Do You See What I See?
Look in Unlikely Places
First Baptist Richmond, December 17, 2023 The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-4, 8-11, John 1:6-8, 19-28
John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
Last Monday I went down to the lower level of our building to mix and mingle with the people who come for our shower ministry. I got there a little early, and Michael Lacy looked at me and said, “Did you come to do the devotion?” I said, “No, but I can if you want me to.” He said, “Cool!” And so I had a full five minutes to come up with a devotional thought.
I racked my brain for a Christmas story that might have some spiritual substance and eventually settled on one from my childhood. I must have been about twelve years old. My brother Ed, the oldest, would have been fifteen. We were hanging up our stockings on Christmas Eve when Ed had an idea. He went out to the barn and came back a few minutes later with an empty burlap bag and a bushel basket. He tacked the burlap bag to the mantelpiece, cut off a bottom corner, and put the bushel basket under that, so that when Santa started filling up the bag all the goodies would go right into the basket. He did it all with a smile, as if he wasn’t really expecting to get a bushel basket and a burlap bag full of goodies, but I thought, “Two can play at that game.” So, I went and found a tiny baby doll sock and tacked that up next to his burlap bag with my name over it.
We went to bed that night not knowing what would happen, but can you
believe it? When we went downstairs the next morning that burlap bag and bushel basket were overflowing…with coal and switches, and a scolding note from Santa about not being so greedy. But my little sock had been removed, and in its place someone had tacked up a stocking that was bulging with every good thing on Santa’s sleigh: chocolates, peppermints, oranges, hard candy, nuts, and way down in the toe a Hot Wheels race car.
I told that story to everyone who had come to the shower ministry that morning, and they seemed to enjoy it. But then I heard myself say something I hadn’t planned to say. I said, “It’s the Great Reversal, and it’s everywhere in the Bible! Jesus said, ‘The last shall be first and the least will be great!’ The ones who hang up a burlap bag will get coal and switches but the ones who hang up a tiny sock will get every good thing and more!”
I elaborated a little further, but it wasn’t supposed to be a sermon, just a devotional. Still, the message that the last would be first and the least would be great resonated with that audience. Afterward one of the volunteers told me she had seen one of our homeless neighbors wiping a tear from his eye. Why? Because if you are clinging to the bottom rung of the ladder and someone tells you that one day the ladder will be turned upside down, that’s good news!
I’m not sure why I told that story about the Christmas stockings last Monday. I thought it just came to mind. But it’s possible that I was already thinking about the Great Reversal because only the day before I had sneaked a peek at today’s lectionary readings and that appears to be the theme. We didn’t read the psalm for today, but it’s Psalm 126, one of my favorites. It’s about God’s people in exile, and how astonished they were when God set them free from their long captivity in Babylon. It says:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
They had been clinging to the bottom rung of that ladder, but now, suddenly, by a miracle of God, the ladder had been turned upside down! The psalmist prays:
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
It’s the Great Reversal, and I think about that homeless neighbor wiping a tear from his eye last Monday morning. Wouldn’t he love a psalm like this?
And then one of the alternate readings for today is the Magnificat, from Luke 1: that beautiful song where the Virgin Mary, after having her miraculous pregnancy confirmed by the miraculously pregnant Elizabeth, sings:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
But then, listen for it. Listen for the Great Reversal:
The Lord has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their
thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Don’t you think that would make my friend in the shower ministry smile? But wait! That’s not all! Listen to the opening lines of Isaiah 64:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
And then again, thinking of our friend in the shower ministry, listen to verse 10:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
Do you hear that? Can you put all that together, that God is a God who restores the lost fortunes of his people, who turns weeping into shouts of joy? That he is the one who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly? That he is the God who brings good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captive, and those who mourn? As I said on Monday morning the Great Reversal is everywhere in the Bible. It’s even in today’s Gospel lesson.
It’s not as obvious as it is in some of these other readings, but it’s there. It starts with the announcement that, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” This is important, because there were some people who thought that maybe John the Baptist was the Messiah. Even when John the Evangelist was writing this Gospel near the end of the first century there were people who
thought that maybe John the Baptist was the one the world had been waiting for. But John himself says no. When some priests and Levites came out to the wilderness to see what was going on they asked him, “Who are you?” And he confessed (he did not deny, but confessed), “I am not the Messiah.” “What, then?” they asked. “Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?” “No.” “Well, who are you then. Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” And John said, “I am the voice that Isaiah talked about, the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
You might wonder how they could suspect for even a moment that John was the Messiah. You heard the description from Mark’s Gospel last week: “His clothing was made of camel’s hair and he wore a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” He sounds a good bit like Elijah the prophet, but he doesn’t sound like the long-awaited King of Israel, the one who would sit on the throne of his ancestor David and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Until you remember how David was chosen.
When Samuel went to anoint one of the sons of Jesse he was immediately drawn to Eliab, the oldest. He was tall and handsome. In our time we might say he looked “presidential.” But God said to Samuel, “That’s not the one I have chosen. People look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Based on that precedent it might be possible that John the Baptist—this scruffy-looking prophet with dust in his beard and locust legs between his teeth— was the Messiah, but he himself said no. “I’m just the voice: the one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
But the priests and Levites weren’t finished with him yet. They asked, “Why, then, are you baptizing, if you are not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet?” And
John said, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And the priests and Levites may have started looking around for anyone who looked like a Messiah, but they would have been hard pressed to find one in that crowd. I’m guessing that most of the people who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John looked a lot like the homeless neighbors who show up for our shower ministry: like people who really need a bath.
But among them, John said, “is one you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And according to the author of the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist didn’t know who Jesus was either. In spite of Luke’s assertion that the two of them were cousins of some kind, in John’s Gospel the Baptist says, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel” (1:31). And then he says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (1:32-34).
But apparently there was nothing else about Jesus that would have set him apart as the Messiah. Isaiah 53:2 has often been applied to him: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” In other words, he didn’t stand out from the crowd. He didn’t look presidential. In fact he may have looked like any one of those people who come to our shower ministry. It’s the Great Reversal, isn’t it? The last will be first, the least will be great, and the Messiah may be in the last place you look.
Erich Bridges is one of our members who regularly volunteers in that ministry. He is also a retired journalist who sometimes still practices his former trade. A few months ago he wrote an article called “The Jesus Room,” that practically went viral. It starts like this:
The Jesus Room lies in the bowels of Richmond’s cavernous First Baptist Church, one of those stately old churches that takes up most of a city block.
It’s a part of the basement floor of the church, comprising a community area with some round tables and plastic chairs, a back room with racks of donated clothes and shelves of groceries, and some men’s and women’s shower rooms down a short hallway.
I call it the Jesus Room because it’s where I see Jesus on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays as a volunteer in the church’s ministry to homeless people.
Where is Jesus, you ask? He is in the face of every person who walks through that back door.
I subscribe to Mother Teresa’s literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, the passage where Jesus says, “You did it to me” (or didn’t) if you serve the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner. Teresa believed Jesus wasn’t speaking metaphorically but was saying he would come to us personally, daily, in the “distressing disguise” of the hungry, the sick, the inmate, the refugee, the one with no home.i
Erich’s article goes on from there and it’s excellent. I hope you will read it. But when I think about those people who come to our shower ministry I think some of them come in the hope that all this talk in the Bible isn’t just talk, that one of these days, when the Messiah comes or when his Kingdom comes, the Great Reversal will actually happen, and people like them, who have been clinging to the bottom rung of life’s ladder, will suddenly, miraculously, end up on top.
But I also think they come because, until that day arrives, they have a
chance to experience heaven on earth right here, in the Jesus Room, where they are treated not like problems, but like people; where they get a hot cup of coffee, a sweet pastry, and sometimes a hug; where someone looks them in the eye and calls them by name, that is, where someone sees them.
Do you see what I see? If you had been in that crowd at the Jordan River would you have recognized the Messiah, standing there with everyone else, waiting to be baptized? Here’s the Good News, friends: the Lord has come. Not everybody saw it, not everybody knew it, not everybody celebrated it, but eventually those with eyes to see could see in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah of God.
Those of us with eyes to see can see it still. And we look forward to that day when his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, when the last will be first and the least will be great. For those of us who have been waiting for it, watching for it, working for it.
It will feel like Christmas morning.
—Jim Somerville © 2023