John 1:29-4229 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, "After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." 32 And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" 39 He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed ). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter ).
Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
From time to time, there is no more valuable a way to learn about human nature than watching children. A friend of mine told me once that she did not believe in original sin until she tried to put her two year old to bed. Now, being an uncle, I am in a place where I get to observe not only my nieces, but also my brother and soon to be sister-in-law, and being a bit mischievous, I must admit that I enjoy the moments in which they have been asked a question for which there simply is no decent answer. Children can ask incredibly sophisticated questions and, regardless of the age difference, sometimes you are simply beat, questions like why one child received a lesser punishment for the same offense as another, or questions like why your older sister is allowed to stay up a bit later than you. Now, being parents, they have that old stand-by, “because I said so” and they are able to pass by on the sheer authority of that statement, for now at least. What is clear when these situations occur, though, is that a fantastically precise question is often worth more than a dozen or so clichéd answers, and these sort of answers, these “because I said so” do not really do justice to the depth of the question that is being asked. These answers, or in the words of singer Craig Finn, these “excuses and half truths” are the blunt instruments we use to end a conversation when we know that we have beaten, even if it is a by a five year old. They are, in fact, a very human response that we use to avoid a discussion we would much rather leave behind.
Now, it is often the case that we think of our faith, our participation in the church, on the answer side of the equation. Being a Christian is supposed to give us an answer to any number of questions: questions like what is a life for? How I am supposed to treat my neighbor? Yes, in response to these questions, we put Christ on the other side as the answer. What is a life for? Well, it is to be lived in the fullness of Jesus’ love. How I am supposed to treat my neighbor? With the goodness, love and respect that Christ treats me.
What happens, though, when things get flipped and Christ, rather than providing us with an answer, asks a question, and one of those deeply penetrating questions that produces genuine reflection? Well, we have one of those sorts of questions before us today, and rather than turning this into an opportunity to shout the religious equivalent of “because I said so,” we would do well to engage it on its own terms. The question is put thusly: John the Baptizer has just told two of his disciples that Jesus, the lamb of God, is walking by, and these disciples immediately jump up and chase after this Jesus. After seeing that they are coming after them, Jesus asks them this question: “What are you looking for?” That, simply put, is a fantastic question. Now, we can easily gloss over this question and keep moving to less challenging parts of the story, but I think the fact that we have desire to do so is reason enough to stick with the question. What, I mean really, what, are we looking for when we show us here on Sunday morning? There are all sorts of answers we could give to that question, some of them reasonable and sufficient, but I think that John’s Gospel has an even more interesting insight waiting for us to unearth.
You see, just prior to this question, John the Baptist makes a most extraordinary confession. Of Christ, he says the following: “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me . . . said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Or to put it more plainly, without God’s Holy Spirit to identify him, John the Baptist wouldn’t have been able to see Jesus for who he is. Jesus, quite literally, would have walked on by and this would have meant nothing to John, and it is really so different for us? Without God’s Holy Spirit, we will, I am afraid, inevitably recast God in our image and answer this question, “what are you looking for?” in ways that benefit us the most. We will provide answers that will allow us to remain pure at the expense of all those with whom we disagree and allow us to ignore the plight of our neighbors. Or we will provide answers that look alarmingly similar to the dominant values of the culture around us. When this becomes the criteria, Christianity becomes a way to entertain ourselves, or a self-help program, or even worse, yet another way to quantify our success as Christians, as if such a thing could ever be done. Yes, these are the sort of answers that we will likely give, for this is what it means to try and find a God without the vision that the Holy Spirit creates. When we do so, we find not God, but a distorted and aggrandized version of ourselves and there can be no more lonely a feeling than that. Martin Luther picks up this radical line of thinking in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in which he says the following: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in my Lord Jesus or come to him.”
There is, then, something profoundly urgent in this question, but that does not mean that it is not somehow a word of comfort. For when we sit in the impossibility of this question, we are met with this news, that our own inability to see Jesus is nothing less than the occasion for God’s activity. It is right in the middle of our own fears and failings that the Holy Spirit takes up residence. It is precisely when we admit that we do not have the answer to the question that God begins in us a most marvelous work. Yes, that John the Baptizer could not see Jesus on his own is really only half the story. For the Holy Spirit did indeed descent on Christ and pointed him to John. I cannot help but wonder if this could not have happened if John already assumed that he knew who Jesus was. Perhaps it is our presumption more than anything else that God must overcome. In the same way, Martin Luther did not stop with humanity’s inability to find God on its own. Rather, he continued with the following: “but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel.” And if the question is true for us, so too is this answer. This is, dearly beloved, is why we are here, what we are looking for. We are here because God’s Holy Spirit is present and active, calling you into this place so that you, too, might behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Or in the still more beautiful words of Ignatius of Antioch, one of the pillars of the early church, “in me is a murmuring wellspring . . . saying come away to the Father.” We are here because that same Holy Spirit creates a hunger, a longing, that can only be satisfied by this God come in the flesh. A God who will be fully revealed not in some profane display of power, but instead when he is hoisted upon an instrument of torture, the cross, and in so doing takes the consequence of human sin onto his own divine and bruised body. We would not have the vision to see this God on our own, for this is no place to find a God. For his presence among us is not one of vengeance and retribution, our native languages, but rather sweet mercy and powerful grace. The kind of God whose activity urges us to beckon others to come and see that this God is good. What are we looking for? Well, we are looking for the God who has already found us, and has done so in Jesus’ name, amen.