Sermon: “What Are You Looking For?”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-12; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42
Our readings for today have a lot to say about light coming into the worlde! The reading from Isaiah fascinates me, for after reading “And the Lord said to me, ‘You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified” we encounter words of dismay, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God” (Isaiah 49.3-4; NRSV). God might call us, might choose us and empower us, but that does not mean we will never experience feelings of inadequacy, futility and defeat! As I have previously said, I love the Old Testament prayers and psalms for their honesty – in them we encounter the full range of human emotion! Perhaps my studies have not yet ventured far enough afield, but I know of no other world religion which depicts such an open and honest relationship with God.
After having uttered these words, Isaiah depicts God’s servant as recalling how God formed him for the purpose of bringing Jacob back to God and gathering Israel unto God. The servant is also depicted as recognizing he is honored in God’s sight and acknowledging God as his strength. I think there is a message here – when we encounter feelings of inadequacy, futility, and defeat, we need to remember that God has called us and has promised to equip us for the task at hand.
After having acknowledged these things, Isaiah tells us the servant hears, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth … Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy one of Israel, who has chosen you” (Isaiah 49.6-7; NRSV). What a message of consolation – “You might be down at present but know I have plans for you; you will serve not only as a light to Jacob and Israel but as a light to the whole world!”
The echo of these sentiments is found in the words of the appointed psalm: “I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of a desolate pit … he set my feet upon a high cliff …He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; many shall see, and stand in awe, and put their trust in the Lord” (Psalm 40.1-3; BCP). The psalmist continues by acknowledging the great things that God has done; he wishes he could recount all of them but, alas, they are too many (vs. 5-6). The psalmist reminds us God takes no pleasure in sacrifice and offering, then says, “I love to do your will, O my God; your law is deep in my heart.” The speaker then professes to not having hidden God’s righteousness in his heart; to the contrary, he has “proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation” and has spoken to the great congregation of God’s faithfulness and deliverance (Vss.8-11; BCP). Once again, light has shone upon the great congregation, the whole world.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul draws our attention to the manner in which the light of Christ is manifest in the Church of Corinth, in those who have been “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place [and we might add, in every time] call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Vs. 2). Christ’s light is manifest in every Christian community!
After having greeted his brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul tells them he gives thanks for the grace of God which they have received through Jesus Christ, for their enrichment “in speech and knowledge of every kind … so they are not lacking in any spiritual gift as [they] wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1.4-7; NRSV).
In the prologue to the Gospel of John, John writes: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [John the Baptist]. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1.6-9; NRSV).
In today’s reading from John, John the Baptist testifies to Jesus’ special status: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me’” (John 1.29-30; NRSV).
The next day, while John the Baptist was standing with two of his disciples, Jesus walked by and John again exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Upon hearing this, the two disciples followed Jesus. When Jesus realized they were following him, he turned and asked, “What are you looking for?” Despite what Christian grammarians tell us, Jesus never said, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put!” Rumor has it that was Churchill! “What are you looking for?”
The disciples evaded Jesus’ question, but asked, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus took them to the place, and they remained with him that day. John tells us one of them, Andrew, around four o’clock in the afternoon, sought out his brother, Simon, and shared that they had found the Messiah. When Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” I once heard a sermon by Clarence Jordan, a southern minister, the author of the Cotton Patch Version of the Gospels, who commented on this somewhat as follows: Now Simon, son of John, can be rendered as “Johnson” and Cephas is Aramaic for “rock;” hence, Peter’s name was really “Rock Johnson.”
Jesus’ question confronts us: “What are you looking for?” Indeed, what are we looking for? That might result in numerous answers – a good job, a new car, status, popularity, success, etc. These are superficial answers. If we go deep, if we consider this question from our deepest existential yearnings, I think most of us would say, “For acceptance, for love, for belonging, for light.” Although Andrew and the other disciple did not answer Jesus’ question with words, they may have done so with their actions. They followed Jesus and spent the day with him – I suspect, in this rabbi’s words and actions, they found the acceptance, love, and light we all seek, and this changed their lives. How else could they say they had found the Messiah?
We talk about Jesus as being the light of the world – if you have been part of a Christian community for some time, you have undoubtedly encountered this phrase on numerous occasions. What do we mean when we say, “Jesus is the light of the world”? What is this light that Jesus brought into our world?
We previously noted John’s words, “he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone.” In John 8. 12, John quotes Jesus: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (NRSV). In the Old Testament, we often encounter the contrast between the way of light and the way of darkness; the way of light leads to life, but the way of darkness leads to death. In Psalm 119, a song which celebrates God’s law, we read, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Vs. 105; NRSV). Jesus is God’s Word incarnate – the very light of life. In him we find the acceptance, love, and belonging for which we yearn. In him our deepest existential needs are met.
Jesus is the full embodiment of God’s love. We see this love demonstrated throughout the gospels. Jesus did not tell the disciples they could follow him after they changed their ways; he did not say, “Cleanup your act, then follow me!” He called them, loved them, accepted them, and change followed. Jesus has called us, and still calls us – will we choose to follow him, to spend time with him, to live in the light and to be transformed? Tell me, what are you looking for? Are you willing to spend some time with Jesus to find what you are looking for?