When Peyton was little, it seemed like she was never clingier or demanded more attention than when I was trying to get something done. She was perfectly capable of entertaining herself for a little while. But no matter how many times I told her I would play with her when I was done, there she’d be. “Mommy, come see this. Mommy, will you read to me? Mommy, will you play with me?” Sometimes she would literally hold on to my leg to get me to stay in one place.
Eventually, I’d finish my project, and I’d sit down to read or play with her. But, no sooner would I get settled than off she’d go on her own. Where was the child who was so eager for me to sit down with her? She was nowhere to be found.
Then I learned something that made a lot of sense. When adults are busy and distracted, children start to feel a little insecure. They’re not sure what to expect of us. They want us to be a familiar and certain home base, and they lose confidence when we’re bustling about. But, as soon as we sit down and they know where we are, they regain their sense of security. They can venture off on their own, knowing where we are, knowing they have a safe place they can count on. I always think of that when I read the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ first disciples and their question to Jesus: “Where are you staying?”
John the Baptizer—not the same John whose Gospel we’re reading today—had been preaching and baptizing along the Jordan, as we talked about last week. We don’t know how long he’d been preaching, but it was long enough to acquire some disciples—students who wanted to follow him and his teachings.
No doubt they’d witnessed an earlier exchange between John and a delegation sent by some Pharisees. They asked John who he was, and he made it clear that he was neither the Messiah nor Elijah nor the prophet like Moses that the Jews were expecting. Instead, he confessed to being a messenger who was calling people to prepare for the coming of the Lord who, he said, was already in their midst—someone so much greater than John that John wasn’t worthy even to get down in the dirt and untie this person’s sandals.
The next day, John sees Jesus walking towards him and testifies to what he knows: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” This was knowledge that John had, not by human means, but by divine revelation. In this Gospel, John doesn’t baptize Jesus. Instead, he is a witness to the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and remaining on Jesus, and God told him how to interpret what he had seen. God, who had sent John on his mission to baptize with water, had told John, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” John concludes, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
When I read John’s words, I think of his mother Elizabeth, and how she recognized the baby Mary was carrying as her Lord. I think of John leaping for joy in her womb. John surely “knew” Jesus before this moment; they were cousins after all. But the result of that divine revelation was that John really knew—really understood—who Jesus was: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
After that passionate and heartfelt testimony, the reaction of two of his disciples the next day isn’t too surprising. Seeing Jesus again, John draws their attention to Jesus. And, they up and leave John to follow Jesus.
Who knows how long they trailed along behind Jesus before he turned and noticed them. I always wonder, was it a divine nudge that made him turn, or was it just that creepy feeling that we all get from time to time, that someone is watching us or following us? Which ever it was, Jesus turns and asks them a question: “What are you looking for?”
That word “looking” isn’t simply gazing at something with the eyes. This is an intellectual or emotional or spiritual searching. It can mean seeking information. But it can also mean searching for something—or someone—that you want to bring into relationship with yourself, without knowing where it—or they—can be found. It can mean searching for something that we once had but lost.
I imagine John’s disciples looking at each other with blank looks on their faces as they considered Jesus’ question. What are they looking for? John had said Jesus was the Lamb of God they’d all been waiting for, so—duh—they’re looking for the Messiah. But, was a glimpse of this man all they were after? Or were they, like us, looking for something more?
I like the fact that one of the men who follows Jesus that day remains unnamed. He’s kind of like a blank line where we can insert our own names. We can hear Jesus directing his question to us: “What are you looking for? What is it that you want to find, but don’t know where to find it? What is it that you have lost and want to regain? What are you looking for?”
Maybe it’s a sense of belonging and a need for connection and community. An assurance that we’re not alone in our trials. A way to ease the weight of our guilt for all our screw-ups. A companion who is with us through thick and thin. To be part of something bigger than we are. Rekindled passion and excitement in our relationship with God that we seem to have lost.
In this time when the world seems to be hurtling toward disaster while our present-day Nero’s fiddle and Rome burns, maybe what we’re looking for is confidence that our world will ultimately be healed and perfected. Maybe we’re looking for a place—a person—we can use as our home base as we navigate a confusing world. What are you looking for?
When Jesus posed that question to John’s disciples, he appears to have caught them off guard. They don’t tell him what they’re looking for. Instead, they answer his question with another question: “Where are you staying?” It seems like a non sequitur. Why would they answer Jesus’ question with that question?
Again, the gospel writer uses a word that has multiple layers. The Greek word that appears in our passage as “stay” also means “to abide.” “Abiding” means to be present continually. It means to be constant in who you are. It means to be held without being let go. “Abiding” suggests permanence—of relationship, as much as geography. So maybe the question the disciples ask is not so odd after all. Maybe what they are looking for can be found where he is staying.
Where is Jesus staying? Over and over again, Scripture tells us. “The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” And, in more poetic language, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Where does Jesus abide? Jesus abides with his Father.
He could have just told the disciples this. But he knows that the disciples won’t be satisfied with words. John’s announcement wasn’t enough. Even an answer from Jesus wouldn’t be enough. Jesus knows that these would-be followers need to see for themselves the deeper truth of who he is and where he abides. And so, he answers with an invitation: “Come and see.”
And they do. They come and see where he is staying. Maybe they walked with him to the physical place where he was residing, but during the time they spent with him, they also came to understand where and with whom he was abiding. They came to know the truth of who he was. They came to know that he was the one who could form the true center of their lives. They came to see for themselves that, no matter where they were physically, Jesus was there for them.
Do you know where Jesus is staying? Do you know him as the sure and certain center of your life—the home base who anchors you and gives you the security you need in an uncertain world? Or do you sometimes look to other things the world has to offer? It’s easy to order our lives around human relationships. We may anchor ourselves in our possessions or our jobs. We may even decide we can only count on ourselves. All of these things are constantly shifting—there’s no permanence to them. If we try to center our lives in them, it’s no wonder that we begin to feel anxious and insecure. We become like children with parents who are constantly moving about, occupied with everything but us. The world doesn’t give us the security and permanence that staying with Jesus does.
But when we truly know Jesus as our Savior and Redeemer—the Son of God, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, the lover of our souls—we find our true center. Like little children who know where their parents are, we can freely move about in the world. We gain confidence from knowing who and where he is—the Son of God, abiding in God. We feel secure in his love, abiding in him as he abides in his Father.
This freedom and security is the great gift of faith, given when we truly see and accept Jesus as the Son of God. But the gift isn’t given simply to make our lives more enjoyable. It also has a kingdom purpose. This freedom is given to us so that we can witness to who Jesus is.
After Andrew had come and seen who and where Jesus was, he was moved to seek out Peter and to declare whom he had found. Like Andrew, our knowing where Jesus is staying, and abiding with him, empowers our own witness in the world. Jesus spoke of this in his prayer, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus is the secure center we need, so that we they can venture out to tell others about the One we’ve found.
Today, Jesus is still asking us “What are you looking for?” And to our question, “Where are you staying?”, he still invites us to “come and see.” As we come to know what we are looking for, we find in him the secure center that we seek. When we know where he is staying, we become children who are able to freely move about in the world. When we abide in him, we become children who can confidently declare to others that we have found the Messiah. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young