Seeing God in the Subway Station, and Beyond

(sermon 12/11/16 – Third Sunday in Advent)


When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  – Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)


Last week, we heard a bit about John the Baptist, and now we hear about him again this week. But last week, he was out in the Jordan River preaching and baptizing people, and this week he’s sitting in prison. Obviously, there’s some middle part of this story that’s missing, so to keep us all up to speed, here’s a very brief summary of what’s happened between the two.

As we heard last week, John could be pretty harsh, even insulting, to people. And he wasn’t just that way with the people who came out to hear him in person; he also took the same heavy-handed approach to the powerful people who ruled over the land. In particular, he’d heaped public scorn on the head of Herod Antipas, the ruler of that region. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, the incredibly powerful and ruthless man who had been king when Jesus and John were born. Herod Antipas had an older brother, who was also named Herod – Herod II, who was a ruler in an adjacent region. The older brother had a wife, named Herodias, who, as you might guess from her name, was also a part of Herod’s extended family. Herodias divorced Herod II, an act that was scandalous in that male-dominated culture. Following that, Herod Antipas divorced his wife, so he could marry Herodias, which would have raised eyebrows even now, but which was certainly scandalous back then. Frankly, Antipas wasn’t all that great a ruler, and he wasn’t all that well-liked to begin with, and he was more than a bit insecure and thin-skinned about that fact. So when John the Baptist laid into him because of all this business with Herodias, making him look even worse in the public eye, he had to do something about it. John didn’t have any problem “speaking truth to power,” as we might say today. But it was as true then as it is today, that when you speak truth to power, the power is still the power; and the truth can indeed hurt, and when it does, it can end up hurting the truth-teller as much as anyone else. Antipas didn’t have a Twitter account and couldn’t just tweet out some insult to try to discredit John; and even if he had, he needed to send a stronger message than that to show the people who was in charge – so he had John arrested and thrown into prison.

So now here was John, cooling his jets in prison, and with all that time on his hands, he appears to have started having second thoughts. As strong and unwavering as his preaching had been, and as certain he’d been that Jesus was the messiah, now he wondered. If Jesus really were the messiah, ushering in the Kingdom of God, why were the Romans, and their lackeys like Herod’s children, still occupying and controlling the land? And frankly, why was John sitting there in jail? Had he actually bet on the wrong horse? Was Jesus not the messiah? Had all of his life, all of his work, just been a big mistake? So he sent word to Jesus, asking him point-blank: are you really God’s chosen one?

And Jesus answers John’s direct question with a typical, indirect Jesus-answer. He tells John, look around you; what do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the sick are healed – all of the things that were foretold in the scriptures that would happen with the ushering in of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells John that the answer to the question is right in front of his eyes; he just has to pay attention to it, and believe that it’s a sign of the hand of God acting in the world.

How many times do we fall into the same thing that John the Baptist did? So often, the immediate circumstances that we find ourselves in can keep us from seeing the reality of what’s really going on. It’s easy enough to see the bad, and what’s wrong, in the world – but how often do we allow that to keep us from seeing the bigger picture, truly seeing the hand of God, and real goodness, and beauty, and joy, in so much of what surrounds us?

He stood in the main entry of the subway station just as the morning rush was beginning, nondescript in his jeans, leather jacket, and ball cap. Leaning down, he took his violin out of its case, and he started to play, just like all the other performers scattered throughout the station who were hoping that some thoughtful commuters would like what they heard and leave them a few bills for their effort. He kept playing, as people hurried by, paying him little if any attention at all. Eventually, one person dropped some money in the open violin case as they hurried toward the turnstile, hardly slowing down as they did. A few more people stopped to hear a few seconds of his music, and some of them left him some cash, too, before they, like everyone else, lost interest and went on about their business. After all, it was just another day in the lives of the people who scurried past him; just another day in the station.

Except it wasn’t just another day. Because he wasn’t just another subway station musician. He was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living violinists in the world, and his instrument wasn’t something picked up in a pawn shop; it was the very well-storied, well-traveled, multimillion-dollar Gibson Stradivarius. Just a few days before, concertgoers had paid serious money to hear Bell’s virtuosity. Here, he and his music were all but invisible.

Maybe you’ve seen that story online, or maybe you’ve even heard another sermon make mention of it; it seems to be a favorite story for preachers to use. In any case, it wasn’t that the people going by were stupid, or culturally ignorant, or uncaring. For all anyone knows maybe some of those same concertgoers had walked by and never given him a second glance. It’s just that the people going by were operating under a set of preconceptions that kept them from experiencing the magical thing that was going on right in front of them. They allowed their surroundings, and precedent, to shape and put meaning to the things they were experiencing, instead of recognizing them for what they really were. Subway stations are full of musicians. They’re a dime a dozen; if they were really any good, they probably wouldn’t be playing in subway stations for tips.

They weren’t allowing themselves to see thing for themselves, as the things that they really were. They hadn’t allowed themselves to be open to see the beauty of the moment, and to appreciate what God was allowing to be taking place right in front of them.

As we go through our days, especially during this Advent season, let’s try to be especially aware of the hand of God that’s playing out around us all the time, every day. It’s this whole idea of intentionally preparing our hearts this way, and allowing ourselves to adjust our mindsets to the possibility of God’s presence in the world, why we observe a season of Advent before rushing right into the celebration of Christmas. Sometimes, people ask about whether it’s really true, this idea of “God with Us”, as we talk about, especially at this time of year? If, in our own darkest of moments, like John’s dark moment in that prison cell, we sent word to Jesus asking if God really is with us, what kind of answer would he give us? Maybe one like the answer he gave to John. Look around you – what do you see? See the joy in the faces and laughter of children playing. Or in the faces of someone enjoying beautiful music, or making beautiful music, or engaging in some other artistic expression. See the joy of a parent making dinner for their family, or baking cookies with their grandchildren. Feel the joy of a loving hand being slipped into our own, or of giving or receiving a comforting hug. Remember the joy that you feel in those times when you’re just being silly, acting in ways that someone your age isn’t supposed to, but who cares, it’s fun anyway. Remember the joy that you feel when you’ve worked so hard to learn something, and you finally accomplish it.

I think that Jesus would say that if we kept our eyes, and our hearts, open to the possibility of seeing God in the midst of our existence, we’d see it, all over the place. We’d know the answer to our own question.

This season, when we proclaim to the world – and sometimes, to our own partially-doubting selves, too – that God is here, God is with us, let’s try to remember, with God’s help, to keep our eyes open to see the reality of that great truth. Let’s try to keep our hearts open to the joy that comes with it. Who knows? Someday, maybe we’ll experience that joy by encountering a world-famous violinist playing music in a subway station. Or maybe, far more likely, we’ll experience the very same thing as we sing, for the umpteenth time, of a nameless little drummer boy playing music in a stable.

Thanks be to God.