The Messenger: Sermon by Laura, 12.4.16

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.

 

[i] Richard Rohr, “Contemplative Seeing,” https://cac.org/contemplative-seeing-2016-12-02/

[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.

We Want to See Jesus: Sermon by Keith, 3.22.15, Lent 5B

Scripture readings: Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

We all have expectations.  Some of them good, some not so good.  You all had a pretty good idea what to expect when you came to worship this morning, and you have a general expectation on what Palm Sunday will look like next week. Everyone will get a palm to wave, and we will read what is called the Palm/Passion narrative.  So, no big surprises for next week, but we know sometimes our expectations let us down.

Most of you know that Laura has been experimenting with a special diet to find out what some of her stomach issues, which means she is trying out some different ways of cooking different foods.  Like pasta.  She is trying to avoid gluten, just to see if it might be one thing causing some of her issues.  She found this mouth watering pasta dish recipe that had all kinds of yummy stuff, including gluten free quinoa pasta.  The expectation was this was going to be fabulous, the recipe looked good.  Let’s just say, quinoa pasta just doesn’t taste as good as good old whole-wheat pasta.  Not that what she made wasn’t good, but my mouth had an expectation for what I thought it should taste like.

Besides food, we have an expectation of what it will be like to meet someone new, especially someone we have heard of before, and especially someone that we have heard good things from before.  There is an expectation of how it will go.  “Hi, my name is_____.”  “Great to meet you.  I’m Keith.”  “What do you do for a living?”  “I work over at________.  How about you?”  “Oh, I ________.” and so on and so forth.  We start with small talk, trying to get a glimpse of this person that we have been told about, going a little deeper at every turn in the conversation to find out more about this person, to see if the rumors are true, to see if they meet our expectations.

But that’s not how it worked out for these Greeks who show up while Jesus is in Jerusalem.  Now, we don’t really know much about these Greeks or really where they are from.  They could be from Greece, but the term “Greek” was sometimes used as a generic term for anyone who spoke Greek.  As that tongue was the language of commerce throughout the Roman Empire, they could be from anywhere around the Mediterranean.  But what we can deduce from this passage is that since they were called Greeks, they probably weren’t Jewish.  They were probably what was called a ‘God-fearer’ by the Jewish community.  They were Gentiles who had embraced Judaism up to a point.  They celebrated the Jewish holidays and went to synagogue services, but typically didn’t get circumcised or follow the strict dietary rules the rest of the Jews did.

So, here these God-fearers were in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  And they must have heard some of the stories about Jesus since they want to see him.  They may have heard about him turning water into wine, someone may have shared the stories with them about how this man had fed five thousand or given sight to the blind.  They may have wanted to ask Jesus about this rumor they had heard about this fellow named Lazarus being raised from the dead.  My guess is they were a little excited about what they heard about Jesus.  Because when they found out Jesus was there that day, they try to get his attention by coming in an indirect way.  They play a little game of telephone, passing the message on through the only two disciples with Greek names, Philip and Andrew.  It is hard to exactly say what the Greeks expected in this chance encounter with their request, “We wish to see Jesus.”  But I don’t think they had their expectations met.

Here is why:  Jesus doesn’t walk over to them and give them some miraculous sign or at least a hug.  He doesn’t tell them that he is the one who is fulfilling all those prophecies that they had learned about in synagogue school.  In fact, we aren’t even sure if Jesus even gives heed to these Greek’s request.   It almost seems like they drop out of the scene almost as quickly as they show up.  Their “we wish to see Jesus” is answered by Son of Man language, a parable about a grain of wheat, and serving him.  If we could see them in the scene, my guess is they would be standing off scratching their heads.  It almost seems as if Jesus is going off on some tangential trajectory.

Or is he?  I think Jesus wants to be seen, but not in the way these Greeks had planned.  For Jesus, this encounter marked a turning point where Jesus will be seen by all people who will be drawn to him when he is lifted up.  What John is very clear about is the kind of Jesus they—and we—will see if we really look.   Because upon hearing this request, Jesus immediately looks ahead to the cross.  He seems to be saying, “Don’t look to me know, but look to what is about to happen, then you will truly see me.”  The hour he speaks about, the glory he prays for, the fulfillment of his mission and destiny he anticipates – all of this revolves around his cross, his obedient embrace of sacrificial love to the point of death.

And this forces us to think about who we think we are looking for when we wish to see Jesus.  Who did you expect to encounter this morning when you came through the doors of the church this morning?  How we answer that says a lot about who we see Jesus as and our expectations of him.  But our answer also sheds light on us and the expectations as his disciples, because it is here we encounter Jesus Christ and follow out into the world.  Did you come looking for a teacher, someone who would give meaning to your life?  Was the one you seek after a comforter, a friend who would walk with you in your grieving?  Do you look for a mighty warrior who will vanquish the evil in the world?  Do you wish to see Jesus to satisfy your spiritual desires or have your spiritual gas tank filled so you could face another hectic week?

I’ll be the first to say that I think each of the gospel writers would come to a little different conclusion of who they want us to see when we look at and to Jesus and what it means to follow him.  But for John, to know who Jesus is, truly is, is to see the revelation of the good news that is made from seeing Jesus lifted up on the cross and ultimately lifted up in his resurrection.  And what it means to follow the one who is lifted up is to know what it means to be drawn more deeply into the kingdom of God through our love for, service to, and sacrifice on behalf of those around us.  Jesus comes to demonstrate God’s strength through vulnerability, God’s power through what appears weak in the eyes of the world, and God’s justice through love, mercy and forgiveness.  Jesus was lifted up for the sake of the world, and he calls those who would follow him to the very same kind of life and love.

In this encounter with the Greeks, Jesus reveals to the world God’s love and how that love is lived out and experienced.  Like the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, here Jesus teaches us that that the good news is that death must precede the new life that is found in him.  Jesus is headed for the cross and invites us to give up our own lives to follow him.  It is through the cross that we experience the new life he offers.

Is this the Jesus the Greeks want to see? Is it the Jesus we want to see? Is that the Jesus you want to see?  That is the question you need to ask yourself during this week of Lent.  I do know that the Jesus who reveals the heart of our loving God by going to the cross is the Jesus John wants us to see, encounter, and expect to experience in our lives.  The Jesus who is raised again on the third day to demonstrate that love is more powerful than hate and life more powerful than death is the Jesus we are called to follow and serve. This is the one, in the end, who has promised to draw all of us to him.  Amen.

I AM the Man: Sermon by Laura, 5.18.14, “I AM” sermon series, Easter 5

Scripture: John 9:1-41

Today I want you to imagine yourselves in the experience of the man born blind. Most of us will find this pretty difficult, because we were born seeing. Some of us can no longer see as well as we used to. There is a sadness in that loss, yet we still have the memory of seeing clearly.

But it’s not so much a state of “loss” for this man as it is an entirely different way of life he must inhabit from those around him. He has had to adapt to a world arranged for sighted people. And in the ancient world, the man’s vocational options are even more limited than they would be today. So, he begs for a living.  It’s how he deals with the life he’s been given.

Let’s imagine him sitting at his usual post, begging cup in hand. He’s using his other four senses to perceive what’s happening around him. The sun feels warm on his face. He hears the footsteps of people walking the dirt path, maybe the sounds of animals. He smells the dust on their clothes and skin.  There are some voices of people approaching. They are talking about him. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

This is another part of his adaptation to a sighted world. There are always people who think his reality is the result of punishment for errant ways. He copes with a strange mix of pity and judgment from people who don’t know anything else about him. All they can see is his blindness. They don’t even know his name. He is used to it, and he doesn’t expect things to change. He patiently anticipates the clink of coins in his cup.

But just then, there is different kind of voice. “So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day,”[i] says a voice with authority, and then there’s the sound of someone spitting. Unexpectedly, the man smells mud, feels warm fingers, gently placing it on his eyes. “Go wash in the pool of Siloam,” says the voice. The man hears and obeys; he goes where he has been sent.

Can you imagine what it was like for him to wash that mud off and be able to see? How dazzling, how overwhelming, to experience light and color for the first time!

In The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard is enthralled by a book about the healing of congenitally blind people. Recounting what she learns, she notes, “The mental effort…proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceivedas something touchingly manageable…A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision.” A newly sighted twenty-one-year-old girl shuts her eyes to go around the house, and finds her greatest ease by closing her eyelids and relapsing into blindness.[ii]

A whole new reality begins to impress itself on the man. It is a holy moment, a disrupting and confusing one, too.

John’s gospel handles it quickly and matter-of-factly, though. There is much less emphasis put upon this moment than we might expect from our modern medical perspective. But our tendency to focus on the healing formula or technology, what we perceive as the moment that healing occurred, might keep us from attending to the rest of the story, or get us stuck in a narrow focus on Jesus the miraculous physician.

But there is a different purpose to this story. For the man born blind is much more than a moral lesson for passers-by, and he is much more than a “prop” in a scene to demonstrate Jesus’ miraculous powers.[iii] He is a complex human being on a journey of transformation, and the whole journey is the healing miracle.

I think that’s why, after the man goes to wash, Jesus steps out of the scene for a time. For 30 verses, actually. In our class last summer at Tall Timber Ranch, Professor Jeff Keuss pointed out that in no other gospel is Jesus out of the picture for so long. Keuss noted that John’s gospel is probably the latest written, and the gospel-writer lived during a time when Jesus was, in fact, out of the picture. Faith in John’s time, as in ours, meant trusting in a person you’d never actually seen.

But is Jesus completely absent from these verses? Look what happens when the man returns from the pool, now able to see. The people who have known him all his life do not recognize him.  They argue with each other about him, still treating him like a “prop.” Finally he speaks, affirming his identity in spectacular terms: “I AM the man.”

Is this an “I AM” statement? It’s not one we usually recognize as such, because Jesus doesn’t say it. Yet it’s certainly the same language Jesus uses in John to reveal himself as God-with-us. The man uses those same syllables reserved to name the great “I AM.” Could John be telling us that Jesus is not, in fact, absent, but somehow present and exhibited by this man he touched and healed?

It’s clear the man himself received much more than physical sight in his encounter with Jesus. He returns, as one preacher says, “with a sense of mission and self-worth that stuns his neighbors.”[iv] He who was limited to begging has received a calling. This man becomes a seer and a witness, proclaiming the gospel in his own story, as he is called upon to testify again and again. “I was blind, but now I see.” He becomes a “Christian,” a little Christ, as he testifies. “Christians will not be known by their sickness, they will be known by their cure,” said Gregory of Nanzianzus.[v]

Ultimately, the man who can now see also pays the price of being a witness, or to use the Greek, a martyr. His neighbors don’t believe him and take him to the religious authorities at the synagogue, who are themselves divided by his story. His parents testify that he was, in fact, born blind, but they otherwise abandon their child for fear of those religious authorities.

Called in the second time to testify, it seems the man has grown by leaps in his boldness. “Here is an astonishing thing!” he says, and you can almost taste the sarcasm. “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes…Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Confessing faith in Jesus Christ, the man is driven out of the synagogue.

It’s a caution for us. New life, resurrection life, a life in Christ Jesus, brings change. Systems are disrupted as individuals, families, and churches come into new ways of seeing the world, into a new reality of Christian discipleship. You whom Christ has touched and called to new mission, purpose, and freedom must be aware you will encounter resistance. You will encounter it in the cultural systems and politics-as-usual of our world, but even more painfully, you will encounter it in those who are closest to you, who want you to maintain the status quo of your old identity. Change in an individual causes ripples throughout family systems. As a congregation welcoming people who need Christ’s touch, we must also be aware that we are prone to offer that resistance if we are too tightly wedded to doing things “the way they’ve always been done.”

But first and foremost, like those newly seeing folks Dillard wrote about, who refused to use their new vision, we will find resistance in ourselves. “How much easier to live with our defined, even if deformed, sense of ourselves and others than to risk the new identity and abundant life Jesus offers,”[vi] notes one author.  Our fear of rejection, our fear of confrontation with the compulsions of our time, can keep us from embracing our resurrection calling in Jesus Christ.

That’s when Jesus comes back on the scene in John’s gospel. He seeks out the newly seeing man, who has been cast out of his primary communities. Jesus the good shepherd, who seeks every lost sheep, comes and confirming the man’s “healing, new identity, and abundant life”[vii] as the man confirms his belief in Jesus the Son of Man, sent by God.

The man is invited into a new community of discipleship, ushered into the fold of the “sheep” who know the shepherd’s voice. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says shortly thereafter.[viii] And laying down his life for the sheep, Jesus will pay the ultimate price of rejection from the fold. Three days later, he will be raised.

And at first, Jesus’ closest friends do not recognize him. Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener! But they also will be given the grace of seeing in new ways. Outcasts will be gathered into a new community and given a risky, powerful, and life-giving mission to proclaim what they have seen and heard. “I have seen Jesus!”

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has touched us and we are healed. Christ heals us, not just one moment in time, but through a lifetime of transformation. He heals us by giving us his very self. Though we sometimes still struggle with the symptoms of our toxic culture, the anxiety and confusion and despair which mark our times, new life has broken into our world. Christ is giving us new eyes to see how God is at work everywhere, bringing healing and wholeness, how we can be a part of that work, exhibiting Christ’s presence in our own lives.

As we allow Jesus to transform our individual lives, our families, and our congregation, opening us up to the spacious place of God’s loving freedom, we are called to bold witness. Let us proclaim, “I AM the man”; “I AM the woman.” Christ has called us to new, resurrection life! I once was blind, but now I see. Alleluia! Amen!

 

[i] I’m using an interpretive suggestion of D. Mark Davis at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/

[ii]Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, New York: Harper & Row, 1985, 30; on http://www.victorianweb.org/courses/nonfiction/dillard/group3.html; Dillard is quoting from Marius von Senden, Space and sight: the perception of space and shape in the congenitally blind before and after operation,

Free Press, 1960.

[iii] Rev. Duane Steele,  http://day1.org/5640-the_blind_man_who_knew_too_much. Rev. Steele himself was born blind, and his sermon on this text is powerful! I’ve been very influenced by his insights.

[iv] Steele, as above.

[v] As quoted by Jeff Keuss at Tall Timber Ranch Family Camp, June 2013.

[vi] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3123

[vii] David Lose, as above.

[viii] John 10: 10-11

I See You: Sermon by Laura, 1.19.14 Epiphany 2A

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42

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.

P.S. The blessing I used as a benediction can be found here.