I have been told that sheep have poor eyesight. All shepherds look alike to them. How, then, do they recognize their own shepherd? They know his voice. Remember when Jesus said “my sheep hear my voice.”
We know that Jesus will visit us this season. Otherwise, why would the Church bother telling us to prepare and be on watch? This is not just an exercise in pious imaginings. Jesus is real, and he will make a surprise visit. The question is: will we recognize him?
When we are to pick up someone at the airport, they tell us what they look like or what they will be carrying. We focus on eye recognition. If we depend on the obvious—eye recognition—however, we might miss Jesus when he comes. Remember the stories of his post-resurrection appearances. Mary Magdalene, one of his closest friends, thought he was a gardener; the disciples on the lake thought he was a beachcomber; the disciples walking to Emmaus thought he was just another non-descript traveler. If those who knew him intimately did not recognize him, there is a good chance we won’t either.
God has a way of surprising us. Listen to what Isaiah says about the coming Messiah (Isaiah 2:1-5).
“On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him…Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.”
When walking through a forest, who pays attention to tree stumps? We look at the towering trees and the beautiful foliage. Only a child will notice a tiny bud springing from an old tree stump. In his wisdom God chose a tiny bud to wield justice over the nations—to be the chosen one upon whom his Spirit rests. It takes a child to notice what seems like an insignificant shoot sprouting from a tree stump.
Jesus praised his Father for the mysterious way he manifested himself (Luke 10:21-24).
“Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Father, such has been your gracious will.”
Jesus was overwhelmed with the way God showed himself. He did not do so in a way that would be obvious to an adult. It took the eyes and the heart of a child to recognize the emergence of the Kingdom of God. The ones whom we’d expect to recognize the Messiah—those who knew the Scriptures and were honored as the learned people of the day—studied the trees and ignored the stumps. Jesus was so thrilled, that he burst into a prayer of praise—right in front of his disciples. It is amazing what gets Jesus excited, isn’t it?
Jesus had to explain to the disciples how favored they were.
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
Among the rag-tag group of disciples there were no prophets, kings, or scholars. Their strongest asset was that they were childlike; naively, they entrusted their lives to this poor, itinerant preacher—this insignificant shoot from Jesse’s stump.
It is not our intelligence, keen observation, or even spiritual insight that will enable us to recognize Jesus. It is the child within us that has the ears to hear him when he comes. It is the little sheep who has spent so much time with the Shepherd that, though his eyes might miss the Shepherd, his ears will recognize immediately his quiet, gentle voice.
Advent is the call for us sheep to gather closely, once again, to the Shepherd. Amid the noise of the world we may have forgotten what Jesus’ voice sounds like. We take time in the silence to block out other noises—including the noise within us– so we can hear the voice of our Shepherd whispering our names. As we learn to recognize his voice each day in prayer, we will find it easier to recognize him when he makes that surprise visit to us this holy season.
“Behold, our Lord shall come with power; he will enlighten the eyes of his servants” (Ps 80:4).