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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Sunday 19 January 2020 – Epiphany 2 10am Choral Eucharist
1 Corinthians 1.1-9 & John 1.29-42
Apparently for many years, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was common practise for soldiers in the army to tie their newly issued motorised vehicles to trees or other static objects when they parked them. This practise was enshrined in their orders and so of course they just kept on doing it. After many years someone had the courage to ask why this was being done and when the practise was examined it transpired that it stemmed from a time when soldiers rode horses and ponies which had to be tethered when not being used – what had happened was that when the animals were replaced by vehicles, no one had updated the orders of what to do when they weren’t being used!
This is an example of how we can get so used to things that are odd or strange that we simply take them for granted. The same thing happens with scripture. Those of us who know our bibles fairly well know passages that we simply take for granted, but, if you think about them, or look at them with fresh eyes, are seriously odd. Today’s gospel is one such passage. We have got so used to its strangeness that most of us we no longer notice it.
The first odd thing about our gospel this morning is the way John the Baptist is portrayed. Mostly when we see him depicted in the gospels, he is a wild firebrand, preaching repentance and calling out the rich, the powerful and almost everybody else for their hypocrisy and sin. In the first part of today’s gospel passage, however, he quietly and succinctly identifies Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ and proceeds to describe what happened around the baptism of Jesus.
That is the first odd thing about this passage – we meet a quiet and reflective John the Baptist. Odder still, the next day John is again simply and quietly standing around with two of his disciples, when he sees Jesus walking by and he identifies him again as the ‘Lamb of God’. When John the Baptist’s two disciples heard this they followed Jesus. When Jesus noticed that they were following him he turned and asked them, ‘What are you looking for?’ A direct, challenging and powerful question. They begin their response by addressing him as ‘Rabbi’, or ‘Teacher’, a clear sign of respect, then they continue ….. now, what question would you expect them to ask? They have been with John the Baptist a long time and he has been talking endlessly about repentance and judgement and has also been prophesying the coming of the Kingdom of God and the coming of the messiah. Presumably they were there when Jesus was baptised and they have just heard John identify Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’. I would expect them to ask, ‘are you the Lamb of God?’ or ‘are you the messiah?’ or maybe ‘we are looking for meaning’ or ‘can you help us get close to God?’ The two disciples don’t respond in the way I would expect at all. ‘Rabbi’ they say ….. ‘where are you staying?’ ‘Where are you staying?’ ….. what has that got to do with anything? They have left their homes and jobs to follow John the Baptist and they have been living with him in the wilderness for some time ……. homes and possessions meant nothing to John ……. they have been hearing John talk about the coming of the Kingdom of God when the world will be turned upside down …… and when they meet Jesus and they are directly asked by the person John has identified as the ‘Lamb of God’ ‘what are you looking for?’ the best they can come up with is ‘Where are you staying?’!
Knowing Jesus from the rest of the gospels one might expect him to respond to this very human and dull question by saying something like, ‘foxes have holes and birds have nests but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head’. But Jesus saves that up for another occasion and simply responds to them, without missing a step, ‘Come and see’ and that is what they do. They stay with him, wherever he was staying, the rest of the day and they are clearly drawn to him. One of them, Andrew, goes off to find his brother, Simon Peter and they become some of Jesus’ first disciples and the rest is history.
So what can we learn from these strange events? I think that they give us a wonderful insight into the haphazard nature of mission. We are big into mission in the Church – we are here to share the good news of God’s love which we see most clearly expressed in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church, rightly, puts a huge amount of effort and resource into mission and we, here, in this Cathedral church, have recently appointed Canon Maggie as our Missioner to help lead us in working out the best way for us to live and share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We are soon to be part of a huge Mission across our diocese led by the Archbishop and many other northern bishops and the Mission is called ‘Come and See’. We regularly run courses for people enquiring about faith. We want to have more housegroups to nurture more people in faith and we want to ensure that everything we do is geared up to deliver our mission to invite everyone to experience God’s love in our community, in our city, in our diocese, in our province, across the Anglican communion and across the world.
All of this is fantastic and we should put all our energy behind it, but what we have to remember, every single one of us, is that people who are searching for meaning or direction, people who are searching for God don’t all come knocking on our door with a clear and concise question about what they want or what they are looking for. We can and should have strategies for mission and mission action plans and courses for enquirers and big missions led by bishops so that we can respond to those who will be attracted by such things and can articulate questions about life and faith we can respond to. But all of us, every single baptised Christian, should always be open to the have conversations with and respond positively to anyone who asks weird and unexpected questions because we do not know where they will lead. It would have been quite understandable if Jesus had responded to the ‘Where are you staying?’ question by saying, ‘who cares where I am staying, it doesn’t matter, come back when you want to ask questions about truth, meaning or God.’ But, of course, Jesus did not respond in this way, he responded positively and warmly to the question that was asked and then John’s disciples were drawn into deeper faith as a result.
The point is that we must never forget that we are all involved in mission. We all have a calling to share the Good News of God’s love. Matthew’s gospel ends with a commission to the disciples and, therefore, to every baptised Christian ‘Go and make disciples of all nations …..’ Not everyone looking for faith comes to a place like this with a neat, cogent question. Many will approach someone they know who goes to church and talk about all sorts of things and ask all sorts of weird and wonderful questions because they don’t really know what question to ask ….. we have to be ready to respond as Jesus did in a friendly and warm way to whatever questions that are asked, however weird or discordant they are, however disconnected they seem to be from matters of faith …. and to trust that glowing from our faces, from our actions and from our words will be something of God’s glory and grace which others will sense as special and then be drawn into God’s love, just as those disciples of John were in today’s peculiar gospel reading ……… With our generosity and gentleness and the power of the Holy Spirit, even the most peculiar questions can lead to faith …. we are all missionaries …….
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