A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, January 8, 2017
Text: John 1:29-42
What are you looking for? At first glance it seems like a rather prosaic question, hardly the stuff from which a poem, song, or proclamation would be constructed. “What are you looking for?” “My keys.” “You mean the ones lying here on the counter?” “What are you looking for?” “My glasses.” “You mean the ones sitting atop your head?” “What are you looking for?” “My car. I know I parked it somewhere in this lot.” “Push the alarm on your key ring.” “What are you looking for?” A question that often has a simple, practical answer.
But sometimes it is a question of deeper meaning. In Luke’s gospel, he asks it three times in the famous fifteenth chapter, “What are you looking for?” “A coin that was part of my dowry and is great value to me.” And she cleans the house until she finds it. “What are you looking for?” “Oh, one of those ornery lambs has wandered off from the flock and I’ve got to find it before dark falls.” And he searches and searches until there in the dusk he finds it mindlessly grazing on the far side of the hill. “What are you looking for?” “Home, or at least the sustenance and security it provides for my father’s hired hands.” And there is his father waiting to welcome him as a child who was lost and is found, who was dead and is alive again. In every case, the answer to the question is a cause for great rejoicing. There is nothing simple or prosaic about these images of God’s Beloved Community.
In the beginning of John’s gospel, the writer wants to set the stage for Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. He tells us in the Prologue that the Word is made flesh, Light dwells in the darkness, the Holy One takes human form and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. Then he plunges us right into his account of John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Holy One.” “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal,” he declares (John 1:26-27). And, bang! the preliminaries are over. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” he cries, as Jesus enters the scene and the drama begins.
John the Baptist was very popular and had a great many followers. Scholars believe that the bulk of Jesus’ first followers came from John’s disciples, especially after he was arrested and executed. In gospel of John that transition begins right away. The very day Jesus appears on stage, John the Baptist introduces two of his disciples to him. “This,” he says, “is the Messiah, the One for whom we have been waiting.” Tentatively they turn toward Jesus and begin to follow him, but at a distance. Suddenly, Jesus, aware of their presence, turns and confronts them with the question of the day, “What are you looking for?”
Taken off guard, they shuffle their feet. Not sure what to say at this point, they lamely respond with a seemingly prosaic question of their own, “Where are you staying, teacher?” It may be that they are stalling for time, a little panicked, trying to decide if they are going to follow him and how far. They add the honorific “teacher” at the end of their question, not quite sure who this stranger from Galilee really is. “Come and see,” he responds, taking pity on their anxiety, seeing more deeply into their desire than they themselves can see.
Of course, this seemingly simple exchange is anything but. There may be no more important question put to those first disciples – or to us – than, “What are you looking for?” At its deepest it is the very question of the meaning of our lives. It is a question of identity and activity. It goes to who we are, who we want to be, and what we will do with our “one wild and precious life.” Without ceremony, Jesus challenges these followers who are not even sure they want to be his disciples, “What are you looking for?” Perhaps the hesitancy of their response is precisely because Jesus has hit the nail on the head. He has asked them the very question that has haunted them all their lives.
In a sermon on this text, Myrna Kysar uses this illustration. She asks the congregation to imagine coming home one day from work or school or play and finding a huge box on the doorstep. She says, “Suppose on the box is an announcement: ‘Contained in this box is what you have been looking for all your life.’ With that announcement,” she asks, “what would you expect to find in the box when you opened it?” (Quoted in `Robert Kysar, Preaching John, p. 123).
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine this big box on your own doorstep. Pick it up. Carry it into your living room. Set it down and spend a few minutes with that crucial question, “What are you looking for? What is it you are hoping to find in a box which promises to contain what you’ve been looking for all your life?” Then slowly open the box. What is there? Is it security, fame, fortune, happiness, peace, health, eternal youth, immortality, freedom from pain and suffering, love? What is it that drives you forward, that would satisfy the desires of your heart?
This is the question Jesus asks us along with those first followers. “What are you looking for?” The answer matters a great deal if we are to follow him. And so we try to buy time, “Well, uh, where is it you’re staying? We want make sure you’re not luring us too far outside our comfort zone.” Maybe a better question for us is, “Where do we find you?” You see it’s really a question of where Jesus will take us if we do decide that he is the One we are looking for. We want some assurance that we can manage the journey.
In fact, we would like for it not to be too strenuous, if that could be arranged. In the first century John and his followers were looking for the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Promised One of God. But once they had found him, the next big question was whether or not they were willing to go with him on a journey that was not at all what they had expected. The question is really no different for us. Once we have met Jesus are we ready and willing to follow, all the way?
“Well, come and see,” he invites. “Check it out. Decide for yourselves if I am what you are looking for and if you want to journey with me.” And here is where the answer gets especially challenging. If they were expecting to open the “Jesus box” and find it full of whatever would fulfill their personal, selfish desires, they were bound to be disappointed. This Jesus, this Messiah, was Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, John the Baptist’s Paschal Lamb, the Prince of Peace and the King of Love, the Man for others. To love God with one’s whole being and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self was the rule of his reign. No one would get rich or powerful from following him.
Remember a few weeks ago, we had Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with two disciples of John the Baptist. John, now in prison, sends them to ask if Jesus if, indeed, he is the one or should they look for another. Perhaps it’s just a different way to view the same encounter that we find in John’s gospel. Anyway, the manner in which Luke’s Jesus says “come and see” is to tell these two to “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22).
Could this be the real response to what you and I and us together and all the world are looking for? “What are you looking for?” Could it be to serve God and all creation as one Beloved Community? It’s hard to imagine a response more rewarding. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Could it be that the answer to the question, “What are you looking for?” might be “a heart full of grace” and “a soul generated by love”? I guess we each will have to open our own box to see for our self. Amen.