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Sermon: Alone in a Bed

January 16, 2011

John 1:29-42

Our two-year-old granddaughter recently spent six days in the hospital with pneumonia.  It was fortunate that no other children were admitted to that room during her stay, because it meant that the rest of the family could spread out and relax and not worry about bothering anyone else.  The nurses brought a cot in so there was a comfortable place to sleep.  At every moment Cayden was in the hospital there was somebody—a parent or a grandparent—right there in the room with her.  That was important to me, because you could imagine what it would be like for a two-year-old to be in a strange place with strange people sticking needles in her arms, and to be apart from everyone that she knew and trusted.  Cayden never had to feel like she was alone, abandoned, lost.

When I was four, I went into the hospital to have my tonsils removed.  That was a surreal experience for me, and one of my few memories of my early childhood.  It was, of course, a different time, and parents were not allowed to spend the night with their children in hospital rooms.  I distinctly remember standing up in a crib while my parents said good bye to me the night before my surgery.  I watched them leave the room, and I felt lost.  They just left me.  They were probably told by the staff, “It’s best for the child if you just go.  There is no sense in coddling him.”

I felt totally alone.  I remember a nurse coming into the room once to check on me, but otherwise, I was alone.  I was scared.  I know my parents told me they were coming back for me the next day, but when you’re four and in a strange place, what comfort is that?  And so I was glad—so glad—that Cayden never had to experience that even once in her six days in the hospital.  When she drifted off to sleep, someone she trusted was there.  When she woke up, someone she loved was there.  When a nurse fiddled with the IV needle in her arm, someone was there to hold her.

*     *     *     *     *

Our scripture lesson opened this morning as John the Baptist stood around with some of his disciples.  John saw Jesus walk by, and he said, “There!  He’s the one, the Lamb of God, the Son of God.  That’s him.  That’s why I baptized, so that man could be revealed to the world.  I baptized with water, but that man will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

The very next day, John again saw Jesus and said, “There he is again, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

This time, two of John’s disciples went after Jesus.  Jesus turned and saw them following, and said the first words he spoke in John’s gospel: “What are you looking for?”  It’s a great question, and one Jesus asks us each week when we come to worship or each time we enter into prayer.  “What are you looking for?”  It is a question directed at our own hearts.  Why do I come to Jesus?  What do I need?  What do I want to find?

John’s disciples said to Jesus, “Teacher, where are you staying?  Where do you live?”

It is sort of an odd question for two men who have been chasing after a man called the Lamb of God and the Son of God.  It seems like a preliminary question, a conversation starter, that doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.  It’s small talk.  “Oh, you live here in San Pedro?  Have you lived here long?  What school did you attend?”  It’s a throwaway question, right?

As it turns out in the gospel according to John, there are no throwaway questions.  Everything he writes is significant.  Every image and every sentence has layers of meaning.  “What are you looking for?”  “Where do you live?”

It turns out that this is one of the most important questions in John’s gospel, and it is asked—in different ways—many times.  In John, Jesus frequently launches off into long prayers or speeches, and when he does, he is answering that question, “Where are you staying?”

The disciples of John were not just asking Jesus what room he was renting.  They didn’t want to know in what part of town they could find him.  When they asked, “Where do you live?” they were asking, “Where do you abide.”  In other places in John’s gospel, that same Greek word which is in this verse translated in your pew Bible as “live,” “Where do you live?” is translated in other places as “abide.”  “Rabbi, where do you abide?”

It may seem a fine distinction, just a simple word choice by the translators to use “live” instead of “abide.”  But John doesn’t use words for the sake of variety.  Each word choice has a purpose, and the concept of abiding is very important to John.  The followers of the Baptist were not asking Jesus where he lay his head at night.  They were asking, “Who are you really?  Tell us.  Share with us your innermost nature.  Help us to understand what it means that John called you the Lamb of God and the Son of God.  Who sent you?”  It is more of a question about relationship than about location.  It’s not small talk.

How did Jesus answer their inquiry?  What did he tell these men who wanted to know about his true nature?  Jesus said, “Come and see.”  Isn’t that great?  “I can’t tell you who I am.  You have to come with me.  You have to come on the journey with me.  Spend some time with me, and then you might be able to understand who I am.”  The disciples of John can only understand the answer to their question as they are in relationship with Jesus.  They must come with him.  They must abide with him.

Later in this gospel there will be a lot more “abiding” talk.  Jesus will explicitly tell his disciples what he is also trying to show them.  One of the classic chapters in John is chapter 15 about the vine and the branches.  I’m going to read a few selected verses from the pew Bible, and whenever you hear the word “remain,” you can substitute the word “abide.”

I am the real vine, and my Father is the gardener…Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you.  A branch cannot bear fruit by itself; it can do so only if it remains in the vine…I am the vine and you are the branches.  Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit…I love you just as the Father loves me; remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  (John 15:1, 4, 5, 9-10; Today’s English Version.)

Now do you understand what the disciples of John were asking when they said to Jesus, “Where do you live?”  “Where do you abide?”  It wasn’t small talk.

And so you also know why Jesus said, “Come and see.”  He couldn’t say “580 West Sixth Street,” because the two men did not want information about a physical location.  They wanted to know about the person.  They only way to do that is to be in relationship with a person, to spend time with a person, to abide.

Theologian Lesslie Newbigin discusses the difference between evangelism—which literally means “bearing good news”—with proselytizing, which is attempting to bring another person into ones own faith or group.  Newbigin says we have confused the former with the latter.  He wrote,

I mean that we have not been people simply full of good news which we had to share with all our friends: we have been agents of an organization trying to strengthen itself in the world by getting more members and more influence…Jesus became man—completely one among those for whom he came.  We do not.  We remain at a distance.  I am thinking of the typical evangelistic effort which our pastorates put on from time to time.  We go to a village, stand in the street, sing a few lyrics, perhaps shout a few texts through a loudspeaker, deliver a message, and go home to supper.  We do not become really involved with people.  We do not sit down beside them and listen to their thoughts, their problems, their hopes.  (Quoted in William Willimon, “Come and See”.  Pulpit Resource [January-February-March, 2011], p.15.)

Newbigin might have written, “We do not abide with them.”

Imagine a young child is laid up in a hospital bed.  It might be some help for a strange chaplain to come into the room and tell the child, “Jesus loves you.  The doctors are going to make you all better.  I know you’d rather be at home, but you’re really in the right place.”  That’s not really what the child needs.  The child needs someone with whom it has a loving, trusting relationship to be at the bedside—or in the bed—holding her, singing her favorite quiet song, reading her favorite book.  That’s abiding.

When a man has first lost his job, some people will tell him everything will be all right.  Others will say that the economy is bound to improve.  Some people say, “Everything happens for a reason.”  But some people will bring over a casserole or a plate of his favorite cookies.  Some will offer to watch the kids while he goes out on a job interview, will sit with him over a long cup of coffee.  That’s abiding.

It doesn’t really matter where we are located in physical space, what room we are renting or what bed we sleep in.  “Where do you live?” is not an important question.  Our relationships are important.  With whom do you abide?  That is absolutely critical.  We can’t abide if we keep our distance, if we don’t sit down beside people and listen to their thoughts, their problems, their hopes.  If we want to love Jesus, we have to “come and see” where he abides.  If we want to love our neighbors, we have to “come and see” where they abide.

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