Is John as surprised as everyone else that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God?
It would seem so in the verses assigned for this second Sunday after Epiphany. Twice John the Baptist says, “I myself did not know him.” What exactly does this mean? Weren’t they cousins? John knew Jesus, right? Is this a case of not noticing that which is closest to us?
I heard a story of a woman who volunteered at an art museum as a docent and had walked by, and even told others about, a statue in the collection countless times. On this particular tour, the docent was leading a group of blind guests. A young girl was among those invited to touch the statue that she could not see. The docent said,
“She ran her hands down the body of this female figure, and her first remark was: Oh, she’s pregnant,” Kline recalls. “And I had never thought about that. But in fact, the figure does look like a pregnant woman. Here was a kid really showing me something that I had been looking at for 35 years, probably, and had never noticed.”
Had John the Baptist looked at Jesus for 30 years never to notice who he actually was?
It makes me wonder how much of what God is doing is hidden in plain sight to our obliviousness. Whose perspective might help us recognize God in our midst? Have we enlisted it?
We need not give John too hard of a time, however. Jesus’ home congregation was none too willing to hear and heed him. Prophets aren’t accepted in their home town. Sometimes our expectations blind us to God’s mysterious ways and John was faithful even in his unknowing. That may be a lesson to take away from this text, too.
John went to the wilderness and came back to baptize, making straight the way for the Lord before God ever revealed to him the identity of the Lord. Could we have done likewise? In a time when measurable results are highly valued and data big and small is sought and analyzed ad naseum, are we willing to follow the will of God with more trust than knowledge? Can we, like John, do the next faithful thing without every detail made known to us, no matter how strange or seemingly futile that next thing may be?
Dutiful, patient following of God and God’s commands may or may not yield measurable results; it will, however, inevitably put us in a position to meet the very One we serve. Luke’s account of Anna comes to mind. How many years did she worship in the temple, fasting and praying, until that one fateful day when Mary and Joseph brought in Jesus? There are other such biblical stories. Women long barren continuing to offer prayers, those who suffered years of illness going to worship, disciples heading off to people and places they don’t know simply because the Spirit told them to go.
Perhaps John’s honest, “I myself did not know him” will strengthen us to keep doing the next faithful thing until God sends a dove or speaks a word or otherwise reveals to us the One right before us, the one we’ve known but didn’t recognize, the one we thought we knew but didn’t understand at all, or the one we’ve hoped to see even when we’ve wondered, “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?”
On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, lifting up stalwart faithfulness even in the face of uncertain results seems fitting. Calling disciples to keep proclaiming, preaching, baptizing and making a way for the Lord, even when we’re not sure when the Lamb of God will come again, is a needed Word in these tumultuous times.
Maybe the story of Ralph Lazo, a Mexican-American who as a matter of conscience lived for two years with his Japanese-American friends in Manzanar Internment Camp during World War II, is a good one to reflect on this week:
Ralph stayed in the internment camp for two years in solidarity with his friends—a prisoner by choice, acting from his conscience. He finished out his studies at Manzanar High School, where he was elected class president despite graduating at the bottom of a class of 150. To keep spirits high amidst abysmal living conditions, Ralph planted trees, delivered mail, threw holiday parties enlivened with bands and unfailingly fired up the crowds at sporting events. With contraband homemade cameras, he pointed out the beauty all around them, even when it was hard to see.
Ralph remained the only non-spouse, non-Japanese who voluntarily relocated to Manzanar. His true heritage was only discovered when he was drafted into the U.S. army in August 1944. Ralph served in the South Pacific until the end of the war, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his bravery. But no one gave him a medal for standing up for his beliefs.
Ralph Lazo, someone doing the faithful thing even when the outcome was uncertain, hidden in plain sight, until others’ eyes were opened and justice prevailed.
Shaping a sermon with the following questions in a new year that will surely bring big changes might bear fruit:
- Where is Jesus hidden in plain sight? How do we hone our senses to discern him in our midst? Are there perspectives we are missing? If so, how do we access those different perspectives?
- What is the next faithful thing God is calling us to do? How are we, in our context, to make a way for the Lord even as we await his coming?
- How do we point to Jesus with our words and our actions?
If we are able to probe those questions and live into some of the answers, I feel confident that we, like John, will move from, “I myself did not know him” to “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
- Can you think of examples when you have missed something important that was right in front of you? How was it finally revealed to you? Why do you think you failed to see it?
- Do some digging on the title “Lamb of God.” Where else is it found in Scripture? In liturgy?
- Take a look at the verses that come before and after the ones appointed for this week. How do those stories impact your understanding of the one for this Sunday?
- Spend some time considering what it means to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
- Go here and read through some of the hymns with the phrase “lamb of God” and see what you discover.
- Use the “Lamb of God” prayer in your devotions this week:
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: grant us peace.
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