The first disciples

What do you want?

What are you looking for?

What are you seeking?

Normally, these are questions asked of us when we are trying to buy a product or a service.  You are replacing your kitchen – what are you looking for?  You are making plans for a holiday – what do you want?  You are swapping your car – what are you after?

And sometimes we know – we go to the shop having done our research – we know exactly what we want.  A good deal – a particular brand – a certain solution.

And sometimes, we’re not really sure at all.  We have merely a vague idea – or we’re right at the beginning of our deliberations – all we have is a blank piece of paper but probably not a blank cheque.

It can be quite difficult to know what we want – to know exactly what we’re looking for – until we see it for ourselves – or experience it.

Imagine for a moment, that the question isn’t voiced by a sales assistant or shop manager but instead the question is voiced by Jesus.  He’s looking right at you and asking – what do you want?  What are you looking for?  What are you after?

I wonder what our answers would be.

If we held the question for a while – what would our deepest most truthful answer be?  Aside from all the things we think we should want, all the things the world says we need – what would our most real answer be?

What are you looking for in life?

What are you after?

What is your heart’s desire?

When was the last time, if ever, you allowed yourself to bring the answer to that question, that desire, that yearning, that longing, to the Lord in prayer?

As we journey through John’s gospel – I want us all to notice the questions that Jesus asks and the words he uses.  Very often, the questions and comments are working on more than one level.  I wonder what difference it makes to us, in our journey of faith, in our listening to the Lord, if we took the questions and imagined Jesus asking them to us.

‘What do you want?’ is a good question to start with.

Because that’s the very first words we hear Jesus speak in John’s gospel.  We’ve heard lots about him, we’ve heard the author describe him and we’ve heard John the Baptist talk about him – but now we got to hear him himself.

John the Baptist is walking through the street and sees Jesus – Look, the Lamb of God!  Remember, John is not the light, he comes to bear witness to the light.  He had by this time, a group of followers – a band of disciples.  But the very nature of John’s ministry was that people would look from him to Jesus.  He is an important cog in the machine – without him, no one would know who Jesus is.  Therefore, it is not surprising that he encourages his disciples to follow after Jesus.  This is John helping Jesus’ ministry get started.  Those who understand John the best, realise they now should be following Jesus.

And I love the story as it unfolds.  Here are two disciples – one of whom is Andrew – following Jesus at a bit of a distance.  Stalking is probably a good description of their activity.  Jesus turns around and starts talking to them.  He meets them where they are – he confronts them – he draws them into conversation.  Goodness knows how long they’d have waited before talking to him, if he’d not made the first move.  He does what he does best.

And what does he say:

What do you want?

Literally – what are you seeking?  What are you looking for?

Now, of course, on one level, that’s a very understandable question.  If someone was following us down the street, we might turn and ask the same.

But, this is Jesus and I think he’s asking a deeper question.  What do you want in life?

The disciples are, I suspect, a little flummoxed.  Their response is also perhaps a little worrying in terms of stalking.  Rabbi – where are you staying?  I mean, if someone following you, said that to you, you’d be worried.

But in truth the disciples want to spend time with Jesus.  That’s what disciples do.  By calling Jesus – Rabbi – they are really saying – we want to learn from you – we want to observe you and be taught by you.  And we can’t do that on the side of the road – we need your time – so can we come to your place and be with you.  Interestingly, the word for staying is the same word as abiding.  John the gospel writer, loves the word abide and here we have the beginnings of the disciples of Jesus learning what it means to abide with Jesus – to stay with Jesus.

What do you want?  We want to be with you.

Jesus’ response – COME and SEE – was a typical RABBI response.  Come and I’ll show you.  Come and you’ll learn from me.  Come and I’ll reveal truth to you.  Come and see for yourselves.

Faith is never second-hand – we have to experience it for ourselves.  And in Jesus’ conversation with Nathanael, we discover just what Jesus is offering.

In the Old Testament, Jacob the younger brother of Esau is known for his deception and cunning.  He steals his brother’s birth-right and runs away.  He considers himself to be all alone in the world and lays down to sleep, with a stone as a pillow.  As he dreams, he sees a stairway resting on the earth and reaching to heaven, with angels going up and down on it.  At the top is the Lord.  The Lord speaks to him – he promises to always be with him, to watch over him, and to bless him.

Centuries later, Jesus tells Nathanael – Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

A new stairway has been created – connecting earth to heaven – that stairway is Jesus and through Jesus God is no longer hidden away.  In Jesus, we have the presence of God.  We will have access to the place where God dwells.  We can see God.

We have here an amazing invitation from Jesus.

You don’t need to look up to an opened heaven – you simply need to look at me to find God.

If we want to learn more about God, if we want to grow in our faith, if we want to understand scripture better, if we want to be more mature, if we want to learn more of the mystery of the gospel and of the God we worship – then here is the invitation – Come and you will see – in fact you will see greater things.

We are never asked to learn on our own – to devise our own means of becoming more like Jesus or discovering the truth of the God we worship – instead our faith is modelled on apprenticeship – of seeing with our own eyes because it is being shown to us.

Imagine for a moment, that all the treasures of the Christian faith are housed in an old-fashioned shop – you know the kind – with little wooden drawers and a filing system known best by one person.  A ladder that moves along and can reach the highest shelves.  And the shopkeeper is Jesus.  And we want to find something – we want to understand an aspect of our faith better.  We want to understand what it means when we pray – your kingdom come – we want to understand what it means when we sing about a risen king – we want to know how we can talk about our faith with confidence – we want to know how to respond to current events.  Well, Jesus says to us – Come and See.  I’ll help you discover the contents of the right drawer.

What do you want?

Come and See.  You will see greater things.

The disciples follow Jesus.  John is deliberate in telling us that.  Of course, there is the simple notion that they physically followed Jesus – but we also know that it’s more than that.  The concept of following Jesus is going to unfold for us in the gospel – but there is a sense in which they are throwing in their lot with Jesus – they are choosing him over anyone else.

But not only do they follow him – they bring others along.  We see, in this passage, the working out of a foundational principle in Christianity.  The greatest testimony is from one friend to another.

Andrew goes and gets Simon.  We have found him – first-hand – and now you need to come and find him.

Philip goes and gets Nathanael.

And so begins the growth of Jesus’ movement.

It’s perhaps worth noting that Nathanael means gift from God and there is a sense in which Jesus is being gifted his disciples by God – God has stirred the hearts of these men, initially through John the Baptist, and each one is then called by Jesus to form a part of his movement.

The Kingdom of God grows one person at a time – that’s how it started and that’s how it has continued down through the centuries.  One person going to another and saying – I’ve found something that I think is worth your exploration – Come and See.

When was the last time you said to someone – Come and See?  Come and find out for yourself.

Sometimes I think we get caught up in thinking that we have to answer all the questions that other people have about faith.  That we have to argue people into the kingdom and that makes us very reluctant to engage in any conversation about faith.

Let’s take a look at Nathanael.

He was a sceptic.  He came from the village of Cana and he obviously wasn’t easily convinced.  Philip tells him that he has found Jesus, but Nathanael gets hung up on the fact that Jesus is from Nazareth.  It would be a little bit like someone from Hawick, suggesting to a neighbour that he’d found a fabulous rugby player, but they’re from Galashiels.  Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

We’re surrounded by sceptics.  Lots of people in society are not necessarily firmly atheist – they remain to be convinced.  They are sceptics.  They’re in our families.  They’re in our community.  They’re at the school gate and sitting next to us in Rotary.  They’re sceptical of our faith and of our trust in Jesus.  But they could be willing to find out more.

So how can we respond to them.

Well Philip doesn’t engage in an argument with Nathanael, instead he invites him to come and see -.  Come and experience this for yourself.

When was the last time you said to someone – Come and See?

And how was Nathanael changed in his heart.

Jesus pierced his scepticism with truth – with reality.

To realise that we are truly known – that the God of the universe knows what is within us – that the God of the universe is personal and intimate.

One of the challenges of being asked the question – ‘what do you want?’ – is that we’re not always honest about the answer.  Sometimes we hide our true desires from ourselves, from others, from God.  We don’t admit to what would be the most natural response to that question.

But the last part of story this morning reminds us that there’s no point trying to hide anything from God.

When Jesus meets Nathanael he says – “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

It was a blessing from the psalms which Nathanael would have easily recognised – but more importantly it demonstrated to Nathanael that Jesus wasn’t your average hack.  He wasn’t simply a rabbi who knew things about things.  He knew Nathanael’s heart.  All that was hidden within – he knew.

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

I think sceptics today would similarly have their worlds turned upside down through an encounter with Jesus.  Discovering the one at the centre of our faith from whom nothing is hidden – the one who is truth and who knows reality and who understands what is possible.

When Jesus meets Simon, Andrew’s brother – he gazes intently at him.  He cuts through the outside and he renames him – Peter – Cephas – Rock.  He declares what Simon is going to become through following him.

I think that kind of encounter – that kind of revelation – is what is needed in our world today.  For people to be confronted by our God saying – I know you – I know your depths – I know what you want – and I know what you can become.

What do you want?

Come and See.

Follow me.

This is the beginning of an adventure that will change the lives of these men entirely.

And it is still how the adventure starts for new people today.

It is how we keep moving on our own journey of faith and it is how we enable others to join in.

So – what do you want from Jesus?  What are you looking for?

How do you respond to his invitation to Come and See?  What do you want to learn from him?

Who could you invite to Come and See Jesus for the first time?

Where is Jesus asking you to Follow Him more closely, with greater passion?

Back to John’s gospel – John the Baptist

One of the funniest characters played by Paul Bettany is Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale.  Down on his luck, he falls in with a band of servants, one of whom is disguised as a knight.  Chaucer forges ancestral documents to prove the knight’s lineage and becomes his herald.  At each competition, he makes way for the Knight by revealing his character and his victories.  It gets more and more elaborate with time and the other heralds try to follow suit but with much less poise.

John the Baptist once performed the same duty, but in his case, the one he was announcing was no impostor. 

John was born with a remarkable promise over his life.  His birth, remember, was miraculous –a sign to Mary that what Gabriel was telling her about her own pregnancy was true. 

Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

John’s father – the priest – Zechariah – sings over John went he is born and prophesies that he will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him.

There is a destiny marked out for John and in today’s readings we discover that he is living out that destiny.

He is causing a stir.  John’s gospel doesn’t tell us everyone we know about John the Baptist – we find that in the other gospels.  We know that crowds were flocking to hear this man, who had been dwelling in the wilderness, and was quite wild in appearance.  We know that he is engaging in baptism – washing people in the river Jordan. 

And know the high headjins in Jerusalem want to know what is going on.  They had a radar for anything that seems extraordinary.  Who does John think he is – where does his authority come from?  Why is he attracting such attention?  The authorities are keen that orthodoxy is maintained and there is a concern that John might be leading people astray.  They are suspicious of anything new that is not emanating from the usual places of power. 

We might find the interview had with John a little strange.  But here is a wee bit of background.

There were three Old Testament figures that the Jewish people had expectations.

Firstly, and perhaps best known to us, is the Messiah.  The one chosen by God to rescue His people. 

The second is Elijah.  When Elijah’s ministry ends he is last seen departing in a chariot – he doesn’t die.  And in the prophet Malachi, the Lord speaks of sending Elijah in advance of bringing his salvation plan to fruition.  The Jews were waiting for Elijah to reappear – hence the question.

Finally, there is The Prophet.  A way back in Deuteronomy 18, we read these words:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.

A prophet, second only to Moses, will appear, who will carry the words of God on his lips.

Three doors – behind which one is John hiding?

Well, according to John – none of them. 

I am not the Messiah.

I am not Elijah.

I am not the Prophet.

“I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

John is the one called to witness to Jesus and to prepare the way for him – to prepare the people to receive him. 

In ancient times, Eastern roads were not surfaced and metalled.  They were mere tracks.  When a king was about to visit a province, when a conqueror was about to travel about his dominion, someone went ahead to make sure that the roads were smoothed, straightened out and put in order.

You can almost imagine today, the equivalent being someone going ahead of Her Majesty, the Queen, to make sure the potholes on the way to Balmoral are filled in. 

I wonder in what ways do we prepare ourselves to meet with Jesus.  How do we make straight the way – how do we fill in the potholes or smooth out the path?  How do we prepare our hearts?  How do we get cleaned up ready for Jesus?

Herein lies a paradox in the gospel.  No-one has to be perfect to meet with Jesus – everyone is the target of his love and compassion and grace.  He comes not for the healthy but for the sick.  And we will see him time and again meeting with those that others shunned in society.

But, it is also true that some people meet Jesus and don’t get it.  They see Jesus and they don’t get it.  They hear Jesus and they don’t get it.  The story of the gospels is of two types of people – those who respond positively to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and whose lives are transformed as a result and those who are stiff-necked and hard of heart and who crucify the one sent by God. 

That leads me to believe that a way does need to be made for the Lord – with the Lord’s help.  We don’t do it on our own.  But if we want to truly engage with Jesus, then maybe there is some work to be done.  Maybe we need to declutter our hearts and minds – to make space for Jesus.  Maybe we need to acknowledge what is broken and messed up within us – to allow Jesus to come closer.  Maybe we need to drop the religious act in order to encounter the one we are called to worship.  Are we keeping him at a distance? 

John the Baptist is often associated with a call to repentance – a call to turn back towards God. 

Is there a sin in our life that means we are turned away from God? 

Do we need to turn back?

Do we need to sit down and confess our wilfulness?

Sometimes, we perhaps speak too readily of the presence of God, without appreciating the holiness and majesty of God.  Sometimes, we perhaps speak too readily of the friendship of Jesus, without appreciating his call on our lives to be holy, as our Father is holy. 

How are we, today, preparing the way for the Lord?

The second aspect of John’s ministry is that he is forever pointing away from himself and towards Jesus.

John is not interested in developing a group of followers.  He is not keen on bringing attention to himself.  His job, as far as he understands it, is to witness to Jesus.

And in his words, which are not many, we discover the wonderful truth about who Jesus is and about what Jesus will do.

Who is Jesus?

‘He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”’

Jesus is greater than John – even though John’s ministry comes first.  John uses the image of untying sandal straps.  This was the most menial of all tasks – a disciple would not do this – it was the job of the lowest slave.  We get an impression of John’s humility, but also of Jesus’ importance.

Who is Jesus?

‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’

This is an amazing title – which is reflected in a number of our hymns today.

Why does John choose this title for Jesus?

Well, it conjures up lots of Old Testament imagery.

Firstly, there is the Passover Lamb.  On the night God is due to free the people of Israel out from under Egyptian Slavery, they are to daub the blood of a lamb on their doorposts – so that the judgment of God passes over them and they are able to walk into freedom.  A substitutionary sacrifice. 

There is the suffering servant of Isaiah – whose is spoken about in terms of a lamb led to the slaughter – a lamb who carries the sins of the world and whose death and suffering brings about our healing and restoration.

John was the son of a priest – he knew that morning and evening, at the temple, a lamb was sacrificed to atone for the sins of the people.

Finally, in the time of the Maccabees, between the Old and New Testament, the horned lamb was the symbol of the great conqueror – the champion of God.

What is John telling us?

Who is Jesus?

Jesus is the once-for-all sacrifice.  He will die for our sins – the sins of the world – and his death will bring about our freedom, our rescue, our healing.  He is the champion of God who faces sin and conquers. 

Who is Jesus?

‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’

The prophets spoke of a time when sin would be dealt with and the people of God would follow God’s ways.  They would be able to be God’s people with God in their midst.  They would be the covenant people of God.  The Spirit of God would enable this.

Jesus is the one on whom God’s Spirit rests and the one through whom the Spirit will come to those who believe. 

Here is the gospel in a nutshell.

Jesus comes and God reveals to John who he is.

Jesus will die for our sins – sacrificing himself as the Lamb of God.

With our sins dealt with, we become new people and we are welcomed into the presence of God in a new way.  And that happens through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is John’s testimony.  And I love how he explains that he doesn’t come to this understanding by himself.  He doesn’t know it, until God reveals it to him.

And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me

John grabs hold of that revelation and shares it wherever he goes.

Because this whole thing is not about him – it is about Jesus.

And that brings me to my final question this morning – John tells his story – he tells of his encounter with Jesus – he tells of who Jesus is and why that is important.  In a very compact way, he tells the gospel and we will spend the next number of months discovering how what John the Baptist said about Jesus is true.

But what about us?

Isn’t it the role and duty and expectation of every generation of followers of Jesus to tell their story and to point the way to Jesus?

What are we doing to make sure that people don’t follow us but follow the Chosen One of God?

We are all called to be witnesses and to point to Jesus. 

The mission of all the prophets was to awaken people to the coming of the Messiah, to prepare their hearts to receive him, to call them to be faithful to God and the laws of God – to awaken hopes – to call them to account.

The mission of all disciples is make more disciples – to awaken people to the presence of Jesus – to prepare their hearts to receive him – to call them to faithfulness – to awaken hope – to make straight the way.

What are we doing, to do that?

I love how Jean Vanier describes this task:

Those who are witnesses to Jesus do not give our ideas, ideologies or even doctrines.  They do not seek followers for themselves and their own glory.  Rather, they seek to lead people to Jesus.  They believe in the compelling power of the truth and the freedom of people to welcome the truth or not.

They speak of what they have lived, experienced, seen and heard in their hearts.

They speak out clearly, truthfully and with courage, even in the face of opposition or mockery.

They tell their story.

They tell how Jesus is healing their hearts of stone, giving them hearts of flesh…

Witnesses tell how Jesus is transforming their lives and bringing them a new inner freedom, peace and joy.

People in our world find hope when they find credible witness, men and women of living faith, bearing witness to the presence of God.

That is a huge challenge to each and every one of us. 

We don’t come form a tradition that finds it easy to share our faith – to witness to the truth – to speak of Jesus – to point to Jesus.

But if we do not speak of Jesus – who will?

If we are not pointing to Jesus – who will?

If we are not telling the story of Jesus – who will?

What are you doing to make straight the way of the Lord to your own heart?

What are you going to enable others to do the same?

Watchnight Service 2018

One of the highlights of the weeks running up to Christmas is the opportunity to go and see a variety of Christmas performances.  On Thursday evening, we had Skene Primary School here and they had produced a wonderful nativity.  The costumes were impressive, the singing was joyful and the innkeeper’s wife was scary.

Over the years, infant nativities have been the source of many of a good story and this is one I heard last week.

In a particular school, the highlight of the year was the Christmas production and there was a little boy who was desperate to play the part of Joseph.  The day came when the parts were being announced, and sadly he wasn’t chosen.  Instead, he was given the role of the innkeeper.  On the night of the performance, Mary and Joseph arrive at the innkeeper’s door and dutifully knock.  The door is opened and the innkeeper appears.  Joseph asks – Can my wife May and I come in and stay?  The innkeeper, still smarting from his disappointment replied – She can come in, but you can’t.  I wanted to be Joseph.

So often it’s been the innkeeper that has proved the funniest in nativity plays – although sometimes the shepherds are hilarious.

But we all love a good innkeeper and yet, I’m afraid to say this, there may not have been an actual innkeeper on that particular night in Bethlehem.

Luke tells us very simply about the birth of Jesus.  A census has been called, reminding the locals of their Roman overlords and Joseph belongs to David’s line.  His ancestral hometown is Bethlehem – so the couple travel there in time for the baby to be born.

When Jesus arrives on the scene, Mary wraps him in cloths as any young mother would have done, and lays him in a manger.

Why in a manger?

Because there was no room elsewhere.

Some translations and we are perhaps most familiar with these, say there was no room at the inn.  Hence the innkeeper.  But Bethlehem was a small town and its unlikely it had a commercial inn – it wasn’t on a busy highway.

The word that Luke uses, appears later on in his gospel, when he is talking about Jesus and his disciples celebrating the last supper.  In that instance, it is referring to a guest room.  There are other appearances of the word in the gospel, which seem to relate to being a guest.

Peasant homes normally consisted of 2 rooms, with one used exclusively for guests.  The family cooked, ate and slept in the main room and any animals would be brought in for the night and kept at the lower level of the living room – hence there would have been a manger or feeding trough in that part of the house.

Joseph belonged to Bethlehem and so accommodation would have been made available for him and Mary.  However, it’s possible that when they arrived, it was occupied by someone else – someone who outranked them.  As a consequence, they find themselves in with the animals.

In truth, we don’t know exactly where Jesus was born.  It could have been a stable attached to an inn.  Early traditions have it that Jesus was born in a cave.  And some argue that he was born in the open air – in a courtyard – where the feeding trough sat.

We know only that everything points to poverty, obscurity and even rejection.

There was no room for Jesus.

That is such an oxymoron.

Here is the one through whom all room was made – the heavens and the earth and every nook and cranny in creation – and yet, on the night he was born, there was no room.

Here is the one who grafted galaxies – who made space – who set stars hanging in the sky – who carved out oceans and made hidden depths – and yet, on the night he was born, there was no room.

We all know how difficult it is to make room.

If you’ve ever been on a crowded train, you’ll know how hard it can be to create space.  There are bags and arms and legs everywhere – seats double booked and not a trolley in sight.  Sometimes people have to stand for hours on end and sometimes people don’t even get off the platform on to the train because there is no room.

If you’ve ever gone over the top with purchasing Christmas decorations or you receive a multitude of Christmas cards, you may know what its like to have no room for anything else on your mantel piece, in your porch, on your shelves.

If you’ve ever eaten a big Christmas lunch, you’ll know how hard it can be to make room.  One course after the other – a starter, the soup, the turkey with all the trimmings, the Christmas pudding followed by some apple pie, the tea and coffee, the mince pie, the chocolate mint – the sofa, the snooze.  There is no room for anything else.

If you’ve ever turned your home into a bed and breakfast for Christmas, there may have been an occasion when there was simply no room for anyone else.  The spare room is made up and you had to shift everything from it to the garage or the loft – because spare room are rarely spare.  The living room is transformed into a bed room at night.  There are more people under the roof than is sensible or practical and there is no room for anyone else.

Or perhaps even now you are wondering how on earth you are going to manage to give everyone a seat at the dinner table or in the lounge afterwards – children on the floor and stools at the ready.

We can experience ‘no room’ time and again in our lives.

But I wonder if we ever stop to consider whether we find it hard to make room for Jesus.

Is there a sign saying ‘No vacancies’ on our lives?

Is the guest room available in our hearts?

Or is it occupied by someone or something else?

Is there something more important to us, that takes up such room, that there is not an inch of space left for Jesus?  Not even at Christmas.

Oh we celebrate Christmas alright – but is there so much stuffed in (pun intended) – that there is no room for Jesus.  Are we so wrapped up in everything that we’re not even aware that he is absent?

Approximately 33 years after Jesus was born, we see something in stark contrast to his birth.  Jesus arranges for his disciples and him to celebrate the Passover meal – it is the last supper, although they don’t know it.  When the disciples ask where to set things up, it becomes apparent that Jesus has command of a guest room.  The one for whom there was no room at his birth, is now the host in an upper room.  It is a mere glimpse of his true authority.

And at that meal, he says this:

“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

Jesus is still looking for us to make room for him.  Not just a little room – because you can’t squeeze Jesus in – he is the maker of the universe, the creator of all things – but enough room that he and the Father and the Holy Spirit are at home within us.

Mary made room for Jesus in her own body – he filled the space within as he was conceived, as he grew and developed and as she nurtured him to full term.

Joseph made room for him in his life, even though it must have cost him greatly.  He made room for him in his family line.

The shepherds made room for Jesus – leaving their flocks behind to go and find him.  And they made room for him in their conversations afterwards – as they went on their way telling everyone about him and praising God.

Later on, the wise men, made room for him – travelling a great distance so that they could bow down and worship him.

Tonight, each of us is the innkeeper and we have to decide – is there any room for Jesus?