As light returns to us here in the northern hemisphere and we celebrate the days getting longer, the church celebrates a season of light: the time after Epiphany. We remember the star that led the wise men to the Christ child at the beginning of the season, and we remember Jesus transfigured and shining on a mountaintop at the end. In between, we remember Jesus being revealed as the Light of the World as the sun outside stays with us a little longer each day. This season is an in-between season, separating Christmas from Lent.
One of my favorite books and movies of all time is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
In one particular scene that has untold sermon potential, Alice wanders around the strange woods after going down the rabbit hole, finding herself in a very strange place indeed. Suddenly, she hears singing — the voice is disembodied and the words are nonsense. Finally, just a smile appears. Then, two yellow eyes. Finally, a tail, and then, a whole purple striped animal.
Thus, one of the best literary characters of all time, in my opinion, appears.
That character is, of course, the Cheshire Cat. The trickster who’s a little off his rocker, but is also strangely full of wisdom.
“Oh!” Alice says. “You’re a cat!”
“A Cheshire cat.”
After some small talk, Alice says, “I just wanted to ask you which way I ought to go.”
“Well,” the Cheshire cat replies, “that depends on where you want to get to…?”
Alice responds immediately, “It really doesn’t matter, as long as I…” she starts to explain.
The Cheshire cat interrupts, “Well,” he says, “then it really doesn’t matter which way you go!”
I’m not saying that Jesus is the Cheshire cat, but Jesus in the Gospel text today isn’t unlike the Cheshire cat. He answers questions with questions. He says confusing things. And you get the sense that he might be messing with people just a little bit.
In this Gospel text, Jesus is baptized, which we don’t witness firsthand but only hear about from John the Baptist: “remember how I said that one who’s greater than me will come after me? This is the guy.”
John’s Gospel has been leading up to this moment for a little while now. The beginning of the Gospel, instead of a birth story with shepherds or wise men or a manger, begins with the famous “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” all the way down to “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
Then we learn about John, and through John we learn about Jesus — and here we are.
Last week, we heard the first words Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, and they’re him asking to be baptized. This week, we hear Jesus’ first words in John’s Gospel.
The Word made flesh speaks for the first time, and what does he say? Furthermore, these guys have just decided to follow him. You’d think his response would be some wise statement, but it isn’t.
He just says, “What are you looking for?”
As those of you who walked with me through John’s Gospel last year may remember, he asks that a lot: either “what are you looking for?” or “who are you looking for?” Most notably, he’ll ask the latter question when he’s arrested, then he’ll ask it again of Mary at the tomb when she thinks someone’s stolen his body.
What are you looking for?
It’s a question that would do us well to ask of ourselves in our lives generally. What are you looking for?
Validation? Accomplishment? Peace? Love?
But I won’t take you too far down an existential crisis-y rabbit hole, even if Jesus does sound a bit like the Cheshire cat in this passage. This is church, and it is Jesus we’re talking about today, so I’ll leave you to ponder what you’re looking for in life later this afternoon while we focus on church for now.
Why are you here? What are you looking for?
Pastors know just about better than anyone that people come to church for all kinds of reasons. Some come out of habit, and some out of obligation, and some as a form of fire insurance. Many others come because they find community, and meaning, and love, and/or because after all these years, there’s just still something about trying to follow Jesus that calls to them.
One of the questions that I’ve learned to ask as a pastor is to occasionally get people to ponder this question of Jesus: “What are you looking for?”
Why do you go to church? And if you go here regularly, why do you go to this church?
As we move through the synod’s Forward Leadership program this year, answering that question will go a long way towards helping us find our unifying “why” — why God’s placed us here, in South Hadley, now.
Because, to paraphrase the Cheshire cat, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it doesn’t much matter where you look.
I’m telling you: endless wisdom in that cartoon cat.
So Jesus turns around and sees these guys following and he asks them what they’re looking for.
And they are not ready for that. You can practically hear them stammer in the text. Lutheran pastor and fellow Southernern Delmer Chilton describes it this way: “It’s like you’ve got a couple of inept detectives trying to tail somebody, and the person they’re tailing turns around and says, ‘What do you want?’ And they’re like “UHHHHH… you got a dollar? Can you tell me where the 54 bus is?”
They respond, “Ummmmm… where are you staying?”
And Jesus responds with another key phrase in John: “Come and see.”
He’ll say it again a little later to invite more disciples to follow him. The woman at the well will say it when she invites others to come meet Jesus. And Mary and Martha will say it when Jesus asks where they’ve buried his friend, their brother, who died.
Come and see.
Just show up, and expect to see something new.
Two weeks ago, when Gail, Debbie, Paula, Barb, and I were at the Forward leadership retreat, we lamented to the leadership that we had more questions than answers. We were told that that’s right where we were supposed to be. I’ve been thinking over the past couple of weeks that, despite my love of answers, maybe having lots of questions is a good place to be overall.
As we embark on a new year, and as we embark on the Forward leadership program together, or whatever it is that you’re embarking on in 2020 — what are we looking for? Why do you come to church? What are you looking for?
What are you looking for, overall, in 2020?
Because you know that if it doesn’t matter where you get to, it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
But before you allow the Cheshire cat to throw you into a crisis, remember Jesus’ invitation: come and see.
Just keep showing up, expecting to find something.
Come and see.
Jump into this Forward leadership process with us. Come and see.
Show up in your life, however you need to show up, and expect to find something new.
Come and see.
Show up at this table, and expect to meet Jesus in bread and wine, even though it’s illogical.
Come and see.
Let 2020 be the year that you show up and let yourself be surprised.
The invitation is always there: here at church, in your home, and every day when you open your eyes: come and see. Amen.