Waiting and Watching | December 9 | Advent 2

Texts: Luke 1:68-79; 3:1-6

Speaker: Mark Rupp

The prompt was “Where do I see God in the world around me?”  Where do I see God?  See God?  But what does that even mean?!  The more I think about it, the more unsure I become about this whole project of seeing God.  Isn’t seeing God reserved for those religious fanatics who insist that their visions are revelations of the Divine that must be heeded at all costs?  Aren’t people who see God people that we assume are in need of clinical help of some kind, or at least the kind of people that we can politely ignore?  Wouldn’t we expect talk about seeing God to be coming more from street preachers shouting their messages of armageddon doom?  Or maybe even from charlatans just looking to make a quick buck from those who are truly desperate for a glimpse of God? 

“Where do I see God in the world around me?”

This is the second week on our Advent theme exploring the five senses but our first week focusing in on one of those senses.  And “sight” feels like a lot of pressure.  It’s probably the one sense that all of us lean on the most heavily.  If we can see it, it must be real.  There’s a reason the saying is “seeing is believing” and not “smelling is believing.”  So it feels like there’s a lot of pressure to get this “sight” week just right because if we can’t talk about “seeing God” coherently, then how are we going to convince anyone that smelling God or tasting God is a worthwhile topic for discussion?

Even the scriptures have a bit of a mixed bag message when it comes to “seeing God.”  All the way back in Genesis, we find out that a guy named Jacob decided to call a place “Peniel” which means “the face of God” because, according to him, he had seen God face to face.  But if we read the rest of that story, Jacob decides on this name after wrestling with what the text simply refers to as “a man,” and it remains unclear whether this might really be just a man, an angel of God, or God, or maybe just a god.  Maybe Jacob got it wrong. 

And if that wasn’t unclear enough, in the book of Exodus within the space of about ten verses the texts says both that “God used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” AND that God told Moses, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  But in the end, Moses really wanted to see God, so God conceded and let Moses cover his eyes until God had passed by so that Moses could see God’s backside. 

So maybe we should be asking ourselves, “Where do I see God’s backside in the world around me?”  I suppose that God’s backside would still count as “seeing God.”

The Hebrew scriptures are a real mixed bag on this topic, but the New Testament tries to clear things up a bit.  In John’s gospel it says, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made God known.”  So no one has seen God, but anyone who saw Jesus, saw God because Jesus is God.

Good!  Clear enough: See Jesus; see God.   

BUT on the other hand, toward the end of John’s gospel we get the story of Thomas who was out on a coffee run the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection.  When Jesus re-appears, he tells Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Maybe this whole thing about “seeing God” was a bad idea from the start because it’s in the not seeing that we are blessed.

But on the other, other hand, I just remembered that in the Beatitudes, Jesus assures us that blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God, and now I feel like I’m back to square one. 

A photo of where I see God in the world around me?  What kind of homework assignment is this?  Who’s idea was this anyway?

Ok…so it seems like despite the original prompt, we’re probably not trying to “see God” in the way that we typically think about seeing, and even though seeing Jesus seems like a slightly more plausible task since, you know, he was a person as well as God, that option seems like maybe it’s not the point either.  So where does that leave us?

Last week, Joel talked about “signs” and the scripture he used was Jesus talking about all these big, earth shaking, heaven shattering, miraculous signs.  Surely if we could see something miraculous like that, we’d be seeing God, or at least God’s backside, or at the very least a sign of God’s backside. 

If I could just find a clear, obvious, miraculous sign for all to see, then I’d have solved Advent.  No more waiting, only watching and seeing and comfortably believing.

Which is what got me thinking about the woman who saw the image of Jesus burned into a piece of bread and sold it on eBay for thousands of dollars.  A clearly miraculous sign of God that was obviously believed by at least two people, right?  So all week long I’ve been making toast trying to solve both Advent and our budget deficit at the same time. 

But I’m not sure I’m doing this right…

And the more I think about it, the more I think that even if we did have some miraculous sign for us all to see like Jesus showing up on a piece of toast–or, for the breakfast-food-skeptics out there, something even greater–would that be enough for us?  How miraculous would something need to be for us to be able to point to it and say “See, there, that’s God”? 

Our first reading this morning was a passage that is sometimes known as the Benedictus or Zechariah’s song.  It is a song and a prophecy that sure sounds like it is coming from someone who has so clearly seen God’s saving actions through history and has seen a glimpse of what God will do in the future through Zechariah’s son. 

But Zechariah wasn’t always so sure. 

If we back up, we read that Zechariah, who was a priest, was doing his priestly duties one day when the angel Gabriel shows up to tell him that his wife will soon bear a son and that this son will be a revolutionary figure within Israel that will turn the hearts and minds of many and prepare a way for someone even greater.  Now, it doesn’t give a description for Gabriel, but based on the fact that every time Gabe shows up he has to calm people down and tell them not to be afraid, I am guessing that an angel is a pretty impressive, miraculous looking sign from God.  Probably even more impressive than any Jesus toast.

But what is Zechariah’s response to this heavenly messenger appearing out of nowhere to bring him good news?  He asks, “How can I be sure?”  He’s doubtful.  There are too many factors at play that point to the implausibility of Gabriel’s decree.

“How can I be sure?”  It’s pretty easy to scoff at Zechariah’s response as he looks right in the face of a heavenly angel (or whatever constitutes a face for an angel), but it makes me wonder if we’d be able to recognize a sign from God any more than Zechariah. 

Gabriel seems to get a little annoyed at this response, so he makes Zechariah unable to talk until these things take place.  He has to spend all those months watching and listening and pondering the message from God as the new life grew within his wife, Elizabeth’s womb.  When the baby is finally born, Elizabeth tells her neighbors that his name will be John, but they all try to insist that they should name him after his father.  The neighbors tell her, “None of your relatives are called John” but she insists.

It is only after Zechariah writes on a tablet to affirm what Elizabeth has said that his tongue is loosened and he bursts forth with the song we read earlier.  Perhaps the real message from this text is that men should just stop talking unless they’re using their voices to tell the world to believe what women have to say… 

Zechariah’s song is called the Benedictus because, in Latin, that is the first word.  It is a song of benediction, a song of blessing for his newborn son.  It is a song that took nine months to write; nine months of silent watching and listening and pondering this new thing that God was doing.  Zechariah’s tongue was loosened not when the baby was born but only after he affirmed that the boy would be named John, a name unlike any of his relatives, and I have to wonder if perhaps those nine months were Zechariah silently wrestling with the reality that he would have to let go of the dreams and visions he had for his son.  He would have to let go of the assumption that this boy would grow up just like him.  Perhaps his song breaks forth in the moment where he learns to trust that God will continue to be present even if things don’t look like they’ve always looked. 

Zechariah’s song is a song in two parts.  He begins by rooting this new vision, this new prophecy about his son in the broad history of God’s saving work.  He invokes Abraham and David and the prophets of old, making connection with and placing them alongside this new thing that God is doing through his son.  He speaks of the deliverance that God has brought forth and remembers the holy covenants between God and Israel. 

And then there is a sudden shift, and you can almost feel Zechariah turn his head to address his son directly.  “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High…giving knowledge of salvation…and guiding our feet in the way of peace.”  It’s a tender moment between a father and child; an intimate revelation of what Zechariah now hopes to see for his son. 

A grand narrative of salvation throughout history makes its way toward a whispered prayer of blessing from father to son. 

Our second reading affirms that John grew up into this vision.  He became the voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way, proclaiming that all flesh, all humanity, maybe even all creation shall see the salvation of God.  In his own way, he did follow in his father’s footsteps as a priestly mediator for God, though John’s message was one of repentance, of turning around and going a different direction in order to be able to see the salvation of God. 

And once again, the author of Luke tells this story in such a way that it makes connections to Israel’s history as God’s covenanted people while also firmly rooting in the present moment.  The second reading opens with a litany of names — Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas, and Caiaphas — to show the reader that this thing God is doing is happening at a very specific time and place.  And then the writer uses a quote from the prophet Isaiah to draw parallels to John’s ministry, showing that while this thing is happening in a very specific time and place it is not coming out of the blue.  God has been present and active throughout history and it is in seeing these connection, in following those threads that we are able to see God. 

It is in this expanding and contracting of our view that we begin to be able see new life all around us. 

There are a lot of us who are like Zechariah.  Whether we find ourselves face to face with an angel, or staring at an image of Jesus on our breakfast plate, or even just sensing a small quiet nudge that we think might be God, many of us are quick to wonder, “How can I be sure?” 

And that’s ok. 

My wish for us, my friends, is:
– That we would always be willing to follow those threads, sitting silently for as long as we need to. 
– That we would remember the stories of God and ponder how they connect with whatever new things we are sensing for our present moment.
– That we would turn toward new life again and again no matter how many times we find ourselves getting lost. 
– And perhaps most importantly, that we would all find a community to share and test the ways we are sensing God in our lives.  Because I have a hunch that you just might see God in ways I wish I could…

(Because of copyright and privacy issues, we will not be posting the video slideshow.  If you would like to be able to view it, please email Pastor Mark.)