Epiphany 2, January 15, 2023
The Rev’d Shirley Smith Graham
Today, we follow up on last Sunday’s Big Reveal. John the Baptist turned to Jesus and said, essentially, “Wait, you do know who you are, don’t you? You came to be baptized by me, but Jesus, I’m the one who should be baptized by you.” And in that cousin-to-cousin way of speaking short-hand, they work out an understanding. Though Jesus clearly is The One, nonetheless John will serve to initiate the action that will culminate in their Heavenly Father saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
But what does it mean to have God’s Son, the Beloved, walking the earth? Perhaps it’s this question that the organizers of the lectionary had in mind. Because, not only does this Sunday’s gospel answer this question, but the lectionary takes a detour to do it. Today is the only Sunday until March 5 that we read from a gospel other than Matthew. Today we read from John. But during all the other Sundays, we will be reading from Matthew. So, why the detour? One answer is this: we need to know what kind of difference it makes that Jesus walks the earth, and John tells us what that is.
Clues to the answer pop out immediately. John’s Gospel, chapter 1, v. 32 recounts the same story of Jesus being baptized, but then goes on to
immediately show the consequences of God’s Son walking among us. The very next day after the baptism, John is hanging out with his disciples. John sees Jesus walking by, and he exclaims: “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Immediately, no hesitation, two of John’s disciples start following Jesus. Following, not in a philosophical kind of way like a student learning and following the teachings of a master-teacher. Oh no, this is literal following behind. Walking.
We know this because Jesus turns around and sees them following him. Now, I want to pause here and invite you to be a little playful with me. (We know being playful is holy because God created the universe and us. And God would have to have a sense of humor to create us!) So, let’s use holy imagination a moment. I invite you to visualize a scene with me, and you can close your eyes or keep them open.
You’re standing alongside John the Baptist. Maybe you’re a shopkeeper who supplies the disciples with bread. Maybe your kid has been hanging out with John, and you wonder what he’s all about. Maybe you are one of his students. So, you’re there with John. Suddenly, John sees Jesus and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And immediately, two people start walking behind Jesus. Jesus doesn’t even realize they are doing this, at first. Watching this reminds you of when David the goat-herder walks through town, and the neighborhood dogs start to follow him because they can smell what they like on his clothing. The pups always follow David down the street for a good while before he turns around and shoos them away.
But you see something different. Jesus turns around to those two people, pauses, and says something to them. He doesn’t shoo them away. You can see, even from a distance, that he is talking to them. Actually talking to them, not like you’d imagine God’s Annointed to act — remote, distant, or from a seat of power and prestige. Instead, he is really talking to them. They respond. And then, the two people start to walk alongside Jesus, directly beside him. You watch them until they become specks in the distance.
And now, coming out of our time of imagining we can open our eyes [if they’re not open already] and hear the conversation that we watched happen. Jesus said to the two, “What are you looking for?" If Jesus had been David the goat-herder and the two people had been pups, the answer would have been obvious— meat. But Jesus isn’t the goat-herder, so the question is necessary. What are they looking for? The answer Jesus gets seems like a non sequitur. They reply, “Where are you staying?” Hmmmm. Question: What are you looking for? Answer: Where are you staying? The answer only makes sense if what they are looking for is found in the person of Jesus, and they must be with Jesus to get what they need. So, perhaps they are like the neighborhood pups who follow the goat-herder. Jesus has something they need that is as essential and elemental as food. Yes, that sounds right. For Jesus will nourish them and us. He is the bread of heaven.
Wisdom from Raymond Brown, from his commentary on the gospel, describes what’s happening spiritually in this way:
Humans have a basic need that causes them to turn to God. Humankind “wishes to stay [to abide or dwell] with God; [they] are constantly seeking to escape temporality, change, and death, seeking to find something that is lasting. Jesus answers with the all-embracing challenge to faith: ‘Come and see.’” Brown goes on to make the connection for us between dwelling with Jesus and the trajectory of our eternal life: later in John’s gospel, in chapter 5.40, 6.40, and 6.27, “eternal life is promised respectively to those who come to Jesus, to those who look on him and to those who believe in him — three different ways of describing the same action. If the training of the disciples begins when they go to Jesus to see where he is staying and stay on with him, it will be completed when they see his glory and believe in him (2.11).”1
I wonder if this story can give us the permission to get in touch with our own hunger to be with Jesus. Or if we are not aware that we are hungry to be with Jesus, perhaps we will take up the invitation to become hungry. To be with Jesus, simply to be conscious of being in the presence of God’s Son, the Anointed. To revel in the wonder of being so loved by God that God turns around, sees us, and invites us to be with him. To be in the presence of the holy, like Moses was invited up the Mountain to experience God’s majesty, to feel the marvel of being so invited, so loved.
Being with God, in a conscious way, is a classic practice central to Christian spirituality and Anglican theology. To consciously spend time being aware of God’s presence and to create an environment where, even for a short-time, the only thing we’re thinking of is being with Jesus. Each person will experience this differently. For myself, I usually need quiet, and a candle, and sometimes a steam vaporizer helps too. When I create space to feel myself in the presence of Jesus, if I sit still for a few minutes and focus on Jesus (not thinking but being), I feel cocooned in love, a sense of warm radiance around me, a feeling of safety and calm comes over me. Sometimes I also feel warm in my belly, or a little tingling in my hands and feet. And being with Jesus makes me feel grounded and rooted again — and also, like all of life is worship and exquisitely tender and valuable. In those moments, I can understand why the answer to “What are looking for?” is “Where are you staying?” Because I too want to stay with Jesus.
We often emphasize that following Jesus means learning to trust God, acting like Jesus acted, and doing as God would have us do to be revealers of God’s realm on earth. And I’m not at all diminishing these aspects of discipleship. In fact, most days, you can watch me go from belief to action very quickly. And yet, it is also valuable to yearn to be with Jesus. So I am hoping that this Sunday’s gospel will give you permission, if you don’t already have a daily practice, of taking a few moments each day to be with Jesus. And, if this feels very foreign to you, perhaps the way in is to visualize you walking behind Jesus, then seeing him turn around and say to you, “What are you looking for?” and you replying: “Where are you staying? I want to be with you.”
I’ll wrap up by saying this: when churches have said goodbye to a clergyperson, they sometimes feel like the ground has shifted beneath their feet. They can feel a bit unmoored, even when they, like you, are clear about their vision for ministry and how they feel called to practice that ministry. And, inevitably challenges come up, challenges that you would have had even with your familiar clergyperson here, but challenges for which you would have had the benefit of their guidance or pastoral care. It would be normal for you, the people of All Saints Sharons Chapel to be feeling some of these things, especially with the recent change of coming back to your worship space.
So I think it’s a grace-filled gift that God has given us this reading from the Gospel of John — as if to underscore what is true: Yes, following Jesus means making the Realm of God known in the world through acts of ministry, justice, and service. And following Jesus also means making time to be with him. May this be a season when you do both, and especially this Sunday, be with Jesus.
Brown, Raymond. The Gospel According to John I-XII. Anchor Bible series. 1966. pp. 78-79