You might be wondering why we sang “Do You Hear What I Hear” a few minutes ago, when we are well into the season of Epiphany. After all, it’s considered a Christmas song. Odds are, you only hear it as long as radio stations and retail stores are playing Christmas music. It has lots of Christmas-y images in it: a star, a lamb, a child, silver and gold, a king. But this song is not a Christmas song. It was never intended to be a Christmas song. In fact, it wasn’t even intended to be a Christian song!
The song was written by a married songwriting couple. The wife’s name was Gloria Shayne, and her husband was a Frenchman named, coincidentally, Noël Regney. She was raised Jewish. He was raised Catholic but had left the church. Neither one was religious.
They wrote the song in October, 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. The threat of war was hanging over the nation. Noël Regney knew the horrors of war all too well. As a teenager, he’d been conscripted into the Nazi army. Eventually, he fled to fight with the French resistance. Dreading the prospect of an unspeakable war, Noël was walking in New York City when he saw two mothers with babies in their strollers. The sight of those vulnerable little ones, and his fear for his family and the entire human race, moved Noël to write the lyrics for “Do You Hear What I Hear.”
This popular song was written, not as a Christmas carol, but as a political statement: a plea for peace, and a reminder of the ravages of war. Those images we so quickly associate with Christmas? The songwriters’ daughter explained them in an interview: the lamb is a symbol of peace. The star symbolizes a bomb. The child shivering in the cold represents the real babies who inspired the song. The need for silver and gold was a reference to poor children—“a reminder of the human cost of war,” the daughter explained. She added, “The biggest part [of the song] for [my parents] was the ‘pray for peace’ line. That line was very big for both of them.”
This song isn’t really a Christmas song, or even a Christian song. But we sing it today because, as it turns out, it is a great Epiphany song. Noël Regney had an epiphany when he saw those tiny babies who were completely unaware of the possibility of war; it awoke in him a new awareness of the threat to the human race. That epiphany moved Regney to tell others through his lyrics what he had seen. The lyrics themselves describe an epiphany: the epiphany of a king who was told by others what they had seen and heard, and who was moved to share what he had come to know with people everywhere.
The season of Epiphany is a season of revelation. It’s intended to be a time of discovering anew who Jesus is and who we are to be as his disciples. We are to be witnesses who tell others what has been revealed to us, as Noël Regney was moved to tell others what had been revealed to him.
We began this season of Epiphany with the story of the magi. Their visit to Jesus revealed Jesus as the King, born to reign over not just the nation of Israel but all of humanity and all of creation. Last week, Ron reflected on what Jesus’ baptism revealed about his role as our High Priest, who makes it possible for us to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence. This week, we continue with another epiphany story. Actually, we continue with two epiphany stories that lead to many more.
John the Baptizer—not the same John whose Gospel we’re reading today—had been preaching and baptizing along the Jordan. He had acquired a following of his own—disciples who wanted to follow him and his teachings. They had probably witnessed an earlier exchange between John and a delegation sent by some Pharisees. These priests and Levites had asked John who he was. In response, he made it clear that he was neither the Messiah nor Elijah nor the “prophet like Moses” that the Jews were expecting. Instead, he confessed to being simply a messenger, calling people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. And, he declared, the One who was coming after him was already among them—someone so much greater than John that John wasn’t worthy even to get down in the dirt and untie this person’s sandals.
At some point, John had experienced an epiphany about the identity of this One who was coming after him and who was already present. It was Jesus. It’s easy to assume that John always knew who it was whose way he was preparing. When his mother Elizabeth greeted Mary, she recognized the baby Mary was carrying as her Lord, and her own unborn infant John leapt in her womb. John surely “knew” Jesus before the encounter in our passage; they were cousins after all.
But, it’s pretty common for those closest to someone not to recognize who they truly are or what they will become. We don’t recognize the young neighbor as a future political leader or a niece or nephew as the researcher who will discover a cure for cancer. They’re just the kid who talked us out of telling their parents that they trampled our flowers or the child who won a ribbon at the science fair. We know them, but we don’t truly “know” them.
So, it’s not surprising to learn that John had not truly “known” who Jesus was until John’s moment of epiphany—the moment when God revealed to him who Jesus was. John only knew that he had been sent to baptize with water so that the One who was coming might be revealed to Israel. But, God had told John how he would know who this One was: he would be the One on whom the Spirit would descend and remain.
It came to pass as God had revealed to John. The gospel writer doesn’t say when this event occurred. He only tells us that John testified to his epiphany—his realization of who Jesus was—the day after his encounter with the priests and Levites. John was walking along, minding his own business, and saw Jesus approaching—Jesus, upon whom the Spirit had descended and remained.
Seeing Jesus, John is moved to tell others what he now knows. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel. I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
What an announcement to make! What an announcement to hear! What a sight to see! We can almost hear John shouting out to all who could hear as Jesus walked toward him: “Do you see what I see? Do you see the One whom God has sent—God’s own son? Do you see the One who takes away the sin of the world?”
John’s choice of words is important. He doesn’t say that Jesus takes away the “sins” of the world. He’s not talking here about the things we do wrong—large and small: the time we passed along that juicy piece of gossip or were rude or impatient because we were having a bad day. He’s not even talking about big things like murder or theft. In the gospel of John, the sin of the world isn’t our individual sinful actions. The sin of the world is our broken relationship with God. Our moral and ethical failures—individual and systemic—may reflect that broken relationship, but the specific actions aren’t the gospel writer’s concern. Jesus takes away the sin of the world’s broken relationship with God by removing all separation from God; his incarnation is the very picture of humanity united with God.
The Lamb was a symbol of freedom, of deliverance, and of God’s promise of relationship with God’s people. It was the blood of the lamb on their doorposts that saved the Israelites from the plague in Egypt. It was a lamb that was sacrificed at Passover to symbolize salvation and liberation. When John calls Jesus the Lamb of God, he’s saying, “Do you see what I see? Do you see the One who will free us, deliver us, restore our relationship with God? Do you see what I see?”
The gospel writer doesn’t report what reaction there was to John’s testimony that day. He simply moves on to the next day. The next day, he tells us, John was again standing on the street, this time accompanied by two of his disciples. Once again, Jesus walks by. Once again, John declares, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God.” This time, the gospel writer tells us what happens. The two disciples heard John say this, and they followed Jesus.
Did they see what John saw? Maybe not yet. They will only address Jesus as Rabbi—teacher—at first. But John’s words were enough to make them want to see for themselves who this man was. And that is precisely what Jesus invites them to do.
Jesus is the first to speak. Turning to them, he asks, “What are you looking for?” Again, the word choice is important. When Jesus asks the two who are trailing along behind him what they are “looking” for, he’s asking about something much deeper than what want to observe with their eyes.
The Greek word for “look” means an intellectual or emotional or spiritual searching. It can mean merely seeking information, but it can also mean searching for something—or someone—that you want to be in relationship with, without knowing where it—or they—can be found. It can mean searching for something that we once had but lost.
Jesus asks what seems to be a simple question but goes to the heart of our deepest longings. Are John’s disciples looking for the One who will reconnect them with God? Are they looking for the One John saw and testified to?
The two disciples respond to Jesus with what might seem like a funny question. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” The Greek word for “stay” also means “to abide.” “Abiding” suggests permanence—of relationship, as much as geography. So maybe the question the disciples ask is not so odd after all. Maybe they want to know, not so much where Jesus abides physically, but where he abides spiritually.
We, of course, know what the disciples do not. Over and over again, Scripture tells us where Jesus abides. “The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Where does Jesus stay? Where does he abide? Jesus abides with his Father.
Jesus responds to the disciples’ question by saying, “Come and see. Come and see if you see what John sees.” And they do. They do come with Jesus. And they do see. They see what John sees. More importantly, their epiphany results in their wanting to tell others what they’ve seen and heard. At least one of the two—the one named Andrew—went searching for his brother Simon, who would come to be called Peter. Andrew brings his brother to Jesus, so that Peter can see what Andrew had seen—the Messiah.
First, there’s John’s epiphany. Then, the epiphany of Andrew and the other unnamed disciple. Then, Peter’s. In the verses after our own, there will be the epiphanies of Philip and Nathanael. All because someone saw Jesus for who he was and asked, “Do you see what I see?” All because someone heard Jesus and asked, “Do you hear what I hear?” All because someone saw, and heard, and invited someone else to comes and see for themselves.
I’d venture to say that every one of us in this room today is here because someone, in some way, told us what they had seen and heard about Jesus. It may have come through a Sunday School lesson or a preacher’s word. It may have come during a conversation over coffee, or while helping with the dishes, or while cuddling a child. Someone told us that because of Jesus, they know what it feels like to be loved unconditionally, or forgiven for what seem like unforgiveable sins, or strengthened in a struggle. Maybe they testified, not in words, but in actions and attitudes: in the faith they had when God seemed absent, the hope they had when things looked bleak, the love they held onto in the face of hostility. Someone saw and heard the message of the Savior, and then they shared it with us, leaving us with an invitation to come and see what they’d seen.
The epiphanies of John and Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael, led them to tell what they had seen, and that began a cascade of hearing and seeing and telling. The rest of the New Testament and, indeed the rest of history, is the story of one epiphany after another, told by each witness to someone else, right down to us. We are challenged today to speak and live in such a way that we are always, in some way, asking others, “Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? Do you want to know what I know? Do you want to know the One I know?” We are challenged to extend the same invitation to others that Jesus extended to John’s disciples: “Come and see.”
In the Gospel of John, true seeing is believing. Hearing is believing. Discipleship is being a witness who testifies to what we have seen and heard in Jesus. By sharing our own epiphanies, we can offer others the chance to see and hear for themselves. The story of how Jesus has shaped our lives can’t stop with us; we are expected to share it. As Paul said to the Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” How can others see what we have seen and hear what we have heard if we don’t tell them? “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
In his song “Do you Hear What I Hear,” Noël Regney posed a series of questions. “Said the night wind to the little lamb, ‘Do you see what I see?’ Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, ‘Do you hear what I hear?’ Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king, ‘Do you know what I know?’” But the song ends with a command and a declaration. “Said the king to the people everywhere, ‘Listen to what I say! Pray for peace, people everywhere. The Child, sleeping in the night, will bring us goodness and light.’”
However unintentionally, Regney’s song is an anthem for us in this season of Epiphany. We have celebrated the birth of the Christ child, the Prince of Peace. We see again the Light that shines in the darkness. We hear again the Word that was made flesh and walked among us. We are invited once again to come and see, so that we may grow in our love and knowledge of God. And then, we are challenged anew to tell others, so that they, too, will see what we’ve seen, hear what we’ve heard, and know what we know: that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young