As we concluded our Christmas celebrations two weeks ago, we heard the story from the Gospel of Matthew of the Magi seeking the infant Jesus. They arrived in Jerusalem with the question: “Where?”
“Where is this child?”
And guided by the words of the prophet Micah and a star, they made their way to Bethlehem.
The Gospel of John, as you know, begins neither with angels singing in the night nor with magi seeking the child who had been born—it has no Christmas story at all, aside from those poetic words at the beginning of the first chapter. Of the incarnation, of God with us in Jesus, John simply—and profoundly—says: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
And yet, as John starts to tell the story of the Word living among us in the One born in Bethlehem, the question is the same: “Where?”
It begins with John the Baptist and his uncertain proclamation of this Jesus who comes to uncertain people. He tells those who come out to see him as he baptizes in the wilderness that Jesus is “one you do not know.” Twice John the Baptist says even of his own awareness of Jesus: “I myself did not know him.”
And so it is even for us today. The great twentieth century New Testament scholar, accomplished organist, and famed humanitarian Albert Schweitzer famously told us that Jesus is so hard to pin down: “He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old…he came to those who did not know who he was. He says the same words, ‘Follow me!’, and sets us to those tasks which he must fulfill in our time.”
Most often the tasks which Christ must fulfill in our time are clearer to us than just who this Christ is. We understand the need to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, to stand for the rights of all people. We don’t always understand the One in whose name we do such things.
We encounter Jesus in our own uncertainty, in our own uncertain times.
When John the Baptist finally gets around to saying something specific about this unknown Jesus, he proclaims: “He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The singular word, “sin,” speaks not any particular actions that we may have done or left undone, but of the general and pervasive brokenness and finitude of the world and all who dwell in it. John does not say just how it is that this sin is taken away. But we listen to those words carefully and with hope, because we know our finitude, we know our brokenness, we know our common condition, which for want of a better word, we call “sin.” And here is the One who takes that away!
So we might understand the excitement of those two disciples of John the Baptist who are with him on the day when he again sees Jesus and again says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
That is enough for them. The leave John the Baptist and follow Jesus. Even without Jesus saying a word, they follow.
As with a lot of words in John’s gospel, “follow” has a couple of meanings. There is the literal sense that they start walking behind Jesus, going where he goes. And there is also the sense that at this moment they become the disciples of Jesus, learning from him, doing what he does. And they do all of this, much as we do, without fully knowing who this Jesus, this Lamb of God, is.
Only after John has spoken his incomplete testimony, only after two disciples of John decide to follow Jesus, do we hear those first words of Jesus in John’s gospel.
Jesus doesn’t quote scripture.
He doesn’t say something profound or puzzling.
He doesn’t these two what they should do.
He only asks a simple question: “What are you looking for?”
And suddenly it’s not just those two disciples who are addressed.
Suddenly it’s you and me and everyone who has followed in the ways of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known. Suddenly you and I are pulled into this story and asked the same question.
What are you looking for?
What are you looking for as you look this Jesus?
Those two early followers aren’t looking for the meaning of life.
They aren’t looking for ways to change the world.
They aren’t looking for ways to grow spiritually.
Those two early followers of them stammer out a response. In their uncertainty, they answer the question with a question.
They just want to know, well, um, “Where are you staying?” We might not be able to come up with a much better response ourselves.
We might not be quite sure what it is we are looking for—but we know we’re looking. And we know we’re looking for something.
In response to that simple question of those uncertain disciples who were yet so ready to follow, we hear what I think are three of the most important words this unknown Jesus ever speaks: “Come and see.”
He doesn’t say, “At the house down the road,” or “In the next town.” No, he simply replies, “Come and see.” What Jesus offers is more than information. He offers an invitation.
This invitation asks for a commitment from those who receive it. They aren’t told to think it over, check their calendars, and get back to him. They’re invited to follow with their lives.
Come and see.
The impeachment trial of the president begins this week.
Our nation’s shaky relationships with North Korea, Iran, and even with our long-time allies put the entire world on edge.
Even on this day, in this week when our community calls to remembrance Dr. King’s words: “Let us build bridges rather than barriers, openness rather than walls,” we continue to be aware of the great divisions in our nation and of the barriers to understanding and walls to freedom that so many in our country are ready to build.
I want to say that we are living in uncertain times.
But then I realize that we always have lived in uncertain times.
So nearly sixty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of that great opening hymn that we sang this morning, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” saying that it “gives us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future,” reminding us that “there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil.”
In uncertain days—which are, really, all of our days—we hear the invitation:
Open your eyes and look.
Come and see.
Where is God bringing balm in response to suffering?
Where is God bringing love in response to hate?
Where is God feeding the hungry, healing the brokenhearted?
Come and see.
“Come and see,” Jesus responds when questioned by the curious.
For the Hebrew people, “What God has done” was best seen in looking at the Exodus from Egypt, in calling the enslaved descendants of Abraham and Sarah into freedom and new life. In places and at times too numerous to catalogue, the God who gives life to all things is still active.
“Come and see,” the psalmist wrote. “Come and see what God has done.”
And this, the psalmist tells us, is the love of God: “You have tested us, tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water.”
What an amazing affirmation of faith! Listening, we get the sense that God is present even in the suffering of individuals and nations.
Now, I have a hard time with that. I don’t think that God is author of suffering. And yet I do hope that in the painful places of our world and our lives, God is present; that there is something—even someone—who works with us to bring good out of evil, life out of death.
So King also told us:
Perhaps the suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God. Whatever the cause, God has been profoundly real to me in recent months. In the midst of outer dangers, I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give.[i]
The result of the suffering of the Hebrew people, the psalmist writes, is that God “brought us out to a spacious place, a place of plenty.” “No” is not the final word. Beyond all that would destroy and tear down comes God’s “Yes” to us and to the world.
Come and see. With open eyes, with open hearts, come and see what God has done.
With open eyes, with open hearts, come and see what God is doing even now.
Come and see. In our uncertain days and out of our uncertain lives, let us respond to this gracious invitation.
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., in A Testament of Hope, pg. 40.