Toorak Uniting Church

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What are you looking for?

Rev. Robert McUtchen
John 1: 29 – 42
16 January 2011

John 1:29-42

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." 32And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I 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.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!"
37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When 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?" 39He 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. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). 42He 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).

There are times – thankfully not too often, when, confronted with declining church membership, competing demands on people’s time, a generation which does not believe in commitment, and teens and young adults who seem to get on just fine without worship, the sacraments and God, I ask myself what the point of ministry and the church is. It feels like the Christian message is losing relevance, and lost for words. Have we any thing to say to the world?

And then I read the gospel today – Jesus, John the Baptist, and the first words uttered by Jesus to people who went after him. As it is John’s gospel the narrative will have many layers which I must engage with and then peel away to understand the full import of John’s message. Engaging with this text I remember part of why I am called to minister, and why the faith we affirm does have a place in todays world as much as any time in history. It rests in 2 questions - "What are you looking for?" and "Where are you staying?"

Let’s first look at some significant parts of the text.

John twice says Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, typically using imagery to describe and distinguish Jesus. There is uncertainty exactly what John intended this to mean – perhaps a straight out Messianic description of one who would set the world to rights. But it may also have had Passover overtones – the Passover lamb, sacrificed, was the agent by which the people were spared death, and would be set free. The Agnus Die – Lamb of God, which we say or sing at Communion has its origins in John’s call.

Professor William Loader of WA observes that there was a time when in parts of the Christian community Jesus was regarded as the subordinate of John. This includes some asylum seekers to Australia, members of the Mandean community from Iraq, who among their traditions include a higher regard for John than for Jesus. But John’s statements are careful editorial work to establish the supremacy of Jesus over all the prophets.

For all that, John the Baptist was by no means an insignificant figure. He had attracted disciples as Jesus would do, although we do not know if he called them as Jesus would do. What is recorded is the move by two of them to go after Jesus, only to have him turn to them and ask directly: "What are you looking for?"

This is said to be the first recorded words of Jesus to people who would become his followers. In a strange way, that question helps answer for me my occasional musing – "Why?". The two had been seekers after meaning, why else go with John? John’s description of Jesus was enough to rouse their interest, but I wonder if they were prepared to articulate an answer?

Imagine that it is you confronted by Jesus, and asked - "What are you looking for?". How would you say? Take a moment to think about the reasons which drew you to worship today, the reasons which keep you on your journey of faith. Through habit and routine we may become so comfortable in faith we forget what drew us to faith in the first place. It is called being "intentional", and maintaining a state of awareness.

So the question "What are you looking for?". For all the talk of a secular society, there is ample evidence many people of all ages are actively "looking" for meaning and significance in all sorts of places; studying Eastern religions and meditative practices, and the practice of Islam and Buddhism. Remember when the Beatles went off to India and sat at the feet of the Maharishi Yoga? I became friends with a lapsed Catholic whose partner was an active Buddhist – was it surprising when his final address to the school leavers contained a number of key points drawn from the 8 Fold noble path, basic Buddhist belief? The thing is, there is an enduring hunger to discover a way, any way, to invest meaning to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Exploration of various belief systems and meditations is an expression of this hunger – but sadly the search begins from the basis of an incomplete, misinformed or non existent understanding of Christianity. At school I meet many young people who will tell you they reject Christianity but have never gained sufficient understanding to enable a considered decision to be made.

To the question "What are you looking for?", the answer of the two was not an answer but another question – where are you staying? It can hardly have been a literal question – so what did they mean? The general opinion is that they meant – "What are you really on about? what are the most important things about you? Jesus response was the invitation – come and see. In the apparently simple story of the focus of attention in transition from John to Jesus, we actually discover that in Jesus, God extends an invitation to us to become part of the place where Jesus "stays",….. to join with Jesus. John described Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world – it is to participation in this extraordinary proposition – a world in which sin, and its consequences death, handicap and imperfection are denied their former absolute powers, that we are invited – in all its depth and breadth of meaning.

Recently when I spoke about the decisions TUC must make regarding its future directions I referred to the importance of this church, above all other things, developing a focus as a worshipping and spiritual community. I believe this relates to this gospel story today – people are hungry and thirsty for spiritual meaning; as this community seeks to engage with the world in Jesus name, it is inevitable it will be asked the same question Jesus was asked - "Where are you staying?" ; the characteristics of the life of TUC are what will either attract or fail to interest people seeking engagement with an authentic community celebrating and proclaiming the part of Christianity in daily life. There is a widespread hunger and yearning for spiritual peace and community – as John’s two followed Jesus searching and asking, so there is an opportunity for this community to develop a celebration of the richness of life within God’s new covenant. For this is where we would want to be recognised as "staying". This is one of the major challenges facing the people of TUC in 2011 and beyond.

I began confessing my occasional doubts about how the church can or should speak to the world. The world is actually looking and yearning for meaning in life, so eager that it seeks in other religious traditions, if not in Christianity. The question – where are you staying? may be asked of us in this faith community. If we seek God’s help to develop and refine a life which seeks to relate faith to the major questions of life, by theology, by ritual, then we may say with confidence, as Jesus said to the two – Come and see…..and maybe they’ll want to come, and then enjoy the riches God has entrusted us to share. Amen.

© Rev. Robert McUtchen, 2011

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