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On Not Looking for Certainty

A sermon on John 1:29-42

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.]

“What are you looking for?”

According to the commentaries, this is the first recorded question that Jesus asks his disciples… a fact which makes me wonder whether I would have ever had the chance to become his disciple if I had been in the shoes of Andrew and his companion.

I like to think that I would have been in a position to at least hear the question.

That I would have been among those who were open enough to the movement of the Spirit to have been looking for God’s anointed…

That I would have been already drawn to the wilderness prophet calling for people to change their hearts and lives…

That I would have been there to hear John’s testimony… that Jesus was the one foretold, the one God had promised, the one John had seen identified by God’s own Spirit physically setting him apart.

And that I would have been trusting enough to believe the testimony… to follow after the man so clearly and unequivocally identified as God’s Son, God’s gift to us.

I like to believe that my soul-deep longing for God’s transforming work in my life would have been enough to get me to that point… to put me on that road, following after this man unlike any other man… excited for him to be my Teacher.

But the question catches me up… because I know what my answer would be, at least if I had the courage to be truly honest.

What are you looking for, Serena?

I’m looking for assurance. I’m looking for security. I’m looking for certainty.

If I am going to throw my whole life into upheaval to follow a new way, I want to be able to feel sure about where that way is heading.

Of course, the story does very little to set-up any expectation that certainty is an option.

The whole narrative hangs on John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as the one for whom he was sent to prepare.

But twice in his brief testimony about Jesus, John baldly admits “I myself did not know him.”

John is the one whose authority we are called upon to trust, but then he undercuts it himself by confessing his own ignorance… even though the man in question is John’s own cousin!

John’s going on faith here… so we have to as well.

And it’s a faith that requires us to follow without any clear assurance about where Jesus is leading.

The two prospective disciples offer a very reasonable response to Jesus’s challenging question:

What are they looking for? Let’s start with some basic situational information – we are following you, here, on the basis of John’s testimony, so can you, maybe start by letting us know where we will be staying?

But Jesus, apparently, can’t. Or he won’t. Instead, his invitation is to “come and see.”

Debie Thomas characterizes this response as “a maddening one, concrete and elusive at the same time. ‘Come and see.’ Which is to say: we have to follow Jesus all the way home if we want to know where he is and what he’s about. He won’t be pinned down. He won’t fit into any box we try to stick him in. He’s not the type who remains in stasis – he moves. At times, he will not be easy to seek or find. In short: the path that leads to him will become clear only when we decide to walk it.”[1]

Jesus asks a question, but he refuses to answer the question he gets in return.

He doesn’t offer us answers. He doesn’t offer us certainty.

He offers a journey. A chance to discover as we go.

And this is challenging for me, imagining myself in the place of those first disciples, because I just don’t know if I could have taken him up on that invitation.

I tend to be a planner even when my daily anxiety is well under control…

And this week of all weeks I am so very aware of how much I struggle with accepting the unknown and going on faith.

If you are on the church e-mail list, you will have received my request for prayer on Thursday night, because my older sister suffered a stroke, out of the blue.

As a side note: I have heard from so many of you over the last few days, and each of you has offered exactly what I asked for: your prayers, in addition to your love, sympathy, and support.

Thank you for that. I truly cannot tell you the encouragement I have felt knowing that this beautiful, loving community is praying for my sister and our family.

I believe in prayer. I have witnessed miraculous healings over the course of my life of faith, and prayer has been a lifeline for me over the past few days.

AND – I have needed a lifeline because strokes are scary,

and my brain is pre-calibrated for anxiety,

and waiting at the other end of a 3,000-mile text-connection for updates that don’t give immediate answers, or clarify the prognosis, is not the kind of situation that I do well in.

Because I am looking for assurance. I’m looking for security. I’m looking for certainty.

I know I am not the first family member who has faced medical crises that follow the slow-developing pattern of tests, and shifting treatments, and fundamental ambiguity about what is going to happen.

Many of you know exactly what this feels like. I know you won’t judge me for my anxiety and my longing for a more affirmative assurance about what lies ahead than we get from “you have to come and see.”

Because of all that I have “come and seen” over the course of my faith life, however, I also believe the Jesus doesn’t judge me for my anxiety.

Because “come and see” is not just an invitation he issues to those who want to know about him… it’s what he does to know about us.

He came to earth, to human existence… he came to be able to look us level in the eye and see us in the vulnerable reality of all that it is to be human.

Debie Thomas offers a second observation about this story that is speaking grace to me this anxious week. She observes:

“Today’s Gospel story is not just about our seeing; at its core it is about what Jesus sees. It’s a story about Jesus’ way of looking, and about what becomes possible when we dare to experience his gaze. Jesus looks at John’s disciples, and calls forth their hunger, their curiosity, their hope, and their trust. He looks at Simon and sees Peter, the Rock. He looks at us and sees what lies beneath the fumbling, the fear, the mixed motives, and the doubts.

Each of us, in other words, benefits from a second look, and a third, and a fourth. To offer that second look, that deeper, kinder, and more penetrating look, is grace. It is the gracious vision of Jesus…. And is there anything more life-giving than the experience of being seen for who we really are, deep down, beneath the fragile defenses we hold up out of fear?”[2]

If I had been there, on that dusty road, following Jesus, worrying about just what I was getting myself into, and if Jesus has asked me “what are you looking for?”, my most honest answer WOULD have been that I was looking for a certainty he was NOT promising.

But I wonder if maybe that wouldn’t have disqualified me to be his disciple after all.

Because I think he would have looked at me, and known better than I know myself, what I am really looking for.

I am looking to be seen, and known, and loved in all my anxious insecurity, by the only ONE who can lead me not into certainty, but into hope, and growth, and a life of being truly known.

Thanks be to God.


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