Sunday, January 19, 2014

Vision and Recognition

Vision and Recognition from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

I wonder if you feel conspicuous. I wonder if you’re surrounded by the joy of this little easter we call Sunday, and don’t feel the same joy that others around you are showing. You look around you and see the trappings of worship, of love, of grace, but all you see in yourself is human depravity. It’s a great day for everyone else, the new year is off to a good start for them, but you feel, somehow, overlooked by the community that claims this sanctuary as its home. I wonder if you’ve built up an image of what you want people to see of you, so that they won’t recognize how little you match what you see around you. I wonder if your great fear is that someone will see through the image you have so carefully constructed for others. I wonder if you fear that because you worry that the image of God is so distorted in you that it is unrecognizable, even to God.

I wonder if you may be saying “Don’t look now, but I can’t find a job.” “I don’t want anyone to see, but I’m not sure if this whole "God" thing applies to me.” “Don’t show anyone that I had such a fight with my family that I can’t even concentrate on the service going on around me right now.” “I’ve got to keep up appearances, even though I’m falling apart as soon as no one is looking.” "I spent so much time trying to look, or think, or love, or believe like those around me that I don't even recognize myself anymore"

I wonder if you recognize yourself in any of these portraits. I wonder if each of us is portrayed by one of them. I wonder if our spiritual ancestors could also find themselves conspicuously displayed among these images of struggle: The old man who sees only advanced age for himself and his wife, rather than the children God had promised them; The leader who sees the Promised Land, but is not allowed to enter; The widow who mourns the loss of her sons with no way to care for her daughters-in-law; The prophet who keeps vigil as his people are carried off into bondage; The girl who becomes Queen only to have her whole people threatened by a jealous advisor; The carpenter who dreams about raising a child he did not father; The woman who looks for healing and sees only twelve years of hemorrhages; Even these heroes from scripture didn't always recognize how God's hand was at work, and yet God worked in, among, and through them nevertheless. I wonder if we could see ourselves in that story as well. I wonder if we can see ourselves in this story?

“A man named John was sent from God.” But this is a different picture of John than we may be accustomed to from reading the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel according to John, has a rather conspicuously different portrait of John the Baptist. He is not described as a wilderness man, and we are not shown vignettes of demands for repentance and accusations of “You brood of Vipers.” John is not a harbinger of end-times judgement. He is a witness.

“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘LOOK!’” John, in this gospel, does not pass judgement or carry out sentencing, he offers his testimony that Jesus is in fact “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” I can imagine John stretching out the long, bony, finger he is sometimes depicted with in paintings towards this ordinary looking man, identifying him as the long-looked-for Word made Flesh. That’s him! That’s the guy! “This is the one of whom I said ‘he who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me!’”

The thing about testimony is that it has no proof other than the conviction of the one giving it. John believes that Jesus is the Lamb of God so strongly that he offers his witness even though by his own admission, “Even I didn’t recognize him.”

It makes me wonder how many times we have seen the one we seek and not recognized him. How many Christians have devoted their lives, like John, to pointing to this person, this God, this one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, in spite of not being able to recognize him. How many times has Jesus the Christ been the overlooked one? John is here as a witness with one job: He came to testify concerning the Light of the World. Yet he confesses "Even I didn't recognize him." But the Lamb of God has come nevertheless. Even I didn't recognize him, but the Spirit descended on him like a dove nevertheless. Even I didn't recognize him, but he is the anointed one nevertheless. Once he finally recognizes Jesus, he keeps pointing to him, even into the next day.

“The next day, John was again standing with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus walking along he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard what he said, and they followed Jesus.” I don’t know what the difference between yesterday’s “Look” and today’s “Look” was, but this time the two disciples recognized the urgency in John's voice. This time they heard and recognized the importance of his message. "Look! The Lamb of God!"

The "Lamb of God" image that the disciples see when John points to this man Jesus carries visions of liberation from bondage in Egypt. A Lamb was offered at Passover, not to wipe away sin but as a reminder that God brings us out of Egypt, where we were slaves. So in the same manner as the Israelites followed Moses out of the house of Pharaoh, these two disciples of John walk behind Jesus with no vision of where their steps will lead them, and with no recognition beyond John's recommendation.

Then Jesus turns around and asks them a question: "What are you looking for?"

This question hits me right in my center. Because I don't know that I have a satisfactory answer. I know the "right" answer, "I'm looking for a way to glorify God and enjoy him forever." I just don't know if I'm really searching for something so lofty. These disciples have been following Jesus for a few minutes when he turns on his heel, looks them squarely in the face and confronts them with a question to which I don't have a really good answer. If Jesus connected with you in the same eye-to-eye fashion that faced these disciples, could you trust him with the search you don't show anyone?

“Don’t look now, but I can’t find a job.” “I don’t want anyone to see, but I’m not sure if this whole "God" thing applies to me.” “Don’t show anyone that I had such a fight with my family that I can’t even concentrate on the service going on around me right now.” “I’ve got to keep up appearances, even though I’m falling apart as soon as no one is looking.” "I spent so much time trying to look, or think, or love, or believe like those around me that I don't even recognize myself anymore"

I wonder what we would say to Jesus when he asks us "What are you looking for?" I can promise you that my answer would be just as ham-handed and stammering as the disciples' awkward response "Rabbi, where are you staying?" What are you looking for a hotel room? This guy is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! You want to know his lodging situation? That's only about two steps up from grabbing whatever is nearby and saying "Oh, just this, I've found it now, I think I'll be going back into hiding now." Jesus's "What are you looking for" maybe makes us feel more conspicuous than we'd ever let anyone see. The light that shines in the darkness, you know, recognizes you when you're staring him in the face. And if you've never had that light enter your field of vision before, it'll take you back a step. Even they didn't recognize him, but the presence of God compelled them to follow him nevertheless.

Because the one who can't find a job isn't just looking for a paycheck. They're looking for a way to participate in their own household so that they can know they are valued and not resented for always needing to be cared for.

Because the one who isn't sure if they have a part of this God thing isn't looking for an easy answer. They're looking for a narrative that fits with what they've seen, and the answers others have given them are not sufficient for their experience. It's difficult to love a God when you can never recognize him.

Because the one who is not fully present due to a recent fight isn't looking for a solution to their argument. They're looking for a community where it is safe to be struggling with imperfection.

Because the one who hides their thoughts and looks and beliefs and loves isn't looking for a way to meet expectations. They're looking for the assurance that they are loved for who they are regardless of any criteria.

Jesus recognizes that in the two men who followed him. He recognises that they don’t have the vision for what this passover lamb can mean for them. They’re looking for the wholeness they can only get from God, but their vision is distorted by their bondage to sin. So when their answer about what they’re looking for is meaningless, he offers them a new viewpoint, where they can see what God has in store for the whole of creation firsthand, and testify to others. “Come and see.”

Come and see what true humanity looks like. Come and see what liberation from what holds you back looks like. Come and see what service to the God who creates, redeems, and sustains you looks like. Come and see that the darkness cannot overcome the light.

Come and see grace that frees you from your shame and guilt. Come and see a community guided by a commandment to Love one another in spite of our brokenness. Come and see love that will not let you go no matter how you love, what you believe, how you look, or what you think. Come and see that God has called you by name and is deeper than the easy answers. Come and see that God has given you gifts to be expressed in the world with gratitude, even if they don’t come with a paycheck. Come and see what it is you’re looking for, even if you don’t recognize it at first.

After an afternoon with this new kind of teacher, Andrew has to go tell his brother what has happened. We have no indication what Simon Peter was looking for. But he’s just as human as the rest of us, so I can say with confidence that he was looking for something. Andrew, his brother, tells him what he’s found when he was didn’t even have the vision to know what he was looking for. “We have found the Messiah,” he tells his brother. John’s testimony of “Look! The Lamb of God!” was enough for Andrew to look closer, and to find his own image of who Jesus is. Andrew’s testimony of “We have found the Messiah!” was enough to capture Simon Peter’s attention. Once he has been led to Jesus, Jesus looks at him and recognizes him in the same way that he recognized that the other two disciples needed to be invited to come and see.

Jesus recognizes us where we are, and knows that we don’t know more than a portion of what we’re looking for, sometimes we don’t even know that we’ve been looking. Our vision is still distorted by sin, so much that we cannot always recognize that the Lamb of God is in our midst, a reminder of the unapologetic ferocity of God’s love for us. We coat ourselves with images of what we ought to be and expect others to see us the way we wish we were.

But God recognizes us in spite of all that meaningless posturing, recognizes us as his children, recognizes us as those whom he has set free from the shadows in which we try to hide ourselves. God sees through the mask and invites us to take it off and live as one transformed by grace. We have seen God’s unwavering work in the world, even if we haven’t recognized it. We don’t have to know what we’re looking for, but when we do recognize it, all we have to do is point and say “Look!” And when we cannot even muster the faith to conspicuously point to God, which is going to be a lot of the time, Jesus still calls to us with a promise of the greatness of God. “Come and See.”

In the end, I have every confidence that we will all be able to say “We have found the Messiah.” But only because Jesus the Christ found us first.

Even I didn't recognize him, but the light shines in the darkness nevertheless.

Even I didn't recognize him, but the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world nevertheless.

Even I didn't recognize him, but he came and baptized us with the Holy Spirit nevertheless.

Even I didn't recognize him, but he went to the cross to deliver me from the bondage of sin nevertheless.

Come and see what the new life we have in a resurrected Christ looks like, and you may recognize the living God in your midst. But even if you do not recognize him, God is at work in you, for you, and through you nevertheless.

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