THE LIFE QUESTION

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?

JOHN 1:35-42

 

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            We all know about famous last words.  We collect them because they are supposed to be important.  We expect something deep and profound from someone as their last words, the distillation of the wisdom of a lifetime.

            We also know about the last words of Jesus.  Every gospel writer records his own version of the last words of Jesus from the cross.  And every Good Friday, some place around the world, some church is commemorating the cross by meditating on the seven last words of Jesus, or singing some oratorio featuring the seven last words.

            Last words are important, but in the New Testament, first words are important as well.  The first words of Jesus in every gospel set the theme of that gospel.  It's like a mission statement, a thesis statement for the story.  It tells us who Jesus is, what he's come for, what he means to us.  We heard this morning the first words Jesus spoke in the Gospel of John: "What are you looking for?"

            It's a wonderful scene.  It comes in the first chapter of John.  John the Baptist is there, as we would expect.  He's there, after all, at the beginning of all four gospels.  He is the one who paves the way, he is the precursor, the one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord."  Only in John’s Gospel, he does something more.  He introduces Jesus personally.  He is like the master of ceremonies.  He says, as he sees Jesus coming down the road, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world."

            Hearing John's gracious introduction of Jesus, the text says that two of John's disciples, one mentioned by name, Andrew, and other not mentioned, likely John himself, get up and start following Jesus.  Sensing that someone is following him, Jesus turns and asks, "What are you looking for?"  Those, once again, are the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John.

            In the other three gospels what could be called his first words in this literary sense are also important.  They're all different.   In Matthew, Jesus' first words are to John the Baptist.  He insists on being baptized by John in order to “fulfill all righteousness,” and that makes sense because Matthew’s gospel is about Jesus being the one who fulfills the law. He’s the one who fulfills Old Testament prophecy.

            In the Gospel of Mark, the first words of Jesus are, "The kingdom of God is here--Repent."  That’s because Mark’s key word is “immediately.”  “Immediately” Jesus went here and did that.  We might think of Mark as “the altar call” gospel.  The time is now.  Make a decision.  Don’t wait. 

            In Luke, Jesus' first official words as he begins his ministry are in the sermon that he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, where he said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." In Luke, Jesus is the one who comes to be with the poor and the oppressed in this world.

            First words in the gospels are important.  They announce who Jesus is, and why he's come, and what he means for us.  And the variety of opening scenes in the gospels ought to dispel any notion that there is one simple picture of Jesus in the New Testament.  The pictures of Jesus in the New Testament vary because Jesus has come for everyone.  Everyone can find in Jesus something that they are looking for.  Everyone can find in Jesus something that speaks to them.  He knows all about us. He knows what we need.  He's come for us.

            And no gospel points that out better than John’s Gospel.  That's why he has Jesus turn around when he senses the disciples following him, and says, "What are you looking for?"   Because in the Gospel of John everybody is a seeker.  That's the presupposition of John, that we're all seeking after something. 

            Questions.  Questions.  Questions.  We get them all the time.  “When will you be home?”  “How was your day?”  “Can I help you?”  Some questions are easy to answer  like “What do you want for dinner?” and some not so easy to answer like the questions posed by children such as  “Where do babies come from?” and “How can Jesus and God both be one person?”  

            This Lenten season we will look at questions.  We will look at seven questions Jesus posed to individuals he encounters along the way, and all seven questions John records in his gospel.  All in all, Jesus asks twenty questions in John’s Gospel.  We won’t look at all of them.  Many of them deal with the same issue, but each Sunday in Lent we will focus on one of Jesus’ probing questions, one of Jesus’ hard questions, and each of his questions will invite us to examine the direction of our life, our priorities, and what we think will make us happy. 

            We begin today with what I am calling “the life question” ... “What are you looking for?” and I want to say two things about this question.  First, what we are looking for tells the story of who we are.   Did you get that?  What we are looking for tells the story of who we are.

            An old Nancy comic strip comes to mind.  Nancy is out in the snow, waiting for her friend Sluggo to come by, and she's up to no good.  She waits behind a tree getting her snowball ready, and she says, "Here he comes ... I can't wait to see the look on Sluggo's face when I cream him with this snowball ... I can see it now, the dazed look on his face, the snow all over his head."

            She losses herself in laughter as she hides behind the tree relishing what she's going to do, laughing aloud saying, "I can't stand it, I can't stand it.  This is going to be great," but while she hides behind the tree, lost in glee about what she's going to do, proud about her planned sneak attack, Sluggo passes by and she doesn't even know it. When she overcomes her delight with herself she looks out from behind the tree, but Sluggo is nowhere to be found.  She concludes her reverie in a dismal mood saying, "The trouble with my life is that the realities never quite live up to the expectations."

            Well, Nancy is right.  There is a sense in which the realities never live up to the expectations.  But the truth still is, what we're looking for tells the story of who we are  Think about it.  I bet each of us can think of a person whose life has been significantly shaped by what they were looking for.  For example, people whose drive is for security is so strong that it turns them into miserly people, people who rob themselves of joy today because of their fear of tomorrow.

            Think about it. If success is the primary goal of our life, we're likely to cheat our family of quality relationships and precious time. If happiness is all we're looking for, we're in danger of missing the meaning that comes from self-giving and self-sacrifice. What you are looking for tells the story of who you are.

            Let me tell you about a woman named Dorris Smith. She worked as a teacher in a church day school.  Dorris was always looking for the best in children and others, always looking for a way to affirm them.  The week before she died, a friend of Dorris', went to see her.  She wrote a note following that visit. Let me share a part of it:

 

            I  went to the hospital yesterday to see Dorris Smith. I spent about an hour with her.  I shared with her that she has been the most influential spiritual model in my life.  I bent down to her and I asked her, 'What can you teach me about loving Jesus?'  She thought for a moment, opened her eyes so wide, smiled so big and said, 'Love Jesus with all your heart.'  I desire to do just that.  I told her that if she sees Jesus before I do, tell Him I love Him.  There was an excitement in her voice and a joy in her voice when she said, 'Oh, I will.’

 

            The point is that what Dorris was looking for -- loving Jesus with all her heart told the story of her life.  It is so with all of us.  What we are looking for tells the story of who we are.

            Now, a second thought: "If we find what we are looking for and don't know Jesus, we will still need more to make us happy."

            My contention is -- there is no life, no abundant life, no life with meaning for now and eternity apart from Jesus Christ.  Paul put it this way, "It pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell...in Him all things consist."

            Are we seeking peace?  Listen to Jesus, "Peace I leave with you, my peace give I unto you -- not as the world gives give I unto you, let not your hearts be troubled neither let them be afraid."

            Are our hearts broken?  Do we long for a comfort that we've not been able to find?  Jesus said, "Come unto me all you that labor and heavy laden and I will give you rest."

            Are we mired down in the sticky mud of guilt and shame?  To us, as to the woman taken in adultery, Jesus says, "Neither do I condemn you."

            Are we stymied in growth, stuck in our complacency, finding life dull and boring? Hear what Jesus would say to us: "But I am come that you might have life and that you might have it more abundantly."

            If we find what we're looking for and don't know Jesus, we'll still need more to make us happy.  That's what John announced to his disciples: "Behold the Lamb of God!  He’s got what we all need."  That got John and Andrew’s attention and they followed. 

            So, as we embark on Lent this season, as we reflect on what we are looking for, I invite all of us to do three things between now and Easter.

            First, let’s simply STOP. 

            I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in a hurry most of my life.  My daddy implanted the “lazy” word in my brain as a kid.  He would come by as I was sitting on the couch, taking a break from his idea of fun - nonstop work in the yard - and he would punch my arm and say, “You lazy bum!” and I’ve been trying to prove him wrong ever since.  But after lying in a hospital room after a heart attack, I realized that my father is dead and I’m trying to learn that I’m not responsible for making the world go round.  In fact, some things even in church go better when I keep my hands off them.  Slowly, but surely,  I’m learning the importance of  STOPPING.   I’m learning the importance of getting some space.

            Second, this lenten season let’s LOOK.

            Pay attention.  Detectives solve mysteries by paying attention.  I particularly like the TV shows Bones and CSI.  Those shows tell us that no one enters and exits a room without leaving something of themselves behind - a hair, a fingerprint, a footprint, some form of DNA. By paying close attention to the details of the case, a criminologist can identify the persons present.  We too, can discover what God has left behind for us in the rooms of our lives by observing the details of our lives.  St. Benedict used to say, “Let us open our eyes.  Let us look harder and see better what God is doing among us.” He said, “Absolute attention is prayer.”

            Third, this Lenten Season, let’s LISTEN.

            Let’s listen for the voice of God speaking.  William Barclay, the biblical scholar, would turn his hearing aids off when concentrating on his study, so he could listen for the inspiration of the Spirit.  George Washington Carver would go out to the woods at 4 a.m. every morning and listen for God’s still small voice.  When he started feeling small enough in God’s great creation, then he would return to his laboratory and work on peanuts.  Let’s listen this Lent because God is speaking.  Can we hear Him? 

            Let’s STOP, LOOK and LISTEN this Lent so that we can answer Jesus question.  What are we looking for?