Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”[i] As I read these words this past week, I couldn’t help but recall hiking in a county park with my three oldest children many years ago. It was the second day of their summer vacation, which happened to coincide with my day off. So, we decided to go hiking. Now, the park near our home really wasn’t really that large, but we managed to get lost. Well, not really lost per se, but we were having trouble locating the path back to our car. We were temporary dislocated. Okay, we were lost. But we were lost because of the unusual lay out of the trails. You see, the parking lot was on one side of the park, and there was a side trail that lead out to the main trail, which, unknown to us at the time, was a giant loop. You can see where this story is headed, can’t ya. There we were hiking around and around this giant loop trail without realizing we were going around in circles. And, of course, the kids were getting hot and whining, we were all getting tired. Now, after about the third time around this giant loop, we began to notice that certain landmarks looked familiar, and on the fourth time around, we finally figured out we were going in circles. And it was only then, only when “the health of our eyes demanded a horizon” that we looked up and began to watch for the side trail back to the car.
Now, you and I both know that a lot has changed in the world since Emerson penned these words in 1836. But the durability of a statement like this never ceases to amaze me. I mean, how many times in your life have you looked back and said, “I see where I went wrong, where things went off the tracks,” or “why didn’t I have the vision or the forethought to prevent this or that from happening?” Have you ever been lost on the giant loop of life because you’re looking down instead of toward the horizon?
I think that’s what Emerson was driving at here. When we look down at our feet, when we let the everyday circumstances of life cloud our vision, that’s when we become lost. But if we simply look up, if we gaze upon the horizon, if we seek a vision of something greater than ourselves, it’s then that we find our way. And for Emerson, this concept was a theological one. You see, these words come from an essay he wrote called nature, which primarily focused on humankind’s relationship with the divine. And for Emerson, that relationship was very spiritual in nature.
Now, as we begin to look at our text for today from the Gospel of John, it too deals with the relationship between God and humanity. But unlike Emerson, John views this relationship in both spiritual and physical terms. I read an interpretation this week that claims this passage, “…is the critical link between the prologue’s description of the cosmic word and the main texts narration of the signs and discourses of the flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth.”[ii] What does that mean in English? Well, it means that John was speaking on a very spiritual plane in the first verses of this text. He said, “In the beginning was the Logos, (logos) the Word, and this Logos was with God, in fact, the Logos was God. And finally, the Logos became flesh and lived among us.” He was of course talking in very spiritual terms about the incarnation of Jesus. But here in this call story something interesting happens. John makes a turn from the spiritual to the physical; from the theoretical to the practical. And he does this by telling a story.
A story that John has structured around the down-to-earth, physical encounters that individuals had with Jesus and the idea that these encounters would lead to a vision of “greater things.” You see, over and again, from these early disciples, to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman, to a man born blind, to Peter and Pilate and eventually Thomas, characters throughout John’s Gospel are encountered by Jesus, and consistently, he gives them a glimpse of something “greater.”
And so, what we see across the pages of the fourth gospel are women and men, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable, people of all shapes and sizes and from all stations in life encountering Jesus. And to each one, in one way or another, he says “come and see.” To the blind man he said come and physically see. To the disciples he said come and see what you’re missing. To the masses, the crowds that followed him he said come and see what new thing God is up to; come and see as your future opens before you; come and see the grace of God made manifest and accessible and available to all people.[iii]
And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge of Lent. Yes, lent is traditionally a time to take a long, hard look at ourselves, our actions and our words, and make any necessary course corrections on this journey of life and faith. When Jesus invites us to “come and see” we must first look at ourselves.
But we simply cannot “turn around” we cannot “change our ways” we cannot “repent” unless we take very seriously the Great Commandment. Love God and love neighbor. So, God then, in our context, is enfleshed when we serve others. And God is present whenever we participate in acts of justice; whenever we attempt to propagate peace.
So, simply put, “come and see” is a twofold vision. It is, at the same time, a call to introspection and an invitation to extend a wide welcome to all. Come and see is an offer to experience something greater than ourselves. And that “greater something” is a very real-life, down to earth, experience of God’s love. Not in some remote or far-removed way, but instead, a God who is enfleshed in Jesus Christ, present around us and within us, calling and challenging us to serve all of God’s people.
And I know what you’re thinking. There are barriers to justice. There are circumstances that stand in the way of peace. Just this past week we saw yet another school shooting. 17 young people went to school in the morning, never to return home. And don’t think for a minute, that as a parent, that doesn’t scare the life out of me. But even though the thought of school violence scares me, I cannot let my fear take over. I mean, there’s a reason Jesus said “fear not” more often than anything else. We simply cannot let fear eclipse our faith. We cannot close our eyes to the reality of violence and hope it just goes away on its own. Instead, we must follow our faith; we must put our faith into action. We must open our eyes and our hearts and our minds a begin to move toward a solution.
And maybe that’s the “greater something” Jesus was inviting us to “come and see” today in our context. Maybe we are being invited to create and share a vision of God’s love in action. Maybe this year we’re being challenged to “live-into” this twofold understanding of the Lenten journey. Maybe we’re being challenged to see the times when our fear has lead us to inaction and to acknowledge the places in our society where self-interest and the love of money have trumped the safety of all. Perhaps, it’s time for us to look up from the giant loop trail we’ve been following, and realized that there is an exit, a way out, when is comes to gun violence in our schools. But it will take courage, and faith, and a love for the youngest among us.
“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”[iv] May that horizon lead to change and may we be blessed with a vision of justice and peace and safety for all, as we continue this journey of life and faith. Amen.
[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature. (James Munroe and Company) 1836
[ii] Elton W. Brown. Feasting on the Word, Vol. 1, Year B. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor Eds. (Westminster John Knox Press) 2008.
[iv] Ibid Emerson