Why follow Jesus?
Certainly Jesus’ birth didn’t answer that question for the Gospels. As his adult ministry begins and fellow Galileans become aware of him, no Gospel—even Matthew and Luke where the nativity accounts are located—has anyone say . . .
2nd Sunday after the Epiphany – for January 16, 2011
When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38)
“How ‘bout that youngster from Bethlehem? Born under a star and now he’s becoming a star!”
“First some magi and their wow-factor gifts, and then later Jesus slips Herod the Royal Pain’s clutches, and now he’s here among us. Sure, I’m gonna pay attention to him.”
“If Gabriel visited his Mom, well, an angel’s blessings good enough for me to fall in step beside Jesus.”
Why did people follow Jesus? In the Gospel of John, in particular, one answer was quickly provided. People followed Jesus because John the Baptist vouched for him and Jesus was quickly identified as “the Messiah (which is translated Anointed).” How could one not consider following the Nazarene known as—before the first chapter ends—the “Anointed?” Drop everything! Let’s get going!! Let’s follow Jesus anywhere and everywhere!!!
So. Darn. Easy. Not because of his star-crossed start, but because of the Baptist’s claim and good old boys like Simon saying, “We have found the Messiah.” Really? Here I’m wary; here my faith is salted with doubt. I simply don’t believe it was that easy for the first disciples. However, in the midst of all the “easy” decisions those first followers made, Jesus asked a question that was and is one of the hardest questions of faith . . .
“What are you looking for?”
How did the first disciples answer that question? According to the Gospel of John, they never did. How would you answer it? How would I? I think, as a faithful doubter and humble believer, that following Jesus, in the first or twenty-first century, is all about asking that question and deeply, honestly listening for answers.
When people have followed me, that question has been pivotal.
I have more backpacking stories than you can shake a bent hiking stick at, but here’s another one. Two or three days into a hike I had about ten people following me, slouching down a trail, when the path we were on petered out. We looked behind us. Yup, there was the trail we’d been on for miles. We looked ahead. Nothing. I rustled in my pack to find my old (remember the word, old) topographical map and studied the situation. The hikers gathered ‘round me. We pondered contour lines and squiggly markings. We noted creeks we’d passed and lakes we’d seen. We identified the trail we were on and—I am not kidding here—determined exactly where we were on the comforting two-dimensional map printed by the authoritative National Geological Survey of the Department of the Interior. The trail continued up a nasty looking slope. “See, right there on the map!” Then someone, you might say someone looking at the bigger picture, jabbed a finger toward the publication date my handy-dandy map . . . 1953.
In 1953 “I Like Ike” was president. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Everest. The first-ever coor TVs sold for $1,175.
Boy did I have an old map. Once, fifty years before, there had been a trail. Not anymore. But we weren’t lost, we just had to keep looking. Just had to double-back some. Just had to hike longer on that day. Just had to be careful what map we (I) brought with us in the future.
Ay, but here’s the thing. Tossing aside the old map led us to a place we never planned to go. Late on that weary day, we staked our tents near a deelightful little creek. That languid mountain stream had a wide, granite-rimmed curve that created a near-perfect swimming hole. Late in the day all the women in the group ended up there and, by their echoing chatter and cheers, had a grand time. I dubbed the place, the Hard Rock Café. Girls night only!
How bad I felt about using an out-of-date map. How good I felt that the unexpected path we’d taken created the best night of the journey.
What are you looking for?
Too often I search with old maps. It happened on a tramp through the woods. And yet it happens every day. I consult maps with the squiggly lines of my life. There’s the lake of remorse, the dry streambed of failure, the ridge of despair. My old map is detailed. I look for where I’ve been. Or, equally often, I pretend—whether using a 1953 map or a new-fashioned GPS unit—I can precisely plot my future actions.
Did the disciples fall in step behind Jesus because of his birth? I don’t believe so. Did they follow him because the Baptist told them they should or because of Jesus’ then or later lofty title? I don’t believe so. I believe those first disciples were much like me, with old maps and old ways and old hurts.
They needed a hard-to-answer question inviting us to “come and see” here and now.