To get us in the spirit of this morning’s gospel reading, we’re going to try out a greeting I recently heard about,one that comes to us from the Zulu people of South Africa. Say you are coming down a road or a hallway, and you encounter someone; you say, Sawubona, which means “I see you.” One might respond to this greeting with the word Ngikhona, which means “I am here.”[i] Here’s what it might look like—we’ll use the English. (Ask Lay Leader to help me demonstrate). Got it? Now, please try this greeting exchange with some folks nearbyturn to someone, look them in the eye, and say, “I see you.” And if someone says it to you, you respond, “I am here.” Please use no other words, and try to say the words slowly, with a sense of intention. Pay attention to how they make you feel. Got your assignment? Okay, Go! …
So, what was that like for you? How simple the words of the greeting seem on the surface, yet how deeply moving they can be!
Author Robert Holden suggests four aspects that make this greeting powerful. First, there is the eye contact, which establishes connection. “Eye contact is akin to soul contact,” Holden writes. Second, “I see you” conveys more than a bland hello. It tells the other that you notice them, that you recognize and honor their unique presence. “I see you” affirms that you exist, you are equal to me, and you are worthy of my respect. Third, “I am here” is an acceptance that you have been seen and honored, just as you are in this moment, as well as an affirmation that you are willing to be present to the other person.
Holden notes that this greeting represents the Zulu way of ubuntu, of “humanity toward all.” He writes, “To practice ubuntu is to help your brothers and sistersremember their true identity, recognize their true value, and participate fully. Ubuntu teaches that our purpose is to be a true friend to one another.”[ii]
In our scripture today, there is an interchange that is both as simple and as profound as this Zulu greeting. The story begins with John the Baptist, pointing at Jesus. Interestingly, we don’t see him baptize Jesus in this gospel; we only get his second-hand testimony proclaiming Jesus’ identity: Jesus is the Lamb of God, God’s Son, here among us to baptize with the Holy Spirit.
Two disciples who hear John’s testimony follow Jesus. Jesus turns toward them and sees them. I imagine him looking carefully into their eyes, like we just did with the Zulu greeting. “I see you,” his actions tell them. And then he asks them, “What are you looking for?”
In typical Fourth Gospel fashion, simple words carry fathomless meaning below the surface. The obvious response to Jesus’ question might have gone something like this, “Well, what do you think? We are looking for you! We just heard John the Baptist talking about you, and we want to see for ourselves.” But even as the obvious is ringing out, my mind imagines Jesus repeating the question: “Yes, and what are you looking for?”
“Well okay, we are looking for the Messiah, God’s Anointed, promised to us for so long.”
“Yes, and what are you looking for?”
“(Deep sigh) Oh, Jesus, sometimes it seems like God is absent. There are so many places of hurt and hunger in our world. We want signs, that God is alive among us, really active and really doing things.”
“Yes. And what are you looking for?”
What sounds like a simple question, seeking basic information, invites the disciples to really discern their intentions, and even further, to ponder seeing in itself. For there is looking, and there is looking. There is the sequence of iris and pupil, optic nerve and brain receptors, and there is the inner call and response of the Holy Spirit, alerting us to God’s presence in our midst.
Systematic theologians call these two kinds of seeing general and special revelation. The first kind of seeing shows us the grandeur of the mountains, what one author calls our “brutiful” world (beautiful and brutal).[iii] “There must be a God,” we might say, as we try to take in the unfathomable intricacies of creation. The experience of awe and wonder is often the beginning of faith.
But God created us for more than wondering awareness. God created us for relationship. The God who created the cosmos, the God whose being is utterly beyond human comprehension and imagination, desires to be known to us and enter into a relationship with us. So God “comes down” to our reality and is revealed to us in a specific person, a specific human being, a man who is born and lives and dies and is raised again at a specific moment in history.
That’s what we celebrated at Christmas: in Jesus Christ, the unknowable God comes down to us, to be with and for us right here in our earthly reality. There is an amazing moment of recognition, when we go with the shepherds and wise men to the manger, to see with our own eyes the One of whose birth the angel chorus sings. It is a dazzling moment of special revelation.
But our faith is full of paradoxes. And even as God “comes down” to be with us, the unknowable fullness of God must necessarily become “hidden” in our earthly, worldly reality.[iv] God is revealed and concealed at the same time! Many who gaze on that baby in the manger see just that—a baby in a manger.
For us Christians, sometime the trouble begins when Christmas is over, and the shimmer and shine are put away for another year. There can be a flatness that comes upon us, and we may begin to doubt previous perceptions. Was God really there? Where is God now that we’ve returned to ordinary days?
It takes a special kind of “seeing” to perceive God’s presence, hidden in, with, and under seemingly ordinary people and things, and it does not come ‘naturally’ to us. It is a gift of grace. John the Baptist points this out repeatedly. Jesus’ identity as God’s Son was by no means immediately obvious. “I myself did not know him,” he says, even as he goes on to tell us how he comes to see.
John recognizes Jesus, not by spiritual extra-sensory perception, but because the God who sent him to baptize with water showed him the Spirit like a dove remaining on Jesus. Only then could John fulfill his calling and reveal Jesus the Christ to Israel. And then John’s testimony itself becomes a gift of special revelation for the disciples who hear it. The disciples may have seen Jesus with their eyes before, but John’s testimony wakes up them up to look again. So they look, and this time, they begin to see Jesus, not only with their eyes but also with their hearts. They begin to recognize they are encountering a Person unlike any other they’ve ever met.
But I’ve always it odd how they respond to Jesus’ question. “What are you looking for,” he asks, and they reply, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” It sounds like they want basic information, an address; Jesus could give them a business card and be done. But we know now to look for another layer of meaning.
And indeed, the verb meno, here translated “staying,” is a key-word in the gospel of John. In John 15:4, this word is translated “abide,” as in “Abide in me as I abide in you.” One author explains this word “refers to the source of one’s life and meaning…[T]hese two disciples…are asking, “What is it that sustains you? What power do you have? Where do you remain? Where do you live? How do you live? Who are you really?”[v]
So it turns out, the two disciples are actually onto something. They recognize that a brief look at Jesus will not be enough. To perceive and receive the revelation of God in Jesus Christ requires “staying power,” a lifetime of tarrying, abiding, and dwelling with Christ where he’s found.
For his part, when Jesus looks so carefully at them, I think he sees these men are seeking more than fact-sheets or formulas; they long for a dwelling place, a home, a whole way of life. So Jesus gives them a wonderful invitation: “Come and see.” And the gospel of John tells us, “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”
My friends, this is what discipleship is all about. By a gift of grace, we catch a glimpse of the Living God present in our very midst, a Person who greets us, sees us face-to-face, invites us into a relationship.
“I see you,” says God in Jesus Christ. “I see what you are looking for. I see the longings of your heart, your deepest hopes and fears, you frustrations and anxiety, your broken heart. Come and see where I dwell, come and stay with me, that you may find what you seek.”
How will we respond to Christ’s invitation? He is longing to hear our reply: “I am here. I will come and see, I will stay with you, and I will learn to look ever deeper into the hidden places and faces of this world, seeing anew with the eyes of a graced and gracious heart.” May we notice the Living God active and alive in our midst, and may we share what we see with all those in need of a good Word, inviting each one to the transforming life in Jesus Christ: Come and see. Amen.
[i] Looking around the internet, I found some that there is some variation in this greeting-response. See: http://www.phrasebase.com/archive/zulu/91-sawubona.html and http://www.healyourlife.com/author-robert-holden-phd/2011/07/lifeshelp/success-and-abundance/i-see-you
[iii] Glennon Doyle Melton, of Momastery.com, coined this word.
[iv] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 54.