humility of the Uriah Heep variety were deemed to be a reflection of spiritual maturity. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Joy has always been a godly attribute, held up in the Scriptures as a characteristic of those close to God. Hand in hand with joy goes courage.
John the Baptist’s summation of his conversation with his disciples – namely that Jesus must increase while he must decrease – is preceded by a reference to a wedding and joy.29He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.
Now we need to understand a little of wedding customs in Jewish circles in the time of Jesus to get the context of John’s comments.
This is how things worked. First came the betrothal – The young man prepared a marriage contract (or covenant) which he presented to the intended bride and her father.
Then the acceptance – To see if the proposal was accepted, the young man would pour a cup of wine for his beloved and wait to see if she drank it. If she drank the cup she would have accepted the proposal and they would be betrothed. The young man would then give gifts to his beloved, and then take his leave. The young woman would have to wait for him to return and collect her.
Now the construction of the wedding chamber – Before leaving, the young man would announce, “I am going to prepare a place for you “, and “I will return for you when it is ready”. The usual practice was for the young man to return to his father’s house and build a honeymoon room there.
Meanwhile the bride would be making herself ready so that she would be pure and beautiful for her bridegroom.
Now for the real action! When the wedding chamber was ready the bridegroom couldcollect his bride. He could do this at any time so the bride would make special arrangements. It was the custom for a bride to keep a lamp, her veil and her other things beside her bed. Her bridesmaids were also waiting and had to have oil ready for their lamps.
When the groom and his friends got close to the bride’s house they would give a shout and blow a shofar (a ram’s horn trumpet) to let her know to be ready.
When the wedding party arrived at the father’s house the newlyweds went into the wedding chamber for a seven day honeymoon and the groom’s best friend stood outside waiting for the groom to tell him that the marriage had been consummated.
The groom’s best friend then announced to all the good news that the marriage was on and that the party could begin. Then all the friends really started celebrating for the seven days that the couple were honeymooning. When the couple emerged there would be much congratulation and the Marriage Supper could begin.
Now let’s backtrack slightly. The groom’s friend would stand outside the wedding chamber listening for the groom to tell him that the marriage was consummated and the party could begin.
You see the groom and his bride had one party, and all the friends and relatives had another.
John’s disciples had run to him concerned that Jesus was stealing his thunder. John responds with 29He who has the bride is the bridegroom. This is not my wedding, is what he’s saying. It’s Jesus who is the focus of this great and joyful entry of God into human history. He is the bridegroom.
The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.
My job is to wait for the good news that the marriage is consummated and to announce the beginning of the party.
For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.
My life’s work has been fulfilled and it brings me joy!
John announced the good news! In one sense he was the first person to preach the gospel, and his modus operandi was to play a facilitating role in bringing the Christ and his bride (the people of God) together, and announce this to all who wait in expectation.
The friend of the bridegroom has a joy that is all his own. He doesn’t insist on breaking into the wedding chamber. His is a facilitating role and it brings him great joy.
Well that’s all well and good, but how does this affect me?
I think to answer this we need to see where this landmark passage stands in relation to other landmark passages in John’s gospel. The gospel writers arranged the sequence of their material in a particular order for a reason and this story is preceded by two significant passages in the gospels.
The first is the cleansing of the temple, where Jesus expresses extreme dislike for people who use the temple for purposes other than God intended it to be used.
The money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals seem to have separated their normal activity from the ways of God. They visit the temple (in fact have their employment attached to the temple) without allowing the morality of God in any way to affect them.
In other words God is not impressed when we see the church as an appendage to our lives, something that is just one of many things that make up our lives as opposed to our turangawaewae – our standing place – the thing that is integral to and shapes our entire identity. You see if we claim to be the Body of Christ and at best have a tenuous relationship with Christ the head, then we will … well … we’ll encounter the fierce displeasure of God.
The second is the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus where Jesus tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being ‘born again from above’ as he puts it. In other words our encounter with God, if we are to call ourselves Christ-followers, needs to be profound. So profound should its effect upon us be that it has the impact of a complete change of identity – thus born anew.
Some people have attached a methodology to being born again but however you understand it, the important thing is to be open to God and to allow him to so influence every aspect of you that you virtually acquire a new identity – an identity in Christ.
Jesus links this experience to his crucifixion and then gives as a reason for all this the landmark words of John 3: 16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
The third landmark passage is our gospel reading on John the Baptist where the lesson is that our lives should point to Christ, where our true joy lies in not only like Christ living out a godly morality but should reflect our close friendship with Christ – this is the friend of the bridegroom.
And the role of the ‘best man’ in Jewish society at the time, was not to demand that he be in the limelight, but to facilitate the marriage (the relationship between people and Christ) – to be a listening person – one who hears the good news and joyfully announces the good news. And here we come back to CS Lewis’s observation – the more we become like Christ, the more we become fully ourselves – the people God designed us to be – and in so doing the happier we will be.
So I suppose what I’m driving at tonight is that John’s gospel illustrates 3 levels or 3 types of relating to God:
· I come to church to see what I can get from it, to see how it benefits me – this is signified in the story of the cleansing of the temple
· I allow Christ to influence me so profoundly that my whole identity is impacted – the story of Nicodemus being told he must be born again.
· I see my joy as serving Christ and others by living a life that in both word and deed, listens for the bridegroom’s voice, and joyfully tells the good news when it is heard. My focus is in focussing people upon Christ.
The Letter to the Hebrews in chapter 4 and verse 12 says, 12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Allow the word of God to you today to plumb the depths of your heart. Be honest about what your identity in Christ is – about how you relate to Christ.
1. Do you in word and action treat God’s people as though they are there to fulfil your spiritual or other needs?
2. Are you born again – whatever that may mean?
3. Is your life one that shouts aloud: I am the joyful friend of the bridegroom? Let me tell you some good news! I have heard the good news that he has consummated his marriage to the church and I want to tell you all that we can begin to rejoice! The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.’
God bless you as you determine to mature your relationship with Christ
– May you be his close friend
– May you tell others the good news
– May your joy be fulfilled in your doing so