Audi ad (video), “Baseball” (unrecognized greatness)
My dad, in the CIA, disguises ... (story). Small things, low-tech things, were the easiest way to conceal your identity, to make yourself unrecognizable. Here in John’s gospel, Jesus has a recognition problem. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not recognize him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1.10-11). John tells us that everyone, Gentile – “the world” – and Jew – “his own” – did not recognize Jesus. Was he undercover? But, as Maverick said, in the movie, “Everyone has a tell.” Was this a “Where’s Waldo?” visual puzzle? Or, is it plain as day, like the food we can’t find in the fridge, like the Audi Baseball ad, but we’re missing it?
One would think that for Jesus to go from being fully God, and God alone, to also being fully human . . . one would think that some “tell” would remain, that something would be held in reserve, that Jesus would pull out his “ID” and say “ta-da” and we would all ohh and ahh with reverence and amazement. But, no, he is so ordinary, so unremarkable, so normal.
So, while Jesus has a recognition problem, maybe that is the whole idea. Not in the sense of a disguise, but that Jesus, “the Word”, the Idea, the Message of God became fully and totally flesh. And there was no compromise. Jesus retained no superpowers. Surely, he healed, but there were other healers, and he taught his disciples to heal. He became fully human, and subjected himself even to death. Even now, as the Resurrected Lord, he remains in human flesh. That is radical and total “incarnation”, an old word that means to “become flesh”.
Why? Why embrace such extraordinary measures? The text gives us a few answers to this question:
• It is in Jesus’ “fullness” (God and human) that we receive “grace upon grace” (1.16).
• Jesus is the one who makes God known (1.17).
• In Jesus we encounter the glory of God (1.14).
• Through Jesus we receive power to become God’s children (1.12).
Jesus chose to become fully human. The recognition problem, if there is a problem, is ours – not his. He’s done exactly what he wanted. But, for us to miss out on recognizing him means that we miss out on grace, on knowing God, on God’s glory, on being part of God’s family. That’s serious stuff to miss out on. It is imperative that we recognize Jesus! Otherwise, all this glory goes to the dogs, like Pickles chasing around the priceless baseball (Audi ad reference).
Isaiah the prophet declares, “The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1.3; see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, p 428). John reminds us that it is not just Jesus’ own, the Jews, who did not recognize him, but the entire world, the Gentiles as well. Albert Schweitzer wrote of Jesus, “He comes to us as one unknown”, meaning not just that he is unrecognized, but that he is entirely different, even subversive, in his arrival and presence (see Beverly Roberts Gaventa, with John Dominic Crossan, “The Challenge of Christmas: Two Views”, The Christian Century, Dec 15 1993, 1270-1280).
We’ve been looking at Jesus’ family album and family tree in the openings of the four gospels. This week, we discover a family tree more immense than we expected. Just yesterday, I was reading in a fun science analogy book, A Bee in a Cathedral, and saw a line about a grove of quaking aspens in Utah that share a single root system and are genetically identical – they are actually a single organism, weighing over 6000 tonnes (2011, Joel Levy, Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, p.105). In John’s gospel, instead of a specific individual in Jesus’ family tree, we find ourselves, all of us, “the world” and “his own”, all invited to recognize Jesus and “become children of God” (1.12).
This passage goes on to give us some guidance on recognizing Jesus. It is peculiar guidance, negative guidance. When John was asked “Who are you?”, he knew what they were asking. He understood the subtext. “I am not the Messiah.” “Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the prophet [that is, Moses]?” “No” (John 1.19-21).
No. No. No. John knew who he was NOT. It makes it so much easier to recognize others for who they are when we aren’t stuck with a fantasy about ourselves. We have those childhood fantasies of being faster or smarter or better. But, sooner or later, someone comes along and outperforms us. We have to learn that, no, we might be fast but we aren’t the fastest; we might be smart, but we aren’t the smartest; we might be good, but we aren’t the best.
But even as adults, fantasies persist. I am indispensable . . . to my boss, to my family. Now, I’m not talking about our unique contributions to our families and work places. I’m talking about our fantasies: “If I don’t do the laundry, no one in this house will have a stitch of clean clothes to wear.” “If you want it done right you just have to do it yourself.” Really? Are you sure about that?
And, pretty soon, we go from being indispensable to having what people call a “Messianic complex”. Now, it is not a flattering expression. It does not refer to being like Jesus. It refers to being indispensable and whining about it. Indispensable and not properly appreciated, respected, honored, compensated, whatever. Jesus never seemed to complain about this recognition problem, but we do, don’t we? We all like a little recognition, and recognition is an effective motivator for good, hard work, for success.
And John, Jesus’ cousin who was profiled in the opening of Mark’s gospel, is focused not on himself, on defining his role, on clarifying who he was. His answer to all the questions was “not me” “nope” “no”. He’s not down on himself, he’s just up on the one coming after him. He’s not refusing a compliment, he’s just clear that he’s not the One. A little later in John chapter 1, he is the first one to recognize Jesus, calling out, “Look, the Lamb of God!”. He actually says, “I myself did not know him” (1.31-33). John didn’t know Jesus at first – perhaps he knew him as cousin, but not as Lamb of God. John only received this knowledge from God, and he was only able to receive it because he was not fixated on a fantasy, not the indispensable savior, and he knew it. “No. No. No.”
And so the one who came as one unknown was made known to the one who was clear about what he was not.