By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 1:35-42
Well, how are those New Year’s resolutions coming along? I’m not even sure how many people make New Year’s resolutions anymore. But, even if you don’t, you’ve got to admit that there is something visceral about this time of the year that makes us a tad bit more introspective. We may pause for just a moment to ask ourselves: “What am I doing with my life? Am I really where I expected myself, hoped myself, to be?” Even for those in retirement, the question is still relevant: with career finished and children raised the question becomes: “what is my purpose in this season of my life?”
This morning’s story from the gospel of John is a reminder to us that the life of a disciple is not a life of aimless drifting. It is a thoughtful, examined life; it is a deliberate, purposeful life.
This morning’s passage of scripture is the very first time that Jesus speaks in the gospel of John. If you had children, no doubt you remember the first word or words they spoke. You waited in anticipation. Would it be “mama,” “dada?” We wait eagerly to hear those first words.
Likewise, John’s gospel has already introduced Jesus. He who has yet to speak out loud has already been introduced to us by our gospel narrator as God’s eternal, life-giving Word now placed in human flesh. John the Baptist gives witness to him as the Son of God and the Lamb of God. And so, with such lofty introductions, we might expect Jesus’ first recorded words to be words of self-affirmation; a bold and lofty statement of his divine identity. But no; Jesus’ very first words are directed outward; they come in the form of a question posed to any who might consider following him… whether they live in the first century or the 21st. Jesus voices this question: “What are you seeking?” And he follows that question with an invitation to, “Come and see.”
Friends, far too often we think of Christianity as a kind of mental agreement with a particular set of beliefs. But, that’s not Christianity; particularly in the gospel of John, that is not what it means to follow Jesus. Christianity is not a belief system so much as it is a relational system. It is about us entering into an active, engaging, life-changing relationship with Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus is about daily movement, a daily following after the one who invites us to come and see what life in his presence is really all about.
There is an old story about a little boy who lived in the country. He heard a circus was coming to a nearby town. He wanted to go; he wanted to experience the circus. And so, he saved his money so he’d have enough for admission to the circus. He walked into town and arrived just as the circus performers and animals were making their way from the railway station to the tent, to the big top. The little boy stood along a street and watched them pass by one by one: clowns, animals, jugglers, acrobats. A clown brought up the rear and as he walked by the little boy ran into the street. He asked the clown, “Who do I pay?” “I’ll take your money,” said the clown. So the little boy dug his money out of his pocket and placed it in the hand of the clown. Then he turned around and walked back home. He thought he’d experienced the circus. He thought he’d gotten what he came for.
And friends, that’s how some people live their lives. They’ve sacrificed their time, their money and their energy; but they’ve missed out on the most important experience of their lives: a relationship with Jesus. Some spend their lives imagining that, if they could just find the right job or the right spouse; if they could make more money or gain more prestige; if only their children would excel and make them proud; if only they had that one more thing; that elusive, evasive thing. And yet, there is no “thing” – no acquisition, no achievement in this world that can ever fill that hole in our soul. The experience they’ve been longing for is a relationship with Jesus: the one in whom we find our purpose and our meaning; the one who is the answer to our deepest longings and our greatest desires.
Now, when Jesus turns to these disciples and asks them “What are you seeking?” it is a two-word Greek phrase: tis zetetes. The word zetetes means “to seek.” But the word “tis,” that tiny, three-letter word, can be translated one of three ways: what, as in what are you seeking; who, as in who are you seeking; and why, as in why are you seeking. And when Jesus invites these disciples to come and see and they follow and stay with him (not only that day but in the days to come), Jesus reveals to them and to us that Jesus is the answer to the who, the what and the why that we seek.
It’s a big question. What are you seeking? We need to live with it a while; to be challenged by it. You are here in church this morning so I can only assume that Jesus means something to you. But, I hope that you have taken time to consider who, what and why you are seeking in your life and how being in relationship with Jesus addresses our deepest human desires and longings.
I’m afraid that far too often, people identify as Christians because they went to church as a child. They heard some bible stories. Someone told them that Jesus was Savior and Lord and that they should keep coming to church. So they do. But why; for who; for what? What does it mean that Jesus is a Savior or a Lord? What does it mean in John’s gospel that he is the light of the world; the bread of heaven; the good shepherd? What does that mean to you? Who is Jesus… to you and what are you seeking in your relationship with him?
Just like those first disciples, we will only find the answer to that question by being with Jesus; by staying with Jesus. Those first disciples stayed with him all that day and we can too. We can decide in this New Year that we will be mindful of Jesus’ presence with us throughout our day. Not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense, we can discover what it means to stay in the presence of Jesus as we go about our day.
Now, I’m going to say a little more about how we can do that in just a few moments. But first let me say that our purpose in experiencing Jesus’ presence throughout our day is not simply a self-centered pursuit. It is not for the purpose of being navel gazers or to lower our blood pressure or alleviate stress. It is because, in the presence of Jesus, we are named – just as Peter was – by the one who knows us best. Friends by staying in the presence of Jesus, practicing awareness of his presence – throughout our day, we will discover who we truly are and how we ought to live. This is MLK weekend and when we read and study the life of King, it is so clear that he could not have done what he did without that awareness of Jesus’ presence with him, guiding him and inspiring him to ultimately sacrifice his life for the good of others. No doubt, he was driven by that inward desire discerned through ongoing fellowship with Jesus.
Each one of us has deep desires in our hearts that God has placed there and as we come to know Jesus and as we walk in his presence, we come to understand who we are and how we are called to live.
Friends, for some, Christianity is simply a set of beliefs and a list of actions and so they set out to try and achieve those “good actions” every day… going off in a multitude of directions and ending the day exhausted. But if we are tuned in to the presence of Jesus with us through our day, we will, in fact, accomplish far more “good” for the world because we will be living out our true identity and our unique call because Jesus is the one who knows us and names us. He is the origin of those deep desires and longings within us. Elizabeth Liebert writes, “When we know our deepest desires, we know something important not only about ourselves, but also about God, because our deepest desires come from and point to that same God.”[i]
Finally, before I say a little about how we can practice an awareness of Jesus’ presence, let me say a few words about why I believe this message is so important. In America today, for those outside the church looking in, it can be an ugly sight. We are often loud and judgmental and divisive. We can go at one another like roosters dropped into a cock fighting ring. And no one wants to be a part of that. But that is going to be an inevitable result if Christianity is, for us, simply a rigid set of beliefs and a list of behaviors because that “brand” of Christianity will forever cause us to compare and to condemn and to compete.
But it’s a very different picture when Christianity is about relationship and when the things we do are the result of Jesus’ call over our lives and the desires he has placed in our hearts. Friends, if we are purposeful about staying with Jesus throughout our day, practicing an ongoing awareness of his presence, we will act out the identity he has given us and discover that we are bringing healing and reconciliation to the world in ways we might have never imagined before. And, if we are purposeful about staying with Jesus throughout our day, practicing an ongoing awareness of his presence, we’ll discover the joy of finding that for which we seek because Jesus is the who, the what and the why of our life’s deepest seeking.
Now, I’m aware that a sermon doesn’t do much good if we don’t have any idea what to do with it. And you may be sitting there wondering “what does it mean to be more aware of Jesus’ presence and how might that happen?” So, as I close my sermon this morning, let me give you just a couple examples of ways I practice awareness of Jesus’ presence with me… Although first let me say, I’m not 100% successful at it. We live in a world of multi-tasking distractions and that cannot help but impact our relationships – with God and with other people. I was speaking with friends a couple weeks ago and we remarked about the fact that often in conversation we recognize that, as someone else is speaking to us, we are already formulating our response and we can’t do both of those things well simultaneously, right? So, as Christians, we have become acculturated to inattentiveness and it is hard to give our focused attention to anyone, even Jesus.
So here are a couple things I do to help keep me mindful of Jesus’ presence with me throughout the day:
First, I can recognize when I’ve not been doing it because I become more impatient and more easily frustrated and discouraged. So then, I develop a tiny prayer that I say in the morning and repeat throughout the day. Something simple like: “Lord, give me patience and peace.” Sometimes – now this won’t help you guys – I will put on a bracelet; something I don’t normally wear as a visual reminder throughout the day.
Here’s another way I practice awareness of God’s presence that I’ve begun recently. In the morning, I take some time to breathe deeply and close my eyes and I see in my mind someone I love… perhaps someone I’m worried about and I pray very simply: Jesus, show your peace, show your love, show your kindness. Then, I see in my mind someone I’m struggling with; I’m frustrated with them or irritated by them and I pray the same: Jesus, show your peace, show your love, show your kindness. And I end by praying that for myself. Then, as I encounter those people throughout my day, I can recollect that time I took that morning to bring us both into God’s presence with that prayer for peace and love and kindness and I become more mindful that Jesus is there in our midst blessing us both with his peace, his love and his kindness.
Friends, come and see and stay with Jesus; abide in his presence for he is the who, the what and the why that answers our deepest seeking.
[i] The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert; Westminster John Knox Press; 2008; p. 23
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