Scriptures: Matthew 3:1-12, Matthew 11:2-19
“Most people do not see things as they are, because they see things as they are.” Richard Rohr repeats this statement twice when teaching about spirituality, so I will, too: “Most people do not see things as they are, because they see things as they are.” Rohr continues, “Their many self-created filters keep them from seeing with any clear vision.” Rohr says that spirituality—life in the Holy Spirit—“is about seeing—seeing things in their wholeness, which can only be done through the lens of our own wholeness.”[i]
Rohr’s talk of filters and lenses makes me think of the tricks of light filmmakers use to convey atmosphere and symbolism. When a movie character is experiencing prison, literal or metaphorical, a filmmaker might zoom toward his face through a barred window. Or maybe the filmmaker suggest prison bars with lines of shadow on the character’s face, like that cast by light shining through prison bars. Perhaps in spite of outward appearances, viewers intuitively feel, that the character is experiencing some form of bondage.
That’s how I’d film John the Baptist in his prison cell, with lines of shadow over his face. How his circumstances have changed from our initial encounter with him! There on the banks of the Jordan, he seemed like the bright blaring light of a desert sun at midday. He was as expansive as the wilderness around him, confident in his message: Repent: now comes the Day of the Lord! Turn your life around and prepare! The people came to him and were baptized, cleansed for a new beginning inn the new era of peace the long-promised Messiah would bring.
In prison, the view is quite different. The brilliant prophet, wild locusts-and-honey-eater, is now confined to a constricted cell. The messenger who “prepared the way” for the Messiah now sits in captivity, his own way barred. Likely he suspects he will not leave this cell alive.
But the prison bars cannot keep out the good news. Bright shards of Christ’s light filter through to John as he hears word of Jesus’ deeds, igniting his hope even as the bars remind him how his vision is bounded. Longing to know, longing for clarity, the Messenger sends his own messenger to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I’ve always thought John’s message and Jesus’ response sound like code—which makes sense, given how both are Jewish change agents, and as such, have a precarious relationship with the political powers. On one level, John is asking Jesus for basic assurance that his work hasn’t been in vain. But on another level, John is grasping at his last hope for rescue.
Jesus’ response is a paraphrase of Isaiah 61:1, which John would know well. It’s almost a job description for the Messiah: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”
But notice that Jesus’ paraphrase adds some things and leaves others out: “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.” Notice Jesus says nothing about “release to the prisoners.”
As one scholar writes, “…Jesus’ answer affirmed he is the Messiah while clarifying that he would not rescue John from Herod’s prison. This royal Son of David would not overthrow the wicked human rulers over Israel.” [ii]
What a hard grace John receives in this Word. It dismisses one hope while it amplifies another. On one hand, the great longing of Israel is met! The Messiah has come! But on the other, John will remain in prison. John’s change in circumstances is permanent. John’s work as herald and messenger, forerunner and preparer has come to completion.
But John’s work as Christ’s disciple has just begun. As he speaks to the crowds, Jesus honors John’s faithfulness: no human being in history is greater than John. But with Christ, a new reality comes into being. John’s ministry was rooted in the old reality that’s passing away.That’s what Jesus means in saying John is “least” in the kingdom of heaven. “John who had preceded Jesus must now learn to follow him; the one who prepared the way for Jesus must now receive him.”[iii]
No wonder Jesus also says to John, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” He knows his message and lack of action will likely disillusion those whose expectations he refuses to meet.
And the plain truth is that we are easily offended. When what we see does not meet up with what we expected to see, our resistance to seeing what is can be violent. As Jesus speaks to the crowds about John, he hones in on this point again and again. “What did you go out to the wilderness to see?” Jesus asks us about John.
Did we see what we expected to see, did we see as we are, or did we see John as he really is, a frail human being with partial vision, yes; but also a prophet, more than a prophet, he is also Elijah come again—symbol of the Messiah’s imminent coming—to those who will accept it?
Jesus is asking us the same thing as we prepare ourselves anew for his life to be born within us. What are you here to see? What self-created filters come between you and true seeing?
Did you come here for the peaceful atmosphere, the beautiful music of bells and the tree full of lights? Well and good—but now that you’re here, prepare yourself for what else Christ might show you! Peace comes as the Messiah restores sight—and we learn to see as he sees. That is, to see things as they are, not as we are. But very few of us appreciate being disillusioned! And Jesus’ peace disturbs us before it brings clarity.
My friends, like John, our vision—of ourselves and others, of this world and the world to come, of who God is and what God is doing—is limited, partial, incomplete.
We see things not as they are, but as we are. But Jesus sees fully and clearly. He sees our world clearly, a world where the messengers of heaven’s kingdom continue to suffer the violence of those who resist and reject what Christ reveals. He sees each one of us clearly, all the ways we reject and refuse to depend on God’s grace.
But there is no easy grace for John in prison, or for so many we know who suffer the bondage of poverty or shame here and now. And what grace for grieving friends amidst the cheery brilliance of twinkle lights, the glitter of decorations, and the inescapable chirpy songs that only seem to accentuate their losses? What grace for families held hostage by one member’s unchecked addictions? What grace for people who appear to have it all, yet are forcing themselves into strait-jacket roles which do not fit the true shape of their souls, or people trapped in the tangle of treasures they’ve hoarded against the fear of future loss? What grace for neighbors around the world, enslaved in human trafficking, or captured by systems which diminish their personhood?
It may not, at first, seem like much. But Jesus sees John, recognizes him, understands him, accepts him, just as he is, exactly where he is. Both the shadows of bondage and the spark of God’s image are visible to Jesus, who sees and accepts this world in all its beauty and brutality.
It may not seem like much, but in the light of Christ’s gaze in the intimate honesty of his regard, John is longer alone in his prison cell. He is accepted in all his complexity, honored for his contribution, and invited into still deeper trustin God’s will and ways.
Nothing has changed—yet everything has changed.
It may not seem like much, but Jesus sees us, each and every one of us, sees us as we are, in whatever circumstances trap us, the intermingled light and shadows on our faces. Sees us, accepts us, and invites us to receive him as our Savior in those dark places. He is the one who rescues us, not by forcefully taking a throne but by humbly taking up his cross.
The peace Christ brings does not magically melt our prison walls but changes our relationship to them; it does not whisk away the burdens of our lives, but changes the way we carry them.
We begin to see them the way Christ sees: obstacles, yes, but there are also opportunities in our life’s darkness for seeds of new life to gestate. We begin to see ourselves as Christ sees us, broken and beloved, forgiven and freed, and then we begin to see Christ within us, empowering us to forgive and free others.
The spiritual practice of Advent is learning to see things as they are. But there are many tricks of light in this season! Do not be put off—do not let yourself be offended—if Christ’s light also reveals lines of shadow you never expected—or you never allowed yourself to see before. Notice the hard stuff. Notice your own un-freedom, the systems of bondage which steal your power, or relationships in which you give it away.
You can look and see these things with courage, because it is Christ within you who sees. You are not alone.
And Christ’s clear regard, Christ’s intimate honesty, is the light by which we can begin to envision a small wedge of freedom, opening up the possibility of new life right where we are; is the light we can begin to carry to others in bondage and captivity.
Alleluia! Come Lord Jesus! Amen.
[ii] Bonnie L. Pattison, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. 1. Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, 286.
[iii] John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word. Year A, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 70.