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Homily by Rev. Dr. William W. Emilsen

Epiphany 2, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 19, 2014

John 1:38

‘What are you looking for? ’

Have you noticed how we privilege those things that happen first or those people who comes first in history?

We remember George Washington, the first American president, but who remembers John Adams, the second American President? We remember Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, but who remembers the other eleven astronauts who have done so? We, and future generations, will remember Julia Gillard simply because she was the first woman Australian Prime Ministers.

Parents remember events surrounding their first child usually better than they do with subsequent children. Often they will purchase a baby book for their first child and record when he or she first started to walk or first started to talk.. By the time the second child comes along, usually the novelty has worn off.

In the Bible first people and first words are also privileged. We see this in the Hebrew Scriptures where first-born sons are given a double inheritance.

We also see it in the Gospels where the first words spoken by Jesus are laden with meaning; they are like signs or signals to readers and listeners to pay attention. ‘Listen up, what I am about to say is very important.’

I have with me today one of those Bibles that print Jesus’ words in red, so it is easy to identify the first words Jesus speaks in each Gospel.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ first words are addressed to John the Baptist at the time of his baptism:

‘Let it be for now, [let the baptism take place]; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’ (Matthew 3:15).

These words may not well very known to us, but for the writer of Matthew’s Gospel they are really important; they set the tone for what is to come: Matthew presents Jesus as one who is obedient to the Divine will the one we should imitate, and thus the way we come to experience God.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ first words are better known: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15). Here Mark states upfront his important theme of the kingdom of God: the kingdom of God, or the reign of God, is dawning and becoming real in the ministry of Jesus.

In Luke’s and John’s Gospels Jesus’ first words take the form of a question:

In Luke we have the 12-year old Jesus saying to his parents: Why are you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2:49)

And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ first words are a question to two of John the Baptist’s disciples: ‘What are you looking for?’ (John 1:38)

A couple of years ago when I first spoke to this congregation, Andrew, your minister, reminded me that you had a custom of the congregation finishing the homily. I remember at that time coming with two different conclusions to my sermon, not being sure which one to give, so I gladly deferred to South Sydney’s ancient tradition and you kindly finished it for me.

I have wondered, therefore, how the people here might respond to Jesus’ question: ‘What are you searching for?’ Is it love? Security? Community? Health? Is it meaning? Truthfulness? Acceptance? A better, more just and peaceful world?

It is obvious that we seek different things at different stages of our lives. In Leura in the Blue Mountains, where my wife, Carolyn, and I attend church over the Summer, there are lots of retired people; people moving from 40 or more years of working into retirement will answer Jesus’ question very differently to, say, an unemployed people, living in nearby Katoomba.

Think of an elderly friend, can you imagine what they are searching for?

You might know someone living in a nursing home: Try you imagine, ‘What they are searching for?’ I have asked two friends--Dr Gordon Dicker, a former principal of UTC, and Carolyn’s 97-year-old Godmother-- both of whom are now in nursing homes, what is the good news for them? They simply say: ‘It is good care.’

The two disciples that leave John the Baptist are searching for something, though they are a little coy at first about what it is.

When Jesus sees them coming towards him, he says to them, ‘What are you searching for?’ And they respond with what seems a rather bland question: ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ which probably meant, Do you have a school or a home base where disciples can come and stay?

Jesus answers: ‘Come and see.’ The two disciples accept the invitation and do exactly that; they stay with Jesus a whole day. We are not told what happened in Jesus’ teaching house, but we know that some form of revelation must have taken place while the two disciples are in his presence. because … shortly afterwards, one of the two disciples, Andrew, immediately seeks out his brother, Peter, and says to him, ‘We have found the Messiah or the Anointed One’, which suggests that the Messiah was what they were searching for in the first place.

Andrews description of Jesus as ‘Messiah’ just represents one of the many titles used of Jesus in John , chapter 1.

John the Baptist had earlier named Jesus in a series of statements. At first we hear his cryptic statement about ‘the one standing among you whom you do not know’ (1:26), Then he says that Jesus is the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’, then Jesus is ‘the one whom you see the Spirit descend and remain’ and then finally, Jesus is the ‘Son of God’.

In the passage after the one we read today, Philip goes to Nathaniel, saying that they had found in Jesus ‘the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote’.

Then Nathaniel calls Jesus ‘Son of God, the King of Israel.’

These titles: ‘Lamb of God’, ‘Messiah’, ‘the one whom Moses and the prophets spoke’, ‘Son of God, and ‘King of Israel’ are very dense; the easiest way to understand them is that John the Baptist and Jesus’ first disciples —Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel— see something of God in Jesus. something that is making the world better, something that gives meaning to their lives; they see in Jesus the justice, mercy and goodness of God spreading to everyone so that people everywhere can live in dignity.

It is clear from the evangelist’s positioning of the question: ‘What are you looking for?’ as Jesus’ first words, that he wants his readers to make a decision about who Jesus really is. Who is Jesus for me?

How would you answer that question? What would you say about Jesus?

We could be put off by the dense and dizzy array of titles used for Jesus in John’s Gospel, and think that we might be expected to confess the same, but that need not be the case if we think of them as windows through which we see something of the nature of God.

We do not need to resort to conventional Jewish imagery for Jesus in the twenty-first century.

The story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 helps us in this regard. Her testimony is far from conventional; she says that Jesus is the one who told her everything that she had done. In other words, Jesus knew everything about her.

Later, John tells us that ‘many people from the city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony’ (4:39).

In John 9 there is an account of Jesus healing a blind man. The blind man’s testimony of his encounter with Jesus is quite modest. First, he acclaims Jesus as a prophet, then possible as a man from God, and, finally, as ‘Lord’, which may not be much more than a polite form of address.

The point in John’s Gospel is that the disciples give witness to the insight that they have received. If you see Jesus as a teacher or sage, witness to it. If you see Jesus as a prophet, witness to it. If you see Jesus as a redemptive figure, witness to it. The Samaritan woman even witness to her feelings of doubt (4:29).

Don’t get hung up on high Christology. Start with what you have. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are worthy of our attention: ‘Truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen’ (3:11). Throughout John’s Gospel there is a recurring pattern helpful for today:

Disciples talk to neighbours, siblings talk to siblings, and group members talk to group members.

In each case Jesus is named (the content of the testimony may vary) but Jesus reveals himself to those who ‘come and see’.

The good news is that if you accept Jesus’ invitation to ‘come and see’ and you testify to what you know of Jesus, your faith and understanding will grow and you may come to confess Jesus in surprising and fresh ways. What, then, are you looking for?

Rev. Dr. William W. Emilsen