Text: John 1:29-42
See if you can solve this famous riddle. You may recognize the puzzle from its use in the 1986 film The Labyrinth starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly.
You are walking down a path when you come to two doors. Opening one of the doors will lead you to a life of prosperity and happiness, while opening the other door will lead to a life of misery and sorrow. You don’t know which door leads to which life. In front of the doors are two twin brothers who know which door leads where. One of the brothers always lies, and the other always tells the truth. You don’t know which brother is the liar and which is the truth-teller. You are allowed to ask one single question to one of the brothers (not both) to figure out which door to open. What question should you ask? (Look for the answer in the next PullenNews.)
Do you ever feel like you are trying to solve a riddle when you read the Bible? Think about some of the parables or sayings of Jesus. Take for example the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16 in which it can sound like we are supposed to imitate the dishonest manager? Or the persistent widow who had to plead with the unjust judge. Even the parables that have made it into popular culture, like the parables of the prodigal son and the lost sheep, are pretty complicated when you read them in full, often giving us layers of meaning depending on how deeply we are willing to look. We make of the parables allegories, in which every detail has a particular meaning. But do you remember how often Jesus tells the disciples they have gotten it wrong or missed the point? It is almost as though parables are actually more like a cross between a joke and a riddle: riddles because they’re intended to make us think, and jokes because you either get them or you don’t.
As I read our gospel text from John this week, I felt a little like I was reading a riddle.
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The question of this riddle could very well be, “Who am I?” Is the text about John, the fourth evangelist, who wrote the gospel of John? Is it John the Baptist who many thought was the new messiah? Or is it Jesus? Though it may not be abundantly clear on the first reading, the answer is Jesus. John the gospel writer is quoting John the Baptist who is actually testifying to Jesus’ pre-existence, and his words sound much more like a riddle than a direct announcement.
It is important and significant to note that at the time of the Fourth Evangelist, there were persons who continued to hold to John the Baptist’s teaching and baptism instead of Jesus’. There were those who maintained their belief that John the Baptist was the new messiah. As you many remember John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher and a major religious figure of the time who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River. His claim to fame, as most historians agree, was that he baptized Jesus. But John was more than the one who baptized Jesus. He was a historical figure mentioned in each of the Canonical gospels and by the Jewish historian Josephus. He followed the example of previous Hebrew prophets, living austerely, challenging sinful rulers, calling for repentance, and promising God’s justice. Today, John is regarded as a prophet in Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith. Those of us who grew up Baptist know him well as the man clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey, and preaching fire and brimstone. He was the one that many a preacher tried to emulate—that is, the fire and brimstone preaching. It is a fact that both John and Jesus preached at times of great political, social, and religious conflict; and that both men were well known with significant followings; and both were rumored and believed to be “the” messiah.
Many Christian theologians believe that the ministry of Jesus followed John’s, and some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John. In the synoptic Gospels, the first disciples give up their work as fishermen to follow Jesus, but in the Fourth Gospel they give up a previous religious commitment as disciples of John to follow Jesus. The more I sat with this text, the more that thought struck me. Think about it – the Fourth Gospel tells us of believers who had already had deep spiritual experiences that had compelled them to follow and commit themselves to a spiritual leader; and then they transferred that faith to another leader. I contemplated what that must have been like—how hard it must have been—and I wondered what significance it might have for us today as people of faith. I have been wondering what previous religious commitment we might need to give up in order to more fully follow Jesus. Our religion tends to value and encourage us to hold firm and fast to our beliefs—to what we have been taught—and to resist change to those things. Very rarely, unless you are at Pullen, does the church encourage questioning one’s religious commitment or religious beliefs in order to more honestly and authentically follow Jesus. Such work is often too hard and unsettling, even destabilizing, not just for individuals, but for institutions. What could it really mean to question what we have been taught about sin or salvation or the resurrection for the sake of finding new life? What would it mean to shift one’s religious commitment from a secure and safe faith to a faith that calls us to risk everything to include those who are excluded? What might it mean to let go of a previous religious commitment that keeps us stuck in the survival of an institution and follow a commitment to radically care for the poor and the marginalized?
There is no question that John’s disciples were loyal to him. He was their spiritual leader. And yet, when they found themselves in the presence of the One on whom the Spirit had descended—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (think corporate sin—greed, hate, prejudice)—they followed. It wasn’t that John was no longer important to them. It was simply that in that moment they saw the larger picture and recognized the vision that John had been pointing them to all along. I wonder if we have that kind of openness. I wonder if we have the courage to let go of some of our previous religious commitments to more fully follow Jesus.
This question of our willingness to give up on a previous religious commitment for the sake of the larger picture leads us to the question that Jesus ultimately asks the two disciples when they turned to follow him. Our text says, “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’” Another way to ask that question is to ask, “What do people seek when they follow Jesus?” What do you seek in following Jesus? A sense of meaning and purpose for your life? A way to make sense out of the chaos? A place of connectedness? A way to live out your commitment to peace and justice? A centered calm? A sense of belonging. A way to love and be loved? I have thought hard this week about what I seek in my commitment to follow Jesus. I think I seek an authentic life—one that is shaped by passion and compassion; by responsibility and freedom; by justice and grace; by love! I seek an authentic life that allows me the safety to speak my truth and to acknowledge my mistakes while challenging me to risk going into unfamiliar places so that I might find a deeper meaning and purpose for my life. That is what I seek and I choose to believe that Jesus offers the clearest path to that kind of authentic life. But the important questions this morning are “What are you looking for?” and “What are you willing to give up in order to find it?”
The answer to the riddle: “Guard, what would the other guard say if I asked him where his door leads?” Whatever the reply is, the opposite is true. Why? Let’s say the door behind Guard A leads to heaven. If Guard A is a liar, then he will lie and say that Guard B would say his door leads to heaven. If, however, Guard A is the truth-teller then he will report that Guard B would say his door leads to heaven; and in this case Guard A is faithfully reporting the fact that Guard B will lie. Either way we have the same answer,