Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked
“What are you looking for?”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 2, 2020
10th Sunday after Pentecost
The Gospel of John starts with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Then we are told, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”[i]
Once John the Baptist’s ministry is in full swing, priests and Levites come from Jerusalem to the Jordan River to ask, “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you a prophet?” John tells them he is not the Messiah. Rather, “I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
The next day, John sees Jesus approaching, and he testifies to the truth he knows in his heart: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” When he baptizes Jesus, he sees the Spirit descend upon him like a dove from the heavens. Then, the very next day John stands with two of his disciples as Jesus comes near. Again, John testifies, “Look, here is the lamb of God!” John’s disciples are so convinced of his testimony, they leave John’s side and turn toward Jesus. Jesus sees them and asks, “What are you looking for?” Instead of answering him, they ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and see.” They come and see where he is staying and spend the day with him. Andrew, one of the disciples, is persuaded that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah so he rushes to find his brother, Simon. Jesus takes one look at him and gives him a new name: Peter.
In this text we see people who witness Jesus, are changed by Jesus, and are compelled to go and tell others what they have experienced. Come and see. Go and tell. But what about Jesus’ question for these first seekers, “What are you looking for?” Wouldn’t the logical question be, “What do you want?” But maybe this story is not about what people want. Maybe it is about what people need—deep in their hearts and souls. What are you looking for? “Come and see,” is Jesus’ invitation. The disciples take Jesus up on his offer and stay long enough to realize Jesus is “the real McCoy,” as we say in the South. So, they rush to tell others. They cannot wait to share the good news.
“What are you looking for? Come and see.” Then, “Go and tell.” This is the evangelistic model that continues to propel the church forward, but how are we doing at our “going and telling.”
While perusing the internet, I happened upon a blogpost about traits of churches that will impact the future.[ii] Those who study church trends agree that there is a cultural shift happening and for the church to remain relevant, it must change. But it is important to recognize that it is not THE STORY that needs to change—just the method of sharing it. (One is sacred—the other is not!) So, what are some hallmarks of churches that will likely make an impact over the next decade? Those in good standing will be flexible and welcome experimentation. They will embrace innovative strategies—knowing full well that some things will work while others will not. They will accept that bigger is not always better. God calls us to thrive whatever our size, so small churches need to get over the idea that they will only be successful when they grow up and become the big church down the street, or the big church that they once were. Smaller venues actually allow for deeper relationships to form—another hallmark of the church of the future. Churches that provide a place where questions are welcomed instead of silenced will be in good stead. While these are all good traits, there was one on the list that really stood out for me: The need for the church to prioritize a “for you” instead of a “from you” culture.
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. Too often, that is not the question that is on our lips. Rather, we gaze upon too many empty pews and in panic mode we look out into the world, and ask, “What can we get from them? Our numbers are dwindling, and we need them to come and save us.” But we do not need them to save us. Christ has done that!
Many of you have heard the story of my encounter with a Pastor Nominating Committee over a decade ago. They came to hear me preach and invited me out for lunch. Although things went well, I had a strong conviction that the church they represented was not the church to which I was being called. Maybe that is why I was able to be blatantly honest with them when they posed the million-dollar question. “We’ve got $1M debt from the new sanctuary we just completed. What can you do to bring in people to help us pay off that debt?” Wow! The question sort of takes your breath away. Doesn’t it?
Folks, if we look out into the world at people who are struggling and have no faith community, and all we see is what we can get from them—then we are on a crooked path that will lead us nowhere near Jesus Christ. But, if our heart’s desire is to be a thriving church of the future, we will be passionate about what we want FOR people—not FROM them! We will want every person of every age and race and background to know Jesus. We will want to help people become part of something bigger than themselves—with Christ at the center of their lives. We will embrace the opportunity to build relationships with people in person and through online platforms. We will model how to share the wondrous story of the transforming power of God, made perfect in Jesus, and made available to us through the Holy Spirit. Along the way, “Come and see. Go and tell!” may become our motto. If so, we may look to Peter as our guide. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.[iii]
Concerning the importance of the church, one writer notes that churches are “the kitchens where Christians are ‘cooked’ into the sort of people God intends us to be. We worship, study, pray, and share meals, knitting us closer to God and each other. Congregations matter because Christians would not be Christians if we did not have people with whom to practice loving God and loving neighbor.” [iv] The work of the church is important. The work of our church is important. And if we want our work to matter to future generations, it behooves us to be open to new ways to share the gospel story.
Even so, it is possible for a church to do all these things—and more—and still not grow numerically. But it seems to me that God is less interested in the numerical growth of the church and more interested in the spiritual growth of the church. God’s desire is for believers to become loving, mature, effective Christians. I daresay, there is not a person in our church family who does not long for us to grow in numbers, and if that happens, we will give God all the glory. But if it does not happen, let us remember that numbers are not everything. I mean, Jesus did just fine with a dozen fellows and a few faithful women. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Excerpt from John 1:1-7, NRSV.
[ii] Carey Nieuwhof blogpost at http://careynieuwhof.com/2013/05/11-traits-of-churches-that-will-impact-the-future/
[iii] 1 Peter 3:15b, NIV
[iv] David L. Odom blogpost at http://www.faithandleadership.com/blog/07-21-2014/why-do-congregations-matter
*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009