Sermon preached at Wesley Church Melbourne at the evening service 15/1/2017 on the text John 1:29-42
What are you looking for? This is the question Jesus addresses to his first disciples. And it is also the question that Jesus addresses to all of us who want to be his disciples. What are you seeking? What is the fundamental, basic thing that motivates you, gets you out of bed in the morning? What speaks to the deepest places of your soul?
We aren’t told much about John the Baptizer in John’s Gospel. Other writers tell us about his clothing, his diet, his relationship with the Pharisees. But here, we only really know one thing about him – that he points people to Jesus.
He does this in a couple of ways here: he baptizes Jesus, he realises who Jesus is, and what he means, and points people towards him.
He’s like an acted out parable of one of my favourite summaries of the Gospel: there is a messiah; it’s not you.
He announces Jesus, and names what he does – that is, he takes away the sins of the world. Not just the church, or the holy, pious insiders – but all of our sins. He breaks the chains of bondage, the rule of the “spirit of this world.” He is the one upon whom John saw the Holy Spirit rest.
But this is not just a piece of interesting information. He doesn’t point out Jesus like I might point out a friend with an interesting job – there’s my friend Robyn, did you know she plays bass guitar with the Eurogliders? It’s not just a fact like telling someone that Paris is the capital of France.
Instead, what he says requires a response from the hearer.
We can see that because the next day, there they are again, and there Jesus is again, walking past, and John says again “Behold! Look! The Lamb of God!”
And this time, the two disciples, Andrew, and one who is un-named, follow after Jesus, and he asked them the question that he asks all of us.
“What are you seeking?”
They wanted something, but perhaps they weren’t quite sure what exactly – as is the case for many of us I think. We have unnameable longings. Sister Maryanne Confoy, a lecturer at Pilgrim Theology College says “your restlessness is what is right with you,” which I think captures the idea of the God-shaped hole very well. It isn’t immediately obvious what we want from Jesus – which is to say, from God, from the universe itself.
“Where are you staying?” is their reply. Perhaps we could say “where do you abide?” The idea of abiding is all the way through John’s gospel – “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (John 15:4)
“Come and see,” replies Jesus, and so they do.
In the final episode of the periscope Andrew, one of the two disciples, then goes and finds his brother Peter, and tells him “we have found the Messiah,” and Peter then goes and meets Jesus for himself.
Jesus asks Andrew and his friend “What are you looking for?” It sounds a little bit random. I can see them in my mind’s eye stumbling and hesitating and trying to think of something sufficiently sensible to say, and then blurting out the first thing that came in to their heads.
But perhaps there is wisdom here. Jesus asks: What are you looking for? And, like the disciples, he waits for us to respond.
When I was at uni my more evangelical friends would complain that people were not very interested in Jesus and what he had done. “I guess it was nice of him to die for my sins – but why should I care? I didn’t ask him to.”
In a world where we have just so much choice of what we believe and how we spend our time, why this? We could be doing Yoga, with its vaunted physical benefits. Or at striving to change the world at a political meeting. Or just reclining on a sofa, a glass of good red wine in our hands, and Netflix on the telly.
In a way, this feels like an unanswerable question to me. It’s only from living the life – from abiding in Jesus – that it is possible to understand what it means. It’s like, to take a trivial example, explaining what it is like to be a runner to someone who doesn’t exercise. You can bang on about the health and psychological benefits, and complain about hard runs and aches and pains, but you don’t understand it from the inside until you are actually doing it.
The life of faith, the life of abiding with Jesus is like that. It is possible to commend it to people in terms of its extrinsic benefits – scientifically churchgoing seems to be good for your health and your social connectedness. And politically it is part of the thick connectedness that makes civil society possible.
But these are views from the outside. They don’t go a long way to convey what it is like to live inside the life of abiding with Jesus. You have to “come and see.”
For each of us it will mean something different. It might mean a strong awareness of the forgiveness of your sins. It might be the strongly held belief of the AA member that it is only by surrendering to a higher power that it is possible to carry on living sober, or living at all. Or it could be that the strong temptation to meaninglessness and despair of the post-modern world is overcome by being drawn into the community of the triune God, in worship, in relationship, and in being sent out.
Jesus asks us “what are you looking for?” The answer is not a formula, an answer from a book, or a magical spell. What Jesus offers is the connection between the deepest part of yourself, your deepest desires, and the meaning of the universe as such.
It isn’t always easy to discover your deepest desire. Desires seem such transitory things – a better job, a new car, a relationship. Some of them are good and natural. Some of them ambivalent. And some of them really definitely neither good nor wise. To be a sinner is to have disordered desires – to think that the less important things are primary, and perhaps to miss out the important things altogether. So it takes work – in fact it is an ongoing process of self-examination and formation, to which the Wesleyan tradition gives the rather intimidating name “Christian perfection.”
And the way it begins is to ask Jesus the question the disciples ask of him: Where do you abide? And then, like the disciples, to go and see. And not just the way it begins, but the way in which it continues. Jesus is always asking us: “What are you looking for?” And always inviting us to “come and see.”
What Jesus offers is not primarily social connection or health and wealth benefits, but being grafted onto the vine that is God.
So the disciple’s response is perhaps not so random after all. They can’t spell out in detail what they need, they don’t know what it would mean to be filled with the sort of life that Jesus has until they have experienced it. All they know is where they see it being lived – and so what they seek is to abide in him.
And it is available for us as well, in the ordinary details of our lives – attending church, praying, reading the scriptures, working in the world, loving people, seeking to be Jesus-y sorts of people, who are remarkable for their love. All of these external things affect, and are affected by, your fundamental orientation towards Christ.
Jesus stands before each of us, waiting for our response. He asks you this: What is it that you want?
I invite you to consider this question. What is the deepest longing of your heart? What is your deepest desire? The clearer you can be about that, the better you can see where God touches you in the depth of your soul. This is what Jesus wants for you, because your deepest longing is in fact for God. As Saint Augustine said: “You made us for yourself Lord, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.”
There are tapers up the front, and I invite you to come up and light one to symbolise the longing for God in your heart, however close, or how distant, that feeling might be right now. Geoff will noodle meditatively for a few minutes, and I will close with a prayer.
who has prepared for them that love you
such good things as pass human understanding:
pour into our hearts such love toward you,
that we, loving you above all things,
may obtain your promises,
which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer 1662