What Are You Looking For?

John 1:29-42

“What are you looking for?”  

These are the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John:

What are you looking for?  

Jesus asks this question to two of John the Baptist’s disciples who have followed him away from the crowd, but I think the reason the Gospel of John places that pointed question here at the very beginning of the story is because Jesus is asking us that question, too.  

What are you looking for?

The Gospel of John is all about the meaning, the mystery and the significance of Jesus, and before we really launch into its rich symbolic imagery and mythic language, this gospel wants us to examine our preconceptions, our needs, and our desires.  Before you can embark on the quest, you have to know what you are seeking.

What are you looking for?  

There is a hidden implication in this question.  It’s as if John is saying, “You will find the Jesus you’re looking for, but who is that for you?  What need, what emptiness do you want him to fill?  Who do you want Jesus to be?”  

Before we hear Jesus asking this pointed question, the prologue of John’s gospel has already prepared us to see Jesus as the cosmic Christ, the Word of God through whom all things were created, who “became flesh and dwelled among us.”  John the Baptist has already said that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  The Baptist goes on to say, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

Later in John’s gospel Jesus will call himself the Human One.  Still later in John, Jesus will identify himself with a series of “I am” statements:  I am the bread of life (6:35); I am the light of the world (8:12); I am the doorway/gateway/entrance (10:7); I am the good shepherd (10:11,24); I am the resurrection and the life (11:25); I am the way, the truth and the life (14:6); I am the true vine (15:1).  

The language of John’s gospel is cryptic and powerfully symbolic.  It begs for interpretation. But be careful; interpretation can easily become misinterpretation, especially when we lay our preconceived ideas and biases over the text. 

So what are you looking for?  

Who do you think Jesus is?  

Who do you want Jesus to be?

Some are looking for Jesus the King of kings, the ultimate authority figure.  Some are looking for Jesus the final scapegoat, the sacrifice who pours out his life blood as an offering to heal our relationship with God.  Some are looking for Jesus to be their wisdom teacher, their guru, their spiritual guide.  Some are seeking Jesus the mystic who unlocks the secrets of the universe.  Some are looking for Jesus the revolutionary who will confront the oppressive and unholy alliance of religion and empire.  Some are looking for Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us, our companion in a sacred way of life.  Some are desperately looking for Jesus the healer.  

It’s easy to grab a few words from the Bible and make them say pretty much whatever you want them to say.  It’s easy to grab a few words about Jesus and make him be whatever you want him or need him to be.  We all do it. 

So what are you looking for?   You will find him—the Jesus you want or need most.  The imagery and proof text for your vision of Jesus is somewhere in the scriptures.  But context is everything and Jesus the Christ is bigger and more complex than all our dreams or desires or understanding. 

You will find the Jesus you’re looking for, but be careful that you don’t miss the Jesus you’re not looking for, the Jesus who is just maybe the one you really need most.

After spending an afternoon with Jesus, Andrew ran to tell Simon Peter, his brother, “We have found the Messiah!”  And he was right…for a given understanding of Messiah.  But did Andrew, on that first afternoon, understand Messiah the way Jesus understood Messiah?

We tend to read the scriptures through the lens of confirmation bias.  We see what we expect to see, but we don’t always see what’s actually there.  John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, so many assume that John was identifying Jesus as the final sacrifice to atone for our sins.  But look again.

The lamb was not the animal used as a sacrifice for atonement.  On the Day of Atonement, the high priest sacrificed a bull for his own sins and two goats for the sins of the people.  And yeah, you could say that Jesus is the GOAT—the Greatest Of All Time—but that’s not the same thing.  John called him the lamb of God.  The lamb was the Passover sacrifice.  Its blood was painted above the door of the house to shield the people from the angel of death.  Its flesh was eaten to sustain them in their escape from oppression.  Lambs were a symbol of purity and the fragility of life. Lambs are quiet but can also be playful.  

John says that Jesus is the lamb who takes away the sin of the world.  Sin. Singular. Not sins, plural. And yes, it could very well be used as a collective singular, but let’s play with it as a singular sin for a moment.  If the world has one central singular sin, what would that be?  

Sin has often been defined as breaking God’s laws or disobeying God.  Martin Luther defined sin as “being curved in upon the self.” Certainly there are many ways in which we all are curved in upon ourselves, and Jesus can and does turn our focus outward to our neighbor and our world.  But does taking away the sin of the world involve more than that?

In his book Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. defines sin as a culpable disturbance of shalom.  Shalom is the peace of God.  Shalom is the natural order of balance and harmony in creation and in society.  Rob Bell wrote, “Shalom is how God wants things to be.  Shalom is peace with yourself, with your neighbor, with the earth and with God.”[1]  

Sin is whatever disrupts the peace and harmony God desires for the world.  The sin of the world is the disruption of God’s shalom.  

Jesus, if we follow him and listen to him, takes away the disruption of shalom.  He can lead us into healthier relationships with our neighbors and our earth.  

This is the Jesus Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw in the gospels:  Jesus as the one who restores shalom.  You can see this Jesus portrayed in Dr. King’s sermons, in his speeches, and in his prayers.  In one of his most poignant prayers, Dr. King prayed, “Dearest Jesus, come and sit with us today.  Show us the lies that are still embedded in the soul of America’s consciousness.  Unmask the untruths we have made our best friends.  For they seek our destruction.  And we are being destroyed, Lord.  Reveal the ways the lies have distorted and destroyed our relationships.  They break your shalom daily.  Jesus, give us courage to embrace the truth about ourselves and you and our world.  Truth: we are all made in your image.  Truth: you are God; we are not.  You are God; money is not.  You are God; jails, bombs and bullets are not.  And Jesus, give us faith to believe: Redemption of people, relationships, communities and whole nations is possible!  Give us faith enough to renounce the lies and tear down the walls that separate us with our hands, our feet, and with our votes.”[2]

Dr. King’s dream was the promised shalom of God.  

The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed was the promised shalom of God.  

That’s what I’m looking for.  

What are you looking for?


[1] Rob Bell, What is the Bible?; p.260

[2] Lewis Baldwin, Never Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Gospel According to Steinbeck

steinbeck_green_crop

“We don’t take a trip, a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

We parked our motorcycles at the curb in front of the John Steinbeck Public Library in Salinas and paused a moment to get our bearings. We had meant to stop at the Steinbeck Museum for our afternoon break, but Pastor Dave, the only one of us three motorcycling pastors who had his phone mounted on his handlebars and Bluetooth connected to a com unit in his helmet had entered a little bit of misinformation into the guidance system. So there we were at the library. Not at the museum. “Let’s walk,” said Dave. “It’s only a few blocks and it will be good to stretch our legs.” So, carrying our helmets, jackets draped over our arms, off we went. For a few blocks. Very. Long. Blocks. And more than a few. Or maybe it just felt like that because our footwear, ideal for long miles on motorcycle foot pegs was a little less well-adapted for city hiking. And yet, because we were on foot we saw the town differently than if we had simply motored through it.  The buildings stood out, each proclaiming both its individuality and the timeless, simple elegance of a bygone era.

 “Try to understand [each other]. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a [person] well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.” –John Steinbeck

If you ever find yourself near Salinas with a little extra time on your hands, the Steinbeck Museum is worth every minute  you can spare. I confess that I have not read much of his work beyond what was required in high school. I have seen a few old movies adapted from his works or written by him for the screen, but it has been so long ago that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, just how much impact he had on this country. To walk through settings that evoke both the scenes of his life and work as well as the decades and social conditions of the time while surrounded by quotes from his writing and well-selected video clips of film and stage scenes from his pen was a powerful and moving experience. I learned long ago that the Word of God can come to us in unexpected ways and through unexpected voices. I was reminded once again that one persistent, prophetic person whose eyes are wide open, who is really thinking about what they see and why they are seeing it, a voice who is not afraid to name both the injustice and the beauty of the world can make a difference, can nudge the slow tide of transformation in the direction of God’s vision for us all.

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” –East of Eden

Life is a journey. That little chestnut is such a cliché that we tend to file it under the pile of overdue bills in the unsorted stacks of “things we’ll deal with later” in the cluttered corners of our souls. Cliché or not, it’s still true, and sometimes it takes an actual journey to remind us of that truth. We make choices or we don’t—which is also a choice. We pay attention or we don’t. We follow the map or just follow the road we’re on because we’re not sure where we’re going anyway. And even if we’re very careful and sure of our route the truth remains: “We don’t take a trip. A trip takes us.” Stuff happens. People say things. People do things. We respond. Sometimes our responses are good and appropriate. Sometimes not so much. Sometimes we stand firmly in the life and love and light of Christ. Sometimes in our own shadows.

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” –East of Eden

 “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus in Matthew 5:38, except that he probably didn’t intend to say that at all, at least not in the way we tend to hear it. Walter Wink in his book Naming the Powers points out that in both Hebrew and Aramaic there is no such word as “perfect” as in flawless. Even the Greek word which gets translated as “perfect” was only very rarely used to mean flawless. In all three languages the word that gets translated as “perfect” really means “whole” or “complete.” Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole. Be complete as your heavenly Father is complete. Be the person God made you to be. Have integrity, be consistent, be good, be generous and loving, be forgiving, but don’t delude yourself that you can ever be flawless…at least not in this life. Doesn’t that make more sense? How much evil has been perpetrated by people trying to obtain or enforce some kind of externally defined “perfection?” How many people have twisted their own souls out of shape by trying to be flawless in a world where flawlessness is a self-righteous trap?

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” –East of Eden