Hiding in Plain Sight

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Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.”  On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.

4. Know

More than a decade ago, at the Christmas Eve service where I was preaching, there was an unexpected visitor.

Just as I was diving into my opening paragraph, a rather large spider – big enough to be seen from the back of the sanctuary – lowered itself from the ceiling on a thread and dangled just a few feet from the left side of my head.

Incredibly, I never saw it.

I was feeling encouraged about the sermon because people genuinely seemed to be paying attention.  Actually, as I learned later, they were transfixed by the spider.

I like to walk around a bit when I talk.  What would happen if I turned left and walked right into it?  People were waiting breathlessly.  Not one of my so-called friends chose to alert me to our guest.  Several children even named the spider: Charlotte, of course.

Just before the sermon ended, the spider apparently concluded I was finally going to wrap things up.  It zinged back up to the ceiling and was never seen again.

At the door following the service, no one was talking about my beautifully crafted message.  Everyone was talking about the spider.  “Did you see the size of that thing?” they said.  No, I had to admit.  I never saw it.   

How is it that hundreds of people knew that a spider was dangling from the ceiling, whereas I, the person who was closest to it, didn’t see it at all?

It was simply a matter of degrees.  If I had turned just five more degrees, I would have seen everything.

And that’s a bit like God.  He often hides in plain sight – only a few degrees from our line of vision.

The frustration of knowing a little something about God, but definitely not everything, is on display in the opening story of the Gospel of Luke.  Before Luke describes the birth of Jesus, he introduces his readers to an elderly couple named Zechariah, who is a priest, and his wife Elizabeth.  They genuinely love God.  “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Luke 1:6). 

“But…” That’s the very next word, and it breaks our hearts. 

“But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” 

In a culture that regards offspring as the chief sign of God’s blessing, Zechariah and Elizabeth feel wrenchingly unblessed.  Their dreams of starting a family are dead.

Then something amazing happens.  While conducting his priestly duties alone in the temple, Zechariah is stunned by the sudden appearance of the angel of the Lord.  Gabriel informs him that at long last he’s going to become a dad.  Zechariah can’t believe it.  He literally can’t believe it

“How will I know that this is so?” he asks the angel, “for I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (Luke 1:18).  Zechariah is exactly like us.  He isn’t visited by angels every day.  He simply wants to know:  Is this really on the level?  Is God somehow in the middle of this, even though he can’t see it?

But we rarely know what God is up to, even while it’s happening.  He asks us to trust him – this God who is just a few degrees out of sight. 

For Zechariah and Elizabeth, everything changes.  They become parents of a little boy who will grow up to be John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and ministry forerunner.  Best of all, Medicare pays the maternity bills. 

And how about us?

The God who hides in plain sight speaks through small events we might not otherwise recognize: a phone call that catches us off guard; a chance meeting at the store that we later realize was a divinely arranged appointment; a single sentence in a book that causes us to hope again.

“God, where are you?  Why can’t I know what you’re doing?”

That is the cry of the human heart.

But God is not deaf to our cries.  And Christmas is our reminder that he is never far away.