Epiphany 2. 15th January 2023. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

Isaiah 49: 1-7; 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9; John 1: 29-42

This morning’s Gospel reading includes a fascinating and perhaps unexpected exchange between Jesus and the two disciples of John. Jesus asks them: What are you looking for? And rather than giving a straight answer, they respond with a question: Where are you staying? And the response to that is: Come and see.

What are you looking for? – these are the first words that John records Jesus as saying. We’re at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and his starting place is to reach out to the people he meets and to ask them to set the agenda. He’s asking them to offer some definition and clarity about what is most important to them; about what they think would make a difference in their lives. It’s worth noting that the model is one of responding to their statement of need or desire rather than setting out a programme of plans and assuming that people will fall in with it. This response turns on its head the usual experience of engaging with charismatic leaders where they are often quick to say what they have to offer, perhaps even to tell people what they need. It’s a model that empowers people to take responsibility, to make their own decisions about a hierarchy of importance. It’s a model that we might aspire to in all areas of our lives.

Let’s think for a moment about how we might respond if Jesus were to ask us: what are you looking for? I wonder where your mind is taking you. Are you thinking about what you are looking for when you come to church? What you are looking for when you receive Communion? What you are looking for when you read the bible? What you are looking for when you pray? Maybe you’re drawn to thinking about what you are looking for when you listen to music or read poetry; when you go for a walk or spend time in the garden. What are you looking for?

The quick and easy response is probably: answers. Answers to existential questions; answers to the trickiest problems in our world; answers to the Why questions that niggle away when we least anticipate them. A lot of the time we are looking for certainty – and that’s the one thing that isn’t on offer within our lives of faith. However deep or strong our faith, we eventually reach a place where we have to choose to live our lives as though it were true, knowing that the absolute truth will only be revealed in the next life.

Answering any ‘big’ question is a bit like contemplating an essay question. The answer is actually dependent on your understanding of the question. What are you looking for could elicit the simplest of answers – or the most complex. Maybe we answer differently at different times in our lives.

In response to Jesus’ question, John’s disciples ask their own question. At first sight it seems like a simple request for information, but I think that they are actually asking something very different. Where are you staying? It seems to me that they are wanting to find a way to spend time with Jesus, to go deeper in their interactions with him; to learn from him, perhaps to learn more about him. And he is open to their question – come and see. They may not be directly asking to spend more time with him, but that seems to be the likely outcome of the interaction.

I want to think for a moment about how we tell Jesus what we are looking for and how we ask for time with him. One way is in prayer – our intercessory prayers; our petitions; our pleas for help and support. Often at those times we are looking for something very specific.  So we turn our attention both inward and outward. We may have a very specific request – for healing; for comfort; for peace of mind. Or we may have something more general in mind – stability in the world; praying for refugees or homeless people. Praying for a particular situation in the world. So often, when we pray in these ways, we are actually looking for answers, perhaps even for solutions.

When we shift into a solution focussed mode, we are actually looking for God to fix things – we name them in prayer and then we want to hand over responsibility. It’s a model that’s akin to the idea of the charismatic leader who has all of the answers and will direct us in what we ought to be doing. But that’s not the model that we’ve observed this morning. From those very first words, Jesus was asking not telling. He was inviting people to journey alongside him, to learn about his ways and his powers, to observe and to experience.  This isn’t about handing over our concerns or our desires and waiting for some magic to happen. This is about getting alongside, perhaps even taking shared responsibility for the possibility of change.

Another way that we might find to take time with Jesus is when we find ourselves immersed in something that is outside ourselves. That could be music or art; it might be while we’re walking or swimming; maybe it’s in those moments between one task and another when we just stop to pause and be. I guess those are all times when we get beyond our ego and allow ourselves to be ourselves. At those moments, we are probably nearest to being the people God longs for us to be. At those moments we are engaged not with our heads but with our hearts and our souls. And it’s from that place deep within that we really respond to Jesus; it’s from that place that we are really able to hear and understand that question: what are you looking for?

What are you looking for? The question, as we explore, seems to be much less about what would you like to have fixed, and more akin to: What is your deepest desire? What is going to facilitate transformation within you? And that is actually where the story, or at least this chapter of the story ends. Jesus fixed his gaze on Simon and said to him: you are to be called Kephas.
Jesus picks out Simon Peter and names his significant role in the unfolding of what will become the Christian story. With that change of name, comes a change in Simon Peter’s place within the narrative. With that change of name comes his transformation which, in turn, encourages transformation within others.

We may not be given new names, but we may be given new tasks and challenges. We may be given new roles and responsibilities. We may be given new opportunities to respond to Jesus, to come and see.

And having seen, we then are invited to take on our part in the responsibility for sharing the message of hope that is at the heart of all we believe and all that we are.