Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany: “Who are you looking for?” – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 15 January 2023 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9; St. John Ch 1: v 29 – 42)

The story goes that a clergyman attached to Oxford University was called upon to preach once a year at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. One year he began: “As I was saying last year . . . ” and clearly expected his congregation to have remembered. Well, last Sunday’s sermon referred to one four years ago though we weren’t required to remember it!, but I will be merciful and reference one of mine just a fortnight ago when, if you were here, you might remember that I mentioned Josephus.

I have been looking at some of his writings which provide us with major historical resources for the events of the years before and after the birth of Jesus Christ. Josephus in his book “The Jewish War” covers the period between 168BC and 70 AD. He himself started out as a leader of a Jewish revolt against the Romans but when he surrendered to them, he was in due course commissioned to write an account of the events of that time. He is careful therefore to present his summaries in a way that put the Romans in a good light. Although there are a few other sources for that time, we owe much to Josephus not least for the information he gives us about the movers and shakers of the age. For instance he wrote about Herod the Great and much of what we know about Herod and his wives and warring children is down to Josephus who gave us their names and complicated relationships.

But of Jesus there is no mention. In another of his books, “Antiquities” composed around 93 AD, John the Baptist is briefly mentioned and there are two references to Jesus, one relating the death of James, described as the brother of Jesus and the second including a brief account of the crucifixion though this has possibly been expanded by Christian scribes as they copied the book. This latter section is known as the “Testimonium”. The earliest manuscript copy we have of the works of Josephus dates to the 11th century and Christian monks were certainly part of the transmission process, so scholars suspect editorial additions.

We would have expected so special a person as Jesus to have made more impact on the world at large but during his lifetime and short ministry of perhaps 3 years few knew of him outside Galilee and Jerusalem. It was later followers of Christ who spread his name far and wide.

We have to be content with what the gospels tell us as we seek knowledge about Jesus and try to discover what he was like, piecing together what information we have from those who followed him. Those followers began with the 12 disciples and we read in today’s gospel the beginning of the call of those disciples. We accept this as perfectly natural because it is there embedded in the gospel story but it is not how we would do things today and is rather alien to our way of thinking. If we had a cause to promote we would probably do some fund raising, hire a Hall, put out some publicity, arrange some media interviews, get ourselves into the newspapers or online.

But life was rather different in 1st Century Palestine and the formation of groups of people was not that abnormal. At the lowest level there were, for instance, groups of brigands, bands of robbers who were outside the law and lived from hand to mouth, though probably with some support from family and associates. They probably had no fixed settlement to avoid being arrested. Holier groups of people got together to form various Jewish sects of which the Essenes are the best known. They even constructed buildings, the remains of which today remind us of our own monastic ruins.

The gospels also tell us that John the Baptist had his supporters – disciples who assisted him and who listened to his words and guidance. Our St. John gospel reading this morning names one of those disciples of John the Baptist as Andrew and he, at least, transferred his allegiance from John to Jesus because John himself indicated that Jesus was the person to whom John’s baptising ministry was pointing.

Jesus asks them a question: “What are you looking for?” In St. John’s gospel we don’t find unnecessary or trivial conversation reported. If speech is written down, it has a point to make. Disciples of John the Baptist had a particular expectation of the Messiah. Jesus was his own person and was working out what being the Messiah might mean for him. He certainly rejected those interpretations which involved command of an army and the ensuing violence. “What are you looking for” challenges the assumptions of St. Andrew and his companions. As they are thinking of transferring their allegiance from John the Baptist to Jesus so they have to be clear what they are looking for and who they are seeking. But their answer to Jesus, as so often with conversations in St. John’s gospel, is elliptical. “Where are you staying?” they ask. We may deduce from this that they wanted to listen to what he had to say so that they could draw conclusions about what he was like, what his message was and whether they thought he was the one to whom John the Baptist was pointing. Initially then the disciples are undecided but once convinced Andrew rushes to find his brother Peter to tell him that they have found the Messiah.

This issue of Messiahship comes up again when Jesus asks the 12 “who do people say that I am?” You will remember that it is St. Peter who blurts out the insight that Jesus is the Messiah. You might think that this querying by Jesus of the disciples’ perception of who he was would be right up St. John’s street. But curiously St John does not include this episode in his gospel. The closest we get is when the words of Jesus cause offence to those who followed him so that they fall away. This is when he speaks of his flesh and blood as being food which leads to eternal life. The imagery is too much for the people; too physical; too much like cannibalism. Jesus asks the 12 “Do you also want to leave?” Peter it is who says: “Lord to whom shall we go? Your words are the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s Holy One.” In this conversation the disciples get it right. No error, no misinterpretation here. Their understanding of Jesus and his task is commended by Jesus – but all too soon Peter takes a wrong turning as he shows that his understanding of what it means to be Messiah certainly does not include suffering and death.

There are other people whom Jesus questions too. He demands from the soldiers and temple police who sought to arrest him: “Who are you looking for?” The question is asked twice and repetition is always significant in St. John’s gospel and means that what is being said is particularly important. Jesus knew, the soldiers knew and we know – that the answer to that question was that they were looking for Jesus. But they were looking for him because they and their leaders had a false understanding of him and saw him as a threat. They were looking for a revolutionary, the leader of an armed gang. So it was that they came with swords and weapons because they were expecting a fight before they could carry out their orders. They must have been relieved that he gave himself up without a fight. But they might have asked themselves why this was.

There is another occasion when Jesus says “Who are you looking for?” That was in the garden of burial and was addressed to Mary Magdalen. She too was looking for Jesus as she and we know. But she was looking for a dead body so that she could perform the burial rites properly. She was desperately trying to make sense of the tomb no longer being sealed by the huge stone door and no longer containing the dead body of her Lord. I expect that many explanations occurred to her – except the true one. She was not looking for a living Christ but he it was who was approaching her and speaking to her. She was about to be overwhelmed by the realization that the resurrection of Jesus changed everything. Now she was faced with a living Lord not a dead one and could not contain her joy.

Jesus asks us too “Who are you looking for?” It is easy to try to make Jesus in our own image or to be seeking some consolation or a guarantee of a long life and a happy one. We can go down paths which lead us only to partial truths or we can misunderstand Jesus as, from time to time, the disciples did. Our search may take a lifetime but through it we need always to be looking for the real Jesus, the true Messiah and to listen to his words of truth as he calls us to be his disciples.