Use Your Senses to Discover What is True
James 5:7-10 Matthew 11:2-11
Third Sunday of Advent
At the time depicted in this morning’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist is in prison. But he still hears about what is going on in the outside world, and he wants to know if the rumors he has been hearing about Jesus of Nazareth are true. Is it possible that he is the Messiah? We read earlier in Matthew about John baptizing Jesus, but time has passed between then and now, so it is possible that John forgot, but it is more likely that John was wanting to pass his followers on. Knowing he is in prison, and that he will most likely be killed, John wants his own disciples to go off and do some good in the world by following Jesus and supporting Jesus’ ministry.
John’s disciples show up in the crowd when Jesus is preaching and start asking him if he is the one they have been waiting for. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” I love the answer Jesus gives to them. Rather than simply giving them a “yes” or “no,” Jesus encourages them to judge for themselves. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” What do you see with your own eyes? What do you hear with your own ears? Jesus encourages John’s disciples to pay attention to what they see and hear, rather than going by hearsay; even if that hearsay is Jesus’ own opinion. This is great advice for all of us. It is important to use our own judgement to figure out what is happening and how we feel about it. What is true and what is false? Where do w want to put our energies? If we are confused about something, we may prefer to ask someone else what to think rather than spending the time to work it out ourselves, but if we do take the time to figure it out, chances are that what we learn will be more deeply embedded in our minds and we will be more likely to actually recall the information when we most need it. I was listening to the radio while driving earlier this week, and there was a segment on how to remember things. The concept was simple, whenever you need to remember something, bring it into your conscious thought rather than just letting it slip past you. The example given was walking in the door of your house and dropping your car keys into a flower pot in the hall. Rather than just doing this and walking on, it was suggested that you take a moment to bring your mind into the process. Picture the keys growing out of the flower pot. Picture yourself watering the keys to make them grow more. Then move on and do whatever you usually do. Chances are, when it comes time to go out again, you will have a vivid image of those keys growing in the flower pot and will have no trouble remembering where they are.
So, it is coming up to Christmas now, and there are so many things we are doing at this point, that our memories are pretty frazzled by the end of the day. Our thoughts are scattered between the busy-ness and our obligations. How do we bring our minds to what is important here, to what we really want to remember and hold in our minds and hearts for the season of Advent? It can be all too easy to miss the essence of the holiday, the “reason for the season,” as folks are inclined to say. I wonder if we could listen to Jesus’ advice here, and look around at what it is that we see with new eyes? Would it be possible to focus our vision much like that memory exercise focuses the mind? What if we focused on looking for signs of Christ’s coming throughout whatever we do and wherever we are, every day? In the midst of the secularity of what Christmas has become in our culture, can we tease out the signs of what we know to be the true meaning of the holiday? When I look at the advertisements that have been piling into our home for the past month or more, they show people laughing and smiling at one another. Now, I know the intent of the ads is to sell more things, but looking at the space around that intent, I see joy and laughter, which exhibit an important aspect of the essence of Christmas. Jesus, we know, came into the world bringing the kind of deep joy that changes lives forever. Holiday parties are something that is happening in every quarter; at school, at work, in neighborhoods and social circles. Parties bring people together for little reason other than to enjoy one another’s company. Connection, relationship, community, family - these are things that Jesus came to remind us of. We are related to one another and to God in ways we may not realize and ways that need to be celebrated and embraced. Celebrating these relationships is what parties are for, but the celebration of these relationships is also a central feature of our lives as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ. Food is another thing that is often at the center of gatherings during this time of year, whether it is a party, serving dinner to the homeless, or enjoying a special meal with your family. Looking around the edges of these events, coming together around food is something that Jesus enjoyed doing as much as almost anything else he did. When we eat together, we are celebrating a sacrament, in a way, as we break bread together. Relationships deepen in the intimacy of sharing a meal. Gift-giving is also a large part of how we celebrate Christmas in the secular world, and admittedly, sometimes it can get out of hand; but the heart of why we give gifts centers on the stable where Jesus was born, and the three Magi who travelled so far just to see him and bring him gifts. The gifts they brought were not the usual ones for newborns, though, they were gifts that reflected who Jesus was, his role in the world. When we strive to find just the right gift for a loved one, we are enacting this earlier giving of gifts. We want to give the gift that reflects who the recipient is to us and in the world. We want to let them know that we see them and care about them and know who they really are.
I am sure that as you put your mind to it, you will start seeing signs of the truth of Christmas embedded in the casual everyday moments of life and hidden around the edges of all of the secular holiday cheer. What signs of Christmas have you recognized today already, just in the time I have been talking? What evidence of Christ’s coming have you seen throughout the past week?
I believe that when we look for these signs, we will find them everywhere. They may be subtle at first, but as we fine tune our vision, we will see them more and more, and in places that might surprise us. I love it when God makes me do a double-take, when I have to back up and take another look at something I thought I saw, but just can’t believe to be true. In some ways, the signs of Christmas are hidden in plain sight much like the images in those Magic Eye 3D pictures that were so popular a few years ago. You have to look with intent and focus, but you also have to soften your gaze a bit, in order to see the images woven into the more obvious surface picture. Like art students who have to learn how to see negative space around a figure as well as the positive space inhabited by the figure itself, we need to learn how to see the workings of the Spirit which coexist with the workings of human beings. The signs of true Christmas are all around us. We just have to recognize them for what they are and let them touch our hearts.