Sermon - 27th October 2019
"What are you looking for?"
In today’s reading, we are led by the Gospel of John into an encounter of great depth between Jesus and his first disciples. The description is very brief; the whole episode is easily overlooked as we are tempted to push further into John’s story and get caught up in his unique approach to the drama of Jesus’s life.
And yet two particular conversations that the gospel records could just as easily take place here, today.
First, the gospel places us alongside John the Baptist as he speaks to two of his own disciples. Jesus is seen in the distance, and the Baptist points him out to his disciples and describes him as the Lamb of God.
We are still only in the first few paragraphs of the gospel, still really only just setting the scene for the story. But this is new language, and the gospel is already drawing us further into a new interpretation of what God’s Anointed One is going to mean to the world.
What does this new description, “Lamb of God”, mean?
As the Baptist observes the man who came to him for baptism, and who was the focus of a divine revelation that this was the one whom the Jewish people were waiting for, what did the Baptist see in his mind’s eye about Jesus so that he described him as the Lamb of God?
The text of the gospel gives no further explanation. Even if one of the Baptist’s disciples had asked what his teacher meant by those words, nothing is recorded. But the style of John’s gospel does provide a big clue to what we are expected to read into the Baptist’s words.
Time and again, the Gospel of John interprets the significance of Jesus in terms of the Jewish Passover: that saving act of God during the Israelite’s slavery in Egypt when the Angel of Death passed over the houses which had the blood of a sacrificed lamb smeared on the lintel above the door.
And so, for the Baptist to name someone as the Lamb of God, the most likely interpretation is that he was naming Jesus as the one who would be sacrificed as part of God’s saving plan for a new act of liberation of God’s people.
It’s a phrase, and an interpretation, which is full of cultural symbolism, and it suggests a depth of meaning which John’s Gospel was exploring: three short words - Lamb of God - but a whole culture full of meaning.
Nevertheless, they were words which inspired two of the Baptist’s disciples to approach Jesus with a view to becoming his followers. And here we witness another conversation which is easily overlooked, but which carries great significance for anyone who might feel called to be a Christian disciple, even down to this very day.
The Gospel of John is a masterpiece of literature. The writing is refined and graceful; the structure is beautifully planned to ensure that every incident achieves its full impact in the reader’s imagination. The way the material is chosen and edited shows tremendous theological insight and a powerful understanding of how the teachings of Jesus could become a universal message of salvation and abundant life.
Against that backdrop, imagine how important the first spoken words of Jesus within the text must have been. Every writer knows the powerful effect of a character’s first words and how critical those words are in giving us our first impression of their personality.
In the second conversation in our reading, Jesus is about to speak his first words in the Gospel of John. We are about to form our first mental image of the teacher from Nazareth.
Two disciples of the Baptist approach Jesus, and what does he say? He could say, ‘Welcome, sit down.’ Or he could say, ‘Friends of the Baptist are friends of mine, come in.’ But what he actually says is, ‘What do you want?’ - sometimes translated as ‘What are you looking for?’
These are not casual words; this is not an easy introduction into the part of the story where Jesus begins to gather his disciples around him. This is a critical question which Jesus asks of his first disciples and, by implication, it is the question that he continues to ask of all his disciples - then and now. ‘What are you looking for?’ There is a challenge in those words.
Perhaps the challenge is that we cannot be disciples without some sense of direction: we need to have goals that we are seeking to achieve as part of our faith journey through life.
And it is a real challenge because many of us will probably have gone through times when we lost sight of what we were looking for; times when we drifted, or watched from the sidelines, or felt that we didn’t know how to connect.
These are certainly challenging parts of the journey. Time spent in the wilderness can be uncomfortable, lonely and depressing. It can also be a time of growth and learning if it gives us space to focus on what matters to us.
But eventually, we only seem to get beyond those challenges when we find the motivation to come back to the question, ‘What are you looking for?’
Two conversations; easily passed over, and yet part of the reality of our faith in this place as we grow in our own discipleship. Week by week we revisit them. In a few minutes, we will speak the words of the Baptist when we say, ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world’ and we will share in the rich symbolism of those first followers who saw God saving the world through the sacrifice of Jesus.
And then, when we invite people to receive communion we will say that everyone is welcome, all that we ask is that you are looking for God in your life, because that question ‘What are you looking for’ does need some kind of response.
When I ask myself the question of what I am looking for, my answers lead me on to further questions.
I might answer that I am looking for spiritual nourishment. I might say that I am looking to be included and valued as an individual. I might say that I am seeking to learn more about Jesus. I might be looking for friendship, companionship, a way to make changes in my life, a reassurance that God loves me.
But every time I consider what I may be looking for, I hear Jesus saying not only ‘Follow me’, I hear him saying ‘You may have all these things, but what will you give back in return? When you receive spiritual nourishment, to whom will you offer the spirituality you discover? When you are included and valued, to whom will you offer inclusion and affirmation of their self-worth? When you receive friendship and companionship, with whom will you share it?
Perhaps when we consider what we are looking for from our discipleship of Jesus, we should recognise that the blessings we receive are always intended to be shared so that we become disciples who are blessings in the lives of others.
We may not always recognise that the Lamb of God who comes to us in bread and wine is also saying to us ‘What are you looking for?’ But the gospel puts them together as twin conversations. And together, they challenge disciples to be active, thoughtful, generous, and aware of where our faith may be calling us to go.
Familiar words in the service? Easily overlooked in scripture? Yes, but still very much part of our faith, and potentially a turning point in our discipleship if we can approach Jesus and be ready to answer his question when he says, ‘What are you looking for?’