What you see is (not always) what you get…

What you see is what you get.  That seems to be the highest kind of praise when people are describing one another.  It is the sort of thing that is supposed to put us at ease when we meet new people – instil confidence and    pave the way to trust.  The problem is, what you see is rarely what you get.  Our eyes play tricks on us – our expectations cannot be met by friends, never mind strangers – yet this doesn’t stop us from forming instant opinions in all kinds of situations, about all sorts of people…

We do this in our approach to faith.  Most “church” folk can give you a sketch of Jesus that will hit all the highlights: Saviour – Son of God – without sin – born in the winter, died in the spring; we tend to agree on the broad strokes.  But Jesus is full of surprises – the people who bring us his story all agree on the basics, but the details are something else again.

We’d prefer it if Jesus was transparent.  In him it should certainly be true that what you see is what you get – an honest, easy to understand guy who dealt openly with everyone he met.  But what I read in the gospels tells another story; Jesus talked in riddles – he challenged people’s expectations (and occasionally disappointed them).  Nicodemus comes ‘at night’; hoping to ask questions not fit for daylight (and, likely as not, hoping not to be seen…).  Nicodemus assumes that because Jesus shares a religious background with him, and because he seems knowledgable in the habits of faithful people, that Jesus and he share a common understanding…he couldn’t be further from the truth.

With Jesus, what you see is not what you get.  You are faced with someone who trusts God implicitly – who believes in justice and mercy especially for those who have been discarded by religious people who know the rules of their faith, but don’t understand the principles behind those rules.  Jesus is going to unravel their certainties and place doubt in their minds, just as he does with Nicodemus, and nothing will ever be the same for those whose beliefs were once unshakable.

What we see in the story from Numbers (21: 4-9) – a serpent; bronzed and on a pole – is a dangerous thing made perfectly safe.  The symbol concocted by Moses for a people plagued by misery and death assures them that here is a cure for their misery.  Held aloft, the serpent becomes the antidote for their greatest fear; the fear of death.

What we see in Jesus is a safe thing made dangerous; a man, but so much more than a man – called by God; one with God; sharing God-likeness in a way that no one ever imagined possible.

Dangerous, because he insists that we may join him in this intimate relationship with the one he calls Father.  Dangerous, because he asks us to set aside the things we think are true about the world around us, and demands that we examine our relationships with God and with one another.  Dangerous, because he wants to liberate us from all that holds us back, and keeps us from becoming the people God intended.

That liberation is perfectly frightening, and very hard to imagine.  John’s gospel suggests that Jesus is like the serpent on Moses’ staff –  destined to be ‘lifted up (ie. crucified).  When that happens, if we have the courage to look – the courage to see what is actually happening – we will discover that Jesus – the crucified God – is the antidote for our greatest fear; the cure for the misery of humanity.

I am reminded of something that happens to folks (like me) the first time they have a chance to look at the universe through a decent telescope.  If you’ve seen even one issue of National Geographic that contained full colour pictures from the Hubble telescope, your expectations will be very high.  You might even imagine that you can see that sort of detail – the brain works that way; you will see (occasionally) exactly what you EXPECT to see.  But if you look again, you’ll likely see what’s actually there.  Not much colour (that needs long-term exposure); details dependent on the quality of the equipment (and of course, even a clear night doesn’t always produce what astronomers call ‘good seeing’ – humidity, temperature and pollution all create problems).  What you will see, rather than the delicate detail of a professionally rendered magazine image, is the enormous, interconnected potential of it all.  Depth and contrast and the promise of infinity – that is what will emerge in the lens.

When you stand in the dark and look at those distant lights, it takes “good seeing”  (and no small amount of patience) to find what is actually there instead of seeing what you expect to see.  To discern the finer details, to see patterns, to notice the seasonal differences in the vastness of the night sky requires dedication, patience and a willingness to admit that you don’t really know everything about what is ‘up there’.

So it is with the things of God – we are called to patient and persistent examination of the things we think we know.  Jesus invites us to imagine that there is more to the kingdom of God than an indifferent judge who keeps a running tally of our activities – (John 3:16-17) – to really see the magnificent grace that God offers.    The path that Jesus will take – a path that leads to crucifixion – is one that exposes the dark deeds of humanity.  The decisions that make for misery and pain; the things that separate us from the love of God; the plain truth about the way we are – these are the things we’ve come to expect.  But Jesus draws our attention to what is really there; in a place of intense hardship and suffering, Jesus reveals grace and gentleness – signs of God in godless places (like the cross) – Jesus brings the light of God to those dark and desperate times, and that light continues to shine for us.

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