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First Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 1, 2020 | 4:00 p.m.

Whom Are You Looking For?

Part of the Lenten Sermon Series “Questions Jesus Asked

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 25:1–10
John 18:1–11


The sermon series we launch today will take us through Lent toward Jerusalem and on to events of Holy Week. We are guided by a series of questions that Jesus asked as he lived among the people of the first century. Given that questions are the focus, let me start with a reflection on questions.

I often find the questions people ask of one another a whole lot more telling about who they are than the answers they give. My mother-in-law was an insistent and persistent question asker. Some of us in the family thought she was playing out the reality that a good offense—being the one who steps into the fray with questions—is a cover for a great defense. That is, set the direction of the discussion and you have control.

I suspect anyone who has ever been a debater knows this as well: get the upper hand by moving the debate into the territory you know best and put the other person or team at a disadvantage. But it is not only a strategy, asking questions—especially being the one to launch the questions and thereby launch the conversation or discussion—but it is also the content of the questions and whether they are seeking to close the conversation, or the mind, for that matter, or whether they are open-ended, life-rattling questions like the one Jesus asked that evening in the garden.

So, we set the stage for the encounter we read about in John’s Gospel by realizing that the situation we find ourselves in in today’s Gospel lesson is Jesus’ arrest. Now it is important to know a couple things about John’s Gospel, which is very different than the other three Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John’s Gospel, between John’s telling of the Last Supper and this story, where we find Jesus in the garden, John’s Jesus has spent about four chapters speaking what scholars call the “Farewell Address and Prayer.” Jesus speaks to the disciples and, subsequently, the early Christian church, who might have been faltering in their faith.

So, just before today’s passage, in chapter 17, Jesus has said to the disciples that his vision of their life is that they will all be one—unified in their faith—and also that the life of faith is a life that is manifested through God’s love made known through Jesus. And right before the situation of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and his arrest, the word is love, the word is peace, the word is a high and mighty outpouring of God’s glory made known in Jesus. Jesus is quite chill in these words, bringing comfort to the disciples listening.

It is jarring then to move from this very high admonition to a posse of soldiers and temple police led by Judas coming to arrest Jesus. Jesus and some of the disciples are in a garden. We don’t know what garden, but clearly Judas knows.

As they approach, Jesus steps forward. The group carry lanterns, torches, and weapons. “Whom do you seek?” he asks them. “Jesus of Nazareth” is their answer. And then Jesus does what he has done repeatedly in John’s Gospel. He uses the term “I AM” in response.

Anyone who was a good Jew, anyone with ears to hear, would know, would be astonished, as he uses the phrase “I AM” to declare who he is. They would know that when Moses asked the name of the Holy of Holies in the burning bush, God declared, “I AM who I AM.” And throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus leads with the words, “I am . . .”: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the gate,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the resurrection and the life.” And here in the garden, with Judas snarling and weapons at the ready, Jesus simply says, “I AM he.” And as soon as he says it, they stumble backward and hit the ground.

And again Jesus addresses the crowd with the same question: “Whom do you seek?” And by now it is clear that the question is much more important than the answer of person or hometown or any of the closed-ended questions, the ones that have right or wrong responses. Jesus’ question goes to the heart of the meaning and purpose of life: “You who come to take my life . . . you who are longing for the very meaning of life . . . you who have sold your soul for a bag of money . . . you whose heart is weary of searching . . . whom are you looking for?”

Martin Copenhaver, author of the book that inspired this sermon series, says the question “Whom are you looking for?” is

a straightforward question or a profound one. . . . It all depends. If you are wandering the halls of an office, obviously lost, and someone asks, “Whom are you looking for?” it is hardly a profound question. But when Jesus encounters his followers at the beginning of his earthly ministry and in this instance in the garden and later after the resurrection when he finds Mary at the tomb he asks the same question, “Whom are you looking for?” . . . It is not as straightforward or as easily answered. (Jesus Is the Question, p. 2)

Copenhaver suggests that this question can lead us to consider the ultimate end and purpose of our lives. And it also holds the possibility that it might bring us home to our own identity, our deepest self, as you go through life. The question arises at times in the inner sanctum of your own life: whom do you seek . . . who is the genuine you . . . what is the real you that you are hoping to find? And often it is the questions that others ask us that cause us to honestly name whom or what we are looking for.

Parker Palmer, in his book Let Your Life Speak, talks about a time when he was in a dilemma about whether to say yes to an offer from a college to be its president. As a Quaker, one of the practices of his community was to draw together a Clearness Committee, which is a group of trusted Quaker colleagues who ask open, honest questions in order for the questioned to gain clarity.

The group gathered, and they began asking Palmer questions about the college’s mission, etc. And then someone asked him what he’d like most about being the president of the school. Palmer proceeded to state all kinds of things he would not like about the job—having to give up teaching and writing, having to navigate politics of a college presidency, having to wear a coat and tie . . .

The person asking the question interrupted Palmer, reminding him that the question was not what he would not like but what he’d like.

Palmer responded, “Yes, yes, I am working my way toward an answer. I would not like to give up my summer vacations. I would not like glad-handing people, . . .”

The original questioner called him back to the original question of what he would like. “Well,” Palmer said in a small voice, “I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it.” There was a long silence. Then the questioner had one more question, which was not an open-ended one, “Parker, can’t you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?”

“Whom are you looking for?” asks Jesus. And like Parker Palmer, the question leads us to face ourselves and then turn to the very bread of life, the very cup of salvation, the very light of the world. And the question also leads us to what is most important in our lives. This question also may erupt out of the dark days of our lives when we find ourselves longing for someone, something we are not quite sure what it is, some distant past or distant future that resides deep in our bones that we can’t shake. We try to ignore it, and then the question comes again, whether in a garden where an arrest is about to take place or in the kitchen when we keep opening and closing the refrigerator door because we think what is in there will satisfy the hunger or in the dark of night when we wake up and lie in bed wondering about our lives and whether they matter anyway. The longing, the question, “Whom are you looking for?” has the potential to lead us into an encounter with the One who asks it.

I have one more thought on this question that Jesus asked, “Whom are you looking for?” because I think this question not only addresses us as individuals but also arises in our collective life—in this congregation, in this city, in the nation, and in the world. When crisis erupts in the gardens of our lives—when we are being pursued by a mob or a virus or social and moral directions that simply turn us on our ear and cause us to fall back in fear or anger or deep upset—that question “Whom or what are you looking for?” can function as clarification and also provide a way of centering our lives.

What is ironic about this is that the first move is to go transcendent, to go with God, to step out of all that wants to name us, to badger us into submission, to put our profile into an algorithm and thereby control our options for life. Yes, it asks that we go transcendent—to first go with God, with Jesus, and listen to their question to the whole kit and kaboodle of us.

Whom do you seek? It is in that question that perspective on how we might live together, how we might love this life, how we might love one another shows up. God’s perspective puts us in touch with a longing for our world to be whole, and in allowing that longing to come forward we also realize that, hard as we try, this longing is beyond our reach, beyond our individual efforts.

I love what David Brooks says in his book The Second Mountain when he talks about “The Possibility Conversation.” He states that there is something in our culture that loves to think that life is a series of problems to be analyzed and addressed. Questions like “How do we fix our failing schools?” or “How do we reduce violence?” are problem-centered questions and are usually the wrong ones to ask. They focus on deficits, not gifts. These questions focus on one problem at a time and try to eradicate it.

Brooks suggests that the better “community-building” conversations focus on possibilities not problems. “They are questions such as, What crossroads do we stand at right now? What can we build together? How can we improve our lives together? What talents do we have here that haven’t been fully expressed?” As I listen to this, I circle back to Jesus’ question that day, “Whom are you looking for?” and I believe he was launching a possibility conversation, but the possibility he was proposing was the greatest of all possibilities. And that possibility is that the very realm of God’s activity is standing in front of the ones who are ready to lock him up—the I AM, that is the God of history who is ready to take you to new heights, and Jesus who is set to equip with you with the power of the Holy Spirit to take up life-sweeping, life-awakening, inconvenient aims for the good of all.

This is love for one another and for ourselves, really. And especially in the season of Lent, this loving comes through pain and often through disagreement, which can be expressed freely because of unconditional love. That is the love Christ has for us and for this whole wide world. For this we give thanks and on this resides our hope. Are you ready?

Amen.