When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A read shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
Who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts. If you don’t know what a podcast is, basically it’s a radio show of various lengths that you can download and listen to on your smartphone or MP3 player. Podcasts are often like listening to the radio, in that they’re usually just audio, but they span a wide range of interests and subjects. Some are just a few minutes long. Some are a few hours. Some have a big budget and great sound quality, while some sound like someone talking into a phone that just on the verge of losing signal. I listen to several different podcasts, and one of my favorites is called On Being. In this show, Krista Tippet interviews really intriguing people about the world of spirituality. Comedians, scientists, clergy, authors from all different religions and faiths come together to speak about the truths of the world through the eyes of who they are.
One such interviewee was Mary Karr, a comedian who became a devout Catholic later in life. She describes the path that brought her to faith, saying that she was essentially dragged to mass by her son who was curious what it was all about. Eventually, after a few Sundays of him asking, she took him. He went to Sunday School, she sat in back trying not to bring attention to herself. This went on for a few weeks and, as they were leaving one day, she glanced at a crucifix where an anguishing Jesus was exhaling his last breath and she said something to the effect of, “Geez. Why do they need to have that as their symbol?” Her son replied, “Do you think people would pay attention if it was anything else?”
I found that to be incredibly profound because, if we’re honest with ourselves, the convenient, easy, pretty things of this world often don’t make that big of an impact. We see people each and every day, we interact with the world each and every day, and eventually the rhythms of life can lull us into a sense of sedation and drowsiness. And, in this state, we miss a lot. The extraordinary becomes ordinary and we forget. But, in this time of Advent, we are called to keep awake. In this time of Advent, we are called to open our eyes and see. We encounter the unexpected and it helps wake us up.
Jesus talks about seeing in two different ways in our gospel. First, John sends his disciples to ask this question, “Are you the Messiah, or are we waiting for another?” This guy, John, is the same guy we read about last week saying that the Son of Man would come carrying a winnowing fork and fire. As he baptized Jesus (which we’ll hear more in Epiphany after Christmas), he saw the dove descend on Jesus. He placed his faith in Jesus, but now he has some doubts. (Which is really good news for us, by the way. If John the Baptist can have doubts, can question what he’s seeing, that means that we can to.) Jesus response to these questions, this doubt, is to tell John’s disciples to tell him what they hear and see. Tell him what you see.
He then turns to the crowd and turns the statement and question to them, “What do you see? Is it what you expected?” I think that, unless you’ve heard these stories over and over and essentially forced yourself to expect them, we really don’t see what we expect. In fact, I think God often works in the exact opposite way that we would expect. Instead of using a smooth talking, successful merchant, we get the wild and brash John the Baptist. Instead of a powerful politician in a cultural center, we get a traveling carpenter going from village to village. Instead of a political uprising ushering in the kingdom of God, we get a man on a cross.What we see isn’t always what we expect, but if we get what we expect, would it make a difference?
What do you see? This question is at the heart of a Christian life and mission. Followers of Christ are forced to wrestle with and describe what they see and tell people about it. Because by telling people what we see, we are telling people where to find God. And often it’s in unexpected places.
So what do you see? What do you see in the world? Heartache? Pain? Sorrow? Yeah, that’s hard to deny. But do you know what else we see? A child in a manger. We see shepherds, the lowest in society, being called to witness the birth of a Savior. We see medical advances that are saving lives. We see neighbors reaching out to neighbors to provide food, gifts, and clothing. We see people gathering in families that are sometimes broken, that sometimes disagree, and we see them finding their common ground in love. We see people of different faith, different ideas, different backgrounds coming together to support each other and solve problems that each and every person faces.
Right now, I’m seeing the hands of feet of Christ. Not in the most power or prestigious people, but in forgiven people. In you. I’m seeing people give of their time and energy to serve this congregation and this community. I’m seeing people who are doing their best to live lives that glorify God. I’m seeing people that have been forgiven by the grace and love of Jesus. I’m seeing you. I’m seeing my life being shaped by who you are and I’m seeing how you are shaping your world and your communities. I’m see how God has been and is still using this congregation to declare God’s love to the world. Not because it’s expected. Not because it makes sense. But because it’s in the nature of God to do unexpected things with unexpecting people.
I’m struck by the sensory nature of our readings this week. “Go and tell him what you hear and see.” That’s the long and short of our mission and evangelism. Seeing. Hearing. That’s easy enough, but it’s harder figuring out if what we are seeing and hearing is what we have been waiting for. That’s where we find John struggling. Is what we are seeing is what we expected? A lot of well-meaning people have been waiting and keep waiting long after the waiting has ended because, well, what they see isn’t what they expected. We expect power, we get an infant. We expect vengeance, we get a man on a cross who teaches us that the meek, the hungry, and the poor are blessed. We expect our way, but we see God’s way. Faced with this conclusion, we either repent (change our minds) and tell people what we see or we keep waiting and assume that what we see isn’t really of God.
What we see is unexpected. What we are seeing is God at work. What we see is life slowly, patiently, relentlessly growing out of death. What we hear is the good news of life, salvation, and peace through Christ. It’s unexpected but it’s visible. Don’t wait. The time is now. Keep your eyes open and tell them what you see. Amen.