(Sermon for Sunday, January 16, 2011 || Epiphany 2, Year A || John 1:29-42)
The hospital was a maze. Children’s Medical Center had several buildings, and they were all connected somehow, but getting from one part of this building to another part of that building always involved multiple corridors and elevators. During the summer of 2006 between my first and second years of seminary, I was learning how to be a chaplain at this sprawling medical complex. One of the first things I learned was the hospital policy of refraining from giving directions to visitors. The hospital was just too confusing. Instead, if little Jimmy’s grandmother asked me how to get to the oncology unit, the hospital policy directed me to take her there myself and to make sure she knew her way back to the parking garage (which happened to be two elevators, three corridors, a skywalk, and two Starbucks away). In effect, hospital employees said, “Come and see” to their visitors and then accompanied them all the way to their destinations. These words – “Come and see” – make up Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the entire Gospel according to John. We’ll get to them in due time. But right now, let’s talk about Jesus’ first line of dialogue.
His first five words would not have been out of place in the labyrinthine hospital: “What are you looking for?” You might hear this question at any hospital elevator as any lost visitor stares helplessly at the building schematics printed on the wall. What are you looking for? Jesus speaks these words to two of John the Baptizer’s disciples after he notices them following him. At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has no followers of his own. He is the new guy in town. John the Baptizer owns the market on charismatic fellows who say compelling, challenging things. But John knows who Jesus is, so John encourages his disciples to begin following Jesus. Right away, Andrew and an unnamed person – quite literally – begin following Jesus.
When Jesus turns around and challenges them with his question –“What are you looking for?” – his words speak on two levels. This dual-layered dialogue is a common occurrence in the Gospel according to John. The first layer speaks to superficial, surface meaning. This layer is easy for Jesus’ listeners to access, and so they become drawn in. Then the second, deeper layer of meaning presents itself. Many of Jesus’ listeners resist this deeper level. But those who do dive deeply find rich, life-giving substance in his words.
With Jesus’ first words in the Gospel, he challenges Andrew, the unnamed disciple, and us to dive deeply to this second level of meaning. At the first level, John’s two disciples probably interpret Jesus’ question as a straightforward query into their present intentions. Do they happen to be going his way by chance or are they following him purposefully? But at the second level, Jesus’ five words penetrate to the deepest places of the human heart. What are you looking for? His question beckons an answer from those same deep places within us. The trouble is there are so many potential answers to this question that digging through them to find the ones that exist in those deep places can become problematic to say the least. Here’s what I mean.
What are you looking for?
A mid-sized sedan with good gas mileage and a high safety rating.
A doctor who understands my symptoms and actually seems to care for my wellbeing.
An assisted living facility for my parent whose mind is rapidly deteriorating.
What are you looking for?
The right greeting card to express my feelings.
A college that’s not too big but still has my major.
A quick hit to forget the day.
What are you looking for?
A boyfriend I can bring home to mom.
A scrap of meaning in a dead end job.
My car keys.
What are you looking for? John’s two disciples seem to understand that the “car key” type of answers will not suffice because Jesus’ words penetrate right into their hearts. So instead of answering his question, they ask one of their own: “Teacher, where are you staying?” Now, Jesus apparently does not hold a monopoly on dialogue with dual layers. At the first level, they want to know just what the question appears to ask: “In what house are you going to rest your head tonight?” But on that deeper second level, their question seeks a much more profound answer. Where are you staying? In Greek, the word that is translated as “staying” means quite a bit more than the English equivalent. Rather than the connotation of “staying at a hotel” or “staying on a friend’s futon,” the Greek word means to “abide” or to “continue to be present.” Thus, at the deeper level, the disciples ask Jesus where he dwells, where he abides, where he is present.
Their question, then, is the best response to Jesus’ own question. What are you looking for? Lord Jesus, I’m looking for where you abide. I’m looking for where you are present in my life. I’m looking for where you dwell in this particular situation I’ve gotten myself into.
When we receive Jesus’ question at the deeper second level, we can feel his words penetrating our hearts. We can hear his voice whispering up from the very depths of our beings: What are you looking for? Paying attention to his words rising from those depths helps us locate our own responses, the ones that originate in the same deep places of our beings. The transient, daily, car key type answers to the question fall away when we search deep within.
The best way to begin this search is with the disciples’ question: “Where are you staying?” When we ask this question, we open ourselves to finding Jesus dwelling somewhere in every facet of our lives. We open ourselves to hearing his voice whispering his presence into and out from our souls. We open ourselves, and in doing so, we turn the depths of our beings outward. The hidden deep places, where our responses to Jesus’ question lie dormant, become the pieces of ourselves that we display to the world. These pieces of ourselves are our callings from God. They are our personal, individual discoveries of Jesus beckoning us to find him in everything we do, in everything we say, and in everyone we meet.
And this brings us back to Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the Gospel according to John: “Come and see.” What are you looking for? Teacher, where are you staying? Come and see. Jesus invites us to see where he abides, where he is present in our lives. He invites us to dwell with him, no matter the situations we find ourselves in. Finding his presence means we have found those deep places within ourselves. Abiding in his presence gives us the grace to be vulnerable and to show the world the deepest yearnings that God has put in our hearts, the callings that God has blessed us to follow.
And the good news is this: “Come and see” means that Jesus will be with us, to take us where we need to go, to show us what we need to see. Just like the hospital employees accompanying a lost visitor to her destination, Jesus remains with us throughout our journeys. He dwells in our hearts whispering his question: “What are you looking for?” And when we ask him in return where he is staying, where he is abiding in our lives, he walks one step before us, saying, “Come and see.”