What do you seek?

Sunday 19 January 2014
2nd after Epiphany
Epiphany 2A (RCL)
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

The reading from Isaiah continues the theme of God’s servant, who bring justice to the coastlands. Again, the prophet emphasizes that the servant carries out his vocation without violence or triumphalism; in fact the opposite. The servant is the slave of rulers. We can see the shift in Israel’s theology in this short passage. Initially, Israel thought of itself as a weapon in God’s hand, a polished arrow or a sharp sword. But this work has come to nothing. Now, in Exile, deeply despised, the slave of nations, God will use Israel not just to restore Israel, but to bring justice to the nations. Kings will stand up when they see Israel in its current condition, and change their way of operating. Of course, we are still waiting.

The passage from John also represents a real shift in theology, a dramatic re-imagination of the old categories. John the Baptist sees Jesus, and announces, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” We Christians don’t hear the surprise in that. In all of the Old Testament regulations regarding sacrifice, there is no lamb which takes away sin. The Passover lamb establishes kinship, and all of the communion sacrifices accomplish the same thing in miniature. The sacrifices on the Great Day of Atonement are the only set up to take away sin (the others correct impurity). On the Great Day, after offering a sacrifice for himself, and one for the priest hood, the high priest takes two goats, and slaughters one. He enters the holy of holies, and sprinkles the blood on the mercy seat, and then on the people, reestablishing the kinship between God and God’s people. The high priest then places his hands on the head of the other goat, and transfers all the sins of the people to the goat, which is then driven to Azazel – it doesn’t die, but is returned to the wild — the process of domestication is reversed.

John has Jesus die at exactly the hour the passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple courtyard. Jesus is the Passover lamb, and much of the action in John’s Gospel takes place around the Passover. But the Passover lamb establishes the people; it is not meant for taking away sin. John is creating a new category here. After the crucifixion, Mary enters the tomb and sees the two angels (cherubim) – she has entered the new holy of holies. When Jesus appears to his disciples, he breathes on them and says, “Receive holy spirit. The sins of whoever you set aside are set aside for them; the sins of whoever you hold on to are held on to.” The community of Jesus becomes the new high priest, but the forgiveness of sins brings people into this new community — it is not about forgiving the sins of insiders, but bringing in others. Sins are forgiven by establishing kinship.

When John the Baptist sees Jesus the second day, two of his disciples follow Jesus. Turning and seeing them, Jesus asks them, “What do you seek?” These are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in John’s Gospel, and therefore, set the narrative question for the whole Gospel. They reply, “Rabbi, where do you remain?” He then invites them to “Come and see.” John’s community thought of itself as Jewish, and like all Jewish communities after the destruction of the Temple, had to answer the question of where they could find God. The Rabbis located Wisdom in the scrolls. John’s community located her in Jesus and his community. The “come and see” is an invitation both to read the Gospel and to join the community.

The question, “What do you seek?” remains an important one. Most of us never ask that question, let alone answer it. We avoid the question with every possible distraction, and wonder why they don’t satisfy. At heart, we are hungry for community with God and each other — “where do you remain?” Where can we be with one another? Jesus invites them to come and see, and they remain with him that day.

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