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See, Stay, Believe: Sunday, January 15, 2023

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany:
John 1:29-42

In maybe an unsaid New Year’s resolution, Leslie and I have been trying to read more, and specifically, read the books filling our shelves at home. So I’m finally getting to comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s 1993 book, SeinLanguage. And in the opening pages he talks about bookstores as “smarter than you” stores.* We’re intimidated when we walk into them, or by the slightly eccentric clerk at the cash register, because “to walk into a bookstore, you have to admit there’s something you don’t know.” And then you don’t even know where to look within the bookstore. “Not only do I lack knowledge, I don’t even know where to get it. So just to walk into a bookstore you’re admitting to the world, “I’m not too bright.”* And yet the paradox is that most of us would agree that the people who frequent bookstores, even if they struggle to find the right section, and then find the book within it, and then to remember their PIN number at the checkout — these people are actually probably pretty smart, and trustworthy, and on to something.

And here we are near the beginning of the Gospel of John. And not once but twice is this admission of ignorance (that I’d never noticed before; and I wonder why it’s so important for the evangelist to preserve): “I myself did not know him,” says John the Baptist about Jesus. And yet we’re in this season bookended by the revelation of God to the magi at Epiphany, and then the revelation of God to Simeon and Anna in the Temple at Candlemas, this admission of ignorance is supplanted by revelation to the Baptizer, when he says — twice — “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” And then — again, twice — the story mentions the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus.

All of the gospels describe the baptism of Jesus a little differently. In the first two that appear in our Bibles, it’s Jesus that sees the Spirit descending. In Luke, it’s implied that the crowd are witnesses. Here, we heard that the revelation was to John. And then there’s a voice: Mark and Luke describe a voice addressing Jesus: “You are my Son…” Matthew has the voice stating “this is my Son,” presumably to the crowds. But then here in John, there’s no booming voice from the skies, but the Baptist recalling — “the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit'” — on some previous, and probably much more subtle occasion. And yet there is that Epiphany theme of revelation and appearing: one way or another, Jesus is made known. And in this Gospel, the sometimes tricky question about why Jesus is participating in a ritual of repentance is avoided. Because here this baptism movement is about revelation: “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

This revealing continues, and we heard about our favourite Andrew, and an unnamed disciple. (Some suspect it’s the unnamed Beloved Disciple who becomes prominent in the latter half of the book.) It’s Andrew who invites his brother Peter to meet Jesus, and here right at the outset of the story, Andrew’s already calling Jesus “Messiah.” Something that Peter does elsewhere, in Mark, though halfway through the book. Maybe this points to the style or ideas informing the book and its perspective, or maybe it points to the dynamics of faith. How in the Christian life there’s an ever-deepening and sometimes changing relationship with our faith. Sometimes it’s in our head, other times more from the gut. Sometimes hot, sometimes cold. Sometimes it’s direct, other times it’s mediated through a friend or family member.

But, whatever the case, always before us is the invitation of Jesus: “follow me.” To follow means putting Jesus ahead. John the Baptist would describe it, in one place, of Jesus increasing, and himself decreasing. That’s maybe a lesson for our egos, or our theologies, or churchmanship: to ensure that Jesus is the one leading the way. And Seinfeld’s observation about bookstores as “smarter than you” stores is apt. It’s OK, and even healthy, to be honest about how our (human) knowledge or (human) faith might be incomplete, or tentative, or imperfect. But like John the Baptist admitting “I didn’t know him,” it can be the path to a revelation from God, by grace (not our own perfection or ingenuity). And the story of Andrew describes three steps: they see Jesus, and he asks “what are you looking for?” They then stay with him, where he is staying. And this culminates in belief, so that Andrew can proclaim Jesus as the Messiah to Peter. See, stay, and believe. That might be another way of describing the dynamics of our life of faith. That ever-deepening progression. But also the possibility of needing to grow in that belief by re-encountering Jesus by seeing and staying with him anew, in new contexts, or new stages of life. Maybe after some change, or even tragedy. We trust that God will continue to be a God of revelation. And a Messiah who says “follow me” and “come and see.” And we’re not alone in any of this.

And volumes could be written about the title “Lamb of God,” and of our, and the world’s sin. There are some different school of thought on what Old Testament or other contemporaneous Jewish imagery is being evoked. But most put weight behind the symbol of the Paschal Lamb. This Gospel makes much of the Passover. It’s only in this Gospel that Jesus is killed at the same time that the passover lambs were being slaughtered. And it’s in this Gospel in which a hyssop branch is used to bring wine to Jesus’s lips, on the cross; hyssop being the same thing used to mark the lamb’s blood on the doorway at Passover. So there is Passover and Eucharistic symbolism here.

Today as we consider this passage we think of the hopes and expectations, and also the assumptions, of the crowds. And also what Jesus would do to actually save people from their sins. He was not universally welcomed. His victory looked like anything but. In the other Gospels he’ll instruct his followers to not reveal his status as Messiah. Probably because of the crowd’s unhelpful expectations and assumptions. And so we, too, in our day might sometimes struggle recognize Jesus for who he is and what he brings. But there’s always the invitation: “follow me.” And see, stay, and believe. And it won’t always be easy. The crowds are noisy, and want a noisier, more obvious kind of salvation. But what we’ve been left is the broken body and shed blood of Christ. But our traditional liturgical response (the response passed on to us from centuries before us) is “Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” A response that doesn’t make much sense to the world.

Richard Carter, a priest working in England, has written about this. He says,

In the Eucharist, Jesus is immobilized. He is reduced to a little piece of bread. The world needs him so much and yet he doesn’t speak. We need him so much and yet he doesn’t move. The Eucharist is the silence of God and the weakness of God. To reduce God to bread while the world is so noisy, so agitated, so confused. It is as though the world and the Eucharist were walking in opposite directions. And they seem to get further and further from each other. One has to be courageous not to be carried away int he world’s march. One needs faith and willpower to go cross current towards the Eucharist. To stop and be silent and to worship…. Yet this powerless Jesus, nailed down and annihilated, is the God of the Impossible, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end.**

“I myself did not know him.” And yet that is God’s revelation to us. “Lamb of God, who takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Lamb of God, who takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Lamb of God who takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace.”

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Jerry Seinfeld, SeinLanguage (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 3.
** Richard Carter, The City Is My Monastery, 130.