“Jesus said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi…where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’” John 1:38-39a
I read some strange things, but I never could have imagined the article I stumbled upon this week. In it I learned about an artist named Richard Hansen.[i] Hansen is known for creating art out of organic materials – banana skins and other kinds of food. He’s also, by the way, the current Guinness World Record Holder for having created the world’s largest connect-the-dots puzzle in 2017.
Last fall Hansen decided to create an 8-foot by 10-foot portrait of 19th century American writer Edgar Allen Poe out of – wait for it – earthworms. Living, squirming, fresh-from-the-ground earthworms. He first got the idea when he was taking a walk about ten years ago after a summer rainstorm. As often happens after a storm, he found himself dodging the earthworms on the sidewalk. Inspiration struck, and he was soon collecting earthworms and creating molds into which he could insert the earthworms. As the worms crawled into the various spaces within the mold, they created a picture. Hansen started with smaller projects and perfected his technique over time. Any guesses how many earthworms it took for the portrait of Poe? 7000.
What does Hansen want people to take away from his project? Here’s what he says:
“Of course, I want people to laugh and be entertained. I [also] want people to consider the small things in life and look at them a little bit differently. Almost all of us have had that experience of seeing worms on the ground as we’re going on a walk.” [But I hope my portrait will get people] “to just look at that experience in a new light.”[ii]
This is what I love about artists – that ability to look at something as ordinary as earthworms and see new possibilities. To see something in a completely extraordinary way. Artists need the skill to execute the vision, but it begins with seeing.
That invitation to see in a new way is found throughout today’s gospel. The first person who reminds us to take another look is John the Baptist. He points us directly to Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! John wants people to see Jesus, not just as a teacher or as a friend but as the Lamb of God. He uses an image that suggests sacrifice, hinting at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry that Jesus will in the end give his life for our sake. I’ve always wondered how people made sense of that image. I’m sure plenty of folks dismissed it as John being dramatic again, but John also invited people to look closely, to see that Jesus was the messiah.
It helps that John is able to give some eyewitness testimony. As we heard last week, John had the closest possible vantage point for the baptism of Jesus, and he tells people what he saw there: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
John has witnessed some things. He has seen the Holy Spirit resting upon Jesus. He has heard some things too – the voice of God declaring Jesus to be God’s beloved Son.
I saw it, John says. I saw it all. And now I’m going to tell you about it.
The next day John does it again. He’s hanging out with two of his own followers, and Jesus walks by. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Those two people are intrigued enough that they begin to wander with Jesus, and then Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”
Pause for a moment and consider what you would say if Jesus asked you that question. What are you looking for? What do you hope to see here? What do you hope will happen? What new possibilities do you seek?
These two disciples are clearly not prepared for that question, so they do what most of us do when confronted with a question we’d rather not answer. They change the subject. “Where are you staying,” they ask Jesus.
To which Jesus replies with an invitation: “Come and see.”
So they go with Jesus. And they see – at first literally. They see the place where he is staying. But after some time with Jesus, talking with him and seeing what he is up to, they come to a deeper realization – one that we hear when Andrew goes off to find his brother Simon Peter and reports, “We have found the Messiah.”
It all starts with an invitation to see. To see Jesus. To see that Jesus offers new beginnings, new hope, new life. To see how Jesus sees us – with love and with forgiveness, which makes the rest possible.
On this weekend when we honor Dr. King’s legacy, it’s good to remember how much he helped us see the world in new ways – to see that many things that were technically legal were spiritually and morally wrong. Dr. King summoned church folks – especially white church folks – to help bring about change, and he was often left disappointed. As he writes in “The Letter From a Birmingham Jail”[iii]:
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement…all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
That phrase always convicts me : “the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” I read this letter at least once a year because it makes me look more closely at my own complacency. It makes me ask: How, in the name of Jesus, am I continuing to learn about the experiences of people of color? How, in the name of Jesus, am I working to challenge and disrupt racism? How, in the name of Jesus, am I learning to see what I might not want to see – and then do something about it?
I don’t always feel capable of doing that work. But Jesus sees me – and sees you – as someone who is capable of doing that work, not because of our own strength but because of his.
Jesus looks at ordinary people like us and sees new possibilities. He sees us as more courageous and more creative than we feel on most days. And so he says to us: “Come and see.”
Come and see what you did not expect to see.
Come and see your neighbors as people who are precious to me. Every last one of them.
Come and see what God is up to in the world, the change that God makes possible.
Come and see the new pathways that God is opening.
Come and see. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage…” Matthew 2:2
It’s the tyrant versus the toddler. It doesn’t really seem like a fair match-up – the fully grown adult ruler of this corner of the Roman Empire lashing out against a little kid who by this point in our story had probably taken his first steps and was forming complete sentences. (We don’t have any biblical confirmation of those moments, but I’ve always suspected that Jesus was an early walker and talker. I mean, you don’t eventually walk on water without a head start on land first, right?)
But King Herod was not known for being rational or benevolent. History tells us that he had one of his wives and three of his sons killed because he thought they were a threat to his reign. So when our gospel today opens with “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,” it’s not just giving us a chronology. It’s setting up two ways of understanding power. There’s King Herod’s way, rooted in ego and violence and political manipulation, a power that is fraught with the kind of insecurity that would sooner murder you than talk to you. And there is Jesus’ way – not yet fully known by the world but growing day by day in that backwoods town of Bethlehem. Humble beginnings to signify that this kid would be a different kind of king.
The magi – or wise men, as we’ve come to know them – really should have known better than to show up on Herod’s doorstep. They were outsiders, magicians and priests from another ancient religion who may not have heard the tales of Herod’s bloodthirsty power grabs. Had they realized how unstable Herod was, perhaps they would have avoided that stop. They were probably just following protocol. You check in with one local king when you are searching for another.
They could not have known how badly Herod would take the news.
They could not have known what we know when we keep reading in this chapter of Matthew – how immediately and desperately Herod would want to destroy Jesus, forcing Mary and Joseph and the child to flee to the relative safety of Egypt.
They could not have known that Herod would then order the massacre of all the children ages two years or younger living in or near Bethlehem. When an insecure ruler like Herod feels threatened, things always turn deadly.
Herod is twisted and turned in on himself. Everything is about his need for power. Get too close to his torment, and your life will be at stake.
But the wise men are looking for something different. They’re seeking the child who has been born king of the Jews. A child. A child who comes to bring hope to a fractured, fallen world. To bring peace in the midst of violence.
In their quest the wise men give us some ways to think about living in a fractured, fallen world. Notice what they do.
First, they look up. They have come to find the child because they saw a star rising in the east, and they knew it pointed to something – or someone – special. They paid attention to the natural world enough to notice this bright light shining in the sky. They recognized it as something new, a beacon that called to them and summoned them to take a surprising journey. Had they stayed hunched over their desks with worry and fear, they might have missed it.
How often we miss the signs around us, the ones calling us to new possibilities. How often we hunch over our desks – or our phones – and fail to see what is begging for our attention.
The wise men also travel together. Tradition has assumed there were three of them because there are three gifts mentioned – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But I’ve often wondered if it was more than a small group, perhaps even a caravan that included women and children and animals and a whole messy community making its way from the East. In any case it was not just one guy finding his way to Bethlehem, searching all alone. They stuck together – even when they had to go home by another way to avoid Herod’s wrath.
How often we try to travel alone. And how quickly we learn that it doesn’t work well. It’s not just lonely; it’s dangerous.
When the wise men finally get to Jesus, they kneel and pay him homage. The verb that’s used here indicates that they either got down on their knees or flattened themselves on the ground in the way one honors a superior. These men of wealth and status have the humility to see that this child is more important and more powerful than they are.
How often we prefer to keep Jesus at a distance. We’d rather think of him as a wise teacher from long ago than someone who might change us, who might urge us to surrender our pride.
As we begin a new year, it’s a good time to remember that we are not the center of our own lives. It’s time to look up and wonder what God might be calling us to do. It’s time to look around and see who our companions are for the journey. It’s time for humility, for recognizing that we cannot save ourselves, however desperately we wish we could.
My sister Claire and I got our two nieces a telescope for Christmas. They’ve developed a keen interest in space, so we picked out a good telescope for beginners. Like any telescope, it needed to be aligned. During the daylight hours it needed to be pointed at distant object and adjusted with precision so that at night it would be easier to find and focus on the object that we were looking for, like the moon. It’s even more necessary because everything is moving all the time – the earth, the moon, the planets. When it’s aligned, the telescope can stay focused on what’s worth seeing.
All of us need a way to fix our gaze on what will keep us moving forward in faith. The world may feel like it’s spinning out of control, and in many ways that’s true. Herod’s power is always going to bring death and destruction. The power of the Christ child? That power brings life and salvation. That’s where we focus our attention when we are afraid or uncertain.
We look up. We travel together. We live with humility.
There are always more stars rising, more journeys to take.
Epiphany marks the official end of the Christmas season, but as Christians, we live as Christmas people always – people who know that the road opens up before us with new ways to share God’s love embodied in the Christ child.
Theologian Howard Thurman reminds us that Christmas continues when he writes[i]:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ