The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the Festival of St Andrew, Apostle, 30 November 2017. The text is John 1:35-42.
Dear fellow disciples of Jesus: It is the end. It is the beginning. St Andrew’s Day is an odd duck. If it falls on Thursday through Saturday, it’s in the last week of the church year. If it falls on Sunday through Wednesday, it’s in Advent. There’s a technical explanation, but it doesn’t belong in the pulpit. In the materialistic world around us, it might be explained as part of “the circle of life”. Life leads to death and death leads back to life. Leaves fall to the ground and nurture the seeds that pop up in spring.
“And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of life.” (Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game”)
I often feel that tedium as another year passes in our garden and I’m going through the same old routines of emptying the rain barrels and turning over the vegetable patch—and every year it seems to happen so much sooner. The carousel is speeding up. But the trouble with carousels is that they don’t actually go anywhere. The painted ponies stand still. After spending three nickels at Pt Dalhousie I’m pretty much done with it.
That’s the way we can feel when the church year ends and then just starts all over again. Can it be that another Advent is here already? Are we any closer to our destination than we were last year? Andrew’s brother Peter knew scoffers already in his day who were saying such things: “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (II Pet. 3:4). Peter responds, of course, that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” And so it’s true that “The Lord is not slow to fulfil His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (II Pet. 3:8). And Paul writes that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11). The apostles insist that we’re not on a carousel, that we’re actually on a path towards a destination, and that with every passing year it draws closer. Christ is surely coming. But it has been so many years since He made His promise.
That’s surely the way the Israelites also felt as year after year passed by and the Messiah hadn’t appeared. The Jews searched the Torah for clues to His coming (Jn 5:39). Even the prophets searched their own writings, “inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (I Pet. 1:10-11). And so it went on. But the appearance of John the Baptist knocked the carousel off its moorings and brought the ponies to life. Here was a man who made a straight path in the wilderness for the Messiah’s coming, a road that actually would bring them to the promised destination. He pointed directly to the Messiah. And then He was there, the very Lamb of God who would take upon Himself the sins of the world.
All that weight of history and expectation was bundled up in the two disciples whom John sent after Jesus and was ready to burst out when He asked them the simple question, “What are you seeking?” (Jn 1:38). They had been seeking for so long. It was the Jewish word for studying the Scriptures, “seeking”, in Hebrew darash, as in the word “Midrash”. As disciples of John, they’d probably been working through the Scriptures together, learning with him what the Spirit meant by those prophecies. Perhaps Jesus was there among them, a fellow disciple of John, not yet ready to reveal Himself—at least, that’s what some people think John meant when He referred to Jesus as “the One following after me” (Jn 1:15). And then at His Baptism, the descent of the Spirit on Jesus gave the answer. Here He was! It had all become clear. When Andrew ran to tell his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41), he meant that their hundreds of hours spent searching the Scriptures, the hundred of years of seeking that their people Israel had endured, were at an end. They had found Him. Or perhaps it was better said by the Venerable Bede: “Although we have searched in Moses and the Prophets, He found us, and having been found, we have found [Him]” (Weinrich, 261).
That’s the way it is with this particular quest. Like the Jews who couldn’t have conjured the Messiah out of the Scriptures, but had to be content to wait till He revealed Himself, so the only way for us is to wait with patience. He will come in His own time. But we have one massive home turf advantage over our Israelite forefathers in this waiting game: we already know where He is. When Jesus asked those two first disciples, “What are you seeking?”, the answer they gave was profound. They didn’t reply with a request for knowledge, for secret codes to unlock the Scriptures, for power or riches. They answered His question with a question: “Rabbi, where are you staying?” (Jn 1:38). They simply desired to be with Him. They wished to be His disciples, as they’d once been disciples of John. But John was temporary, a forerunner, one destined to become less and less. They couldn’t stay with John. But they could stay with Jesus. Coming on the heels of Jesus’ own Baptism, there’s something deeply baptismal in this desire. For, through Baptism into Him, they would “abide with Him”. They would be “in Him”. Jesus would later promise His disciples, “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there will My servant be also. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honour him” (Jn. 12:26).
Perhaps at the moment they didn’t understand the full consequences of their request. For their Baptism into Him would unite them to Him come thick or thin, even to the point of the cross. Jesus would pray, “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory” (Jn. 17:24)—and we know that in John’s Gospel, at least, Jesus’ glory is His cross. They would see His cross literally as they walked with Him to Jerusalem and stood beneath it, at least those like John and Mary who didn’t flee in fear. But they would all see His cross spiritually by dying with Him through their Baptism into Him. When Jesus replies to the disciples, “Come and see”, this is what He means—not “come and see the house where I’m staying”, but “come and see what it means to follow Me; come with Me to the cross.” And some would end at the cross even more literally, as Jesus ominously declares to Simon Peter at the close of John’s story: “‘when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’” (Jn 21:18-19). He means, “Follow Me to your own death.”
You see, the disciple’s life isn’t a carousel spinning round and round that leads to nowhere. It’s a pilgrim path with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That end is surely coming, as the apostles have encouraged us to believe. That path is Jesus’ path, that we walk along with Him, as the annual cycle of the church year guides us. But as with His own path, it doesn’t end in death, even a death that’s part of some circle of life. Our path leads where Jesus has gone. “In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also” (Jn 14:2-3). When we come to Jesus this day and He asks us, “What are you seeking?”, we should answer like good disciples, “Where are You staying?” His answer is, to be sure, those rousing words at the close of John’s Revelation, “Surely I am coming soon!” (Rev. 22:20), words that steel our resolve to hold out in the face of the present tribulation. But His answer is also, “I am with you all the days, until the close of the age” (Mt. 28:20). And His answer is, “Come and see” (Jn 1:39); “Here am I in the midst of you” (Mt. 18:20). “And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).
“And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:21-23).