Sermon for Jan. 19, 2020 Epiphany 2A.
Audio will be here for several weeks.
The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “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.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 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?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
Sixty years or more after Jesus walked the earth, the Gospel of John was written down. It probably went through several versions and had several contributing authors, but for simplicity’s sake this morning, let’s just call the author John.
What is John doing with this scene, and why does it matter to us? This is still the first chapter, as we divide up the gospel, so getting us introduced to the cast of characters is one reason for this scene.
Another is to anticipate the themes of the whole story, like a prelude, or a movie trailer.
John Names Jesus
So the author, John, introduces us to Jesus. This is his second introduction of Jesus. This gospel starts with a theoretical introduction of Jesus as the “word made flesh” who is the “light of the world.” But this is more of a practical introduction. This time, Jesus is introduced to us, as he is meeting other humans.
The first person to identify Jesus in this prelude is John the Baptist. He calls Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” It is an allusion to the sacrifice of lambs in the Jewish tradition. That is a foreshadowing of the end of the story, in which Jesus dies by execution.
Though he is not guilty, he dies as a martyr, who, like the martyrs of the Maccabean wars of independence, sacrificed their lives for their people. Their deaths were considered atonement for the sins of the nation. Jesus, according to John, is the lamb whose sacrificial death atones for the sins, not just of the nation, but of the whole world.
Naming Jesus Rabbi
But no one else besides John the Baptist knows much about Jesus yet. As This gospel tells it, two of the people who heard Jesus called the “lamb of God” literally start following Jesus like chicks behind a momma duck.
John’s gospel does this kind of thing all the time: he tells a story that sounds simple and literal, but is really a metaphor. In the other gospels, Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him as disciples follow a teacher. That is what John’s metaphor means.
What Are You Looking For?
But John wants us to know that although they have begun to follow Jesus, they actually have no idea what they are getting themselves into. Jesus turns to ask them “What are you looking for?” They respond by calling Jesus “Rabbi” which means teacher.
Jesus is far more than just another Rabbi, so this is another way of saying that they do not understand his significance yet. The question John wants us readers to ask ourselves is, “What are you looking for?”
This is an important question for us as well. This is what I ask at the start of each service: what is your intention? Why are you here? What are you looking for? That question is also a foreshadowing of what is coming. We will soon read that lots of people began to follow Jesus for the free food, but dropped out when the conversation turned to sacrifice.
But at this point in the story, the early followers of Jesus are full of curiosity. They want to know where Jesus is staying. His answer is the most open-ended invitation, and we are meant to hear it as inviting us too: “come and see.”
This gospel is meant to help us “come and see.” We are invited to watch Jesus, see who he interacts with, who he takes time for, what he does, what he says. And if we do come and see, and if what he is about is what we are looking for, then maybe we will come to experience a transformed life.
Being Named and Changed
If we stay with him long enough, it will change us. We get a foreshadowing of that too. Andrew has figured out that Jesus is the Messiah, so he finds his brother, Simon, and brings him to meet Jesus.
The foreshadowing event is that Jesus changes Peter’s name. Being with Jesus changes you. It changes you to your core. It changes your identity. It may even change your answer to the question “what are you looking for?”
The longer you stay with Jesus, the more you start wanting what he wants, which makes the things you were seeking previously seem small, narrow, and insufficient. Jesus is going to give you a new name.
What was the significance of that name change for Simon? I want to suggest this possibility. Simon was a famous name for the people of Jesus’ generation. After the Maccabean revolts against their Greek overlords, in 141 BCE, their first king was named Simon. He was the George Washington of their newly independent kingdom.
So, in the time of Jesus, that means that a Jewish mother, longing for a new kingdom and a new king that would lead them to national independence from Rome, named her boy “Simon.”
And one day, that Simon met Jesus. The first thing Jesus did, was to change his name. Instead of Simon, the nationalist king, he would be called “Cephas”, meaning Peter, the Rock. Meeting Jesus changes you, down to your identity.
It is almost as if Jesus is saying to Simon, “What are you looking for?” When your brother called me “messiah, what did you imagine? Did you think I was going to start the next revolt, the new Maccabean revolution for independence? Because that quest is far too small, narrow, and insufficient. No, rather “messiah” means I am anointed to a much larger mission.”
We will see, as John’s story of Jesus develops, that what Jesus wants is to accomplish God’s agenda. It is not local or parochial. It is not national or political. What God wants is the transformation of the world.
Why? The answer we are given is simply love. Probably the most famous verse in John’s gospel, John 3:6 can be understood this way: “For God loved the world so much, that he gave us Jesus, that every one who trusts him, who follows his way, who responds to the invitation to “come and see” will not continue down the path they were on, the path of perishing, but will have a transformed life.”
There are lots of small, narrow, insufficient paths that lead to perishing. Paths of violence, paths of nationalism, paths of exclusion and arrogance. But there is an alternative path, the way that is true, and leads to life.
King Simon the Maccabean hero of old came to power by overthrowing the Greeks, but in John’s gospel, the moment in which Jesus knows that “the hour has come” for him is when the Greeks come up to the disciples at the festival and say, “we wish to see Jesus” (John 12).
What does God want? A reconciled world in which there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female in opposition to each other. Is that what we are looking for? Some of us are, yes.
On January 15, 1929, a woman in America had a baby boy. She had high hopes for her son. She wanted a reformer. She wanted a leader. She wanted a child who would grow up wanting what God wanted for the world: reconciliation; transformation. So, like Simon’s mother did, she named him for a hero of the past. She named him after the great leader of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, Martin Luther.
Martin Luther King jr. grew up to embrace God’s vision of a reconciled, transformed world. He had a vision of a beloved community in which people would be valued, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
He knew that the way toward that vision would be difficult, but like Jesus before him, he eschewed violence. He trusted that the moral arc of the universe was long, maybe longer than his own lifespan, but that it bent toward justice.
What do we want? We want that same vision of a reconciled, transformed world. We have responded to the call to “come and see” and being with Jesus has changed us. We have been named by God as God’s beloved children, and we have been given a new identity. We no longer wish for a small, narrow world of “us against them.”
We long for a world of equality and justice. The task is still incomplete. Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done. Mass incarceration still exists. Voter suppression still exists. Discrimination in employment and housing still exists. White supremecists still exist, and seem to be growing.
But we are here to march in solidarity with our sisters and brothers of color. We are here to be allies; even accomplices. We are here to believe with them that a better day is coming; that a better world is possible. We are here to re-assert that “God so loved the world” — that is the whole world, without exception. Will we be successful? Come and see.