Jesus’ First Question

John 1:29-42 – The Second Sunday after the Epiphany – for Sunday, January 15, 2017

“When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, ‘What are you looking for?’” (John 1:38)

What is black and white and red all over?

It’s a newspaper!

Ha! Ha! Ha! (Of course, newspapers are dying in these digital days. So the homonym fun of “red” vs. “read” barely receives a smile.)

But we can try again . . .

What about an embarrassed nun? How about a sunburned penguin?


Don’t you love kids’ jokes?

What about my red-letter Bible with Jesus’ words highlighted in a ruby font? With the scripture, and in particular this week’s passage from Gospel of John, the black and white and red all over isn’t a joke. It’s read as sacred word. It’s the good news and the good book. It’s the history and mystery of faith. The black ink and white spaces between verses, and most especially the cardinal-hued print, reveals the glory and story of Jesus and what he proclaimed.

According to the randomly reliable Wikipedia, the first red-letter edition of the New Testament appeared in 1899. Louis Klopsch, editor of the Christian Herald magazine, was inspired to emphasize every Gospel word spoken by Jesus. Red was chosen because it represented the sacrificial blood of Jesus.

One of my Bibles is a red-letter edition. I thumbed pages to the fourth Gospel, wondering when red would make an appearance in the “black and white all over.” As you may suspect, since today’s lectionary verses are John 1:29-42, Jesus’ initial words occurred in that opening chapter.

Those red-lettered, blood-honoring, boldly-fonted words are brief:

“What are you looking for?”

The first thing Jesus said, as the red is read, was a question.

The disciples of John the Baptist approached Jesus, curious about this fellow from Nazareth. They’d just heard their leader refer to the Nazarene as “the Lamb of God.” Jesus turned to ask the Baptizer’s inquisitive followers that simple—and yet never simplistic—question before they had a chance to say or do anything.

Did it happen that way?

Every Gospel is different. As much as the reputable accounts of Jesus agree on various events and statements, they also contradict each other. Here, I could go down a argumentative theological path, comparing one Gospel to another . . .

But you can do that on your own since I’m stuck on the question that I read in red. In a brightly hued font or not, it’s a stark and intentionally unsettling query. In faith, and specifically in your Christian faith, what are you looking for?

Eternal life? Forgiveness? Salvation? Heaven? Mercy? Love?

What would a Mormon answer? What would a Quaker answer? What would a Roman Catholic answer? What would you answer? And would your answer be right for me? Would your faithful answer to Jesus’ question turn me red with envy or red with embarrassment?

“What are you looking for?”

Once I planned to go to law school. Why? I don’t know now, but I could blame it on a fascination with Perry Mason or other television lawyers that always saved the day. Then a change occurred. I met certain people at the right time, God cleared God’s throat . . . and suddenly my legal leanings were altered by a call to ministry.

How I explained way back then is still how I explain the change. Law school and becoming an attorney seemed a quest for facts and answers, along with non-stop competition. Did I want a future of winning and losing? Attending seminary and trying to follow Jesus felt like being open to questions, and included a longing to help create a welcoming, neighborly community.

Isn’t Jesus’ first question a companion for our ever-evolving faith? How we react to the question changes in life’s different seasons. Many of my answers at the outset of my professional ministry were about seeking the best words for sermons. What am I looking for? Please, dear God, help me proclaim your living word of joy and justice! Truth be told, it was also a self-serving response. Didn’t I want to look and sound good near the pulpit? Didn’t I desire to sway others with my brilliance? Didn’t I privately think that my way of faith should become their way of faith?

Nowadays, with cranky joints and wall-to-wall gray hair, and with more years behind than ahead of me, my answers are different. I thought I’d have more wisdom now. I don’t. I thought I would’ve abandoned my selfish ways. I haven’t.

I don’t think Jesus cared much about religion . . . yours or mine. I do fervently believe that at the center of Jesus’ ministry was a desire, for himself and those who’d follow him, to create supportive, trusting relationships: with others, and with God.

What is black and white and “read” all over?

What is black and white and “red” all over? It’s a child’s joke, a kid’s silly attempt at humor. The best of me, that aging, cranky guy, hopes to try to always answer Jesus’ first question with a child’s curiosity and eagerness. What am I looking for? I no longer need to change the world, but I hope to keep changing and growing. I believe the best answers to the first red words appearing in John’s Gospel will be those that help begin, renew, and deepen my relationship with God and God’s creations.

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  1. Thank you, Larry. As life’s journey continues, it is helpful to be reminded of that “simple” little question.

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