We have made it through Christmas, with all the anticipation of the Advent of God come to earth in a little baby born in a stable and laid in a manger. We have noticed that Jesus was born into a risky world, as his parents had to flee with him soon after his birth to evade the wrath of an evil king. We have reflected on Jesus’ entry into ministry beginning at the Jordan River, where Jesus asked John to baptize him, and John recognized that Jesus was much greater than him.
All four gospels tell of Jesus’ baptism. It is an important event. But only in the Gospel of John does John the Baptist stick around after the baptism, and he actually does so for 3 days. The symbolism of the number of the Trinity is probably not accidental in John’s gospel. John likes symbolism.
In our passage, on the second day, John saw Jesus coming and announced him as the Lamb of God, someone greater than him, who baptizes not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. On the 3rd day, John again announced Jesus’ coming as the Lamb of God, and two of John’s disciples chose to follow Jesus. When Jesus saw them following him, he asked them a question. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ first words are to silence a demon. In Matthew, Jesus begins with a long and grand sermon. In Luke, he quotes a scripture from Isaiah. But in John, Jesus asks a question: "What are you looking for?" or, closer to the original meaning, "What do you seek?" It is either a very simple question, or a profound one. Since Jesus asked it, I would imagine it was a profound question, asking these two, at least in part, to consider why they had chosen to follow Jesus. They responded addressing him as Rabbi, or Teacher, and asked him a question, a seemingly odd question: "Where are you staying?" The word for "stay" can also be translated as "abide, continue, indwell, be steadfast." Where will you abide, they ask. (We may think of Ruth saying, in her loyalty to Naomi, "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge [or abide], I will lodge.") And Jesus invites them to do two things: he invites them to "come," to leave what they had been doing; and to "see," which implies looking at something to find out what it reveals. "Come and see," invited Jesus, and they did. And they must have liked what they saw in Jesus, for Andrew invited his brother Simon, saying, "We have found (what they were seeking) the Messiah." Perhaps as a sign of commitment, Jesus saw something in special in Simon, and renamed him as Cephas, or Peter, meaning ‘The Rock."
As is typical of John’s Gospel, there is much in this passage that remains unclear. Just about everything is symbolic in John, pointing us to greater truths about God through Jesus. Earlier in John 1 we learned that Jesus, though he was one with the Creator at the beginning of the world, was to be rejected by his own people, to suffer at the hands of humankind. And yet we also know from John that Jesus loves humankind enough as if to adopt us into the divine family. Baptism signifies that adoption, that claim upon us from before our birth.
Here, as his ministry begins, the first disciples recognize him as Rabbi, as Messiah. Later in John, his titles will grow as Jesus reveals himself to be the Light of the World, the Great Shepherd, the Living Water, the Bread of Life, the Resurrection and the Life. For the writer of this gospel, Jesus is very human but at the same time very much the Son of God. It is a puzzle we cannot fully solve but simply hold in faith.
All four gospels relate stories of the first disciples, but only in John do the disciples first choose to follow Jesus. In the others, Jesus calls them to follow him. But we see in John that the disciples follow of their own choice, their own initiative. This is significant. This speaks to us about faith.
Faith is a very strange thing. It is a gift from God, something we do not earn ourselves, and we cannot give to someone else. "Faith is," says the Letter to the Hebrews, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Yet even if we believe, as we profess for our babies, or for ourselves, when we baptize, that we are claimed as God’s before we are even born, we still have a choice whether or not to follow Jesus.
Following is also an interesting concept. We can follow someone or something, we can even follow someone else’s lead. We can follow up on things, we can follow in someone’s footsteps. We can follow our heart, or follow our nose. We can follow orders, follow suit, or follow the crowd. We can follow someone to the ends of the earth. We can find someone a hard act to follow.
We choose to follow friends on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. We choose to follow one political party over another, or to follow a favorite sports star or actor/actress. The point is that we choose to follow, rather than the source choosing us. And in the Gospel of John, it is very clear that the disciples chose to follow Jesus.
Whom will you choose to follow in your life? If we choose, like the disciples, to follow Jesus, we make some conscious and unconscious choices about how we live life. Lots of folks have explored just how to follow Jesus in our lives, from an older book from the late 1800’s that keeps popping up, called In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon, to a more recent one called A Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. Jacobs takes the Bible literally, and tries to obey almost every word, from the most well-known, like the 10 Commandments, and the Great Commandment, "Love your neighbor," to much lesser known sayings, like "do not wear clothes of a mixed fiber," or "do not shave your beard," or "do not stone an adulterer." His attempts are almost comical, too literal a translation in his attempts to apply ancient lifestyles to modern times. In Sheldons’ classic, his congregation vowed to consider what Jesus would do in their daily living. This book sparked the more modern movement of "What would Jesus do" bracelets some years ago. As these ordinary citizens consider what Jesus would do as they confront the homeless, or as they make business deals, they find their lives transformed when they try to respond as Jesus might. . A modern example of someone faithfully following Jesus is certainly the one whose birthday the nation celebrates today, Martin Luther King, Jr. King purposefully and prayerfully chose to respond to an unfairly oppressive culture and laws NOT with violence or hatred, but with peaceful resistance, and with the faithful voice of a preacher.
If you are here in this church worship service, you have probably decided in some capacity to follow this man/God called Jesus. You may not have chosen to be a Christian, for God chose you, as we have acknowledged, before you were born, but you have chosen whether or not to live as a Christian. That choice takes courage and determination in an increasingly non-Christian world. And I wonder, what would happen if we followed Jesus with the same fervor that we follow sports stars or celebrities? Would our lives be transformed?
But in such a fervor, we need to be careful not to slip down the slippery slope that leads us to be judgmental of the faith of others. You and I are here because we choose to follow Jesus as the right expression of God’s love. But there are other interpretations of God that work for other good folks. It is not our place to judge them, Jesus even tells us, but to live and work together in peace and love.
Martin Luther King Jr. worked for such an existence, and unfortunately was killed for his fervor. His work and his words still challenge us and lead us today. We are all familiar with the words of his "I dream" speech that said such things as "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." But we may not realize that in the same speech he said:
"But there is something I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred." As a preacher, he quoted Scripture, saying: "I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
He called our nation to honor the words of the song we claim as our anthem, which proclaims, "Let freedom ring." And he concluded, "And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
The faith we seek to follow in following Jesus frees us. It frees us from the fears and hatred of our world, it frees us from prejudice and judgment, from apathy and ignorance. The freedom we discover from following Jesus changes our lives for the better. It may not be easy to follow Jesus, but it is well worth the effort of pursuing.
What are you looking for in your life? What do you seek? We all seek something, or Someone in our lives. What if the answer was and is always Jesus?
"Come, and see," Jesus said.
Glory be to God. Amen.