In, oh I want to say 4th grade, we had a science teacher at my school who would wander from room to room, pushing her things on her cart. We were learning about how to do science – how to identify a problem, how to test a hypothesis, how to gather evidence, how to follow directions – you know, the basic drill.
So one day, she walks in with sheets of paper for us. She hands them out and we all get going. You can see right away that, whatever you’re supposed to be doing with this sheet, it’s going to be involved, which makes sense. We’re learning about science. Anyway, the way you can tell it’s going to be involved is that it has like 30 or 40 points just in the directions. So our teacher sets us loose.
I read the first direction, which is to read all directions before beginning. Then the second is put my name on the top of page, so I do that. The third, I think, was about counting the letters in your name. Then the next was to take that number and write it on the back of the paper. Then you had to draw a picture, you had to do a BUNCH of math problems. I was only in fourth grade, and I remember having to ask how you divide fractions, because somehow I wound up doing that. I asked the teacher, and she told me to be sure I had paid attention to all the directions, so I started over. Ugh. I wound up at the same point a second time.
In the meantime, one kid had already turned theirs in. I couldn’t believe it! I was always the first person done. But if you looked around the room, everyone was trying furiously to figure this paper out. Then, after what seemed like forever, the teacher gave us permission to stop. She called out the one student who had turned in the paper, and commended her on a job well-done.
The teacher held up the paper, and ALL that was on it was the girl’s name! Then, the teacher asked us to look at the final direction on this sheet of, I don’t know, 30 or 40 directions. The last one said, “Ignore all the other directions. Write your name in the top right corner of the page, turn in your sheet, and sit quietly at your desk.”
Well, wasn’t that a nice little lesson in humility? Obviously, this was something that was going to be important for us when we were doing science experiments – read all the directions first, so you know for sure what you’re doing. Don’t just start working without knowing what’s coming next. Ask Carissa – when I cook a new recipe, I’m obsessive about reading the directions all the way through multiple times, and getting everything out and ready. I like to think it’s all residual emotional scarring from this silly sheet of paper we had to do in 4th grade.
I fell for the trick on that sheet hook, line, and sinker, because I was ambitious, I like to work, I like problem solving, and I enjoyed activities in school. Why wouldn’t I want it? But my eagerness got the better of me. And in school, it’s important that we always follow the directions.
Most of us, at some point in school, learn that lesson well. It’s either a tricky little worksheet that a teacher gives, or a math teacher who refuses to credit a right answer unless you show all your work, or it’s a science experiment that, perhaps literally, blows up in your face. And because we’re trained that way from so early on in our lives, to follow the directions, I think we often catch ourselves believing that that’s how life should be.
Unfortunately, life is rarely a precise set of directions laid out for us, telling us exactly what to do and when. In life, we’re forced to wing it a little more than we get to in school. And it’s no different for followers of Jesus, in his time or today, than it is for anyone else. We’re all asked to go with the flow once in a while.
There were a lot of things to notice in today’s passage from the Gospel of John. Perhaps you were in church last week, and you noticed the references to Jesus’ Baptism, which we talked about extensively last week. Perhaps you noticed that there were a lot of references to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Perhaps you were reading along in the Bible in your pews, and you noticed an inordinate number of statements in parentheses. But perhaps most important of all to notice in this passage is the concept of identity.
Today’s passage begins with a discussion between the Pharisees and John the Baptist. These Pharisees were asking John who he was. I mean, they knew he was John the Baptist, but they wanted to know what that meant. Specifically, they wanted to know if he was the Messiah.
“No,” John said, “but there’s someone coming who’s greater than I am.” We’ve all certainly heard variations on that story during Advent, as we lead up to Christmas. John is always a big part of those weeks leading to Christmas, and so we often hear his testimony. But this passage is different, in that it continues. “And lookee here,” says John. “Here’s the one – the Messiah – the Lamb of God.”
Notice that this is just the first of several clarifications on names or naming that we’re going to get in this passage. John has clarified that he’s not the Messiah, then points to Jesus, who is. John later, in verse 34, states that Jesus is “the Son of God.” After John literally points to Jesus and says who he is, two of John the Baptist’s disciples (one of them Andrew) just stop following John and start following Jesus. They have a new name for Jesus, too – “Rabbi,” meaning “teacher.” Then, Andrew goes to his brother, Simon, and calls Jesus by another name, “Messiah.” And finally, Simon, Andrew’s brother, is brought to Jesus to meet him. When Jesus sees him, Jesus tells him that his name, “Simon,” is no longer what he will be called, but rather he’ll go by “Peter” (well, actually “Cephas,” but that means “Peter”).
So what’s with all the re-naming? Well, I got to thinking about this passage in light of my story earlier about directions. You see, in life, we’re not given this sheet of directions that says everything we’re supposed to do. Most of the time, we just follow the next thing on the list. Think, for example, about Andrew in this passage. He’s a pretty minor character, you’d think. He began the passage as a disciple of John the Baptist. There he was, just a man following after where he saw God working, trying his best to serve God.
Then, one day, he finds out from John that there’s another guy who’s even greater. What does Andrew do? Well, I would think there was probably a temptation to quit, to feel like everything has been a waste. Or perhaps there’d be a temptation to say, “Well, that’s nice, John, but I’m already following you, and second-best is good enough for me.” But instead, Andrew rolls with the punches – he just leaves John and follows after Jesus.
I think we easily underestimate the courage that it takes to follow after a new call that comes later in life. It’s much, much easier to stay the course where we’re comfortable than it is to actually course-change in the middle of things. People stay for years and years at jobs that make them unhappy because the alternative of switching is just too much to bear. And sometimes, that’s the right decision.
But when it comes to following God, there’s definitely not a roadmap that says that there’s one right way to follow. Throughout your life, you’ll undoubtedly be asked to do different things to serve God. I think about Pastor Carolyn. She was a nurse at the beginning of her career, and insodoing was following God’s call on her life, saving people. Then she became a pastor, and followed God’s will, serving people in a different way. Now, even in retirement, she serves as the “pastor to the pastors” in our Presbytery, helping people who need her advice and counsel.
It’s not that any of these stops along the way was “wrong” and she should’ve picked the “right” one from the beginning. Sometimes, God throws us into a situation that’s right for a certain time, but it’s not meant to be forever. So the question we need to ask God all the time is this: What are you calling me to do now? Sometimes, we’re going to hear that we’re supposed to stay the course; sometimes, it’s time for a change. Sometimes, it means doing something big and bold with our lives, like giving up a big purchase we’ve looked forward to so that we can give to a charity that really needs our help. Sometimes, it’s a little gesture like checking in on the neighbor who needs a little help in the winter. Sometimes, it’s going to mean finally making that commitment to reading the Bible more regularly. Sometimes it’s going to mean praying differently. There are a hundred different ways God could be calling you to serve. But you don’t find out until you’re ready to ask.
In conclusion, people (including Jesus!) get different names in this passage, because sometimes God needs us to become something else. Sometimes, we need to be bold and not fear having our name changed. Andrew goes to Jesus, and his name stays the same. Peter comes to Jesus, and he hears his name changed. But the important thing we learn is that the only ones who find out what their name is supposed to be today are those with the courage to ask.
So take time in prayer; ask God where you’re being called. Talk to the important people in your life about it. Make a bold decision for God, make a private decision to do something personal. Either way, find out how God is leading you right now, and chase after that thing. After all, you don’t want to ignore a call from God. Amen.