Come and See
Belmont UMC—January 19, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
There are three sentences in the verbal exchange between Jesus and the would-be disciples? Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” They answer with another question, “Where are you staying?” Jesus responds, “Come and see!”
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks the two men who were following him. They were disciples of John the Baptist and they likely knew of John’s interest in Jesus. So they followed Jesus, not like disciples following a leader, they simply followed around behind him, curious, wondering followers. Jesus turned around and asked, “What are you looking for?”
I’m not sure those disciples knew the answer to his question. They may have felt vague about the notion of following this man, but they followed anyway. Something about him attracted their attention. And they followed.
What are we looking for? We sit here in the presence of Christ each week. Is Jesus asking us to ponder this question week after week? What we you looking for? What brings us to this place? What causes us to give up our morning at home to gather here? We could be home drinking a latte and reading the morning paper, or snuggled warmly in bed underneath the warm blankets. (It’s probably not good marketing for me to make that sound so appealing.) What are we looking for? What is it about Christ that bids us to follow him?
At some point in our journey we ask our selves this question or some question similar to it. Why am I here? Why have I followed this path? What does my faith really mean to me or to others? What am I seeking? These are the questions of searching and longing hearts.
One pastor said, “As a pastor I have found it helpful to begin with the assumption that most of us, myself included, are here at church for the wrong reasons.” (Bishop Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 42, No. 1, Year A, p. 14) We may have come for the wrong reasons (if there are any wrong reasons) but once in the door we found something far more than we could have imagined. We found joy in being a part of something bigger than our selves.
We may have come here looking for a place among the people of God, a place where we can know and be known, a place where we can be held accountable, loved and supported through difficult times. We are looking for a place where friends are like family and where we and our children can find spiritual growth and a sense of extended family. As a person who values community, these reason appeal to me.
We may have come here looking an answer to all of life’s persistent questions. What is the meaning of life? What is the will of God? Some of our questions can be answered in our relationship with God, but there will be many others for which there is no easy answer. We came looking for pat answers to life’s big questions and that’s what got us in the door, but what we discovered was a lasting relationship with Jesus that kept us in the house. We came looking for the answers and have learned how to live with the questions.
We may have come here looking for someone who has the grace and hope to fill an emptiness we carry around inside of us. I believe God created us with a longing and a desire to know more of God. This is why those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed and filled. In our theology we would call that prevenient grace—the grace that brings us to know God. Over the course of ministry I’ve heard many people say, “I felt like there was an empty place within me waiting to be filled.”
The disciples who followed Jesus may not have been able to express why they followed or what attracted them to him. And he asked them, “What are you looking for?”
They replied with what seems like an odd question, “Where are you staying?” The question appears to be a distraction or it appears to ignore Jesus’ question. But Tom Long says this is a theological question, not a hotel question. “Where are you staying?” It means, “What are you about?” It means, “Before we get too close to you, we want to know what you are working for in the world.”
What are you all about, Jesus? For the Gospel of John this question is answered in the names given to Jesus or the names he gives himself. I am the Door. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Way. I am the Light. I am the Bread which has come down from heaven. Is this what we are looking for?
In the story of our text, John the Baptist gives Jesus another identity, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” When we think of lambs, we are apt to imagine softness and comfort, but the Lamb of God image of scripture was an image of strength. John’s disciples would have understood the image as one that evokes animal sacrifice. They would have pictured Temple priest sacrificing animals. The image is not for the squeamish. The image is messy and real.
In the church we like things to be neat and orderly. We like tidy and sanitized. I like to get my new bulletin before Sunday and see all the order it promises us. I like to know exactly what’s going to happen on Sunday. But Sunday comes and sometimes things don’t go as planned. The pastor forgets the liturgy and the microphone squeals loudly during the scripture reading and the acolyte sets the table on fire and the pastor spills grape juice all over the white paraments. One church I served used white grape juice for Holy Communion because they did not want red stains on their new carpet. As it turns out white grape juice makes a brown stain on carpet. We like everything to be neat and tidy, but life is messy and chaotic and out of our control a lot of the time.
I’ve shared about one of my favorite pastors when I was a teenager. His name was Jim and he was tall and lanky fellow from Arkansas. He had a kind and gentle spirit and I liked to be in his presence. Being around him during those years was transformative for me. Jim could also be passionate and prophetic. It was the mid 1960s when he arrived at our church and he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, which did not always play well with the conservative, status-quo loving, farm families of our church.
We lived down the road from the church and I often walked to church through the backyards of our neighbors. I mowed most of those yards so I knew them well. This walk took me through the backyard of the parsonage. One day I saw Jim out in the back yard and he was working on something. As I got closer I saw he had a huge wooden cross laid across two old saw horses. It was obvious he had built the cross out of scrap wood and he was beating it with a hammer to distress it. He had smeared plaster on it in random places and it looked rough and ugly.
I asked what he was doing with the cross. Jim said, “I’m going to hang this cross in the back of the chancel where that awful painting of Jesus and the little lambs is hanging.” The painting was rather sentimental. Jesus is standing in a pasture, looking very handsome and well coiffed, and he’s holding a lamb and smiling. Gathered around him were other sheep and the sheep are looking up at him and smiling. I’m not kidding—smiling sheep!
I was really young but even then I knew Jim was asking for trouble. I knew there was a brass plaque on that painting but I couldn’t remember whose name was on it. I said, “You really think that’s a good idea?” He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled as though he could read my mind.
On Sunday Jim’s ugly cross was hanging in the chancel and I looked around to see the horrified looks on the congregants’ faces. There were lots of whispers and I’m sure a plot was being hatched before the first hymn could be sung to remove Jim’s ugly cross.
One of the ways Jim’s presence in my life was transformative was that he was constantly challenging our racism. Jim would meet with the youth on Sunday evenings and we would have these rap sessions about the issues of our time: the War in Viet Nam and the Civil Rights movement were hot topics. Jim would push us to think differently about the world around us.
Then April 4, 1968 came and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood outside a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Jim went from being gentle to being fiery and prophetic. I recall the Sunday after Dr. King’s death, Jim’s face at church that morning was grim and he looked like he hadn’t slept for days. I knew his heart was broken.
He stood in the pulpit that morning and he said, “Some of you are not going to like my sermon this morning so I’m going to offer a few minutes of silent prayer. During that time some of you may choose to leave and I’m fine with that.” The church grew very quiet and still. Then there were sounds of rustling behind us and I looked back to see several families get up out of their seats and walk out the door.
Jim proceeded to call us out for our racism. I don’t remember the content of the sermon but I remember his passion and I remember the tears that ran down Jim’s face as he preached.
I was 16 years old and I still remember looking up at that ugly cross behind Jim in the chancel that day and thinking, “Today we do not need the image of little happy lambs; we need to see the ugliness of the cross.” We needed to come to terms with our own hatred and the ugliness of our racism. And we needed to get a glimpse of the Lamb of God whose sacrificial love has the power to take away the sins of the world.
Racism is still present in our country and we are often reminded that God is not finished with us yet. And we still need that Lamb who takes away our sins.
“Where are you staying?” they asked Jesus? “What are you about? What are you doing in the world?”
Jesus answered them, “Come and see!” Do we dare follow this Jesus and see who he is and what he is doing in the world today, and where he invites us follow?