Throughout our lives, we have heard the old saying that “seeing is believing.” In order for us to believe in anything we need to verify its authenticity; we need to actually see it unfold or have some proof that it happened. However, more than ever we are finding that this is not so easy to come by. After Christmas I took my family out to go see the new Star Wars movie. In that movie we saw ships jump to hyperspace, laser blasts destroy the enemy, and a space station the size of a small moon. If all that wasn’t enough we even watched as actors that have been dead now for many years were brought back to life and performed on the big screen. Seeing was not believing. With the amazing advancement in computer graphics, the suspension of disbelief has gone far beyond the movie magic of days gone by.
Now you add to this today’s increasing concern with “fake news” and you begin to wonder if we can trust anything at all. There was a time when most people believed what they read in the paper or even what they heard on the news. But time and again we find that we’ve been duped; we’ve been suckered by some Hollywood magic to believe in something that wasn’t real. So now we face everything with a great deal of skepticism. Perhaps what we ought to be learning from all this is that we can’t always trust what we see. Right alongside the phrase “seeing is believing,” is, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” and there is often “more than meets the eye” when we examine something or someone.
Now the gift of faith, it turns out, is not about what we can see. Saving faith in our Lord and Savior is by its very nature something that is heard and not necessarily something seen. In fact, when you think about it, most of what we see regarding our faith actually looks like a lot less than what we confess it is. We see water and confess a rebirth and a new life. We see bread and wine and confess the very body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins. We confess such things not because we’ve seen but because we’ve heard them. Faith comes to us through our ears, through our hearing. As St. Paul famously put it in Romans 10, “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
This is not a new thing. We learn about it as John the Baptist takes up his task as the great forerunner preparing the way for the Lord. One of my favorite paintings of the crucifixion of our Lord is by Matthias Grunewald. John the Baptist is standing at the side pointing to Jesus, and above him in Latin is the phrase, “He must increase but I must decrease.” That is a great summary of the ministry of John. There he is pointing, pointing to the crucified one, pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the culmination of the Old Testament that was relentlessly leading to the one born of Mary, our great Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. But when John pointed his finger, when he declared that this was the Lamb of God, he was saying something that was far greater than what it looked like from the outside. This looked like a common man, a faithful son of Abraham, but nothing more. But seeing isn’t believing.
We are told in our text today that John only made this bold confession because it had been told to him by God. He says, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he whom baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” And so, because of what he first heard and then what he saw, John declares, “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” And up until the day of his death John continues this proclamation, this pointing to Jesus and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
Now, when a couple of John disciples heard him make this proclamation about Jesus, they went to follow him. After all, John must decrease now that the Lamb of God has come. Jesus, upon seeing them, asks a great question; “What are you seeking?” Now, that may sound innocent enough to our ears but to those who would come to follow a Rabbi, this question is full of significance. The great majestic Psalm of the faithful, Psalm 119, begins with the following words: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart.” What are they seeking is the Lord; they are seeking the way and the truth and the life.
Now their answer to this question is just as full of importance. They respond by saying, Rabbi, where are you remaining?” Now we usually think that this is simply an inquiry about where Jesus lives. But these are men seeking to be his disciples to follow him as their Rabbi. In their tradition a disciple was to do as their Rabbi did, to become their Rabbi. When this is asked of our Lord, it is not a simple question about a place to sleep but a question about the center of who he is and what it means to be his follower. Later in this Gospel when Jesus is teaching a large group of followers he speaks about where his disciples remain when he declares, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” If you abide, if you remain, if you dwell, not in what you see or feel, but in the word you hear; then you are truly his disciples.
So, these questions come back to you. What is it that you seek? When you gather together with your brothers and sisters, what is it you seek? Perhaps you seek validation for your way of life, you come to church to receive that cosmic pat on the back to let you know that everything is going to be okay. Or maybe you seek an emotional experience here, you seek and encounter that will let you know that you are in the presence of the Lamb of God, that you will be healed and blessed and lifted up and warm from the head down to the toes. We so badly desire to seek things with our eyes rather than our ears. It only makes sense of course, that is what eyes are for. But our eyes can deceive us. Our God chooses to come not in the ways that would light up our eyes, but in lowly, even boring things. Through these ordinary things he does his great work. As Isaiah prophesied, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty what we should desire him.”
So where, then, do you dwell? Where do you remain? There is only one place to remain if you are to follow the Lamb of God. You remain in the Word: the Word of your Lord, the Word that speaks things beyond what our eyes can comprehend, the Word that echoes in your ears to give you sure and lasting faith in the promises of God. For when you look in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see a saint? Do you see a child of God? Do you see that faithful believer that will inherit eternal life? No, I suppose not. More than likely you see what I see, and no offense, but it isn’t all that pretty. You see a sinner. You see one who can be strong at times, but you know all too well what it is to fear. You see one who tries hard, but you fail to cover up your sins of the past and your failures of the present. You see one who is undeserving of the pure blood of God’s only begotten Son.
But that is not what Christ sees. That is certainly not what you hear. No, you hear a word that is far beyond what we can see. For Christ declares to you, “I know who you are, is see you, and I love you. In fact, I forgive you. I forgive you all of your sins. You then are no longer lost in the darkness, but you are mine, brothers and sisters and heirs of eternal life. All my blessings are yours. They are yours today and tomorrow and for all eternity.”
So, the movement of the ears of faith continues on, my friends. What John heard he proclaimed, and what his disciples heard they proclaimed, and on it goes to Calvary’s cross and the empty tomb, as together we point to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And so, at the end of the Gospel Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” You are blessed as you soldier on bearing this Word of light into a world of doubt. Proclaim it in your homes, to your children and to one another. Proclaim it to all those who have learned the hard truth that their eyes have failed them. Proclaim it until the end of your days, for “how will they call on him whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14)