‘What are you looking for?’

St Andrewstide and Advent Sunday Sermon (John I: 35-42)

Readings: Isaiah 49: 1-12 and John 1: 35-42

Dr George Corbett, Lecturer in the School of Divinity, University of St Andrews


So famous is the opening of John’s gospel – ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’ – that we may forget just how extraordinary it is, in starting to reveal the first great mystery of the Christian faith: the Trinity, the inner dynamism of God as one in three persons.

John’s prologue continues – ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’ – a passage that sums up the second great mystery, the second great pillar, of the Christian faith: the mystery of the Incarnation: that the word of God, the son of God, became man.

What, then, are the first words of the ‘Word-made-flesh’, of ‘Wisdom-incarnate’, of the ‘Son of God Himself’, recorded in John’s gospel?

We would surely expect a proclamation of wisdom, of knowledge, of divine comfort? But, as we heard in today’s reading, Jesus’s first words in John’s gospel are ‘What are you looking for?’

Jesus’s first words are a question.

As John is re-writing the opening of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, in his prologue so, here, we cannot but help think of God’s first words to fallen man in Eden: not, as we might have expected, judgement and condemnation but, again, a question: ‘Where are you?’

God’s relationship with fallen man begins with a question: ‘where are you?’, and Jesus’s relationship with man begins, also then, with a question: ‘what are you looking for?’

In both cases, of course, God already knows the answer: God gives man a question to set him off on a journey, a quest, to begin a relationship:

‘where are you?’ is not just a literal question, but a spiritual one, ‘in what belief / in what state am I now’ – it asserts a starting point for a relationship, a renewed self knowledge (‘know thyself’), on which to build;

the question ‘What are you looking for?’ invites us to reflect on our motivations, our desires, our goals.

And these questions are equally compelling, I think, whether we are Christians, agnostics, atheists, of religious faith or none. We can all ask productively, in a deep sense, I think: ‘Where am I?’ and ‘What am I looking for?’

Jesus’s question is addressed to two men, but only one of them – Andrew – is named. Andrew is the protagonist of the gospel episode, whose feast day – St Andrewstide – we celebrate today. Today is also, of course, Advent Sunday, the beginning of a new liturgical year.

What, then, can Andrew – in today’s gospel – teach us about our searching, our questing, about a ‘relationship with God’, as we begin again our journeys on Advent Sunday?

 The next day, John was there again with Andrew and another disciple, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God.’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

The first important thing, then, about Andrew is that he does not come straight to Christ. He is first a disciple of John; he is someone with a desire to learn (‘disciple’ from ‘discere’, ‘to learn’), a ‘seeking person’. As we discover in the previous gospel episode, moreover, John draws his disciples little by little into the mystery that Jesus is Christ, the son of God.

In addition to the great stream of Jewish revelation that led Andrew to follow John the Baptist in seeking the Messiah, Andrew’s Greek name is itself notable: it highlights the stream of Greek language and culture to which he would have been exposed. The Greek philosophers asked the big questions: what is the purpose of my life? what is happiness? who am I? – they searched for (they loved) wisdom.

I think this is particularly important today, especially as many people have grown up in a predominantly secular environment with little, or no exposure to the depths of Christianity: there has often been little cultural ‘tilling of the soil’, little probing of the profound questions of human existence.

Advent, the beginning of a liturgical year, can remind us that just as, for Christians, God worked out his relationship with humankind over centuries, so God’s relationship with an individual starts where that individual is (‘Where are you?’)

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘Where are you staying?’. He said to them ‘Come and see’. So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.

If God starts with a question: ‘What are you looking for?’, Andrew suggests that one desired response is not a demand for something or for some truth but, rather, for a relationship: By calling Jesus Rabbi (‘teacher’ or, alternatively, ‘master’), Andrew shows that he wants to be an apprentice to Christ, as ‘the master of life’ (in other words, he is not just curious, or wanting to test Christ, as the Phrarisees will do).

Andrew then asks ‘Where do you live?’ and Jesus responds ‘Come and see’. The sense of this exchange for Andrew, of course, is that Christ will show him where he is staying. But St Augustine infers a deeper, mystical, sense for us here too. As he comments, ‘Let us also build a dwelling in our heart and fashion a home where he may come and teach us’.

Jesus’s response ‘Come and see’ suggests – at a deeper level – that we can only come to know God through experience. In St Thomas Aquinas’s commentary, he suggests four different pathways to experience God, four different ways to make a ‘dwelling place for God’ in our hearts: first, by doing good works, secondly (and beautifully, I think) through the ‘rest or stillness of the mind’ (‘Be still and see/Be still and know that I am God’; Psalm 45: 11), thirdly ‘by tasting the divine sweetness’ and, fourthly, through acts of devotion.

God starts with a question, this invites a relationship and this, in turn, invites knowledge of God through experience.

One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon-Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Annointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

Andrew, who is the ‘protoclete’ (‘the first called’), shows here that such a relationship with God is to be shared. And he shows just how fruitful such sharing can be, for it is this Simon-Peter who will become the very rock of the church.

This gospel episode is still, nonetheless, just the beginning of a journey for Andrew, it is the first of three times that he is called by Jesus: here he is called to ‘get to know him’, to friendship and faith; then, by the sea of Galilee, Jesus calls him to a new vocation (‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’); and, finally, he is called to be one of the twelve apostles: ‘He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) that they might be with him, and he might send them forth to preach’.

So, again, the message seems to be that God works little by little in building a relationship, from posing a question: ‘where are you?’, ‘what are you looking for?’, to knowledge, to friendship, to community, and to vocation.

As, for centuries, Christian pilgrims have travelled here, to St Andrews, in part to feel closer to St Andrew, Jesus’s ‘first-called’ disciple, so I hope that St Andrew may accompany you this year on your Advent journey.