Sunday, January 2, 2022

Phil Kniss: Searching in the dark

Epiphany Sunday: Who are you looking for?
Matthew 2:1-12; John 1:19-51

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Last Sunday, we read the poetic prologue to the Gospel of John:
The Word became flesh, and lived among us,
full of grace and truth.
And in him was life. And this life was the light for all people.

Right after the poetry, John tells a story.
A story of a search—
John the Baptist was searching,
the whole Jewish community was searching—
Galileean fisherfolk, farmers,
the religious elite and blind beggars.
Everyone was searching for the Messiah.

The people lived in darkness and despair.
As a nation they were small and powerless,
occupied by a brutal foreign power.
King Herod built four different palaces,
had military headquarters scattered everywhere,
and streets crawled with Roman soldiers.
Just in case that didn’t remind people every day
who was in charge,
Herod terrorized the people
with harassment, torture, and crucifixion.

So everyone was searching for the Messiah—
this religious and political liberator they were promised,
who would rid them of Herod,
restore the throne to David’s line,
and return self-rule to the people of Judah.

John 1 brings that search immediately into focus.
But hold that thought, and hold your finger in John 1, so to speak,
and turn back three Gospels, to Matthew chapter 2,
for today’s other search story.

30 years earlier
many miles and cultures away from Judea,
another group of searchers was at work.
The magi. Stargazers.

Let’s be clear about this colorful Christmas story.
This is not a mysterious and mystical and magical tale.
We have made it so,
in song, art, and nativity scenes.
Half our Christmas cards have camel-riding kings, in silhouette,
and a stylized pointed star,
with a tail reaching down to the earth, like ours,
All because of what we have done to Matthew 2.

Sentimental legend is great. I enjoy it, and I love this star.
But the real biblical story is not mystical.
It’s political, and makes logical sense.
In the world view of the magi and their culture,
the movement of stars, and earthly events, were connected.
The magi worked the night shift,
studying the skies carefully,
to understand what was happening, or about to happen,
in their world, and then act on it.

They understood that a new rising star meant a royal birth.
It was logical, not magical,
to pack up the camels and trek across the desert
to investigate who the new king was,
and take him gifts fitting for royalty.

Their long-distance search in the dark, was predictable,
given their understanding of the world.
Of course, King Herod’s response was also predictable,
given he was a tyrant with absolute power.
He took it as a threat,
that the heavens were pointing toward a new Jewish king.
There was only one king in Judea.
And Herod wanted to keep it that way.
Thankfully, the magi were warned in a dream,
and did not return to Herod with the intelligence briefing.

So that’s Matthew’s “search in the dark” story.

Returning to John 1,
here that baby king sought by the magi, and by Herod,
is now an adult, emerging on the public scene in Judea.
Jesus is starting to move about and do what he was sent to do.
But just like in Matthew 2,
people all around are still searching for the Messiah,
and the powers that be are still threatened by the search.

John the Baptist is at the center of this search.
He offers a new baptism, for repentance,
to prepare and purify the people for the coming of the liberator.
People flock to him from all over—hungry for liberation.
It’s now a movement. A troubling movement.
Noticed first by religious authorities,
they worried that John was going to claim to be Messiah.
So they sent agents to question John.
“Who are you?” they asked.
John knew what they were really asking.
“I am not the Messiah,” he said,
“I’m only preparing the way.”
He quoted Isaiah.
John believed that any day the Messiah would appear.

See, everyone, religious authorities included,
was searching for Messiah.
All with their own motivations and assumptions.
Many of them mistaken.

For me, the thread connecting all these search stories,
is that even when we search in the dark,
even when we’re not entirely clear what we’re searching for,
even when we come up empty-handed at first,
the act of searching, in itself, gets us a bit closer to the truth.
Every empty lead narrows the search.

I’m especially moved by this story in John 1,
where Jesus’ first disciples almost accidentally run into Jesus,
and aren’t quite sure what they found.

Two of John the Baptist’s disciples,
standing along the road with their teacher,
watch Jesus go by, and John makes the now famous declaration,
“Behold, the Lamb of God!”

And the two men just start tailing along behind Jesus.
Out of curiosity.
At what they thought was a safe distance.
But Jesus stops, turns around,
and asks the most poignant question,
“What are you searching for?”

I like to read that as an existential question.
“What are you searching for . . . in life?”
I like to think Jesus meant,
What is your aim?
How is walking behind me, curiously,
helping you fulfill that aim?
And what is your next step?
I bet John’s disciples were caught off guard
by this deep and simple question, “What are you searching for?”

Maybe they stammered, before they answered,
“Uh . . . R-r-rabbi . . . Wh-where are you staying?”
Now, what were they really asking—“where are you staying?”
Did they just want to know how to find Jesus later?
Or was it, perhaps, a question that dawned on them
only as it came out of their mouths?
May we come stay where you stay?
May we begin studying at your feet?
John prepared us for this. Will you have us?

Jesus’ answer to the question, “Where are you staying?”
was just as simple and profound,
“Come and see.”
That’s how Jesus opened the door for these two to become disciples.
No demand.
No conditions.
Not even a real ask.
Just words of permission.
“Come and see.”
Find out as you go.
Discover whether you are willing to stay where I stay
and walk in my shoes.

Jesus didn’t give the answer. He encouraged the search.

Jesus did not, at that moment,
offer a 7-point summary of what discipleship would mean.
They had to search.
They had to put themselves in a position to find,
even if they didn’t know, yet, what they were looking for,
even if they weren’t sure they were in the right place,
even if the night was still dark.

There is the good news, dear friends,
for us who live in a world divided, broken,
and shrouded in darkness.
We are invited by the God of light and life,
to join the search,
even if we aren’t entirely clear what we’re searching for,
or where to find it.

There are too many people today, who,
like Herod, and like the religious elites,
prefer their reality to be completely settled, secure, and sure.

We would not be in the situation we are in today—
with regard to COVID, with regard to political chaos,
to spikes in violence,
to threats of climate change,
to you name it—
if it weren’t the sad reality that we all tend to assume
that our truth is settled, secure, contained, and watertight.
How would our social discourse and daily lives change,
if we all . . . all acknowledged what we don’t know,
and embraced the search.

Yes, John’s Gospel makes a number of clear declarations,
which we happily stand on.
But at the heart of this Gospel
is an invitation to stick close to Jesus,
to “come and see,”
to abide . . . and to go.
We will find what we are looking for.
The proof will be in the journey.

—Phil Kniss, January 2, 2022

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