That is a puzzling passage. John the Baptist sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is really the long-expected Messiah, or should they be waiting for someone else? John was so sure that day down at the River Jordan when he baptized Jesus. He was certain then that this was the one he had been expecting, the Christ, the Savior of the world. But now he wondered, is Jesus really the one?
Maybe you’ve asked that question. I’ve known people who have given their lives to Jesus, confident that he would watch over them and care for them, then things happened that made them wonder if he really is the one they thought he was. I think of one woman, I’ll call her Sarah, whose father was stricken with a particularly rough form of cancer. Sarah, trusting in Jesus’ promises of healing and peace, prayed fervently that her father would be cured, but within months he was gone. Was Jesus the one she thought he was, or should she have been looking for someone else?
Some ask that question because of what they see in Christ’s church. Sam joined the church because he felt the presence of the Holy Spirit when he worshiped on Sunday. After a while, he started teaching Sunday school and found it deeply satisfying. He was moved by some of the experiences he had while working on mission projects. After he had been in the church for a while, he had some ideas for improving the Sunday school classrooms so they would be more welcoming to the students, but his ideas were dismissed as impractical. Through his work in the community, he saw some needs that he thought the mission committee could address and further the church’s ministry, but his ideas fell on deaf ears. When his uncle was in the hospital, no one from the church called him to ask how he was doing. He began to wonder, if the church is the body of Christ, is Christ the one I’m looking for, or is there someone else?
John the Baptist had spent his life in the wilderness, preparing for the one God was sending to transform the world. He had given up everything, and he had told the crowds who came out to hear him that Jesus was the one they were expecting. But now here he was in prison for doing all that. Was Jesus really the one he was expecting, or should he look for someone else? So he sent his disciples to clear things up.
Jesus told John’s disciples to go and tell him what they heard and saw: “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.” Jesus didn’t restore sight to all the blind or give hearing to all the deaf or make everyone walk who was disabled. There were still plenty of blind people, and deaf, and disabled. He didn’t raise all the dead. People still died, and even the ones he raised eventually died for good. He didn’t eradicate poverty. The poor were still with them. But what he did was an indication of what was in store. He was beginning to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah who described the new creation as that time when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” If you have the ears to hear and the eyes to see, it’s obvious what is going on. Jesus is doing the work of God right here in plain sight.
My wife’s family used to get together in the mountains of West Virginia every summer for a weeklong reunion. One night, some of us went on a star walk at a nearby state park. After we had gathered at the nature center, a park ranger took us out back in the woods. It was pitch black, and we couldn’t see a thing. Standing there in the darkness, the ranger said that we were going to take a while to let our eyes adjust to the dark. She explained that our eyes have cells called cones and rods. The cones are sensitive to color, and we use them to see in the light. The rods are what allow us to see in dim light. We were waiting in the darkness for our rods to kick in. Sure enough, the longer we waited, the more things appeared in the forest. The outlines of the trees began to take shape. Over the clearing where we stood, stars began to appear, until what was once a vast blackness filled with light. Everything that was coming into focus had been there all along. We just needed the right kind of eyes, our rods, to see them.
Often that’s what it takes to see Jesus at work. We have to be still and notice, with the right kind of spiritual eyes. One thing that makes it hard to notice Jesus is that we have preconceptions about how he is supposed to operate, and when he doesn’t meet those expectations, we miss him altogether. One way we make sense of a complex life is by forming categories and sorting people and events into them. Sorting people and events into categories saves us a lot of time and effort. If someone calls me at home in the middle of the day and says, “May I speak to the head of the household?” I immediately categorize that caller as a solicitor for something I don’t need, say “Thanks, but I’m not interested,” and hang up. I’ve saved myself several minutes of wasted time.
When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, people put him in a category, the category of those possessed by demons. That’s what they saw, and instead of seeing past that category, they arrested him and threw him in jail. When Jesus appeared doing just the opposite, turning water into wine and going to banquets hosted by the ruling elite, he was placed in the category of a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners, a category where they put people who weren’t to be trusted, including those who were traitors and deserved to die.
Maybe John the Baptist had put Jesus in a preconceived category of what he thought the Messiah was supposed to be like and so he missed seeing him for who he is. John told the crowds in the wilderness that the one whom God was sending to transform the world was one who was laying an axe to the root of the tree, cutting down the unworthy and throwing them into the fire. He was sorting the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire. John was looking for someone to bring in God’s new creation with a vengeance. Yet here was Jesus welcoming children, helping the outcasts, caring for the poor, saying that the blessed ones are the meek who turn the other cheek. Maybe John asked his question because Jesus didn’t fit his category.
So Jesus told him to look again. Look with different eyes, from a new perspective. Sometimes that’s what we have to do to see Jesus for who he is. Jack Haberer, a pastor in Allentown, told how his perspective was changed while attending the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Korea when he was editor of The Presbyterian Outlook magazine. For the first twenty or so years of Jack’s Christian journey, he heard Jesus’ commandment to go into the world and make disciples of all nations as an intense focus proclaiming the Word of God to those who have not yet heard it and inviting them to give their lives to Christ. He saw any involvement in social change as a distraction from that focus. But after he became the editor of an independent magazine reporting on the life of the church, he began to travel and to meet more people from different places who held different perspectives. He met Christians who were bearing witness to the gospel in circumstances that we here in America tend to write off as distant from our concerns as Christians.
In Korea he met a pastor from Tuvalu, a tiny country in the Pacific that is comprised of small coral reefs. The highest point in the country is 24 feet above sea level. This pastor told the delegates to the assembly how every aspect of life in his land is threatened by the rising sea level. He asked his fellow Christians to be better stewards of the planet God has given us, to stop exploiting its riches in ways that destroy the homes of his people.
Here in America one political party might take that pastor’s words as a rationale for regulating businesses, while another party might scorn it as questionable science that depresses the economy. “But,” says Haberer, “such categories won’t fly in Sunday worship services in Tuvalu, where gospel proclamation mixes with the intense praying of congregations living a threatened existence.” One of the gifts of Christ’s church is helping us see God’s world from the perspective of other believers.
I sometimes find myself trying to compartmentalize Christmas, trying to put the incarnation of the Lord into seasonal categories. I find myself complaining in October when the first Christmas displays go up in the stores. It seems like they’re exploiting Christmas. Or I get annoyed in February when neighbors still haven’t taken down their Christmas lights. I’m ready to start thinking about spring and they’re holding on to December. But maybe a better attitude toward the commercialization of the stores and the laziness of my neighbors would be to remember that the Messiah whose birth we celebrate at Christmas doesn’t come and go with the season. He’s not confined to our categories. He does the work of God’s reign all year long, and not always in ways we expect. In fact, any time you look, if you have the eyes to see, there is the one who came at Christmas – in plain sight. May God take off the blinders of our assumptions and give us the eyes of faith to see.