Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, we are curiously burdened. The unequal experiences leave many of us looking for the weight to be lifted. Yet, the burdens are too much for us, alone. Let us see with our ears today what John declared with his words, Look, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Hearten us that we have been curiously unburdened by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus already. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
Matthew: 11:7-15; John 1:29-42
If you want to get your choir heard by a famous rock band, you do whatever it takes.
Dennis Bell had written a gospel arrangement of a song for his choir, The New Voices of Freedom. The Harlem based choir worked up the arrangement and recorded it on a cassette tape. How many of you remember cassette tapes? Albums, vinyl, have made a comeback. Don’t look for a comeback of cassette tapes.
Bell got the cassette to producer Rob Partridge who in turn played the cassette of the Gospel arrangement for that famous rock band, U2. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was a hit from their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. In a video filmed at Greater Calvary Church in Harlem, guitarist, Edge, remarked that for the band, the song was a hymn. He admitted it did not sound like a hymn but it was.
On tour at Madison Square Garden in 1988, The New Voices of Freedom choir joined U2 for the song that would be used on their 1988 album, Rattle and Hum. For that version of the song, Bono noted that he added snippets from Bob Marley’s Exodus.
That may have prompted questions about the meaning of the song. With lyrics like,
I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
I have run I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls.
The imagery could be viewed as a contemporary version of the preacher in Ecclesiastes who noted he had looked everywhere for meaning. The verses point up the endless search,
only to be with you
But I still haven’t found what I’ve been looking for.
Jesus turned around to see two of John’s disciples following him and asked,
What are you looking for?
It seems an important detail to know what it is you are looking for if you are willing to do just about anything to find it.
Two hundred years ago women in the United States began looking to earn the right to be citizens. One hundred years ago they won the long hard-fought right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Even today, women are still looking for an end to systems and ways of thinking that leave them vulnerable, even disadvantaged. So Women still march.
At about the same time, abolitionist movements began the long hard work toward freedom, citizenship and the right to vote for black men and women. While black men were given the right to vote with the 15th Amendment some fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, it would be 100 years after the end of the Civil War that the Civil Rights Act was passed that outlawed discrimination based on race. Even today, black men and women are still looking for an end to systems and ways of thinking that leave them vulnerable, even disadvantaged. And our Country will be reminded to keep looking to live out the dream framed in Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech tomorrow.
No matter what era, what country or what people, looking for an end to the way things are in hopes for a God-promised future connect us with the group that went out to see John the Baptizer across the Jordan.
Jesus received some of John the Baptizer’s disciples after John had been put in prison. Their mission was to find out if it was fake news that Jesus was the One. Jesus’ response illustrates the sorts of people looking for the One who would bring about the God-promised future,
Go and tell John what you are and see, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear and see, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Though the Empire exerted dominance over its subjects, there was in its midst evidence of another Kingdom, one that liberates rather than maintains captives. John would receive news, good news, that his mission had found its home in the life and work of Jesus. The evidence may be different from what John imagined but everyone needs an adjustment where their expectations are concerned. Jesus’ baptism signaled the sort of kingdom and its King that would work its way through the world like yeast through dough.
Today like then, we are curiously burdened. The world as we experience it seems dominated by forces and powers that maintain captives. All over the world, there are political, social and economic forces that work against the liberation of folks ruled by despots, canceled as social outcasts, and economically insecure. In the midst of it all, there is yet a kingdom and King that bring Good News of liberation, freedom.
What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?
If some looked to John the Baptizer as an apocalyptic figure that signaled another uprising on the way, then Jesus wanted to expose their desires, draw out their expectations. In what seems like rapid-fire succession, Jesus poses six questions that draw out their desires and exposed burdens driving their hopes.
A reed blown by the wind? Someone dress in soft robes? A prophet?
Reeds were not only common but they also served as a sign, a symbol. The reed was Herod’s symbol pointing to the founding of Tiberias. Later, when Jesus faces the soldiers who will mock him we see the reed used,
They out a reed in his hand and knelt before him and mocked him saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”
If the reed symbolized political leadership then maybe the crowds went out to see John critique Herod for his alliance with Rome and all the ways it brought suffering to people. Maybe they hoped Herod would be punished by God – a reed blown about. Could be the people hoped they would see the sort of liberating event like the one their forefathers experienced when God blew back the waters of the Reed Sea freeing the people from Egyptian slavery. The desire for liberation was strong. Was the crowd looking for liberation?
Did they desire power and wealth? Sometimes those looking for liberation due so out of their own experience of poverty. Wouldn’t it be nice to be in charge? Did their desire lead them to the wilderness to see John in hopes they may become the new elite? Jesus reminds them that John is not fashionable. He does not buy from Sax Fifth Avenue but rifles through the racks at Goodwill Industries. Palace? The only way John gets access to the palace is through the prison cell.
Were they looking for a prophet? Yes. It could be the summary of their desire for liberation. Should God be announcing judgment through John it could entail the fulfillment of all they desired. They longed from an end to the world as it was and just maybe John was pointing to that day. Jesus redirects their desire. Yes, John was a prophet but he was more than that, John was preparing the way for Jesus.
So when we return to John’s gospel, we hear John identify Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He does so with the word,
We have found what we have been looking for!
Exploring its enduring popularity, All Things Considered showcased Still Haven’t Found What I’ve Been Looking For in their year-long series, American Anthem. The project was billed as a year-long look at the songs that inspire, unite and call to action. Despite what Bono told interviewers, others offered a different sense of what the song meant, how it impacted listeners.
Bono and his fellow band members grew up in a period in Ireland known as The Troubles. Making their way as young musicians to the United States, they offered a hymn from their experience. Here in the land of plenty they still hadn’t found what they were looking for. Bono said the song was, “a gospel hymn with a restless spirit.” He would also say the song was “an anthem of doubt more than faith.”
In the midst of the troubles in Israel, people were looking for meaning. There is no question their experience had left them with doubts r more than faith.
What drove the people out to John is the same thing that drives people today? Our burdens give rise to our curiosity. What will help us? If we are curiously burdened, the Gospel Good News is that we are also curiously unburdened. That is all the things that drive us to look for a place of hope come with our ideas about how that should take place.
No one considered their burdens would be lifted in a person like Jesus. Yet, John’s designation, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world stirred them.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. The above manuscript is incomplete. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen here.