Thursday, April 02, 2009

Eyes That See[1]

Isa. 62:1-12; Gal. 4:4-7; Lk 2:22-40

Our eyes are amazing organs. When you look at a painting by Claude Monet, it seems that you can see an infinite variety of colors—some you never thought existed! When you look at a photograph by Ansel Adams, you see details that could never imagine. Our eyes enable us to see the beauty of nature, the love of a human being, and the miracle of a little child. But our eyes can also “play tricks” on us. How many times have you turned your house upside down looking for a key or a phone or a remote control, only to find that it was right where it was supposed to be all along; you overlooked it half a dozen times because, for whatever reason, you simply didn’t see it.

In our Gospel lesson, Simeon saw the infant Jesus and burst into a Psalm of praise to God. The reason was that he believed he had seen the Lord’s salvation! What did Simeon see that made him respond the way he did? It must have been a very common sight in that day—new parents bringing a child to the Temple to “present” him or her to the Lord. There wasn’t anything special about this family in terms of outward appearance. We know that they were poor because instead of bringing the customary lamb to sacrifice, they brought a dove. So what was it about this particular family that made Simeon conclude that “my eyes have seen your salvation”?

Perhaps we find a clue in that Luke tells us that Simeon was a deeply spiritual person. He says that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would see “the Lord’s Messiah” before he died (Lk. 2:26). Luke also says that “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon (Lk. 2:25), suggesting that he was someone specially gifted by God. Furthermore, Luke tells us that Simeon came to the Temple that day “guided by the Spirit” (Lk. 2:27). All in all, it would seem that Simeon was a pretty spiritual guy. Not religious, mind you; that was for the people who liked to show off their own importance. Rather, Simeon was spiritual.

But perhaps we’re “overlooking” the obvious answer to the question. Maybe Simeon recognized the baby Jesus as the Lord’s salvation because he was looking for him. Notice that Luke also says that Simeon was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Lk. 2:25; cf. Isaiah 62:1-12).[2] Is it too obvious to say that Simeon believed he had seen God’s salvation when he met Jesus and Joseph and Mary because he was expecting to see it?

Perhaps this was just a case of Simeon simply seeing something because he wanted to. The other side of how easy it is to miss seeing something right in front of us is that it is just as easy to see what we want to, simply because we want to see it. I guess we could walk away from the story of Simeon at the Temple and say he was just a crazy old fool who convinced himself he had seen something just because he wanted to see it so badly.

In fact, you can pretty much take that approach with just about every aspect of our faith.[3] This is particularly true of the individual dimension of faith. A spiritual conversion experience could be explained as a psychological or emotional phenomenon. What one person sees as the miraculous work of God, another might chalk up to brain chemistry.

The same goes for every other dimension of our faith—from the church, to our beliefs about Jesus, to our views on God. You can choose to view them simply based on appearances. In that case, there’s really nothing about the church that would make you believe that there is a God, let alone that God is at work bringing salvation to us all.

So what would make someone look at the very understated, contradictory, ambiguous reality of the Christian faith and choose to believe that it’s a reflection of the truth? For me, at the end of the day, it’s because in the depth of my being, in my heart and soul, in that place where all pretense is stripped away and it’s only me and reality, the hope and faith that there is a God who loves us all, who is working to restore and renew everything and everyone, simply rings true.[4] I know it like I know that my wife and kids love me. And with that in mind, everything makes sense; without it nothing makes sense.

The reality that we call salvation is one that is amazingly inconspicuous; it does not push it’s way to the front and demand our attention. You can easily miss it if you’re not looking for it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” When we think of a “kingdom,” we normally think of something powerful, large—something obvious. But Jesus spoke of a different kingdom, one that grows without anyone knowing how.[5]

The point is that God’s work in this world is not obvious. At times it may even be downright invisible. At times it is all to easy to find ourselves caught up in the torrent of turmoil that rushes through our lives and find it impossible to believe that God is doing anything in this corrupt world. But that’s when we need to find the faith to see past the obvious. That’s when we need to remind ourselves that the “salvation of God” is not found in the spectacular buildings or lavish performances of the mega-churches. At least not in the Kingdom Jesus preached. He preached a kingdom that was unlikely, easy to doubt, hidden, and vulnerable. Yes, this makes it harder for us. It means we have to have eyes that see, just like Simeon did.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/28/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX .

[2] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 421-22, 427; cf. also Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 511.

[3] Cf. Richard B. Hays, “Salvation by Trust,” The Christian Century (Feb 26, 1997): 218-223.

[4] Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 204, speaks of faith in terms of “passionate inwardness coupled with objective uncertainty”; cf. also ibid., 185, 190, 194-95, 197-98, 209-216; cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 33: faith always “needs to be sustained from moment to moment, from decision to decision, by the renewal, reinvention, and repetition of faith”; cf. also ibid., 8, 7-16, 19, 23-34, 53; see further Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember, 29-30.

[5] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 98: the kingdom of God “is a controversial rule, veiled in antagonism.”

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