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?”
Last week I told you that part of my sermon-writing process involves going to a coffee shop and reading over the lectionary texts for the week, and then seeing if I can come up with twenty questions for the text I’m planning to preach. I told you that it’s often hard to come up with twenty questions, but last week I came up with twenty seven because the text I was looking at was from the Gospel of John, and of the four canonical gospels that one is easily the most enigmatic, the most mysterious. For me, taking on the Gospel of John is a little like whacking a hornet’s nest with a stick: the questions come at me in a swarm.
I’m not going to talk about all twenty seven of them, but one of the most obvious is the one my assistant, Lori, asked on Wednesday of last week. She was curious, not judgmental, but she wondered: “Why does John the Baptist say that he doesn’t know Jesus?” It’s a good question, especially since in last week’s sermon I said (and I quote), “We can assume that Jesus’ relationship to John was a matter of common knowledge in the early church.”i But here John says that he doesn’t know Jesus. He says it twice, once in verse 31 and again in verse 33: “I myself did not know him.” In the notes I took at the coffee shop I was judgmental, not curious. I wrote, “Hasn’t John the Baptist read the Gospel of Luke? Hasn’t he read the Gospel of Matthew? Doesn’t he know that Jesus is John’s cousin?”
As I told Lori last week (in a more charitable moment), you can think of the four Gospels as a kind of storytelling festival, where Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John step out onto the stage, one at a time, to tell the story of Jesus. And the thing to do is not to interrupt them and tell them they’ve gotten it wrong, but to listen to the particular way each of them tells the story, to be curious, and not judgmental. So, in John’s story of Jesus, John the Baptist doesn’t know who Jesus is. He says that’s why he came baptizing with water, that the Messiah might be revealed to Israel, and that reminds me of one of my favorite movies.
It’s Romancing the Stone, with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Have you seen it? It’s a story about a lonely romance novelist from New York named Joan Wilder, who ends up in a real-life adventure in South America, accompanied by a swashbuckling mercenary named Jack T. Colton, who offers to help her find a hidden treasure. They follow a map that leads them to a cave under a waterfall, and to a milky pool where they dig down into the mud and come up with something wrapped in wet burlap. As Jack unwraps it Joan catches a glimpse of what’s inside and says, “It’s a priceless statue!” But it turns out to be a cheap ceramic bunny rabbit, the kind you might find at a souvenir shop. She says, “Wait a minute. In one of my novels a jewel was hidden inside a statue. Break it open!” He does, and for the first time we see this fist-sized emerald called El Corazon—“the heart”—that sparkles in a beam of sunlight like the priceless treasure it is.
It’s kind of what happens in this story. Jesus comes to John at the Jordan and John doesn’t know who he is. No one knows who he is. But John baptizes him with water and when he does a shaft of sunlight falls from heaven and shines on him, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and remains on him, and that’s how Jesus is revealed as the
priceless treasure he is. From that moment on John can’t stop talking about him.
As this morning’s Gospel lesson opens John is there at the Jordan. He sees Jesus coming toward him and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And that was another of my coffee-shop questions: “When did John say that about Jesus, that ‘after me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me’?” It’s not in today’s passage. Where is it? So, here’s another good practice when you’re studying Scripture: don’t read only the assigned text; read what comes before it and what comes after it. Read the text in context so you can see how it relates to the rest of the story. If you do that with this passage, if you look back to the previous paragraph, you find John being interrogated by some priests and Levites who have come down from Jerusalem. They want to know who he is.
“Well,” John says, “I’m not the Messiah, if that’s what you’re thinking,” because apparently some people were. By the time the Fourth Gospel was written, late in the first century, a kind of cult had grown up around John the Baptist. There were people who thought that he, and not Jesus, was the Messiah. Can you see why the author of the Fourth Gospel would want to correct that, to have his readers hear John confess, “I am not the Messiah!”? John goes on to say that he is not Elijah or the prophet, but simply the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord!” So the priests and the Levites ask, “Why, then, are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answers, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” In chapter 3 of this Gospel John reminds his followers, again, that he is not the Messiah, and refers to himself allegorically as “the friend of the
bridegroom.” “He must increase,” John says, “but I must decrease” (John 3:28-30).
And so we come to that place in today’s reading where John is standing with two of his disciples and Jesus walks by. “Look!” John says. “Here is the Lamb of God!” And in that moment the disciples stop following John and start following Jesus. “Why?” I asked at the coffee shop, but maybe a better question is, “Why not?” John has already said that Jesus is the One who takes away the sin of the world, that Jesus is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John, on the other hand, is simply the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” He would tell you himself, “I am not the Lord. Jesus is the Lord. He’s the one you should follow. He’s the one who can actually do you some good.” And so these two disciples who have been following John, begin to follow Jesus.
It’s as simple as that.
Do you remember that place in the Book of Acts where Paul is visiting Ephesus and comes across some members of the John the Baptist cult? Paul might have been judgmental, but he chooses to remain curious. He says to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They said, “No, we didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit.” So Paul explains: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the One who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 19:1-6). Remember what John said about Jesus? “I baptize you with water, but the One who is coming after me is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”
Well, there you go.
The disciples in today’s reading make the right choice, they begin to follow Jesus,
and it isn’t long before he hears their footsteps behind him, turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” Debie Thomas comments, “It’s the first recorded question Jesus asks his disciples, and I believe it’s a question for the ages. What are you looking for? In your heart, in your secret and quiet places, what are the hungers that drive you forward in your life of faith? Why do you still have skin in this game we call Christianity? As you say goodbye to an old year and welcome a new one, what are you hoping for, asking for, looking for, in your spiritual life? Do you know?”
She writes, “I’ve been mulling over this question all week. When I go to church, when I pray, when I open the pages of Scripture, what am I looking for? Am I looking for anything, or am I just going through the motions of a religious life I inherited from my parents? Am I seeking consolation? Affirmation? Belonging? Certainty? Am I looking to gain power, or to surrender it? Do I want to know, or can I consent to trust? Am I looking to arrive, or to journey?”ii
She says, “I suppose it’s no surprise that the disciples who first hear the question simply dodge it. Perhaps, like us, they don’t quite know what to say. Whatever the case, instead of attempting a response, they ask Jesus their own question: ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’”iii Which is a rather odd response. He had asked them what they were looking for and they asked him where he was staying. But he doesn’t correct them. He invites them. He invites them to “Come and see” in the same way he invites us. And they do. They go with him to wherever he is staying in that region around the Jordan. I’ve actually been there. There are plenty of good places to camp along the riverbank and caves in the hillside that are clean and dry. Jesus may have been staying in one of those and the disciples may have gone there with him and waited as he built a small fire and heated some water for tea (doesn’t the text say “it was about four o’clock in the
afternoon”? And isn’t that teatime everywhere?). But then it says, “And they remained with him that day.” And that may have been what they were really looking for.
The Greek word menō is used five times in today’s passage. It’s a very important word in John; it means “to abide” or “remain.” You may remember it from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” In this passage the Holy Spirit descends and remains on Jesus, it abides with him, and John says, “The one who sent me to baptize said, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” And then the disciples ask Jesus where he is abiding and he says, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was abiding, and they remained with him that day: the disciples, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were abiding together.
On this day when we are talking about the importance of small groups, can you imagine any small group experience more important than that one, or any more life-changing? Jesus once said that wherever two or more are gathered in his name there he is in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20). That is an incredible promise for any small group gathering and one we quote whenever only a few of us show up for something. But can you imagine this gathering? Jesus, those two disciples, and the Holy Spirit? Maybe John mentions that it was four o’clock in the afternoon not because it was teatime, but because the disciples would never forget what happened that day.
In the same way you and I remember when our children were born or when our parents died or when we walked down the aisle of a church, these disciples may have remembered the time they spent with Jesus. If you had asked them about it years later they might have said, with a faraway look in their eyes, “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. We abided with Jesus. We remained with him, and as we did we realized that
we had found what we were looking for.” And no offense to John (as Jesus himself once said, “Among those born of women no one has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist” [Matt. 11:11]), but the disciples didn’t have that kind of experience with John;
They had it with Jesus.
We don’t know what they and Jesus talked about, but I would love to have listened in on that conversation, because when it was over they were convinced that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Have you noticed all the titles that are used for him in this passage? He’s called the “Lamb of God” (twice), the “Son of God” (once), “a man,” “Rabbi,” and finally “the Messiah.” If I were ranking those titles I might put “Son of God” at the top and “man” at the bottom, but Andrew goes off to find his brother Simon and when he does he says, “We have found the Messiah.” And that’s all Simon needs to hear. Apparently that’s what he’s been looking for. He follows Andrew who brings him to Jesus, and while he’s standing there Jesus looks at him and says, “You are Simon, the son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated “Peter”).
In the end, it wasn’t only his name that was changed: it was his life. That’s what can happen when you spend time with Jesus, when you abide with him, when you remain with him. That’s why you want to ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And when you find out, you want to go there, and spend some time with him, whether it’s in a small group where two or three are gathered or in a church sanctuary with many, many more. Because years from now you might look back on this day and say, with a faraway look in your eye:
“It was about 11:57 on a Sunday morning.”
—Jim Somerville © 2023