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What do you want? A Sermon on John 1:29-42

What do you are you looking for? It’s a fundamental question. What is it that you really, deep down, under all the surface nonsense and trivia of your life, long for?

The two disciples… followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”

John 1:37a-38b

What do you are you looking for? It’s a fundamental question. What is it that you really, deep down, under all the surface nonsense and trivia of your life, long for?

It is actually quite hard to tell. Abraham Maslow, one of the greatest psychologists of the twentieth century said

It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.

Abraham Maslow

Maslow wrote in the middle of the last century, when consumerism was in its infancy. And it’s not like it has gotten any easier. Maslow probably would have been amazed at the power and sophistication of the post-modern world in awakening our desires for all sorts of things, and breaking down the barriers between these desires and their fulfilment.

For a start, there are so many more things to want, which are more or less within our grasp. Overseas travel. A newer, better car. A bigger TV. A better phone. Concerts and sporting events and fine dining. A prestigious house in a fashionable suburb. A new face. Better drugs for better moods. And so on, and on, and on.

And on and on the cycle goes, from one ephemeral desire to the next we go, running as hard as we can on the hedonic treadmill. We need the expensive holiday to recover from our stressful job. We need the stressful job to pay for the expensive holiday. And so on.

Amidst all this noise, all these things –good, bad, and indifferent, clamouring for our attention with all the subtly of a car alarm going off on a suburban street, how do we answer Jesus’ question – which is perhaps the fundamental question confronting all of us:

What do you really want?

John the Baptizer from the Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grunewald

Let’s start at the beginning of the passage with John. He is an alien figure. Jesus described him as “a prophet, and more than a prophet.” (Matt 11:9) In the way he dressed, and the sort of life he lived, John seems to have been harking back to the tradition of Elijah, with his hairy coat and his leather belt. I read him as taking up the mantle of prophet, and, as the culmination of the whole Jewish law, prophesied about Jesus, the fulfilment of the law, the perfect revelation of God.

 Jesus put it like this:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.

Matthew 5:17

Which, on the face of it, doesn’t seem to get us very far. What on earth might it mean to “fulfil” the law? It’s especially confusing given that, as you will no doubt have noticed, Christians don’t keep the dietary and other purity laws of the Jews.

So far, so odd.

Let me make it odder still. John refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” What on earth does that mean? It feels like things are getting stranger and stranger. Does John mean that, while he is dressed in a coat of camel skin, Jesus wears a fleece jacket? Or that he communicates by baa-ing?

Obviously not. But if not, then – what?

It’s a rich metaphor, with a lot of ways into it. It could refer to one, or all, of the following[1]:

  • The lambs whose blood was used to mark the door lintels of the Israelites before their flight from Egypt, and then sacrificed every Passover. (Exodus 11.6-12.6)
  • The ram supplied by God for Abraham to sacrifice instead of Isaac. (Genesis 22:1-20)
  • The triumphant lamb in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 5.7-6.3)
  • The daily sacrifices, which had come to be understood as taking away sin. (Exodus 29:38-39)

They are images of sacrifice, covenant, forgiveness and God’s final triumph over evil. However, art is long and life is short, so I’m going to concentrate the sacrificial level. What does it mean for Jesus to “take away the sin of the world?”

We don’t make much use of the language of sacrifice. Someone might “sacrifice” for their children, which is to say to spend money on their children instead of on themselves. And, as Australians, the sacrifice motif is a strong feature of ANZAC day – all those people who suffered and died in order for us to live in freedom. But it isn’t a feature of our culture we are particularly conscious of most of the time.

What is a bit vague and underdeveloped in our culture was central in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. People were aware that they didn’t fulfil God’s laws: they didn’t live in a way that honoured God. Part of the point of the sacrifices was to pay a kind of debt to God – paying the penalty for breaking God’s laws.

So far so comprehensible. We understand the idea of breaking a law and then paying the appropriate penalty.

But what is a law? What do we mean by it?

Our familiar idea of the law is of something that lives in statute books, is elaborated and developed and subject to judicial review. They aren’t necessarily set in stone, and can sometimes be changed. For instance, there is some discussion at the moment about changing the speed limit in residential areas from 50km/h to 30 km/h as part of a global move to reduce road deaths.

We think of laws as being numerous, impersonal, broadly negotiable. But we also think of them as somehow relating to universal ethical principles. For instance, we would not think that parliament should vote to make murder legal.

This gives us a way into thinking about the Jewish law. Yes, at one level it is a series of detailed instructions about how to live. But at a deeper level, living in obedience to the law was a way to honour God, to give flesh to the idea of being one of God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham and hence the inheritors of God’s promise.

That is why, far from the obsession with pettifogging regulation that it seems like to us, it is potentially a source of deep joy. As the psalmist says:

Oh, how I love your law!
   It is my meditation all day long.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
   sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;

(Psalm 119: 97, 103 – 104a)

It seems unlikely that someone might sing like that about the Victorian Government’s “Appropriation (2019–2020) Bill 2019” (passed 28/5/19). We don’t expect much in the way of wisdom and understanding from our laws.

The insight here is that God’s laws point to something beyond themselves. They point, in fact, to God.

At one level, Jesus’ whole ministry was dedicated to this truth. The way he healed on the Sabbath was making exactly the point that it isn’t the details of the law, but the spirit in which it was carried out that is central.

So this is part of what it means to say that Jesus “fulfils” the law. He says: you can make all the rules you like, but of themselves, they won’t lead to the sort of inner transformation that is required to really live in the way that is pleasing to God.

A question occurs to me here. Why should I live in a way that’s pleasing to God? To what end? Perhaps if I imagined God as being a vengeful deity who was prepared to punish those who fail to please him, it might perhaps make sense. I mean, who wants to run the risk? Better to play it safe, stay in my lane, and minimise the downside.

A lot of Christian life does seem to be at least partially based on this sort of consideration. After all “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” God’s the ultimate cop, so do what he says or watch out!

And, to be fair, there is something to that. If you habitually rip people off, get into fights, betray people or in other ways fail to live an ethical life, then you are very likely to reap the whirlwind. Doing good because you fear God in a literal way is better than living in a highly dysfunctional way.

But, as scripture says, it is only the beginning of wisdom.

However, for a lot of reasons, this picture of God is inadequate.

For instance, it will not have escaped your notice that evildoers do not always face punishment. Stalin, for instance, died in his bed. I’m sure you can think of other examples in your own experience. Scripture has always noticed this, observing:

For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain; Their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are; They are not plagued like other people.

Psalm 73:3-5
Jonah Albert Ryder, ca. 1885-1895

And, of course, the whole book of Job is devoted to the story of someone who has massive undeserved suffering.

Clearly the line between ethical behaviour and good outcomes is not a straightforward one. You can live a good life and not prosper. If living a selfish life leads to better outcomes, then why bother?

John preached repentance. Jesus offers something else.

He asks: “What do you want?”  What is your deepest desire? What touches you most deeply in what it means to be human? What is your deepest existential need?

As we said at the beginning of the sermon: this isn’t an easy question. At one level, it’s simple enough. To live in peace, in moderate prosperity, with good health, and so on. And when suffering rears its ugly head, it becomes clear enough. If you’re in pain, then primarily, what you want, is healing, fixing, saving from pain.

But even when we aren’t suffering from something obvious, even when, to the outside world, things seem to be going well, there is still… something missing, something which doesn’t quite fit. We want something and we don’t know how to name it. Some sort of completion or fullness or transcendence. And, it surprising to note, that we can want that un-nameable something enough to sacrifice ordinary pleasures for. We give our money away, we come to church instead of lying on the sofa watching Netflix.

As we said at the beginning: it isn’t easy to know what you want. It’s a significant psychological achievement.

Jesus and His Friend, 8th Century Coptic Icon

Jesus asks the disciples – including the un-named disciple, who perhaps represents us, the readers of the gospel, a hard question. What do you want?

They don’t really have a good answer. They say “Where are you living?” We could render it: where do you abide?

Jesus replies: Come and see.

The only way to understand Jesus as the fulfilment of the law is to follow him – to abide with and in him.  Only when we are drinking deep from the living waters that Jesus gives can we begin to see how the law, our ethical obligations to one another and to God, can be realised in a full human life.

What seem like external demands that we accept with a sense of resignation to the inevitable, reveal themselves as only the surface, the flash and dazzle of the waves. Looking at the sea is different to diving into it, feeling the rough and tumble of the surf.

Looking at the merely ethical from the outside is different from being totally, gradually, transformed by love.

We don’t really know what we want. We’re too distracted, too broken by life. Too alienated from ourselves, from one another, and from God. Like the disciples, we can’t put a word to it, but we can recognise it when we see it, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and we can even sense its echo in the most implausible places – such as church.

We are called by Jesus, and the call is, ultimately, to abide with Jesus: to travel with him through life.

And it is in this transformative relationship that we find ourselves.

The story ends with Jesus giving Peter a new name, the name that revealed who he truly was. And this is what Jesus does for each of us. He shows us each our true name, and our identity as profoundly loved, valued, and accepted by God.


[1] There are a lot of other things it could mean – have a look at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtEpiphany2.htm for more

By Alister Pate

I am trying to live authentically as a Christian in post-modern, post-Christendom, post-Christian Melbourne. I am an ordination candidate for the Uniting Church in Australia, and I lead Cafechurch Melbourne (www.cafechurch.org) where we are learning how to deconstruct and reconstruct in a framework of generous orthodoxy together.

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