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 reed 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.
In January 2007, the Washington Post decided to try a little social experiment that David Lose drew my attention to in a blog post with an apt title, “Do you see what I see?” The Post stationed a busker, a violinist, in a busy subway station in Washington, DC in January to observe who would stop and listen to this music. [Play video from Post website in background – condensed video here] 1000+ people went by the player that day; most did not stop. A very few, six or seven, did stop, and I think he wound up with about $35 dollars for his hour’s worth of playing. Then there’s a moment of recognition by one of the bystanders. One of the people recognized who he was: “I saw you play at the Library of Congress.” Do you see what she saw?
This was no ordinary violinist. This was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most highly decorated concert violinists. This was no ordinary violin. He was playing a multi-million dollar Stradivarius, one of the finest instruments ever crafted. Three days earlier he had filled Boston’s Symphony Hall with people paying $100 per seat. The question the Post author and many others since have asked is simple: Have we been trained to recognize beauty outside the contexts we expect to encounter beauty? Or, as Lose put it, “can we recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall?”
No one expects Joshua Bell in a Metro station.
This isn’t a very Christmasy text today, is it? No stories about Mary and Joseph; no angels or wise men. Not even a prophecy about special babies. And we do love babies! But, is there ever a message here that can help Christmas become so much more than what we have made of it. In the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…”
God is at work beyond where we would expect. Certainly beyond John’s expectations! John just isn’t seeing IT in Jesus. Oh sure, John was full of ideas about who the Messiah would be! Remember last week when we heard John tell the repentant people of Jerusalem some things he was dead-set sure about:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
No, really, John! Don’t mince words. Tell us what you really think! I wonder what John was thinking about four verses later, when Jesus comes to be baptized by him and something other than a fire-breathing dragon comes down from heaven and rests on Jesus. A dove!
But by Chapter 11, John has lost his baptizing license. Apparently, his fiery rhetoric landed him in prison. But even from prison, he’s been following Jesus’ ministry like a super-fan following their football team. And the verdict? Not impressed! And so he sends some reporters to ask the question that every fan asks of the coach during a tough season, “Are thou he that is to come? Or shall we look for another?” Because, Jesus, I’m looking for something that you’re not doing. I don’t want dove-style Messiah! I’m expecting winnowing forks, threshing floors and burning chaff with unquenchable fire! I want to see some explosive energy off of the line of scrimmage.
Jesus answered them,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
Do you see what I 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.”
Which sounds like John didn’t know all this. But Lose asks, and it got me to thinking, what if he did know? What if John did know all that Jesus was doing, and it still seemed, to John, kind of ordinary, too ordinary to conclude that, yep, this guy is the one; this is the virtuoso; this is the coach for winning season (or the winnowing season that I’d really like to see).
So Jesus’ final answer? “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
“Well, no offense, Jesus,” John might offer, “but I can’t really see it.”
Does anyone but me find some deep comfort in the fact that John the Baptist, the one who was looking for the Messiah like no other, one who baptized him and saw him and touched him, right up close, even John the Baptist was like, “Really?” You know what John needed, I think? John needed a nimbus. You know a nimbus when you see one, though you might not know that THAT is the word for it. A nimbus is that golden disk-looking thing behind the heads of important figures in religious art. [Show an example] It’s sort of the religious equivalent of the Staples easy button. When you’re looking at a landscape of people in religious art, and you’re trying to pick out Jesus or Mary or some saint you just look for the nimbus, or the halo, right? [Point to one] Nimbus! That was easy! If John or his messenger had only been able to see the nimbus!
John to disciple: “Did you deliver my message? Is he the Messiah?”
Messenger to John: “Oh, yeah! He totally has a nimbus! Now we KNOW he is the The One!”
But that’s not the way it works. Nimbuses won’t arrive to Christian art for a few centuries actually. A nimbus or a halo isn’t a supernatural thing that actually surrounds holy people or God experiences. A nimbus doesn’t occur on people in nature. A nimbus is what we put on ordinary people when we experience God at work in them. We artists, when we paint the story of our lives, WE apply the nimbus.
Joshua Bell? No one recognized it. No one could see it. But then after someone showed it to me? Bing! It was as if I could see the nimbus! A saint of a player outside his usual concert confines.
But somehow along the way the church has trained us to see holy people and holy things in just about one and only one place: The church. Our temples, our holy Jerusalems, are kind of another easy button. We look for God in the Jerusalems of our lives, in our stained-glass capitals. The evidence of the Messiah, of God, is so much easier to find in the grand temple where we have placed halos around everything and set them in a shrine made of brick and mortar. This is the place of our Messiah, our holy of holies. We retreat here every so often from a world that we often think is Messiah-less and that offers little evidence of God’s presence much less God’s actions, a world where it seems no dead are raised and the poor are ever with us.
Frankly, I would like to see a little more fire, please God. I need some nimbuses in my line of sight, in my 21st century landscape. I’d like to see God at work in some places other than the ones where I am supposed to God, wouldn’t you? Even more frankly, I need to. Someone here today spent some time in an MRI tube this week and heard that infernal banging that it makes, longing for that knocking to come from God’s firm fist as if to say, “Here I am and I am at work, healing what is lame.” I wonder whether someone here, when you got to work this week, opened that note your spouse left in your planner, expecting a healing word after that big fight. But there it is, their handwriting in black and white, “divorce.” Is there one who is to come, to come for me? You have every right to ask. Is there one, God, someone who will be more than simply present for me? Someone who is healing wounds. Someone who is bringing good news. Someone out here in the real world, where the glass is all too clear, and God is simply unexpected.
Sure seems hard for John to believe and for us, too. But God is at work in the places you least expect. The Messiah did not first come to Jerusalem (where everyone would have expected a king to be born), but to Bethlehem, a peasant village out in the work-a-day world. We would be exercising common vision to look at any child born in such a place and say, “Really? I mean, no offense or anything, but are you the one we are looking for, or shall we look for another?” God’s prophet didn’t appear in a soft camelhair sportcoat and a Windsor knot. John wore a hairshirt and Carhartts and you could find him down on that creek in the woods. “What did you go out there to see,” said Jesus, “A fine preacher in soft robes who leans this way and that, pushed by the prevailing cultural winds? Jesus could see John for what he was, God’s prophet. Common sense would have viewed Canaanite women as beyond God’s presence and practice. And yet one of them saw Jesus for who he was. And he saw her for who she was. One nimbus looking at another! And she asked for and received God’s work in her family.
When we look in the faces of people that we feed and clothe, that we visit and care for, do we ever, in our right minds, even imagine asking, “Are you the One?” Never would we expect it. And yet Jesus can see them. Jesus can see the nimbus behind every one of their unexpected heads! “Just as surely as you gave grace to one of the least of these hungry or in prison you did it for me.” Really? Are you for real, Jesus?” Once upon a time, we may have exercised excellent judgment to look in the face of the dead man fresh off of a Roman torture device being wrapped in a shroud and say, “Really? The Messiah? I don’t think so.” But now we know that God was there, outside the city, rejected and despised. The centurion who saw him die? He was the first to ask, “Do you see what I see?”
Because we are stewards of these stories, because they give us the marks that we can look for in our own lives, then we can know that God is at work in our places of work; we can know that God is at work between the walls that capture our pained cries and our suffering silences; we know that God is at work in the profane places as well as in the sacred spaces. But the sacred spaces help us to see them, to see the nimbuses behind the heads of the saints in our lives!
So what if instead of training ourselves to find God in church, what if Church was about helping us find God in the rest of our ordinary lives. We have stained glass nimbuses here so that we can see them out there and we can name them with our lips, “God is at work in you. I can see it! Do you see what I see?” We sing in here so that you can hear the faint refrains of God at work when you are eating at Denny’s. We pray in here so that we can know how to pray when we watch the NBC Nightly News. Can you imagine finding God at work at work, at home, when you are shopping, when you are working out? God is at work in the medical suites and corporate offices; God is at work in churches and in subway stations. It may seem hard to believe at times, but what did you go out into the world to see? Just an MRI machine knocking, knocking, knocking? Or was every knock a sign of the Holy at work? Was it just a licensed marriage and family therapist who welcomed you into her office? Who listened and listened and asked the hard question and caught your tears in the bottle of her expertise and sent you forth with a bit more hope that you had 50 minutes before? Was it just that? Or might the face of our Christ be peeking at us through these people and in these places? Do you see what I see?
Yes? Then if you see it, you can name it! You can name God into the office, the grocery, cancer ward. You can name God into your home room, your dorm room, or your assisted living room. With God’s wise insight, that you can gain here in church, you can look into the wild, seemingly untamable places of your life and be confident that God is there as well.
Here is a nimbus. [hold up a large gold charger behind your head] Actually, it’s a charger from my dining table, but it makes a good substitute! I don’t have enough for everyone here today, but we might keep this going for a few weeks. I invite you take a portable nimbus with you today and use it to name God into your workaday world. With God’s help you can see the holy in people and places that you’d never expect. If Jesus can be the Messiah of God, then we can be sure that God waits for us in whatever Bethlehem we have to go to tomorrow morning. There, in that place, you can imagine God both meeting you and using you in your many roles as employee, parent, spouse, friend, citizen, and volunteer, to extend God’s love and blessing to an often faithless world. I invite you, in short, to hear and see God at work outside of the church, but then bring your witness back to the church. Place the nimbus behind people or in situations or places where you see the Holy One at work and then take a digital picture of it. Please send the pics to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet them with the hashtag #doyouseewhatIsee along with a description of your insight. If you will permit us, we will share the photos on our website and in worship over the coming weeks. Please bring the charger back next week to share with another!
I look forward to seeing you discover that which is holy in the midst of the places that you once thought profane. God is at work in the places we least expect.
For “Christ plays in 10,000 places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.”
God has made it possible for us to sidle up next to a faithless world and ask,
Do you see what I see?
Look at the subway musician: Do you see what I see?
Look at the senior vice-president of operations! Do you see what I see?
Look at the IV bag. Look at the therapist. Look at these friends.
Look at you!
Do you see what I see?
 David J. Lose, “Do You See What I See?,” Dear Working Preacher, December 5, 2010, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1567.
 from the poem “As kingfishers catch fire…” in G.M. Hopkins, Selected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. B. Blaisdell, Dover Thrift Editions (Dover Publications, 2013), 46.