January 15, 2023
Unlike Matthew and Luke, who begin their gospels with the well-known Christmas stories of angels, and shepherds, and a manger, and wise men, John kicks things off with a remarkable proclamation of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
In the time between Christ’s death and resurrection and the writing of John’s Gospel reflections on Jesus’ ministry and the ongoing experience of his presence through the Holy Spirit and the life of the church, led John and others to the conclusion that this man, Jesus, who was obviously human, was also somehow the embodiment and presence of the eternal God. That to know the will and way of Jesus was to know the will and way of God. That Jesus was God’s self-expression.
That’s why it is curious to me that after John’s grand introduction to the gospel it takes him 38 verses to share with us Jesus’ first words. Maybe it’s for the building up of suspense. What does God’s “Word” actually say? We wait and wonder and then in today’s reading we get our answer. God’s Word asks us a question: “What are you looking for?”
It occurs to me that we might make a good prayer meditation out of this moment. There you are, you are face to face with God. God sees your interest, stops, and asks you to think, “What is it that you are looking for?” What do you most need? What is your heart longing for? …Why not share your answer with God in prayer and see how God responds?
A friend of mine had a similar conversation with is spiritual director once. “Ted, what is it you most deeply want from God?” Ted said, honestly, “I just want contentment.” His director thought for a moment and responded, “What are you, a cow?” A little harsh, right?
This conversation happened years ago and Ted still feels the sting of his rejected answer. I’m guessing his response implied a kind of passivity that the director thought was misguided. But, as my friend reflected on the moment he said, “What occurs to me is that sometimes what we want is not what God is offering.”
So, if not contentment, what is it that God offers? Answers? Outcomes? Solutions? Something else?
Do you remember my story about the answer God once gave me? I was stuck in an impossible position, and I needed to know what to do. The answer, or my response to the situation, would change the course of my life forever, and so I wanted to get it right and I thought God ought to have something to say about it. So, I locked myself in my room and sat my chair right smack in the middle and told God I wasn’t moving until I got an answer. Furthermore, I said, no hinting or soft nudges. I want you to show up, and I want clarity.
So, I sat there. I’m not sure for how long. And at some point God showed up. Not with words though. God never told me what to do. Instead, God filled the space – the room around me, and the space within me – in my mind and heart, and that’s all that God did. I wanted an answer and instead I got God. And, what I found was that in receiving God I no longer so desperately needed my answer. In fact, what I most needed, I already had, and discovering that reality changed everything.
If you ask me, asking for contentment isn’t such a horrible thing. At least, it wasn’t for my friend. His life was in tatters and his world was upside down. Asking for some peace doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. Maybe in his own way he was asking to be sanctified – made sacred – to awaken to the beauty of his own being, not by his limited capacity to solve his problems, but by the presence of a God whose love makes us sacred. Maybe he wanted to stop trying so hard to do what he couldn’t do himself.
This little reflection from Lutheran Bishop, Michael Rinehart, seems appropriate for our theme today:
“I had received three speeding tickets in one year. It was a personal record. I wasn’t proud. The State of Iowa, in its wisdom, said that I should take a defensive driving course. They insisted, really. If I didn’t, they would take my license away.
Some people in my class were unhappy to be there—really, really unhappy. Angry even. Many had been court-ordered to attend this class following a DUI or DWI conviction. I sat quietly in the back of the room, keeping my head down and my mouth shut.
Then the instructor called my name. “Where do you live? What do you do? Why are you here?”
I realized I was in a recovery group. “My name is Mike. I’m a pastor. I drive too fast.” There it was, for all the world to see.
At the end of the second class, the instructor pulled me aside, apparently for one-on-one tutoring. “Why are you here?” he asked.
“Because I got three speeding tickets.”
“No, really, why are you here?” It was an existential question. I wasn’t sure how to answer. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
“Well, the first time I was going to . . .”
“No, where are you going in such a hurry?” Ah, he meant in life. Another existential question. Again, I had no words. “Life is short. Take your time and enjoy it,” he said. Now he was preaching. “There is just a grave waiting for you down that road.”
Ouch. Now you’re going to bring up my mortality?
Then he pastored me: “What are you looking for?”
I had heard this question before. I had preached on it. Now it took on new meaning. What was I looking for in life that caused me to move so frantically through the world? I went home and looked up John 1. Two disciples follow Jesus, and he turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?”
There it was. In my head, Jesus’ voice took on the existential tone of my teacher/pastor to deadbeat dangerous drivers.
It’s a good question, maybe the question.[i]”
The reflection made me think: Are we speeding through life too? Are we, in our own ways, moving frantically through the world? Are we trying to do for ourselves, or by ourselves, what only God can do? Are we striving for the answers that God doesn’t give because in some ways doing so feels safer than trusting that what God gives is really and truly enough?
If so, we wouldn’t be the first! Did you notice how adamant Isaiah is in affirming his identity in that passage we read a little while ago? “Listen to me,” he says, because ‘The Lord called me before I was born!’” “He made my mouth like a sharp sword.” “He made me a polished arrow, and in his quiver he hid me away.” I read the passage and I thought, “Wow, he’s really owning this calling.” But, I read some more and another line struck me. This line is in the voice of God. “It is too light a thing a thing that you should be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob.” Rather, “I will give you as a light to all the nations.”
What I heard instead of the expansive nature of Isaiah’s mission was a question. My dyslexia kicked in – or maybe it was God getting at our point – and I read, “Is it too light a thing that you should be my servant?” Is it too light a thing that you should take my hand and follow? Is it too light a thing that you should be my child? Is it too light a thing that I call you also my beloved?
I think that for many of us it is perhaps too light a thing. And, I think that Isaiah’s model in this case is a helpful one for us. Maybe there’s some ownership that we might take as well. Maybe we need to own that the God God gives us is enough. Maybe we need to let the peace of that gift sink in. And, maybe then we’ll be better able to move about the world with hearts for love and minds for justice, less rushed to make something out of ourselves, and more prepared to bear the light that God shines.