Seeing with New Eyes
Isaiah 61:10-11; 62:1-4, 11-12
Lately, I’ve noticed that my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be – I try to read at night, and it’s a matter of adjusting my arm and the book, to get to the distance where I can actually read the print. It never used to be that way. I need to make an appointment with the eye doctor, I guess. Happy New Year!
The lenses of my eyes just aren’t as flexible as they once were; or perhaps I have a stigmatism. I don’t know. Whatever my personal diagnosis, it’s too suggestive as an image for me to ignore, our diminished capacity to see deeply.
Could it be, perhaps, that eyesight is a symbol of our capacity to see and claim God’s promise, to see and proclaim God’s hope in our world? Could it be that the eyes of the spirit (or the heart if you prefer) lose the capacity to shift from the things near to things far, or from things superficial to things deep, or from things circumstantial to things that abide?
Perhaps a cataract of loss or disappointment clouds our vision . . .
It makes me wonder if Anna and Simeon suffered from diminished eyesight – not just of the physical kind, which we could predict, but also of the subtler kind, namely the loss of hope.
It would be reasonable to assume that they had suffered a physiological loss of vision. We’re not told Simeon’s age, but evidently, he was thinking about his old body giving out on him, sooner or later, with sooner being the key word.
He had been looking forward to the consolation of Israel – looking forward, straining at what was ahead, because it was apparently, evidently, obviously absent in the here and now. Or so it seemed.
Luke leaves no doubt about Anna, the prophetess: “She was of great age, 84-years old.” Maybe she was using the large print bulletin. But, most importantly, Luke tells us she was a widow. She was defined by a condition. She was widowed but then she became a widow.
Our text is paired with Isaiah who speaks of the catastrophic loss experienced by Israel during the Babylonian Deportation. That event cast a long shadow over Israel’s self-description. In our text, God seems to forsake Israel and the people of Israel become known as the forsaken. The verb that afflicts them becomes the noun that defines them.
Defines not only how they are seen, but perhaps how they see themselves.
Our narrator suggests the quality of sight or insight throughout this text and it is associated with a liberating capacity: Simeon was looking forward (not seeing, but looking forward) to the consolation of Israel; he saw, as in a revelation, that he would not see death until he saw the Lord’s messiah. And when he sees baby Jesus, he says, “My eyes have seen your salvation; light,” he sang, “for the nations, glory for your people Israel!” Anna, upon seeing baby Jesus, bursts out of a long period of mourning – she had been in the temple, fasting and praying night and day. Now she sings, and tells everyone around her.
A lot of praise in today’s text. Yet what stands out is what or who they saw, namely the infant Jesus. And let’s be clear, they saw a child in the arms of Joseph and Mary, two of Israel’s poor. They were defined that way.
Luke tells us that as an offering, Joseph and Mary brought the prescribed sacrifice to the temple, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. This was the biblical equivalent of qualifying for the subsidized lunch program. When I was a kid, it was easy to see who the poor kids were. When you went to get lunch, you had a ticket that was punched or your name was written in a register. And you would kind of try to hide that, but it was easy to see.
So when Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus come in, they’re coming in by way of welfare. If you were sociologist looking at this family, you might conclude that they had no future. Jesus wouldn’t have jumped out at us as the consolation for anything or anyone – some might say he would have been better off if he’d never been born. The sight of Jesus, a child born to parents without resources, would not have indicated to us destiny – but distress.
Jesus, child of non-citizen parents, born to a colony which was slowly bleeding to death in the shadows of empire – this is who they saw, and who they proclaimed as our salvation, greater than death.
Our narrator shows us that the Spirit, not merely the flesh or the circumstance, capacitates Anna and Simeon to see God in what others would have deemed forsaken or desolate. What they saw, let us remember, was the child Jesus, just eight days old, and facing a mountain of adversity. And they also saw, with the Spirit’s presence, the salvation of the world.
They didn’t see all the story of Jesus, but they saw that part of the story that God had given them to see. And they sang out as if the liberation of the captive, and good news for the poor, and light to the nations – as if that was already shining through and through and beyond what they saw with their natural eyes. And they didn’t keep it a secret. They stood in front of God’s people and said, Here I am. This is the Christ see! They added their names to the official register of the faithful people of God. They shared the story of Jesus, which was not just his story, but their story, and our story.
So how’s your sight this morning? What do you see in store for the world this year? Do you see desolation all around? 2017 has been a hard year. Do you sometimes feel as if you’ve been defined by a condition rather than liberated by a living, loving, liberating promise?
Maybe God has a word for us this morning.
If you’re in this house of worship, look on Christ. He’s in line with the poor kids, getting his lunch ticket punched. If you’re in this house, look on Christ, the one they called ruined. The one they called, No Future. They one they called, Not Wanted. If you’re in this house, look on Christ — he will be crucified and he will become known as the Crucified One. And yet, though we look on the Crucified One, believe unto salvation that he is the Resurrected One.
It’s the art seeing with the eyes of the heart and not merely the eyes of the flesh.
I’m reading a book with our kids. It’s Gary Paulson’s The Hatchet. It won the Newberry Award. It tells the story of Brian Robeson, a thirteen-year-old boy. It’s a survival story. But in other ways, it strikes me as a story on the art of seeing – seeing in the physical sense but also in the sense of vision, of hope.
His parents are divorcing or divorced and his mother puts him on a bush plane flying towards the oil fields of Canada, where he is to spend the summer with his father.
On his flight north, the plane goes down; the pilot is killed; but he survives the crash. Ironically, surviving the crash is almost incidental to the ruin he feels as a result his parent’s divorce.
Thought about this sends streaks of pain through his heart, almost identical to the pains he feels in his injured body. This injury supplies the deeper question that frames every other question of his existence. And yet he couldn’t figure out the big problem of his parent’s divorce. Instead, Brian took stock of what he had. And when he first looked at his actual situation, he concluded that he had nothing: “It kept coming back to that. He had nothing. Well, almost nothing.”
He had some things. A torn windbreaker. No serious injuries. But even more important, he had a name. And he said it out loud, his the only human voice in that wilderness place: “I am Brian Robeson, thirteen years old. And I am alive.”
That simple affirmation leads to other insights, which are coupled with real things in life.
Birds lead him to edible berries. A hatchet, that his mother gave to him, and which he had strapped to his belt, becomes the tool by which he creates a spark to build a life-saving fire. Things he learned in school, or in a book, or from a teacher, or from a friend come back to him. So much is gathered up in that name, Brian Robeson, thirteen years old, and I am alive.
One by one, he puts these together, wins each of these things from what appears on the surface to be a complete loss. It seems he’s able to eke out a living, carefully constructed out of what seemed like devastation. But there are setbacks.
There was that time when the porcupine stuck him with its quills; or that other time when he ate too many berries (and it was a long night); or that time when the moose charged him (it’s never good when a moose charges you!).
And after each set back, as he looks at the ruins, his spirit deflates. He sees desolation and, in some way, becomes desolation. He feels as if he has been forsaken and himself becomes forsaken. But each time, he comes back to a simple, grounding confession: “I am Brian Robeson. I am thirteen years old. And I am alive.”
Maybe we’re not in a Canadian wilderness, on our own, struggling our way through clouds of mosquitos and dangerous animals and the threat of hunger. But when we are here, in this place, we tell the truth. And sometimes that truth makes us feel more desolate than hopeful.
If you go to a restaurant, they will never let you feel hunger. Not really. They may want to whet your appetite. But, please, no hunger allowed. And no truly hungry people welcome. But here, we hunger for God’s righteousness. We see poverty and perhaps we know poverty for what it is but, by God’s grace and through the capacitating power of the Holy Spirit, we see, sing, and lay hold of God’s promise for today and for tomorrow in this place.
With Isaiah the prophet, we say: “We shall be called, ‘The holy people, The Redeemed of the Lord” – “We shall be called, “Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”
Some say you can’t grow a rose out of concrete. In Baltimore’s Harlem neighborhood, you see all the signs of social, economic, and racial distress. Vacant houses, abandoned lots, poverty, a refugee-like phenomenon within a mile of where we are today. You can’t grow a rose in a place of desolation. And yet, somebody, an artist, painted a rose on a wall – it’s growing out of the concrete reality of hardship. The artist sees the salvation of God, already. And she sings it for everyone to see. She signs her name to that register of God’s public hope.
Somehow, she already knows God’s salvation. Sees its gesture – and sings its fullness. And she wants us to claim the promise, too.
Not long ago, a woman visited this church – from the Darley Park neighborhood. She has lost two family members to the gun violence in Baltimore. While she was here, she said to us, “I know you haven’t forgotten us in Darley Park” – some of you remember her, don’t you? It struck me then and it does now. To be forgotten is not very far removed from being The Forgotten. And yet, maybe she was painting our vision, on the hard canvass of forgetfulness, with bright image of compassion, recalling us to ourselves.
In the First Letter of Peter, the apostle addresses his message to “the exiles of the dispersion” – he writes to a people who were struggling against the odds, who felt like they were a small ship struggling against a mighty storm. He writes to them, who are not only exiled but The Exiles – writes to them to remind them of their great name even in the wilderness: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
My name is Brian Robeson. I am thirteen years old. And I am alive. At the end of the story, Brian, as you might have guessed, is rescued. The one who felt betrayed . . . who felt himself to be The One Betrayed. He received a new name:
The Sought Out,
A Child Not Forsaken.
May it be so for each of us in the new year, 2018. Amen.
Rev. Robert P. Hoch, Ph.D.
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21217
December 31, 2017