“What are you looking for?” Colchester Federated Church, January 15, 2023, (John 1:29-42) Second Sunday after Epiphany

This time of year is interesting in the liturgical calendar.  We move from Christmas to Epiphany, and then from Baptism of Christ Sunday to the Sundays after Epiphany where we encounter stories of Jesus calling his disciples.  The first such story in this Lectionary year comes in the Gospel according to John. 

In this Gospel story, Jesus has an encounter with John the Baptist and begins calling his own disciples.  John proclaims that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”[1]  John tells his followers that he saw the Spirit of God come down from heaven and rest on Jesus in the form of a dove.  John shares his perspective of Jesus’ baptism that we talked about last Sunday.  In so doing, John remembers that God had said to him, “‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”[2]  It’s a ringing endorsement for the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved Son.

Fast forward to a day later.  John is once again standing with two of his disciples and proclaims, “Look!  The Lamb of God!”[3]  The disciples begin to follow Jesus.  Obviously, there’s some curiosity on their part.  Jesus turns (because he saw them following) and asks, “What are you looking for?”[4]  Now Jesus is known for many things as a teacher.  Though Jesus was no stranger to asking a whole lot of questions.  It was not uncommon for Jesus to answer someone’s question by asking a question.  That’s not what happens here per say.  Though this particular question that Jesus poses to John’s disciples could just as easily be asked of each one of us sitting here today.  It’s a powerful question that doesn’t need to just have a surface answer: “What are you looking for?”  It’s an existential question that might as well be, “What’s the meaning of life?”

To shed light on this, let’s briefly consider Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the field of Psychology.  On a basic level, what do humans need to survive?  Biologically we need food, air, water, sleep, and shelter.  We have safety needs as human beings—personal security, employment, health, financial security.  Maslow categorized human needs in the form of a pyramid, with the most basic needs of human survival on the bottom.  As one moves up the pyramid, the needs move from being physiological and safety needs to interpersonal needs. 

Yes, humans need light, water, shelter, and sleep.  But we also need a sense of belonging because humans are social creatures.  People need love—to have family, friendships, intimacy, trust, and a sense of connection.  Humans need to have some level of esteem—to have respect for themselves and respect for others.  At the top of the pyramid, Maslow believed was self-actualization—that humans have a desire to become the best version of ourselves.  The pyramid was even expanded to account for the human need for spirituality and beauty in one’s life.  As we move higher up in our hierarchy of needs it signifies growth and development as a person.  Though it matters that the basic needs we all have in order to survive are met.[5]

Okay, so when Jesus asked “what are you looking for?” that doesn’t seem to be the kind of bottom of the pyramid question.  Though notice how the disciples respond, “Where are you staying?”[6]  One can imagine that Jesus turning his full gaze upon them and asking a direct question might have made them nervous.  Could the disciples have asked in that moment, “What’s the meaning of life?”  Perhaps.  And perhaps Jesus would have answered in the exact same manner, “Come and see.”[7] 

The truth is that Jesus could not go about his ministry alone.  As we will see over these next several Sundays, Jesus goes about recruiting followers to be with him on the journey he was about to embark upon.  This weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.  Dr. King’s life is also an example of a life lived for others and that one cannot go about one’s life and work alone. 

We know that this is the case as normal people.  You and I are part of families and friend groups.  We are part of a church community or civic organizations.  We are co-workers in our chosen professions.  Though it’s telling that Jesus is beginning his ministry by inviting others to come along, to “come and see.”  Perhaps even Jesus—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, God’s beloved Son—needed love and belonging.  Jesus was a human being.  Yes, he too needed food and water, shelter and security to survive.  But Jesus also needed love and belonging, beauty and self-actualization.  Our Gospel story shows the power of being part of something larger than one’s self.  In this life, we need each other. 

It reminds me of a French parable about the power of cooperation retold by Margaret Silf.  It’s a lovely story that hopefully helps bring some of the themes we’ve been exploring this morning together.  And the French parable goes like this—

One morning the sun woke up in a really bad mood.  The sun related that it was tired of getting up every single morning and giving light to the earth, day after day.  Meanwhile, what does humanity do for the sun in return?  The sun was irritated and pondering this question when the rain arrived.  The sun posed the question to Lady Rain, “You water the earth all the time and make flowers grow.  You turn the fields green, and fill up the rivers.  What does the human race ever do for you in return?”

The rain couldn’t answer that question.  Come to think of it, that question made her upset.  Lady Rain pounded out some words for Mother Earth to hear along the same lines.  “You let humanity rip you open and scratch and scrape you, what does humanity do for you in return?”  Well, then Mother Earth got upset thinking about this question and reached out to a grain of wheat, “You let yourself die so that humankind can eat bread.  What does the human race ever do for you in return?”

Everyone was upset!  Then the sun stopped shining.  The rain stopped falling to the earth.  The earth stopped supporting the grain.  The grain stopped growing.  Life as we know it disappeared from the face of the earth.

Though eventually, the sun got bored.  There weren’t any children dancing in the sun’s light anymore.  The rain got sad because the rain never got to see the gardener smile in his garden when the rain fell gently to earth.  Mother Earth became weary because she never got to feel the joyful steps of those who labor on her back anymore.  The grain of wheat began to just rot in solitude and despair.  All of them got together and decided to meet with God, the creator.  They begged God to give back life to the earth.  God said that God already gave them everything they need to support life on earth.  And “life cannot be born except of you and between you . . . for life is born out of a sharing of life.  And where cooperation is refused, life cannot be.”[8] 

Life is born out of a sharing of life.  Where cooperation is refused, life cannot be.  “What are you looking for?”  “Come and see.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 1:29, CEB.
[2] John 1:33-34.
[3] John 1:36.
[4] John 1:38.
[5] “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs
[6] John 1:38.
[7] John 1:39.
[8] Margaret Silf, “Cooperation” in One Hundred Wisdom Stories from around the World, pgs. 192-193.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout