John 13:1-17, 31-35
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 18, 2019
What we expect affects what we detect. That’s worth remembering – especially for those times when God is hidden, but in plain sight.
Several years ago, Joshua Bell – a violin virtuoso who’s paid up to $1 thousand a minute to perform and whose Stradivarius costs $3.5 million – participated in an experiment about perception.
Bell put on a pair of faded blue jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. He positioned himself against a wall next to a trash can at the top of a subway station escalator in Washington D.C. He removed his instrument from its case, placed the case on the ground, threw in some change to encourage donations, and performed as an underground street artist. For 47 minutes this superstar musician played the greatest music ever written.
Over a thousand people passed by that Friday morning and hardly any adults heard anything worth stopping for and listening to (though kids often did). Only twenty-seven people put money into the case, for a take of just $31.21. One single person realized they were hearing the great Joshua Bell.
Because of where he was and how he looked, and because no one expected a musical master to show up like that offering a priceless performance without any fanfare or demand for attention, nearly everyone missed the gift that was right before them, hidden in plain sight. What they expected affected what they detected.
In Jesus of Nazareth, God was right before us, hidden in plain sight, revealing His love in the flesh of an ordinary-looking man in an obscure and primitive land. Jesus did not look the part. Nor did He act the part.
The last place in the world you’d expect to see the God of glory is on the floor of a rented room, looking like a slave and washing the dirty, stinky feet of a fisherman, a tax collector, and a Judas.
The last place in the world you’d expect to see the high and all-powerful God is on a cross, looking like a criminal and suffering humiliation, torture and execution.
Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor who is an evangelist for atheism, was once debating John Lennox, a fellow Oxford professor who is an advocate for the Christian faith. Dawkins pointed at Lennox and mocked his faith, saying, “He believes that the creator of the universe, the God who devised the laws of physics, the laws of mathematics, the physical constants, who devised billions of light years of space, billions of years of time, that this genius of mathematics and physical science could not think of a better way to rid the world of sin than to come to this little speck of cosmic dust and have himself executed so that he could forgive.” Dawkins went on to call Lennox’s faith petty, small, and pathetic.
Christ, washing the feet of petty, small and pathetic sinners, is in the wrong place for God. Christ, hanging bloodied and naked on a cross, is in the wrong place for God. It’s even more unexpected than one of the world’s best violinists playing the world’s best music in a subway station. We just don’t see what we’re not expecting.
Those who know God understand Him to be so great as to be beyond comprehension. Since they realize God is beyond comprehension, they also realize they cannot rule out God’s showing up where He is least expected.
And isn’t the most unexpected thing of all that He cares enough about us to do the pathetic, unexpected, crazy, loving things the Bible says He did, things we had to have done but couldn’t do for ourselves?
When in Jesus God served us and died for us, He was seeking to bring divine love, in all its magnificence, within our sight. It was hard and humbling – but the very hardness and humiliation in the effort was the most marvelous means for making its magnificence manifest.
There is something else marvelously unexpected here: God hopes that we will not just see His love in Jesus’ flesh, but that we will duplicate His love in our flesh. After Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, He told them, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Later that evening He generalized the example of foot-washing and said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus looks to the likes of us to imitate Him in character and conduct, and to be for others unexpected manifestations of God’s love – both as we take care of each other in the church, and as we reach out to share that love even with those we don’t yet know.
Maybe we have little expectation about how much we can show God’s love, but the Bible promises that God will amplify the effect of our little, seemingly inconsequential acts of kindness and outreach. By God’s grace, a smile from us can lift up someone’s heart, an invitation to someone to come with us to church and see what they see can give them hope, and our warm inclusion of them within our circle of friends can make them begin to think that they might matter mightily to God.
In the name of the One who was God’s love in the flesh, let us be for others God’s love in our flesh!