What Are You Looking For?
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jesus asked them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) This week I stepped into a spice shop looking for the Ukrainian Village seasoning I like. I must have been standing with a blank look on my face because as soon as she saw me, the shopkeeper asked, “Can I help you?” She took me straight to the spot. Sometimes we know what we’re looking for but need help finding it.
Other times we don’t know what we’re looking for but have confidence we’ll know it when we see it. We have two high school seniors at home right now applying for colleges, Sam and Joe. It seems there are few things more mysterious than trying to figure out which schools appeal to a kid. They just have to search until they find it for themselves. Of course, there are many, many people to help them along the way including guidance counselors, college admissions staff, print journalists, electronic media—not to mention friends, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles—all lending a hand.
Other times it feels like what we’re looking for can’t be found. We just have an angry, confused, hurting longing for an end to our pain, for resolution of injustice, or for the truth to emerge from the shadows of deceitfulness. A man came to my office this week looking for answers. He lost his job after the son of the boss’s friend stole from the company. He lost his apartment when he couldn’t pay the rent. He lost his wallet and his I.D. when it was stolen while he slept on the Blue Line. “Why is this happening to me?” he asked. “What does God have against me? I’ve always tried to do the right thing but its only getting more and more difficult.”
This week we will celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday and the inauguration of a new administration in many ways antithetical to that legacy on Friday. Jesus’ question, ‘What are we looking for?’ has found new urgency, rising up in our own minds, up-ending even the settled lives of people who are not sleeping on the Blue Line tonight. What are we looking for—for our nation, our neighbors, our families, and ourselves?
The disciples in today’s gospel could not have imagined where their decision to follow Jesus would take them. He just said, “Come and see.” (John 1:39) He would take them to the cross. He would show them the way to live under and within the shelter of God’s abiding presence even while they walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
Martin Luther King famously said, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” In his letter from a Birmingham jail King also warned the universe won’t bend toward the better all by itself. Come and see.
Christ has shown us how to walk toward abundance of life paradoxically by following him in the way of the cross. Sacrificial love—giving ourselves to something greater than narrow self interest—bending our strength together for the common good, however we are given to understand the common good—this is how we make life better for ourselves and for everyone and find the answers to our deepest questions.
We know it when we see it. To be a Christian means we see in Jesus a widow to the Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world somehow we have always known but couldn’t name. To be a Christian is to affirm the truth there is a natural human capacity and longing for God in everyone because everyone is a child of God. To be a Christian is say—‘Yes! that’s it!’—at Jesus’ vision for all existence in union with Divine Reality in what scripture has variously called the kingdom of God, or the body of Christ, or the vine and the branches, or a living sanctuary not made with hands.
Being a Christian is one of the things in life we can’t do alone. We find answers with the help and guidance of one another, or if not, then we find the encouragement and strength we need to keep searching, or to keep hoping for love to win out. To be a Christian is to be witnesses to these things.
In fact, the gospel of John, from which we read today is sometimes called the book of “signs.” It’s all about giving witness. In chapter 20:31 John says, “These [things] are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
To find what we’re looking for, to know what is important, to decide which path to follow, to recognize who Jesus is, or even that Jesus is important, the bible tells us there needs to be a witness. We need one another. John the Baptist “…came as a witness to bear witness to the light, so that all might believe through him.” (John 1:7)
Like a helpful shopkeeper John is full of things to say about Jesus. There are no less than five images of who Jesus is in our lesson today: “Here is the Lamb of God.” “…who is taking away the sins of the world.” (1:29) Jesus is “the one who existed before John.” (1:30-31) Jesus is “the one on whom the Spirit descends and rests.” (1:32-33) “This is the Son of God.” (1:34)
It must have caused quite a stir. By all accounts, John had a large following. He had his own disciples. Many came to listen to him and to prepare for the messiah. The people of Israel had been waiting almost 900 years. It had been centuries since the golden years of King David. For centuries, the people of Israel had known only the bitterness of division, exile, slavery, imperialism, and betrayal.
In the decades before Jesus’ birth the dream and longing of the Hebrew people for a savior grew and deepened. The prophets wrote about it. The Psalmist sang about it. Their longing for a savior, for a messiah, for a king who would restore the nation and lead the people in faith was so strong in the century before Christ, it could be called a national obsession.
In other words, the church was born in times like this—the church was made for moments like this—when confusion, hatred, and empire appear to hold sway over truth and justice.
Jesus answered the disciple’s longing and our own in a most unexpected way. He was not a political savior, but a personal one. The power he wielded was not military might, but of vulnerability, mercy and love. He showed us we all have this power and this presence of God with us too.
Yet even Jesus, the messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, would have been just another man passing by the disciples along the riverbank of the Jordan that day without the witness of John the Baptist. As Jesus walked by, John exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36)
From that day the disciples turned their hearts and minds toward Jesus. They began to follow him, and little by little, they began to have faith. Jesus said to them, “Come and see.”
What do people see in our congregation? What kind of witness do we make? To those without hope; to those who are hurting or grieving; to those who are searching for a purpose in their lives; to those our economy has left behind; to those being scapegoated; to those experiencing injustice, to anyone afflicted by the improper use of authority and privilege?
Life can be overwhelming. The choices confusing. Let them see hope. Let them see the kingdom. The people need a witness. We need to see Christ in one another. We need to hear Jesus’ invitation from each other’s mouths. Come and see. Just be a living witness to the power and presence of grace. Let God do the rest.