Second Sunday After The Epiphany


Several years ago, I traveled to India to visit a mission I support there. I was looking forward to the trip until I learned that my liaison was not able to meet me. He was getting married, and his honeymoon would coincide with the days of my stay there.

Somewhat unsettled by this news, I had in mind to cancel the trip and told him so. He replied: “No, no, you should still come. I’ve arranged for my brother to meet you.”


Now I never met his brother. I didn’t know him from Adam. How was I supposed to entrust myself to a total stranger in a foreign country, where I knew no one, where I didn’t speak the language, and had no connections?


“No, no,” he tried to reassure me. “You can trust my brother. He will meet you at the airport, and make sure that you have all that you need. Put your mind at ease. Please come during the time you scheduled.”


Still unsettled, I asked him more about his brother. “Who is he? What does he look like? How will I recognize him at the airport?” My liaison gave me more details. Finally, sufficiently reassured, I went ahead with my plans and confirmed my flight to India.


If we have never met someone in real life, we can only know him through testimony. And if we want to know someone who lived before us, we depend entirely on testimony. It can be tested and cross-examined. But in the end, we are always confronted with the question: Do we trust it or not?


Our lesson today comes from the Gospel of John. Now this whole Gospel is a testimony that invites readers to believe, to trust, who Jesus is, so that “in believing, you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31). Who bears that name, and what it means, are known only through the testimony of witnesses.


John is one of those witnesses.  The Gospel of John introduces him very early. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (Jn. 1:6,7).  


John has been in the spotlight lately. He appeared last Sunday at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. He occupied center stage on the second and third Sundays in Advent. And here he is again today.


But note how this Gospel presents John. It pares down the details about John’s life as it’s been presented in Matthew, Mark and Luke. There’s no mention of his parents, of his birth and naming, of what he ate and what he wore, of his call to repentance, and even his actual baptizing of Jesus, as we saw last time.


Instead, what stands out is his utter dedication to testifying to Jesus. Author David F. Ford notes that in this Gospel it would be more fitting to call him not John the Baptist, but John the Witness.


“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29). Agnus Dei! This has become a classic acclamation that has echoed down through the corridors of history in Christian liturgies, hymns, art and poetry.


The image of the lamb recurs throughout the Bible. Recall the Passover lamb in the foundational story about Israel’s rescue from Egypt by Moses (Exodus 12). In John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified at the same time that the Passover lambs are being slaughtered.


Or recall the near sacrifice of Isaac. God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his one and only son whom he loves at a place God would show him. When father and son arrive, Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is. Abraham replies: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering my son” (Gen. 22:8).


Or recall the fourth servant song in Isaiah 53. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities…He was oppressed and afflicted, and yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter, so was he” silent.”


When we bring all these passages together, they help us to see who Jesus is.


Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that on his own John could not say any of this about Jesus. He did not know him. But then he saw the Spirit rest upon Jesus. We have said before that apart from the Holy Spirit it is not possible to know Jesus as he claims to be, as he in fact is. John sees the Spirit descend and remain on Jesus in the form of a dove. But he sees and testifies by means of the Spirit that this One is the Son of God.


Lamb of God and Son of God are the first two names attributed to Jesus in our lesson. To these are added Rabbi/Teacher, Messiah/Anointed. Names piling upon names.


We are in the season of Epiphany. We said before that Epiphany invites us to ask the “who” question. While Christmas announces the birth of the special child, Epiphany asks: “who is he?”


Our lesson is dominated by this question; indeed, it fair to say that it dominates the entire Gospel of John. The German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer goes even farther when he argues that the question: “Who are you, Jesus Christ, Word of God?” is at the heart of all Christian theology.


But it is not enough to ask only this question. Or rather, it is a question we can ask only if we add to it, so that it reads: “Who are you, Jesus Christ, for me?”


When I asked my liaison to give me more details about his brother, I was not asking him as a neutral observer. I needed to know because I had to depend on him to guide me on my tour of the mission sites in his home country. If what I heard led me to conclude that his brother is trustworthy, then I would go ahead with the tour. If not, then I would cancel.  


This is exactly the position the disciple is in. He has heard the testimony. He has now to decide: Is it trustworthy? If so, then he must commit to finding out who Jesus is for him. If not, then he walks away.


John repeats the acclamation: “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (Jn. 1:36).  Two of his own disciples hear it, they accept the testimony, and they decide to follow Jesus.


Then Jesus turns and notices that they are following him, and asks them: “what are you looking for?” (Jn. 1:38).


The scene suggests that a great reversal is about to happen. Have we not been running from God? After the disobedience of our first parents in the garden, God asked them, “where are you?” as they hid among the trees (Gen. 3:9). Ever since then we have been in flight from God.


But here are two disciples running to the Son of God. And when he notices, Jesus asks them a very different question “what are you looking for?” They are in pursuit of God.  


The question also reveals how God in Christ chooses to relate to us.


Only a few days ago at the gym I overheard a young man boast to his friend about his many sexual exploits, about how many women he seduced during the past few years. His friend replied that that has only become possible in recent decades because of the widespread abandonment of religious traditions, which teach monogamy and marriage.


The young man agreed but said that that order of things worked only because the people believed in a God who held over them the threat of eternal punishment for disobeying his “rules.” Now that they no longer believe in God, and, by extension, the eternal punishment that he brings, there is no going back to those days.


This is a common but fatal misunderstanding of how God to wants to relate to us through his Son.


The word “looking for” is a key term in John’s Gospel. It has a range of meanings which include “seek, search, want, desire, ask, demand, require, expect, examine and investigate” (David F. Ford).  


Jesus is inviting those who wish to follow him to do all these things. “What is that you are seeking?” What it is that you desire?” “What is it that you expect?” He welcomes these questions and responds to them. Then there can unfold a dialogue. Then the disciples can form a community of inquiry, searching, and reflection (David F. Ford). It is a concern of Jesus both to direct (and redirect) and fulfill the desires of those who form a community around him.   


The upshot here is that the church should not be an ugly community, one of gloom and fearful expectation of eternal punishment. The church should be an attractive community, one of abundant life and love (David F. Ford).


As Ford points out, the attraction is the love of Jesus: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (Jn. 12:32). And the love within the community is meant to attract others: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35).


For their part, the two disciples are attracted to what they see in Jesus. They ask: “where are you staying?”


Occasionally, one hears of arranged marriages in which the bride has never met the groom until the day of the wedding. I’m not sure that this accurately represents the concept of arranged marriages, at least those one or two of which I am personally aware. But at any rate, it does not seem at all desirable, at least to most people. If one is going to entrust one’s entire future to this other person, it seems a good idea to spend enough time to find out who this one really is.


There is the saying: “trust must be earned.” When I concluded that the brother of my liaison is trustworthy based on the testimony that he gave about him, I followed through with my plans to travel to India. When I met him at the airport, he appeared as his brother described. And as I followed him to his car, and later spent time with him and his wife at their home, I grew in my trust.


To the question “Can I trust you?” Jesus responds: “Come and see.”


Again, one hears the invitation implied. They want to see, and in following him they will discover that he is going to satisfy this desire. He will show them who he is as they spend time with him. “Call to me and I will answer you. I will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known,” God tells the exiles in Jeremiah 33:3. These are the very words implied in Jesus’ invitation to come and see.


It is isn’t until just before the end of our lesson that we find out that one of these two disciples is Andrew. He used to be a disciple of John the Baptist, but now he goes to find his brother Simon Peter, and tells him: “We have found the Messiah.”


Andrew heard and accepted the testimony of John, and then accepted the invitation from Jesus to experience it for himself. He now believes it to be true. This Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God, who reveals him to be the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And now Andrew knows.


And there’s no place he’d rather be. Except that he wants others to discover what he has found. That is often how it is. One cannot keep it to himself. And so Andrew goes get his brother so that he too can see for himself.


There is a foreshadowing of the special role that Peter will play among the disciples when Jesus changes his name. In the biblical world, to give someone a new name was to confer a new status on him. No longer Simon, this disciple is now Cephas (which is translated Peter).


Author Chelsea Harmon is right to note that this is a point of transition. Instead of John preparing the way for Jesus, now the disciples will assume this role. They begin to follow and to learn from Jesus. Then they tell others about him, just as Andrew does here his brother Simon Peter.


From here we will see how more and more disciples come to remain with Jesus. This after all is the essential mark of the disciple of Jesus in John’s Gospel: a disciple is one who remains with (or abides in) Jesus.


I did not regret my decision to travel to India to visit the mission sites. The man was all that my liaison said he was. He made sure that I had all that I needed, and did all that he could to make my trip worthwhile.


Just as my liaison extended to me the invitation: “come and see,” so Jesus still today extends this same invitation. Let us be sure that we respond, regardless of where we are in our own journey of discipleship. Let us be purposeful in our “remaining” with him, so that we don’t miss out on all that he still has to show us. Amen.


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