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What are you looking for?

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on January 16, 2011.
John 1:29-42

In his book, Desiring God’s Will, a Christian counselor and spiritual director named David Benner tells the story of Calla.  Calla sought out David Benner’s counsel because of her mounting frustration in life.  Calla was a single woman who desperately wanted to be married and have children.  She knew her biological clock was ticking, she had no prospects for a husband in sight, and she was vacillating between panic and bitterness. 

When David Benner asked Calla one day to identify her deepest desires, she was puzzled, even angry.  Why would Dr. Benner ask that question when she had just poured her heart out about wanting to be married and have children?  Still, David Benner kept asking, “What are you looking for…really?”

Of all the questions Jesus asks—and he asks a lot during his earthly ministry—the one he raises in today’s scripture cuts right to the core of who we are.  Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of John aren’t a teaching about God or a call to discipleship.  His first words are an unsettling question:  “What are you looking for?” 

That’s odd.  If I were predicting the first question Jesus would ask his future disciples, I would guess, “Who do you say that I am?” or “Do you love me?”  But that’s not where Jesus begins.  His first recorded question in John’s gospel is, “What are you looking for?” 

So…how would you answer that question?  If I had to guess, most of us would answer with responses like, “I’m looking for a comfortable life.  Good health.  A loving family.  Children who are successful. Financial security in my golden years.”

But as David Benner says, these are examples of superficial “wants” or “surface desires.”  If we plumbed the depths of our souls, what would emerge as our greatest longings, our deepest desires?

Now that’s an altogether different question, isn’t it?  “What are you looking for…really?” 

None other than John the Baptist struggled with this very question.  And his answer was as plain as the camel hair clothes he wore.  John was looking for the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.  The people of Israel had endured hundreds of years without a word from the Lord.  Their hearts were as spiritually parched as the desert John the Baptist chose to wander as he preached about sin and repentance.  In a sense, John was not just the Baptizer but the Appetizer for the one who would come and ultimately satisfy the soul hunger of all people.

For a time, the people of Israel wondered if John the Baptist was the Messiah.  But John makes it clear that he is not worthy to untie the sandal of the Messiah whom he just recently baptized, the one on whom the Spirit of God descended from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him, the one who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit of God will not come and go with this man.  The spirit  will remain with him, abide within him forever. 

His name is Jesus, and he is, says John the Baptist not once but twice, the Lamb of God…the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. 

Now I don’t know about you, but that phrase takes away the sin of the world triggers something in my soul.  What am I looking for?  I’m not just looking for a nice home and good friends.  I’m looking for a way to be cleansed of the sin I’ve committed, a way to be free of the guilt I feel over that sin.  Deep inside of me there is a longing to feel clean again. 

Maybe that same longing stirred within the two disciples of John who heard their master say about Jesus, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples (of John the Baptist) heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 

And very quickly we encounter a level of “double entendre” that runs throughout John’s Gospel.  The author of John is fond of deliberately using words with double meanings.  And so, these two unnamed disciples of John the Baptist are not only walking behind Jesus.  To “follow Jesus” is the core meaning of being his disciple in John’s gospel.  So these two are signaling that they wish to stop being disciples of John and start being disciples of Jesus. 

Notice that it is Jesus and not the disciples who initiates the conversation.  St. Augustine once said that we could not even begin to seek Jesus if he had not already found us.  Indeed, the primary reason we seek Jesus at all is because he began seeking us even before we were conceived.  We long for Jesus because he first longed for us. 

Then comes the seminal question, the first question Jesus puts to all his prospective disciples:  “What are you looking for?” 

Do the disciples hesitate before answering?  The text doesn’t say.  What we do know is that the disciples try to deflect the question with a question of their own that seems utterly disconnected from Jesus’ question—“Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher),” where are you staying?”

Why this awkward reply?  Why didn’t the disciples just answer Jesus’ question? 

Maybe because they couldn’t, at least not at first. 

Several years ago in a retreat for pastors and church leaders led by Ruth Haley Barton, Ruth asked us to ponder the question, “What do you most deeply desire?”  I was stunned as I thought about the question because I realized I didn’t know what I most deeply desired.  Like most Christians, I had been taught to distrust my desires as primarily sinful, as something I should crucify rather than follow.  Besides, I couldn’t and wouldn’t expect God to honor my desires because it was God’s will rather than my will that counted.  So, unconsciously I dismissed my desires as irrelevant, to the point that I wasn’t even sure what my deepest desires were!

Apparently, Calla, David Benner’s counselee, had a similar response to the same question.  She clearly wanted a husband and children.  But beyond a family, she had no idea what she deeply desired, and she struggled to answer Dr. Benner’s question, “What are you looking for…really?”

The disciples were in a similar boat.  They wanted a rabbi, a teacher who could enlighten them about God.  Like many Israelites they were hungry for a word from the Lord, and they were searching for somebody who could give them the information they desired. 

They were looking for a rabbi.  What they found was far more than they bargained for.  What they found was the Messiah. 

With the help of people like Ruth Barton and David Benner, I have learned that there is a reason Jesus starts with a question about desire.  Because despite what I was taught, Christian spirituality is not about the crucifixion of our desire.  Rather, it is about the distillation and the focusing of our desire. 

What I have learned is that all my desires—even my most debased desires—reflect something of the nature and glory of God because all my desires originate with God.  As Janet Ruffing says, “Our desires, our wants, our longings, our outward and inward searching—when uncovered, expressed, and recognized—all lead to the Divine Beloved…All our desires lead us to God.” 

And so, writes David Benner, “The journey of our desire may lead us to byways and cul-de-sacs, but if we follow it we will ultimately be led to the Divine Beloved.  We may not know what we long for, but our deepest longings are God-given because they always point toward the divine.” 

To discover our deepest desires we need to start with our surface desires and dig down from there.  So, for example, David Benner helped Calla discover that beneath her desire for a husband and children was an even deeper longing for love and significance, a God-shaped empty space that only God could fill. 

In my own case, after I first heard Ruth Barton ask the question, “What are you looking for?” I spent several days that turned into several weeks tunneling down past my surface desires toward my deepest desire.  And I came to understand that underneath all my longing for success and professional respect was the longing to be intimate with the one who made me and knows me and loves me more than I know and love myself.  But the embarrassing truth is that it took me, a pastor for many years, a good while to figure that out. 

Now, as it turns out, the disciples’ awkward question of Jesus is not a bad question.  Once again, it has a deeper meaning that first meets the eye.   What the disciples ask in the literal Greek is, “Where are you remaining?” or “Where are you abiding?” 

Now, remember John the Baptist has already told us that the Holy Spirit is remaining or abiding with Jesus—permanently!  Jesus has no permanent address, no place to lay his head that he can call his own.  More than likely, he is staying for the moment with friends.  But his true address is in the bosom of the Father.  Jesus resides within the very heart of God in a way nobody ever has. 

So the disciples are unwittingly asking Jesus a profound question.  How does Jesus respond? 

He could answer with a theological treatise about the Trinity, about how he and God and the Holy Spirit hang out together in an intimate communion that defies description.  He could at least introduce the idea that he abides with the Spirit, and the Spirit abides with him.

But Jesus doesn’t go there.  Instead, he extends an offer only he can make—come and see.   The one who came into this world to cure spiritual blindness says, “Come and spend time with me.  Abide with me, and you will see the face of God, and you will discover your heart’s desire.” 

They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.  There’s that important word, “remain” again.  What does it mean to remain with Jesus?

It means to spend time with him in such a way that you are being formed into the image of Christ for the sake of others. It means to spend time with him so that you can become like him. 

When and how do we sort through our disordered desires, our lust and greed and all the other longings that do not honor God?  Spiritual masters like David Benner tell us that our desires are purified and properly ordered when we abide with Jesus in prayer, silence, and solitude. 

“Prayer sorts out our desires,” writes David Benner.  “Notice that I did not say that in prayer we are able to sort out our desires.  No.  The sorting work is God’s, not ours.  Our job is to sit in God’s presence and allow God to purify our desires.   If this does not seem practical enough, you have not spent enough time sitting in silence in God’s presence.  Words may be coming between you and God.

“Silence in the presence of God belongs to the core of prayer.  It deepens our awareness of both ourselves and God.  For it is in the silence of silent prayer that we learn what our desires most truly are.  It is here that God reveals us to ourselves… (It is here) where we discover our deepest desire is nothing other than God alone.”

I believe that Andrew and his unnamed friend became vitally aware of and connected to their deepest desire as they remained that day with Jesus.  And I believe a similar process is possible for us because I have learned through my own practice of solitude and silence that my flawed desires can be distilled, and my deepest desire is for nothing other than God alone.  And so can you.

Notice what happens as Andrew is spiritually formed.  His first move is to introduce his brother, Simon, to Jesus.  That’s what spiritually formed people do.  They share Jesus out of the bounty of Jesus’ love.  They evangelize not because they’re told to, but because they want to.

Notice how Jesus immediately renames Simon to Peter because he sees the potential for who Peter can be.  And I am reminded that what I am looking for is someone who can not only visualize me at my best, but help me be my best. 

That someone is Jesus.  He is what I am looking for.  And whether or not you know it, he is what you are looking for, too.