Monday, January 15, 2018

1-14-18 “What Are You Looking For?”

1-14-18  “What Are You Looking For?”  

   They say getting older isn’t for sissies - and I guess that’s true. The various aches and pains that I have now that I didn’t have 10 years or more ago are no fun. I don’t mind that my hair is grayer - I was prematurely gray anyway so that was no big deal. The places hair grows now where it didn’t before, that’s kind of a pain. But what is really the most difficult to deal with are memory issues; struggling with names, places, dates, and with losing things in plain sight, you know. Like, I just had this “thing,” whatever it is, and I turn around and now I can’t find it. Now, I haven’t gotten so bad that I lose my glasses when they’re propped up on my head yet, but that’s only because I NEVER prop them on my head - I can’t see a lick without them. But it seems like I’m always looking for something that I just had my hands on.

   More broadly though, we’re all looking for something aren’t we? As humans we’re looking for answers in a world of questions, we’re looking for certainty in a world of change, maybe we’re looking for love, as the song said, in all the wrong places. And it’s no different in our scripture passages for today. 
   After his very ethereal, mystical introductory passage that April shared with you last week, John gets more concrete this week. After his “In the beginning…” beginning, he introduces us to John the Baptist, even though this gospel includes no baptism story. And John the Baptizer is confronted by Pharisees wanting to know who he is, what he’s doing, etc. John makes clear that he’s not the Messiah (thinking they might be trying to trap him) but that the Messiah is coming. Then when Jesus appears on the scene the following day, John points him out to his followers, identifying him as “the Lamb of God,” and “God’s Son.”
   In today’s reading, then, it is the following day, and again, Jesus comes on the scene, and again, John calls him “the Lamb of God,” after which, two of John’s disciples begin to follow Jesus. And when Jesus sees that these two are following him, he turns to them and asks one of the most profound questions in all of scripture, in all of life: “What are you looking for?” 

   “What are you looking for?” asked by anyone else is a simple question. We might be looking for those lost keys, that favorite hat, the address of a friend. 
But coming from the mouth of Jesus the question has a more existential tone. 
   What are they looking for? According to Joseph Clifford, 
“…they were looking for redemption; they were looking for the Messiah. What did they want from the Messiah? Maybe they were looking for adventure, for new experiences, to see the world beyond the sleepy little village where they’d spent their lives. Maybe they were looking to make a difference, to be part of a movement to resist the Roman occupation and the corrupt leadership of Judea. Maybe they were looking for meaning and purpose in their otherwise aimless lives. Perhaps they were looking to “find themselves,” so they joined the cult of John the Baptist with visions of utopia dancing in their heads. …It’s possible,” Clifford suggests, “they were looking for the same things twenty-first century churchgoers seek.” And Jesus’ question carries great power, then and now, he says,  “because everyone is looking for something.” 
   Frederich Schleiermacher, an 18th century German theologian said that humanity seeks something beyond itself, calling the object of their desire “a taste of the infinite.” 20th century theologian Paul Tillich spoke of God as “the ground of our being,” and the subject of “life’s ultimate concern.” John Wesley considered this quest to be a grace from God, a seed planted within us that seeks God - what he considered part of the prevenient grace of God that seeks us out before we are even consciously aware of God. And Father Richard Rohr, talking about the Creation story’s teaching that humanity was created in the “image and likeness of God,” suggests that the “image of God” in us is what seeks out God - God seeking God - while our “likeness” to God reflects how we actually do or don’t live into that image. The bottom line of all of these great thinkers of the faith is simple: human beings long for something beyond themselves. We’re all looking for something.
   And as Clifford points out,  “People long for identity, meaning, for healing, redemption, for love, for life.  And the world is ready and willing to offer endless potential solutions. The problem is that every human solution misses the life and purpose for which human beings were made. Until it is recognized that the human heart longs for the ground of our being, the ultimate concern, for a life lived in relation to God and God’s will, the heart will never find what it is looking for.”

   “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. Beyond the obvious, the material, the immediate, this question invites existential reflection upon the human condition.

   “Humanity,” Clifford suggests, “is looking for purpose and meaning…it’s looking for permanence in an ever shifting world. Permanence for the writer of John is expressed in metaphors throughout the Gospel. 
For example, we are looking for bread to eat so as never to be hungry again (6:50-51), for water to drink that will forever quench our thirst (6:35), for words of eternal life (chap 6), and a house with many rooms (chap 14), to name but a few of the metaphors. Humanity is looking for the presence of God in a real, tangible, “fleshly” way; for the author of John, coming to know and understand this presence in the here and now is to find eternal life.

   I’ve shared with you before my great affection for the music of the band U2. Arguably the greatest rock band of the last three decades, they’re music, while firmly planted on and within the rock and pop charts and genres, is very clearly influenced and guided by their Christian beliefs. Many of their songs are blatantly faith-oriented rock versions of the Psalms, of Jesus’ teachings, or of theological ideas or concepts. One of their songs, though, speaks directly to the the question Jesus poses in our passage today. In “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the singer, Bono, cries out the lengths he’s gone to, the battles he’s waged, the temptations he’s faced, searching for the ultimate, that which is beyond ourselves, in all the ways that the world tries to provide answers to Jesus’ question.

I have climbed highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
I have run 
I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
Only to be with you
I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire
This burning desire
I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for…

   The song speaks of the search inherent in the human condition and of belief in the coming of God’s kingdom. Ultimately it expresses an experience that seems to be universal: finding what we’re really looking for is an elusive quest. The world offers many possibilities - wealth, power, material possessions, the list goes on and on - but they are all ultimately found wanting, because they’re all dead idols. They cannot fulfill what the human heart ultimately seeks.

   So we have all of this in that seemingly simple question, “What are you looking for?” Maybe these would-be disciples sense that, maybe they don’t. Their response, “Where are you staying? certainly doesn’t answer his question. It’s almost like they didn’t realize he saw them following and were fumbling for words when he turned to question them. Regardless, knowing how John’s gospel will unfold, we can see the author playing with words. To stay, to dwell, to abide - all of these have to do with the divine presence. Where and what is Jesus abiding and dwelling are all issues John will address in chapter 15. 
Whatever their intent with this question, Jesus responds, “Come and see.” 
   And as Buran Phillips points out,  “More than a general statement, it is an invitation to discipleship. “Come and see,” first of all, is an invitation to experience the gospel in order to understand. For John, to “see” or to “believe” is not merely an intellectual assent to certain propositions; it involves the totality of the self. This does not mean that faith is “non-rational,” rather, it means that faith is not attained at the end of an argument.” That is, faith is not something to be convinced of, it’s something to be experienced. 
   “Come and see” also reflects John’s emphasis on developing one’s vision for discipleship. 
According to John,  disciples are those who have come to believe though the gift of faith and then, by their witness and good works, enable others to come and see as well. 
   We discover our identity, we come to recognize our birthright as a beloved child made in the image of God, when we come to see who Christ is. And further, we learn to see the divine presence both in him and wherever creation itself is hallowed. And to that end, John points through his gospel to all the ways we are invited to “come and see.”

   In the passage that follows in chapter 2, which takes place “on the third day,” we have what, on the surface, seems like an ordinary event in human life - a wedding.
  We don’t know why Jesus is there, we don’t know who’s getting married. So, while it all seems ordinary it is, on the contrary, a very important story, set in the midst of ordinariness. John points to its significance at the end, when he tells us that, in what he calls the first sign - changing water into wine - Jesus “revealed his glory.
   So Jesus and his followers are at this wedding celebration - which, by the way, could go on for a week in that culture - when his mother (who’s never called by name in John’s gospel) approaches him and tells him “they don’t have any wine.” Running out of wine at the reception is a sure-fire way to kill the party, but that’s not the issue here. Mary isn’t concerned about the party pooping out. 
   “What does that have to do with me?” Jesus asks. 
‘It’s not my problem,’ his response suggests. But then he follows with, “My time has not yet come.” His mom isn’t going to spoil his messiah-coming-out party over some doofus who didn’t buy enough wine for his guests is she? Nevertheless, Mary turns to the servants and says, “Just do whatever he tells you.”
   Whoever this party is for, somehow Mary has a level of authority over the servants that when she speaks, they obey. So Jesus, not wanting to upset his mother - good advice for anyone - looks around to see what he has to work with and spies six stone water jugs that are used for purification rituals. Note there are six, one less than the perfect seven, one less than the ideal situation, each of which would hold 20-30 gallons of water. So Jesus tells these curious servants to fill the jugs full of water, then to pour some and take it to the headwaiter to taste, which they do. They take the sample of wine to the headwaiter who tastes it and is amazed that the bridegroom has saved the good wine for the end, when most people would have provided the good stuff first and then brought out the Boone’s Farm after everyone was toasted, so to speak. And this, John said, was the first miraculous sign that Jesus did in Galilee.

   Now, before we go forward with this story, let’s step back to the earlier passage for a second. Remember how Nathanael was so skeptical of Jesus in the earlier reading? “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” he asked. His question sounds sarcastic, 
even bigoted, not unlike what we’ve heard in the news this week. However, if we compare this passage with Old Testament passages about the Messiah, we find that Nazareth is never even mentioned in the Old Testament. Nathanael seems to be asking an honest question about what the expectations were of the coming messiah. How could Jesus be the promised one, the son of David, if his town is not even mentioned in scripture?

   But then, Jesus promises Nathanael that he “will see great things,” and the passage records “the first of Jesus’ signs…that revealed his glory.” That Jesus in John performs signs, not miracles, is not mere semantics or wordplay. 
The signs often signify and illustrate some aspect of Jesus’ identity that John wants to reinforce. Jesus raises Lazarus and claims, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25); he heals the man born blind and claims, “I am the light of the world.” (9:5); he feeds the five thousand and claims, “I am the bread of life (6:35, 48)

   So in this story of a wedding in Cana, Jesus provides an answer to his own question, “What are you looking for?” as well as giving them something to “Come and see.” And in doing so he reveals his glory, as Neal Hansen suggests,  “as he honors ordinary people, quietly, wondrously tending to them. Jesus honors the bridegroom whom he saves form social disgrace. If the wine were allowed to fail, people would notice. He would hear about it at every holiday dinner for the rest of his life. Jesus honors the otherwise easily ignored servants whom he makes the only real witnesses to the miracle. Jesus even honors the creation, doing his miraculous work with the most basic of elements: jars made of stone and water. Glory shines when the presence of the Word turns the basic into the sublime…John shows Jesus’ own character…Jesus is earthy, humble, and generous. God in the flesh is ready to care for others, both up close and at a distance.”

   So, Jesus asks, “what are YOU looking for?” 
People come to church looking for something. 
Some are just looking to get out of church early enough to beat the Baptists to Bob Evans. Some are looking for community, for a place to belong, to connect with other people, and connect more with God in the process. 
Some are looking for a foundation upon which to build their lives; others for a connection with the Divine; others for a connection with the past, with what life was like when they were growing up. Some are looking for the healing of body or soul or both. Some are seeking redemption, new life on the other side of mistakes made or opportunities missed. People come to church looking for many things. 
   Raquel St. Clair Lettsome cautions though, that in this reading, “Nobody looked for Jesus until the old wine was gone. Old wine was still wine, even if it was not new wine…Sometimes it is the old, not the empty, that gets in the way of somebody seeking the Lord - old attitudes and actions, old habits and hurts, old insecurities or old information, old rituals and rules that coalesce to create old, dry religion.”
   “There are many people who do not seek Jesus until something runs out. Prayer and congregational worship often increase when finances, jobs, health, relationships, and solutions to life’s problems run out.”
   “The issue is not being empty. The issue is not being depleted. The issue is not even running out. The issue is whether or not we will go to Jesus to be filled. When the wine ran out, Mary went to find Jesus. Mary’s parting words are important for us all. 
They remind us that if we want the Lord to move in our lives, we must be prepared to do what he says.”
   “Jesus takes an empty and inadequate situation and makes the best out of it. He takes the water they have and makes the wine they need. This story encourages us to quit looking at what we have lost or do not have and look to Jesus, putting what we have into his hands.”

   But it also challenges us to do more. In the first passage, in spite of Nathanael’s skepticism, he follows Philip because of their relationship, because of the community building that had already taken place. He is friends with Philip, and while Philip may be wrong about Jesus, Nathanael honors their relationship and comes to check Jesus out. 
   But Philip’s response, also, should cause us to consider how often we refuse to share the good news with someone because we think it means we have to answer their every question. It begs the question of how many people’s faith journey has ended at the point of curiosity, how many potential followers of Christ turned away instead, because we received their questions as a threat or as a refusal to believe. Like Philip, we must recognize that questions are an opportunity to help the people who are curious, the people whom life has emptied. Everybody is looking for something. As followers of Jesus, our job is not think for people. Nor are we expected to have all the answers. No, our job is only to invite them. We listen, we build relationship, and we invite. Like Christ, we invite them to come and see what it is, who it is, that we have found in our faith. Because ultimately, that answer to the existential questions that Christ offers is what we’re all looking for. Amen.

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