Why did they follow him?
Those very first disciples — Simon, Andrew, James and John – what made them drop their nets, and go? I mean, if a stranger approached you and asked you to follow him, would you go? Wouldn’t you at least ask for some references, maybe google him first?
Yet they leave their nets, their boats, their father, even, and follow Jesus, no questions asked. No one asks, Where? Let alone, Why? Don’t you think you’d want to know, before you started following someone, just where they were going? You know the joke, about the motorist who gets caught in a terrible fog; he slows way down, but still he can’t see a thing, except that he can just barely make out the taillights of the car in front of him, so he follows them, until they suddenly come to a stop. He rolls down his window and calls out, why did you stop? And the driver of the other car answers, “because I’m in my driveway.”
Let’s face it, no one wants to think of themselves as a follower. We all want to be leaders – entrepreneurs, innovators — co-creators, maybe, but certainly not followers. It’s downright un-American, to be a follower. We are supposed to be rugged individualists, marching to the beat of our different drummers. Years ago, my Mom asked a friend of hers, a prominent international reporter, what he thought was the most distinctive characteristic of Americans. He answered, our belief that we have nothing to learn from anyone else. The mere fact that someone else came up with an idea first, is enough to make us reject it.
So despite our sentimental attachment to Jesus as the good shepherd, none of us really wants to be a sheep. To call someone a sheep is to accuse them of mindless conformity and thoughtless obedience. As the pig is the symbol of gluttony – fairly or not – so the sheep is the symbol of gullibility. Because an animal that can be easily led, can also be easily misled. Sheep are vulnerable creatures.
History affords any number of examples, of bad shepherds and false messiahs, who led their people into violence, delusion, or despair. The word Fuhrer, we should remember, simply means Leader.
Jesus warns his disciples of this; he tells them again, near the end of Matthew’s gospel, to beware of false shepherds. “Many will come,” Jesus says to them, “claiming to be the Messiah. If anyone says to you, Look, here he is! – do not believe it.” Of course, if they had followed his advice back in Galilee, they would never have become Jesus’ disciples in the first place. It’s a bit of a catch-22, really.
Some of us can relate to the fishermen’s enthusiasm. You know who you are — adventurous souls who are happy to go off the map, or trusting souls who will leave the details to others. Some of us prefer to travel familiar roads, with a map in hand.
Or at least to ask a few questions, before we sign up for the trip.
The fishermen were ready to follow Jesus, no questions asked. Not so, John the Baptist. John, after all, knew a thing or two about bad shepherds. He had already been arrested by one. I imagine him, waiting in prison, knowing he may never leave there, and wondering, what will become of his own disciples? And remembers his cousin Jesus, who came to be baptized in the Jordan. And he wonders, if this Jesus might be the One to come after him, the One who will fulfill the promises John merely proclaimed. But John will not endorse candidate Jesus without a bit more information. So John’s disciples come to Jesus, and ask: “Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
And Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
John asks Jesus a straightforward, either/or, yes-or-no question, but Jesus, as usual, throws it right back at him. Judge for yourself, Jesus says. You’ve heard the stories about me. Is this what you’ve been waiting for, or not?
The answer, of course, depends as much on John as it does on Jesus.
Just what sort of Messiah, is John waiting for? What sort of savior was he envisioning? Was he expecting a charismatic prophet like Elijah, who would bring back that old time religion? Was he expecting an avenging liberator like Moses, who would call plagues down upon their oppressors? Was he expecting a military leader like David, who would drive out the foreigners and make Israel great again?
John may have prepared the way for Jesus; but was he really prepared for this unlikely leader who shunned all power but love, and all arms but truth?
John asks Jesus, Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies, You tell me. Am I?
So what about us? Who are we waiting for? Are we waiting for One who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear, who preaches good news to the poor but sends the rich away empty, who embraces the outcasts and welcomes the stranger, who chastises the pious and forgives the sinner? Are we ready for this messiah, this imprisoned, crucified and risen messiah? Or are we looking for someone else?
Like John the Baptist, we ask: Are you the One we are waiting for?
And Jesus replies: You tell me. Am I?
by Liza B. Knapp
sermon for The First Church of Deerfield, MA
January 26, 2020
Photo: Ronnie Overgoor, Unsplash.com