We could infer from this Gospel account that John and Jesus had met for the very first time the day before, when John baptized Jesus. John had said, “I myself did not know him.” Not so. They did know one another. They were cousins. They would have known each other since their births, their impossible-to-believe births, which had been predicted by angels. Angels, no less! Jesus, born to an unmarried mother who insisted she had not had a sexual union; John born to a mother who was old enough to be his great grandmother.
If it was important enough for Mary, while she was pregnant, to travel the 90 miles from Nazareth to the Judean hills to see her pregnant Aunt Elizabeth, John’s mother, it is unimaginable that they would not have visited each other after the births of their miraculous sons.[i] Visited many times. No one in the world could understand one another like these two couples could: Mary and Joseph, and Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah. These two boys, Jesus and John, had to have known one another, and probably looked to each other, befriended each other, confided in each other, shared the burden of their imposed identities with one another. Both of them loved going into the desert. Maybe they camped together? They were cousins, virtually the same age, the only child of their parents. Neither son had married; neither had pursued a profession that was identified; neither, it seems, had found their voice to fulfill the “angelic predictions” until rather late in life. Both of them, at the time of this Gospel account, were about age 30. They had to have known one another. And known each other very well.
But we have to take John at his word. John says, “I myself did not know him.” John had never known Jesus like this! John had clearly experienced something new and stunningly powerful in his cousin, Jesus with his baptism. John, who had initially been resistant to Jesus’ request to be baptized, was undeniably overcome by something that had happened in Jesus’ baptism. John now says for the first time, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”[ii] What John had now seen and heard absolutely convinced him that the destinies that both he and Jesus had carried all their lives was coming into being. John’s cousin, Jesus, was the Messiah after all!
The next day following his baptism, Jesus walks by John, who is talking with two of his own followers, one named Andrew.[iii] Andrew, and we can assume his companion, were fishermen by trade. Fishermen were a distinct class. They were savvy, but were not known to be literate. Their work was strenuous; they stank; they were typically crude in manner, with rough hands, and rough speech, and rough in their treatment of others.[iv] Except that these two Jewish fishermen – and a host of other people – were on a very earnest spiritual quest anticipating the coming of the Messiah. Which is why John was baptizing people, preparing them for the coming Messiah. So Jesus walks by, the day after his baptism. This is John’s cousin… but he has become much more than just a cousin. John points out Jesus to these two fishermen, naming Jesus, “the Lamb of God.” This would have been a very arresting thing to say to fellow Jews accustomed to the sacrifice of lambs in the Temple: Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” Andrew and his companion set off to track Jesus.
When Jesus notices them, he asks them one of the best questions in the entire Bible, one of the best questions in life: “What are you looking for?” This was at a time when there were many smart but acrimonious factions within Judaism – the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Zealots, the Essenes, and others – who were erudite. But probably not these two fishermen. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And their answer to Jesus is so disarming, so endearing, and so down-to-earth. Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” And they respond, “Uhh…” they say, “Uhh… where are you staying?” And Jesus meets them on their terms. He says, “Come and see.” And they spend the rest of the day with Jesus.
We don’t know what they did together, nor what they discussed. I think these two fishermen simply needed to know whether Jesus was real. They had heard from John and so many others the lofty predictions of what the Messiah was to be. They needed to know if he was real. The real deal. Otherwise all this spiritual talk about the coming Messiah – King of Kings, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, Lord of Lords – was way beyond their reach, beyond their interest, beyond their need. They were fishermen, looking for healing, and help, and hope. They needed to know if Jesus, whom John identified as the Messiah, was real and could meet them on their level.
The clinical psychologist and spiritual guide James Finley tells of his first encounter with Thomas Merton.[v] Finley, at age 19, after graduating from high school and surviving an alcoholic and abusive father, entered Gethsemane Abbey, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. He was assigned to Thomas Merton as his spiritual director. In their first meeting Finley was so intimidated, literally stuttering in Merton’s presence. Merton asked him, “What’s wrong?” Finley screamed at him, “You’re Thomas Merton! What do you think?” So Merton gave Finley an assignment. In addition to his daily round of prayer and worship, of study and silence, Finley was given the work of tending to the abbey’s pigs. A swineherd. Finley tells how Thomas Merton leaned into him and said: “Under my authority, you must meet me each day… and tell me one story that happened that day with the pigs.” Finley thought, “I can do that.” And this began Finley’s long journey to healing from his horrific trauma by talking every day… about pigs.
We have no idea what these two curious, perhaps desperate fishermen talked about with Jesus for the rest of the day, wherever it was he was staying. I assume the conversation included fish talk because that’s what their life was all about. Jesus’ question to them is a good question for us: “What are you looking for?” It’s a profoundly simple question which has successive levels of depth. Plumb the depths. Let that question form your prayer to Jesus. He asks you, “What are you looking for?” And you respond. And then he asks you, “Why?” And you respond. And then he asks you again, “Why?” Keep plumbing the depths in your response, and you’ll eventually get down to what is real, real about you and real about Jesus. It’s what we call “the real presence,” the two of you, really being present to one another.
Lectionary Year and Proper: A – The Second Sunday after Epiphany
[i] John was born to Elizabeth and Zachariah in Ein Karem, Hebrew for “Spring of the Vineyard,” about 5 miles southwest of Jerusalem in the peaceful Judean Hills. Mary and Joseph raised Jesus in Nazareth of Galilee, about 90 miles north of Ein Karem.
[ii] John 1:33-34.
[iii] John 1:40.
[iv] Many of Jesus’ 12 disciples were fishermen (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16,17; Luke 5:1-11; John 1:43-44).
[v] Dr. James Finley is a prolific author, among whose books are Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps; The Healing Path; A Memoir and an Invitation; Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God.
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