January 15, 2017
“Who Are You”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
John 1:19-42 (NRSV)
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 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.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 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?” 39 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. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 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).
I’ve begun a new semester of my doctor of ministry program and the very first question that the professor asked us to consider is what is the difference between the Bible and Scripture, and at what point does the Bible become Holy Scripture for us?
And the professor also asked how I thought you, the congregation, would answer that question (so you can tell me later if you want). I’ve been rolling that question around in my head and heart this week, while also I’ve been reading the passage from the Revised Common Lectionary about John the Baptist and Jesus and the first followers of Jesus as described to us by John the gospel writer.
So here’s what I’ve got at the moment.
The Bible is a curious collection of many different kinds of writing, over a period of hundreds of years, from a variety of settings and cultures, pulled together by faithful church leaders to create as full and integral an account as possible of God’s work in the world, through the story of Israel, through Jesus, and through the early church.
Holy Scripture is when God speaks through the Bible to this very moment and to each of us.
Holy Scripture happens when we discover that we see the world around us more clearly because the words on the pages of the Bible inspire us or transform us to see or imagine our world differently.
One of the authors we’ve read for class says that Scripture imagines a world for us and we are invited to see that our world and the world of Scripture are one and the same.
And the beautiful thing about Scripture as God’s living Word is that it works on each of us uniquely.
That’s the exciting thing about reading Scripture with a group of people — you can see how the Spirit of God works in different ways in each of us, so that we read and hear Scripture differently.
Perhaps the Bible becomes holy for us the moment when those words intersect our lives and come alive.
The passage we have before us is not an easy one.
Last week we read in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
So we’ve been around John the Baptist quite a bit recently.
But John the gospel writer’s account is different.
I’ve included more than the revised common lectionary includes because I want you to get a picture of what John the Baptist is like through John’s eyes.
The way that John writes about Jesus’ life is different from Matthew, Mark and Luke which are called the synoptic gospels – meaning that they tend to view Jesus’ life from a similar point of view.
And while they begin with Jesus’ birth or baptism, John begins quite differently, at the beginning of all things, reminding us that Jesus was before all things and is in all things and is the light coming into the world. Jesus is in all things.
That, in and of itself, will change your life.
We had our confirmation retreat this past weekend and one of the things we explore is the practice of Story, meaning reading God’s story in the Bible and we talked about how the more we get into God’s story the more it gets into us and shapes us.
And one of the ways we talked about reading Scripture is the Ignatian method of reading scripture as an imaginative prayer.
When we read the story what do we see and taste and touch?
Who are we in the story and where are we?
What do we notice and what do we notice Jesus doing?
What are the things that stick with us long after we read the words?
As I was reading this text this week, the questions stayed with me (there are more than this but these are the ones that stuck): Who are you? What are you looking for?
The first question is put to John the Baptist. We are told that he is being interrogated by religious authorities sent to figure him out. They ask him, “Who are you?”
They want to know if he is the Messiah, God’s anointed savior, they want to know if he is Elijah back from the dead, they want to know if he is a new prophet. They want to know if he is the one they are expecting.
Through John the writer’s eyes we see John the Baptist’s humility – he tells them that he is just the one pointing the way.
What happens if we allow Scripture to ask this question of us? Who are you? How would we answer? Are we what we do, defined by how we make money? Are we who our family is, defined by our relationships? Are we what we are good at, student or athlete or artist or musician?
But when the question comes at us from the Bible our answers might look different.
We are beloved, we are sinner-saints.
We are broken and forgiven. We are lost. We are on the way.
We are hopeful doubters.
We are joy-filled disciples. We point the way to Christ, or at least try to.
John the Baptist points at Jesus and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” and some of John’s disciples leave him to go follow Jesus, and Jesus, seeing them coming, says to them, “What do you want?”
What do you want? What are you looking for? What are you longing for?
One of the books I read on sabbatical was “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything” by Father James Martin and one of the first things he talks about is desire, about how our deepest longings are the ways that God speaks to us.
James Martins writes, “Holy desires are different than surface wants like, “I want a new car” or “I want a new computer.” Instead, I’m talking about our deepest desires, the ones that shape our lives: desires that help us know who we are to become and what we are to do. Our deep desires help us know God’s desires for us, and how much God desires to be with us.”
Martin tells the story of undergoing major surgery before his ordination to the priesthood. And just as he went under the anesthesia he suddenly thought, “I hope I live! I want to be a priest!” It was a moment of realizing a desire that he had had for a long time but he had not given voice to so strongly. After the surgery Martin writes, “Naming our desires tells us something about who we are. In the hospital I learned something about myself, which helped free me of doubts about what I wanted to do. It’s freeing to say, ‘This is what I desire in life.’ The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires for . . . healing, for change, for growth, for a fuller life. And our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly, one way that the Creator deals with the creation. They are also the way that God fulfills God’s own dreams for the world, by calling people to certain tasks. A few weeks after the operation, I shared this with a physician friend who is also a priest. He agreed that it was a grace to have this recognition, but then laughed and said, ‘Wouldn’t it have been nice if you didn’t have to have major surgery to realize this?’”
The disciples to whom Jesus asks the question, “What do you want?” answer, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
They long for a teacher which is what rabbi means; they want truth and guidance, they want to know God.
And they want to know if they can go with Jesus and stay with him.
Jesus asks his followers, “What do you want?” This question is for us.
How would you answer?
To find peace with God and yourself.
To live with more authenticity and less judgement.
To love better. To feel less afraid.
To step out in faith to do something new.
To be kinder to the people around you.
To let go of spending so much time thinking about yourself.
To stand up against injustice.
To find the thing you are passionate about.
To be forgiven and to forgive.
Who are you? What do you want?
God’s Word comes alive in us as we seek to answer those questions. Amen.