“Refusing to see what’s staring you in the face”
January 15, 2023
We were astounded when a whole planet of scientists worked together to take the first photograph of a black hole. Perhaps as a planet-wide church, we can see the suffering in our midst that sinks into its own invisible black hole of despair. Jesus is the Word made flesh, In the light of the Word we may see clearly the sin-filled condition of the world and, like Jesus in the Gospel of John, reach out to all who suffer.
Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences and one of the most popular, maybe because so much of it is based on what we see from our backyard. The stars faithfully stay in their courses. The planets move slowly against the background of the stars, but in time they return to where they began. The moon waxes and wanes so that some nights farmers can work late into the evening by its light, and on others true darkness reigns and the stars seem to shine so brightly it feels like they’re bearing down on us.
In the modern era, we not only see farther than ever, thanks to telescopes and satellites, but we also see more clearly the wonders of the heavens. Perhaps we have a greater insight as a result, not only into God’s creative power but into God’s love for us as well. Like the psalmist says: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”1
Still, sometimes the most awe-inspiring “sights” in the sky are the things we can’t see with the eye. Since black holes were first theorized, and later their existence proved, these voracious celestial monsters have intrigued and fascinated not only professional astronomers but the public as well. Think of it: A massive star collapses in on itself, then draws other stars and planets into its well of inescapable gravity! Nothing within the boundary of what they call the “event horizon” (a theoretical boundary around a black hole) can escape — not even light. You cannot see the “singularity” (a point at which matter is infinitely dense, as at the center of a black hole). So even though we may know there is a massive black hole at the center of our galaxy, it’s invisible.
Or rather, we couldn’t see it — until recently. Only in 2019 was an international team of scientists finally able to photograph what cannot be seen with the eye. The first picture of a black hole was the result of scientists working together at various instruments all over the world to create what was called a planet-wide telescope.
Shep Doeleman, from Harvard University, who directed what was known as the Event Horizon Telescope Project, tried to explain to Congress how important it is to reveal what can’t be seen. He described how in 1655 Robert Hooke published a drawing of a flea as seen through a microscope. He also reminded his listeners what a revelation the first X-ray photographs were. “These are iconic images; they’re terrifying, but we can’t look away,” he said. “It’s ... that the invisible has become visible, and that maybe it’s the beginning of something new, not just the end.”2
Speaking of invisible things, one thing we take for granted is that we can’t see God. In the ancient world, it was common to depict the gods in tangible form, but the God of Israel could not be seen. That’s why the ark of the covenant included a throne supported by cherubim, but no figure could be seen seated on the throne.
And yet we believe that God has been revealed — and can be seen — in the one person who is both human and divine, the one the apostle Thomas addressed as “my Lord and my God!”3
In the first chapter of the Gospel of John we read about the mysterious Word, this unseen aspect of God, that is present from the beginning. Everything is created through this Word, and then, in John 1:14, we learn that the invisible has truly become visible: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.”
That Word made flesh is Jesus. That Word that was invisible becomes visible when God’s great plan comes to fruition and suddenly the Word comes into focus. What John aims to do in his gospel is to show us, through a series of signs, how the Samaritan woman at the well, the blind man who is granted sight, the sisters Mary and Martha at the raising of their brother Lazarus, and even Nicodemus after Jesus is crucified come, along with doubting Thomas, to see Jesus clearly at last! Just as it took a planet-wide telescope to make a black hole visible, so it takes a gospel full of believers from all different backgrounds and circumstances to help us see God clearly at last in the Word made flesh — Jesus!
All of these incidents were written down, as John tells us, “... so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”4
End of story?
No, not the end of the story. In our gospel passage for today, the man we call John the Baptist talks about something that is invisible, even today. It’s not invisible because it’s too tiny or too far away or because we need a planet-wide telescope to bring it into focus. John wants us to recognize that it’s staring us in the face, but we refuse to see it — or maybe we won’t see it until we see Jesus.
In the fourth gospel, John is not known as the Baptist. He is a man who has come to witness to the light, and then to point to him. So in this passage we hear John saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Something important is happening that is easy to miss. John is telling us that the Lamb of God takes away not the sins of the world, which we usually think of as our personal sins that certainly need forgiving, but the sin — singular — of the world. What is John talking about?
Because we live in the world, we don’t necessarily see the sin of the world, unless we really look. It’s like being in the black hole — no light escapes. The sin of the world is the institutional sin of not “seeing” each other. It includes the evil we are a part of, whether we intend to sin or not.
We may think slavery, for instance, is a thing of the past, but slavery is alive and well. Sweatshops operate in our communities, sexual slavery goes on right beneath our noses, but we don’t always choose to see it or admit it’s there.
Sexual abuse is everywhere, but sometimes people don’t want to deal with it, so they don’t see it, or they deny that it can happen in churches, and if they do hear of it, they try to wish it away.
The silent suffering of the depressed is invisible to some people, in part because some depressed persons are hurting so badly that they can’t reach out.
The struggles of the chronically ill can be hidden because people tune out those who complain about pain, so the sufferers finally sink out of sight — our sight, not God’s sight.
The slavery of addictions can be invisible because we’d rather not admit it’s right here so that we don’t have to do anything.
What does it take to see the sin of the world? Maybe a whole church, maybe a planet-wide church, needs to create a network of love, compassion and determination. As First John puts it: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”5
Have you noticed that in the Gospel of John, Jesus sees people who are beneath or beyond the notice of many so-called good religious people?
Jesus sees Nicodemus, a searching soul, even though Nicodemus is so frightened of what his Pharisee colleagues might think that he visits at night, so he’ll be virtually invisible.
Jesus sees a Samaritan woman as a real person, even though she’s a Samaritan, and a woman, and thus supposedly beneath the notice of a good religious teacher.
Jesus sees the blind person in an age when people believed that sickness or disability was a sign that someone had sinned and therefore deserved their suffering. Because Jesus sees him, the blind person in turn sees, even though the religious leaders who hate Jesus can’t see the Living Word in this healing.
Jesus sees the sisters Mary and Martha, even though in ancient times women had little status, and they in turn see Jesus for who he is, the Resurrection and the Life coming to save the world.
And Jesus sees beyond the doubt of the apostle Thomas and believes in Thomas to the point that Thomas himself will utter the most astounding words of the gospel — “My Lord and my God!”
Are we willing to see the outcasts, the oppressed, the suffering, the abused, the forgotten, the reviled, the depressed? Will we, like Jesus, draw them out of the abyss of despair, that together, we may see God in Jesus?
1 Psalm 8:3-4.
2 Quoted by Meghan Bartels, “The Scientists Behind the First Black Hole Photo Get Nod From Congress,” Space.com, May 17, 2019, www.space.com/first-black-hole-photo-science-team-meets-congress.html.
3 John 20:28.
4 John 20:31.
5 1 John 4:12.