God’s most precious gift – for anyone who is seeking
Stephen Adam, 19 January 2020
1 Corinthians 1: 1–9; John 1: 29–42
One of the joys of being a Christian is that our Christmas celebrations don’t go out with a bang and whimper after Boxing Day, but we continue right through this marvellous season of Epiphany as we gradually discover more of the identity of the Christ child. There’s a progressive revealing: from the visit of the magi with the message that this Messiah is not just for the Jews but for all nations, to the baptism of Christ which we celebrated last Sunday and then, in two weeks’ time, the season culminates as we reach Candlemas – the feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple – as we recall how the aged Simeon blesses the child and proclaims the salvation he will bring in the words immortalised in the Nunc Dimittis. And so our Epiphany season will come to a triumphant close; all the way through, the dominant theme is that of revelation, of God revealing and making himself known in Christ.
In our gospel reading John the Baptist’s role is that of a witness, drawing people away from himself and pointing to Jesus as Saviour. He cuts to the chase as he sees the adult Jesus approaching: ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ For John this was an epiphany moment – a movement away from something, someone, catching his eye, to someone understood at a much profounder level.
It’s a revelation that stops us in our tracks. John’s epiphany moment is with us all year round at our celebration of Holy Communion week by week as we recite the Agnus Dei – that invitation to an encounter with Christ as we receive the bread and wine. Perhaps the words have become so familiar that we can take them for granted. We think of lambs as cute and playful. But John invests his description with deep symbolism – it’s redolent of the Temple sacrifices, of the Passover lamb and of that haunting, mysterious language of the innocent suffering servant in Isaiah’s prophecy central to our Easter story: ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth’ (Isaiah 53: 7).
So when John the Baptist points away from himself to Jesus coming towards him, ‘Here is the Lamb of God!’, he is proclaiming nothing less than that in Jesus we see God’s most precious gift, his vicarious sacrifice, God’s own self given to the world that we might know how serious God is about us.
Let’s look more closely at St John’s account of the call of the first disciples. The other gospels tell a story of fishermen leaving their nets to follow Jesus; here they are portrayed as disciples of John the Baptist leaving their teacher to follow Jesus. I don’t think we need to try – in vain, perhaps – to harmonise these different accounts. In various ways each of the gospel writers makes the same central point: that to encounter Jesus is to be drawn to him.
And then the dialogue – it’s deceptively simple. ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Where are you staying?’ ‘Come and see.’
Jesus’ first words in the gospel are an open question: ‘What are you looking for?’ The New Revised Standard Version rendering doesn’t do us any favours here – the sense is much deeper. ‘What are you seeking?’ captures it much better. You look for your lost glasses, but you seek the meaning of life.
Jesus’ question to Andrew and the disciple with him is simple yet profound. It goes into the essence of what it is to be human – what’s it all about? Where are we going? Who am I and to whom do I belong? It’s a difficult question, one we often avoid or deny. To have to face our deepest longings, to enquire what’s of ultimate importance, what shapes and forms our lives – no, that’s not something for polite dinner-party conversation. It’s too risky; it means being open and vulnerable. Yet we answer Jesus’ question by the choices and the decisions we make, by the priorities we set ourselves and by the relationships we seek.
Jesus’ question is a reminder of the preciousness of life, its sacredness and our responsibility and accountability before God to use our lives well and usefully.
Jesus’ question to us, just as to those first disciples – ‘What are you seeking?’ – is a reminder of the preciousness of life, its sacredness and our responsibility and accountability before God to use our lives well and usefully. I’m reminded of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘The Summer Day’:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
How do you and I reclaim that ‘one wild and precious life’? How do we live most authentically and in the way that, at the deepest level, we long to be?
Back to the disciples. They respond with a question of their own. ‘Where are you staying?’ Again, it’s a deceptively simple question. But it’s nothing to do with wanting to know Jesus’ overnight lodgings. That word ‘staying’ is heavy with meaning and takes us at once to a key theme of St John – not merely staying, but abiding. It speaks of Jesus in his mutual abiding and indwelling with the Father in a perfect communion, and his abiding in his disciples, and in all who have been drawn to him through the ages – and they in him.
And then that simple, open invitation of Jesus: ‘Come and see’. It’s a reminder that if we want to know God he will always meet us half way; as St Augustine puts it, he finds us before we find him. He is always there, ahead of us, always faithful. ‘Come and see’ – it’s an invitation to linger, to spend time in God’s presence, to be willing to explore, to have open hearts and minds.
For Andrew this was to mean a radical change of direction. For us, it might mean a new way of seeing, to make us less afraid, less self-absorbed, that we might allow ourselves to dwell in a place where we can trust in God’s love for us just a little more. It might mean being attentive to our surroundings, looking at everyday things with fresh insight, allowing ourselves to be caught up in sensing glory, cultivating a sense of awe and wonder, glimpsing that there is something transcendent and divine beyond the world around us.
Andrew gets the message that he has encountered someone life-changing – he wants to share the news with his brother Simon. He rushes off – ‘We have found the Messiah’ – though in truth it is Jesus who has found him.
And then those simple words, that Jesus ‘looked at him’. One day Jesus will look at him again, but then it will be in a courtyard, as before the cock crows Simon Peter will have denied knowing Jesus three times.
Did Jesus know all that was to follow with this passionate, impulsive, loyal but flawed and unreliable disciple? ‘You are Simon … you are to be called Peter.’ Jesus takes those first disciples, fragile and feeble as they are, and wants them to discover their true nature as being loved children of God.
So it is for us. Following Christ, ‘growing up into Christ’ as St Paul puts it, doesn’t mean losing our identity or becoming unattractively pious to our friends. In all kinds of ways Peter was still recognisably Simon, but his whole outlook had changed, knowing what it was to be loved, to be forgiven, to be believed in and trusted.
Jesus sees the potential in Simon Peter. He accepts him as he is, but that is not his final purpose for him. Simon Peter would become the rock for the Church. There’s a story of Michelangelo chipping away at a piece of rock, and when asked what he is doing he replies, ‘I am releasing the angel imprisoned in this marble’.
The Christian life is not just a linear progression, but we are invited to be drawn into an ever-deepening relationship with God, knowing that we are loved come what may, that we belong to God, that he is faithful and that we will find our ultimate home in his presence.
There’s another revealing picture a little later in John’s gospel (6: 67–68) when we’re told that many of Jesus’ followers find his teaching too hard, and they turn away. Jesus asks his twelve disciples a question, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’, and Simon Peter simply answers him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
This weekend marks the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As we respond to John the Baptist’s call, ‘Here is the Lamb of God!’, we are emphasising, celebrating and pointing to the one Christ who has called us to know him, and whom we make the centre of our worship and discipleship.
Epiphany, that revelation of Christ to the world, blows away our narrow vision and partial understandings, and is a reminder that what unites us is far greater than what divides us – our faith that God is made known in Jesus, and that all human hopes, strivings and wisdom find their consummation and ultimate fulfilment in him.