The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (September 1, 2019)
“Judge a [person] by [their] questions rather than by [their] answers,” said Voltaire, the French Enlightenment thinker.
Jesus asked a lot of questions. He asked more questions than he gave answers. Does anyone want to venture a guess as to how many questions Jesus asked in the gospels?
Fortunately Martin Copenhaver (who is a United Church of Christ minister and former president of a divinity school in New England) did the math for us:
- Jesus asked 307 different questions.
- Jesus was asked 183 questions.
- There’s a difference of opinion, but the range of questions Jesus answered was anyway from 3 to 8. That’s a lot less than 307. On the high end that’s 40 times more questions than answers.
This seems significant, does it not? Copenhaver, whose book Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered, was the inspiration for this sermon series, says that “Jesus is not the ultimate Answer Man–he’s more like the Great Questioner.”
And what’s more, he so often answered questions with… you guessed it… more questions. Or with enigmatic stories, with parables.
Isn’t it interesting, though, how that’s aspect of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching isn’t emphasized in the church, or in American Christian culture, for that matter? If you drive north on Interstate 10—right before you hit Marana, I think—there’s an unhitched 53 foot truck trailer that has painted on its side, “Jesus is the Answer.” You might have seen that on bumper stickers, too. Jesus is the Answer. I believe that’s true on many levels, but it seems too simple, especially given the fact that this person spent so much breath asking questions.
We prefer answers. Perhaps that’s because human beings crave certitude. We prefer answers because they give the appearance of certainty, which makes us less anxious. Questions, on the other hand, have a fluidity to them, often an uncertainty. Questions can take us on a journey, sometimes even a journey without a destination.
For the next two months we’ll go on a journey with Jesus, exploring the questions he asked. The Sanctuary Arts Team is riffing on this theme of questions with their installation on the injustices with border and immigration issues. For the sermons we’ll read passages from all four gospels highlighting the questions. As the Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote in Letters to a Young Poet:
Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
We’ll begin with a question Jesus asks a handful of times, two different was in the Fourth Gospel. From the first chapter…
The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me.’ Even I didn’t recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”
The next day John was standing again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus walking along he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard what he said, and they followed Jesus.
When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, “What are you looking for?”
They said, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher), where are you staying?”
He replied, “Come and see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.
One of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Christ ). He led him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
Holy wisdom, holy word.
Thanks be to God.
“What are you looking for?”
That’s not a bad question to ask people who have dedicated themselves to being your disciples.
Disciples in that day and time weren’t students in the modern sense of taking a class here and there or listening to a lecture or doing some studying with a professor. Disciples followed their teacher. They went where the teacher went. They did what the teacher did. They learned at the feet of their master. They ate, slept, and breathed their master’s teachings. Apprentice is maybe a better synonym for disciple than learner. Disciples wanted to emulate their teachers. Discipleship was an all-in business.
So maybe that’s what makes Jesus’ question a slightly odd one. Ostensibly, disciples who have left everything to follow their teacher, their rabbi, are there for some answers to life’s most pressing problems and haunting questions. But he turns it around on them, “What are you looking for?”
And it’s not just at the beginning of his ministry, when Jesus is calling disciples, that he asks this. It’s at other times too. When he’s in the Garden of Gethsemane with those same, sleepy disciples and Pilate’s soldiers come for him, he asks a different version, “Who are you looking for?” He asks that again after the resurrection, when Mary Magdalene crept to the tomb in the early morning, “Who are you looking for?” It’s a simple one depending on the context. “Who are you looking for?” in one case is practical. So is “What are you looking for?” if you’re tearing the house up trying to unearth something buried beneath the piles.
But in a profound sense, “What are you looking for?” or “Who are you looking for?” is a question at the heart of all other questions. It’s a question about our deepest longings.
When I picture this interaction between Jesus and his disciples, I wonder about two things. How is he looking at them when he asks it? What’s his gaze? The disciples hear this monumental pronouncement by John, “This, this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is God’s son.” And Jesus turns to them, “What are you looking for?” Does he ask it with an all-knowing gaze that pierces to the core of their souls? Does he look at them with kindness, knowing they’re searching for something, for something big?
And how does he ask the question? You can imagine different inflections in the sentence. What are you looking for? What are you looking for? What are you looking for?
It’s an appropriate question at the beginning of a discipleship journey. They’re leaving everything behind to go on a wild ride in Galilee and Jerusalem with this rabbi. They don’t know it yet, but it’s going to be a wild ride. “Come and see,” he invites them, and they see all sorts of things. They see sick people. Hurting people. Possessed people. Outcasts. Sinners. Prostitutes. Soldiers. The corrupt religious establishment. The brutal might of the Roman empire. They see his healing. His mercy. They listen to his speeches and stories. They see the power of God.
“What are you looking for?” is how Jesus begins the journey. It’s open ended. It’s invested in the response. It’s intimate in that it tries to build a connection. It cuts through the pleasantries and the surface-level interactions to get to the heart of the matter, to focus on what really counts.
But here’s the thing, that’s his question to us, as well. John’s gospel was written a couple of generations after Jesus’ movement was ignited. It’s more of a reflection, less of an eyewitness account, and it was written to invite others to follow Jesus, to follow more closely. It’s written invitational with the listener in mind, so the question is posed to us, “What are you looking for?” Jesus cares about the answer and maybe even can’t wait to see what bubbles up.
So, what are we looking for? Why are we here this morning? For those of us who are new to this faith community or to any faith community, what are we searching for? For those of us who have been saturated in church, Bible, or matters of faith since we came into this world, frankly, why do we still bother? What are we looking for?
Four years or so ago there was an article in the New York Times that explore the role that questions play in helping people forge connection. “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” Mandy Len Catron’s essay:
She refers to a study by the psychologist Arthur Aron (and others) that explores whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions. The 36 questions in the study are broken up into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one.
For example, in the first set: “If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?” In the second: “ If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?” In the third: “When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?”
Jesus, about whom John says earlier in the first chapter, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” comes to abide with his disciples, then and now. He comes to intimately know and be known by his disciples, then and now. He comes to fill that place of ultimate longing within each of us, that longing for God.
In the words of the first hymn, “Jesus Calls Us.” Jesus calls to you and to me, calling to our deepest selves. “What are you looking for?” It’s worth pondering.