January 23, 2005 - The Long Search

August 8th, 2016

Encountering Matthew

We are in the season of the Epiphany, meaning “manifestation” or “revelation” of Christ. The Christ is not something that we discovered, but rather is God’s unique means of discovering us. We could not find God in our groping, so God, in great grace, found us.

This great truth is revealed in the gospel lessons of Epiphany, and in no more beloved a lesson than this Sunday’s lesson, Matthew 4:12-23, the calling of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus does not sit back and wait for people to stumble upon him; he reaches out, goes forth, calls to them to “Come, follow me.”

Conventional rabbis did not “call” disciples, I am told. It was considered bad form for a rabbi to go out, beat the bushes, and ask people to become his disciples.  The greatness of one’s teaching was supposed to naturally attract students.

Jesus called disciples, reached out, saying, “Come, follow me.”

He still reaches, still goes forth, still calls. That reaching, that loving search will be our sermon on this day as we ponder the significance of the god who came to us in Christ. Our God is an actively seeking, relentlessly searching God, not a possessive, inactive, aloof God. Even as the shepherd searches for the one lost sheep, the father waits constantly for the return of the prodigal son, or the woman tears apart her house looking for the one lost coin (beloved stories that Luke tells elsewhere), so the Christ searches, waits, looks for us.


Proclaiming the Text

He had made a rather sudden lurch to the right. He became interested in Evangelical Christianity. Rumor had it that he was at a fundamentalist Christian Church on the edge of town. He bragged to someone that he was in a Bible study every night.

Then came the ‘90s. He made a trip out to the West Coast. He took two weeks at a retreat with the theme of “Self-Discovery.” When he returned, all of his talk was about “Astral Projection,” “out of the body experiences,” and other ideas that someone attributed to his “New Age Thinking.”

As the century changed into a new millennium, I saw him at a meeting of the Democratic Party. People said that he was planning to run for public office. Other people said that, whether or not he planned to run, politics had become his “new religion.” He was totally wrapped up in political matters, out every night, going from here to there to work for various causes.

Now he is what I would call a searcher. His interests last about a decade, and then he moves on to something else. He has gone through more dramatic changes of conviction than the popular Cat Stevens. Some years ago, I remember reading a book about us North Americans entitled A Nation of Seekers. That’s who we are, or at least enjoy thinking who we are. We are a nation on the move. All of us are looking for something. Some of us, like my friend whose spiritual changes I have just chronicled for you, are intense seekers. Others of us are on a more restrained journey.

A number of years ago, on public television, when the distinguished scholar, Houston Smith, did a survey of the world’s great religions, he called his program, “The Long Search.”

When I began the Christian ministry, back in the 1970s, my denomination participated with many others in a nation-wide program of evangelism. As I recall, the program was called, “I Found It.” As part of the program, we were to hand out bumper stickers at our church. We were to affix these bumper stickers to our cars. The bumper sticker said in large letters (what else?), “I FOUND IT.” The implication was that we had been looking for something, and now we had at last found it. The “it” that we had found was Jesus. In a nation of searchers, anyone who is able to stand up and to proclaim at last, “I found it” ought to be able to draw a crowd. We are a nation of seekers.

I certainly find this sense of being on a journey to be a major characteristic of the college years. On our campus, the years of college are expected to be years of searching. From what I can tell, the students have the notion that the important thing is to be on a journey; it is not important ever to arrive at a destination. In fact, anyone who stands up and proclaims, “I found it,” is regarded as someone who detoured from the path too soon. The search is better than the destination.

During the course of one week in the spring, we had a local businessman who gave a lecture to about 200 students entitled, “My Five Years with a Zen Master.” Two hundred students sat there in rapt attention for two hours, taking notes, nodding in agreement as he talked about the joys of studying Zen Buddhism.

Two nights later, I went out for a talk by a graduate student called, “My Semester in a Benedictine Monastery.” Again, about 200 students were in attendance, in rapt attention for over an hour. And they were the same students!

We are a nation of searchers.

And though intellectual curiosity is good, and though the Christian gospels all depict Jesus as inviting people to be on a journey, this image of our long search, our groping for God, is not at all how the Bible tells it. I’ll summarize it simply: The Bible is not so much a long record of our search for God; rather, it is the amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us.

You will notice this in the accounts of Christmas. Hardly anyone in all the stories of Christmas was looking for God. They weren’t searching for something more meaningful in their lives. They were not looking for some way to find deeper significance. True, old Elizabeth and Zechariah are portrayed as those who are awaiting the fulfilment of the promise of God to Israel. But Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, what were they looking for? I suspect most of them, probably because they were people on the bottom, poor people, were simply trying to get by in life. They were searching for their daily bread, nothing more. The magi, the wise men, were on a search, following the star, looking for the king. But they are portrayed as those who did not know where to look. In their search, they naively go and ask King Herod where this new “king” can be found.

Thus, John begins the stirring first chapter of his gospel by talking about the “people who have sat in darkness have seen a great light.” That’s probably a good way to characterize our search. We are those who search, but our search is little more than a groping about in the darkness.

So the first Christmas is not a story about how we found God, in our darkness groping, but rather an amazing account of how God found us! And the story continues. Here is Jesus. And hardly ever does anyone look at Jesus and say, “This is what I have been looking for! Here is the teaching that I have been wanting to hear!”

In fact, people seem to do almost anything to avoid Jesus. But Jesus is intrusive, resourceful, relentless in reaching out to people. That’s the way the Bible tells it. I recall the time that he met a little man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus climbed up the sycamore tree in order to get a glimpse of the celebrity walking by. But then the celebrity stopped and said, “Zacchaeus, I’m going to come to your house for dinner.”

Zacchaeus climbed down from the tree and Jesus climbed into Zaccahaeus’ life. Jesus intruded, giving Zacchaeus some of the most important revelation. At the end of the Jesus story, in the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel, two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem. They are walking away, probably trying to get away from the horrible events of the past week when Jesus was crucified. Then a stranger suddenly appears, and walks with them, talks with them, teaches them. Later, they find out that the stranger is Jesus.

Jesus told stories about a shepherd who goes and beats the bushes, goes to great lengths, just to find merely one lost sheep. For he said the kingdom of God was like a woman who rips her house apart, searching from top to bottom until she finds her one lost coin. There is in Jesus this reaching, this constant seeking and searching. In regard to Jesus, there is a search going on, a long, relentless search. But it is not our search. It is God’s search for us! The main requirement to get found by God, according to Jesus, is to be lost. And here is a Messiah, a savior, who just loves to seek and to save the lost.

I expect this may go against the grain of why you think that you are here. Perhaps you think that you are here because you are searching for something. Your life is rich and rewarding in many ways. But in other ways, there is flatness about things, sometimes an emptiness. So you come to church, hoping that something will be said or sung that will help you in your search.

No, that is not the way the Bible tells it. According to scripture, you are here because you have been sought, called, summoned. You are here because God has reached in, grabbed you, put you here, enticed, wooed, allured you here.

And when you hear stories about the long search, that is, God’s long search for you, it should condition you to pay attention. Notice those little coincidences in your life, those strange happenings, and those thoughts, that you find you have difficulty putting into the context of other thoughts. Perhaps all of this is part of God’s continuing attempts at enticement.

Because we have a tendency to bed down with darkness, we have a propensity to look in all the wrong places, to want all the wrong things, this God could not leave us to our own devices. This God came among us, “tented among us,” as the Gospel of John puts it. So Christianity is not so much a religion of discovery. It is a religion of revelation. It is the self-giving of God, the self-disclosure of God that makes our relationship with God possible.

So keep looking over your shoulder as you go through life. Keep being attentive to the strange little things, the odd, glorious things that happen to you.

The long search is over. You have been found. This is the good news.


Relating the Text

He who thinks that he is finished is finished. How true. Those who think that they have arrived, have lost their way. Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it. Those who think they are saints, are demons.

—Henri Nouwen, The Genessee Diary, New York: Doubleday, 1980



One of my favourite Peanuts cartoons starts with Lucy at her fivecent psychology booth, where Charlie Brown has stopped for advice about life:


“Life is like a deck chair, Charlie,” she says. “On the cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been. Others place their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they’re going.”

The good “doctor” looks at her puzzled client and asks, “Which way is your deck chair facing?” Without hesitating, Charlie replies glumly, “I can’t even get my deck chair unfolded.”


Charlie and I are soulmates.



Looking for love in all the wrong places—isn’t that how a popular song puts it?

We are hungry for love, for tenderness and caring, for a sense of belonging and embrace. Yet we seek love through sexual promiscuity, pornography, series of illicit affairs. We will do almost anything to get people to like us. We will sell our souls, compromise ourselves, make fools out of ourselves, all in a vain attempt to get people to love us.

The incarnation is a vivid statement that, while we were frantically searching for love in all the wrong places, “Love came down at Christmas,” as our beloved hymn puts it. Love came to us as the Christ. Our search was over.



“Your search is over!” proclaimed the billboard along the highway. What search? What glorious discovery have we happened upon at last?

Underneath the large letters, we could read the words, “Perfect yogurt at reasonable prices.”

Our search really has been scaled down considerably, hasn’t it?



With apologies to all my dear Unitarian friends:


The story is told of the woman who entered the fabric shop and asked for 30 yards of diaphanous, sheer silk material.

“What, may I ask, will you use this for?” asked the clerk.

“I’m making a lingerie set for my honeymoon,” she replied.

“Oh, my goodness, you won’t need nearly that much material for a piece of lingerie,” said the clerk.

“But we’re Unitarians,” replied the bride-to-be. “We believe that the search itself is better than the destination.”



He came to me at the end of last semester, telling me that he was in trouble with his parents. His direction in life had reversed. No longer headed for grad school, he was now headed for Soweto to work with the poor. While there last summer, God had gotten hold of him, he said, had convicted him, grabbed him, made him miserable all semester, demanded that he put his life there.

I asked him, “How do you get along with your parents? What did you have to eat for dinner last night? Do you have a girlfriend?”

After an hour or so of conversation, I could come up with no satisfactory precedent, no rationale for his remarkable move, no psychological cause that would explain why he was at this point, so I was forced to conclude, “Well, I guess Jesus really has risen from the dead and is loose, up to his old tricks.”

To be a Christian is not to believe a half dozen impossible things before breakfast. It is to be intellectually open to the possibility that something’s afoot, that the life you live may not be your own, that God really does mean to have God’s way with the world through you. It is to believe that God really is determined to have you, come what may, that God has plans for you. We are here because God, in Jesus Christ, journeyed out and got us and put us here.



The great theologian Karl Barth had a strange interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. He said that it was not so much a parable about us, about our tendency to run away from the father’s house, get lost in the “far country,” and live like a pig.

Barth said that it was a story about Jesus, about the way in which God loved us so much that he allowed his only begotten Son to journey out into the far country of sin and death, to share our lot, to suffer, to be lost in death and then, by the grace of God, to come home.

Jesus is the one who went out to the far country and recklessly sacrificed in order to love us.

Jesus is the one who went on a long, perilous journey of suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection in order to find us.

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