The Blessings of Unrecognizeable Reality

Matthew 11:2-11
© Stacey Steck

We might imagine the dismay with which Jesus received John’s messengers bearing a question as inane as “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” But gentle Jesus, meek and mild, takes it easy on John and sends back the message, “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” along with a catalogue of the events inaugurating the inbreaking of the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus is nothing if not long-suffering.

But what are we to make of the fact that John the Baptist, the one who leapt in his mother’s womb when the fetal Jesus came near him, the who could describe so clearly Messiah’s coming, the who could chastise the Pharisees and the Sadducees for failing to read the signs of the times and make straight the paths for the one who would soon be coming to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, the one more than anyone else who should have known, how come this John can’t see the forest for the trees? How could he not make sense of so many powerful signs taking place around him? Maybe it was the jailhouse food that suddenly made John the Baptist soft in the head. Maybe he just didn’t want to be disappointed. Maybe he just couldn’t trust his own judgment since his own judgment had landed him in jail. Maybe there are other ways to explain away John’s question as something other than an inability to put together two and two, but what remains the simplest and most likely explanation, if for no other reason than it describes us pretty well too, is that John struggled with imperceptible reality. He had the human tendency to miss seeing what’s really right in front of us all the time, especially of the divine kind.

Of course, imperceptible reality is not limited to the divine realm. Take the human body for example. As we all know, blood flows through our veins, oxygen is received by our lungs and is transferred into our blood stream. The brain processes billions of tiny messages that control all of our essential functions as well as our emotions, our creativity, our compassion. But we can’t see any of that. Even when we cut our fingers and see our own blood, we don’t really come any closer to fully comprehending what the blood is doing in our bodies. The same is true for machines, especially computers, if you’ve ever encountered the blue screen of death on your PC or the endless spinning wheel on your Mac. We know when it works and we know when it does not, but even if we tried to wrap our minds around their circuitry and electrons, our computers would still remain, at least for me, an imperceptible reality.

Moving a little closer to divine imperceptible reality, take nature. Despite our best efforts at understanding it, watching it with satellites, breaking it down with electron microscopes, it remains something which constantly surprises us and makes us appreciate how little we know. If we really completely understood the natural world, perhaps we’d manage it or control it a little better, but the truth is that there is nothing we can do about the sun rising and setting, the tides washing onto the shore, or the freezing and thawing of the earth. The Christmas carol we sang earlier reminds us that God’s creation is part of that realm of imperceptible reality: “Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled. Even the hour when wings are frozen God for fledgling time has chosen. People look east and sing today, love the bird is on the way.” Each spring’s nest of eggs will hatch, and little birds will grow feathers, spread their wings and fly away. You can count on it even on chilly days like today.

And then there’s stuff like love and grace and forgiveness, the real intangibles in life, the real gifts of God that are too often, it seems, imperceptible reality. Would that we always knew how God loves us or how much others love us! Would that we always experience grace as fully and abundantly as we affirm it to be available! Would that forgiveness and compassion touch us as easily as December’s frosty wind! Oh, at times we glimpse these things, but for the most part, we, like John the Baptist, question God, asking, “Is it real?” or “Is that all there is?” not because it’s not real or because there isn’t enough to go around, but because we suffer from John’s affliction.
The good news of the Gospel, at least today’s Gospel lesson, is that there are blessings to be found in and around imperceptible reality. First and foremost, there is the opportunity to give thanks to God that we can’t see everything. Our little minds, hearts, and souls couldn’t handle it. We’d be so overwhelmed by all that information, emotion, and Spirit that we’d be paralyzed. Our consciousnesses have enough trouble putting together coherent sentences, much less being mindful of which chamber of the heart to pump. Some of you may have seen the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” in which the main character is endowed, for a short time, with the rights and responsibilities of the divine. Like Bruce, imagine being party to all the prayers of even one city, much less the whole world, and being unable to shut them out. Thank God for your feebleness, for your limited ability to perceive reality. If we find ourselves complaining about our inability to have access to enough reality, may Jesus say to us as he said to the mother of James and John, when she asked for her sons to sit at Jesus’ side in the Kingdom. “You do not know what you are asking!”

The other blessing of imperceptible reality I’d like to share with you this morning is the one demonstrated by what happened after Jesus sent word back to John that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Despite receiving an ignorant question from one who ought to have known better, Jesus does not rebuke John, neither to his messengers nor those who remained behind. Instead of judgment, Jesus goes on to extol John as a prophet, as one superior even to kings. Indeed he says, “Truly, I tell you, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” John can be forgiven his inability to observe the signs of the times. But more than that, when Jesus says, “yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” it is a reminder to us that we who may have even less ability than John to observe the in-breaking of the Kingdom that which we celebrate at Advent, are still valuable in God’s sight, that what we would see if we could see is that God’s mercy and compassion and grace are the only things able to overcome our shortcomings.

Believe it or not, the world goes on despite the fact the we don’t know or see everything. Thank you God. Thank you for shouldering the burden of running the whole world while we learn little by little, slowly but surely to see the reality you have placed among us, the reality of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. You see, the greatest blessing of imperceptible reality is the permission is gives us to slowly expand our vision, at a human pace to develop the capacity to experience God’s reality in the way my favorite photographer DeWitt Jones describes when he says, “If you believe it, you’ll see it.” It takes a while to believe it, but the view is worth the wait.

When I think about imperceptible reality, I am reminded of the way the famous Trappist monk and contemplative writer, Thomas Merton, described the special work of the monastic community. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like this: “Monks, praying, hold the world together.” You can’t see them and you don’t know exactly where they are, but somewhere in the world, every minute of the day, there’s a monk lifting up the world to God’s mercy, carrying on in the humble and routine act of prayer. It’s an imperceptible reality, for we can’t see those prayers rising to the heavens, but I thank God that in the course of my life and my experience, I have come to discern the truth in Merton’s statement.

A wise person once described discernment by calling it “the uniquely human capacity to know something without knowing how one has come to know it, and to bring what one knows in this way to what one has come to know in other ways,” and, by doing so, to discover the truth.” Discernment is different than learning. Learning is that process of bringing together your perception and your ideas and your behavior. But discernment means be able to experience what can’t really be captured in books or laboratories or telescopes. Discernment requires the eyes of faith. That kind of vision in human beings may not always be 20/20 but as we grow in faith we can come gradually closer to participating more fully in God’s reality and our own humanity. I don’t know how I know Merton is right that “Monks, praying, hold the world together,” but I do know that God is calling them to do their part, and that God is calling me to do mine and that that’s what it means to be human.

I want to conclude with a famous prayer written by Merton that speaks to these blessings of imperceptible reality: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

May our waiting this Advent please God and help assure us of that sometimes imperceptible reality that God is truly with us. Amen.