(This is an edited version of the sermon preached in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, on Sunday September 13th)
What is your Christian story? How did you come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?
My story is roughly this. Both my grandfathers were churchwardens. They were regular and active church goers. My parents weren’t particularly but were conscious of their Anglican background. They attended the parish church occasionally in south London where I grew up.
With a background of occasional church going, I was confirmed at the age of 12 having been baptised as a baby. There was a scenic church near the school I attended that looked good in family photographs and also some of my friends were getting confirmed so the pull of churchianity was certainly there.
I had confirmation classes which I didn’t get on the end of and didn’t seem to be geared to helping 1970s’ school boys to understand the gospel. At the confirmation the bishop prayed for each of the candidates: ‘Confirm, O Lord, your servant Neil, Tom, Julian with your Holy Spirit.’
I can honestly say in my case that the bishop’s no doubt sincere prayer was not answered at the point when he prayed it because, though I had been confirmed, I was certainly not a Christian in any real sense of the word. I was not living as a Christian – Jesus meant virtually nothing to me. There were genuinely Christian boys at my school but I was not one of them. That pretty much continued until young adulthood when by God’s grace through the work of the Scripture Union I became a Christian, a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The vicar baptised me, the bishop confirmed me but the Lord Jesus had not yet converted me by shining the light of his saving truth into my mind and heart through His Holy Spirit; he had not yet brought me to new spiritual birth through his gospel; he had not yet made me a child of his heavenly Father.
We heard in our passage from John’s Gospel (chapter 1v29-34) this morning the testimony of John the Baptist. John the Baptist told people that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, that he is the Son of God, and that he is the One who baptises people with God’s Holy Spirit. John baptised with water but Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit. It is he who immerses people with God’s Holy Spirit. That was John the Baptist’s message,
Now our passage began with the phrase ‘the next day’. The next day, v29, John saw Jesus coming towards him and said: ‘Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (NIV). John’s testimony when he sees Jesus walking past occurs the day after the action in our passage last week (chapter 1v19-28) when John was asked by a delegation of Jewish religious leaders: Who are you? What is your spiritual significance? And he replied: I am not the Christ. I am not the Messiah. I am not the King sent by God to save his people.
‘The next day’ records literally the fact that John testified about Jesus the day after he had said: I am not the Christ.
But we know because we’ve already heard the prologue to John’s Gospel, its overture, that there is much more to ‘the next day’ than just a literal recording of a timetable. We know the deeper meaning of ‘the next day’ because right from the start John’s Gospel teaches us that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God who brings in God’s new creation. John’s Gospel begins: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ John’s overture harks back to the creation narrative in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and you remember that the Genesis account of creation is divided up into days.
So, when John’s Gospel says ‘the next day’ it is making a very profound and important point. Jesus is the divine Saviour who brings people out of the old order of creation which has been spoiled by human sin and brings them into God’s new creation where they can enjoy life and peace and love with him for ever.
The next day. God’s new creation is breaking in and people enter God’s new creation when the Lord Jesus baptises them with the Holy Spirit of God.
Jesus converts people to himself, as he did with me in young adulthood, when he pours his Holy Spirit on them. It’s Jesus who does it, nobody else does it. The vicar baptises, the bishop confirms, but Jesus converts.
He is the One who brings people out of the darkness of sin and unbelief into the light of his truth and love. Or, to put it another way, he is the One who brings people to new birth, when they become alive to God and become his children.
The new birth is in Jesus’s gift. We are passive recipients of it. The evidence that it has happened to us is that we willingly and voluntarily believe and trust in him for the forgiveness of our sins. That is the evidence that we are born again into Jesus’s Kingdom. But the new spiritual birth and its result, saving faith, are down to the Lord Jesus.
Now this has implications for the way we tell our own Christian story. As we tell our stories, we need to be giving Jesus the glory because he’s the One who converted us. Yes, we need to be truthful about the circumstances in which we professed faith in Jesus but our story needs to be more about Jesus than it is about us.
We mustn’t suggest as we tell our stories that getting baptised or confirmed or coming along to church is the same thing as being a Christian. In many cases it isn’t. We need to tell people truthfully and honestly the circumstances under which the Lord Jesus converted us, brought us of out of the darkness of sin and unbelief and into the light of saving faith in him.
We shouldn’t try to make the circumstances of our conversion sound more dramatic than they were or embellish them to make them sound more spiritually exciting. We don’t need to do that because every conversion, every story of someone coming to saving faith in the Lord Jesus, is exciting.
So we need to tell our stories honestly and make sure that we are giving the Lord Jesus the glory for converting us.