In our family’s favorite shows and movies, unnoticeable people get noticed. Take, Ladybird or Goodwill Hunting, in which beloved nobodies become successful somebodies, not infrequently through the form of a college acceptance letter. Watching that character holding a letter notifying acceptance into some expensively prestigious university—well, that gives us a deep-down sigh of relief.
It may be a satisfying story, but it also entails some magical thinking. If enough individuals get impersonally noticed by enormously monied institutions, everything’s going to be okay—right?
The scriptures tell the story of getting savingly noticed in a different way. Over the Christmas break, you may have come across, and perhaps barely noticed, a conscientious old codger named Zechariah in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. He and his wife had lived long, careful lives in a town in the hills of Judea, a town so remote that the historian doesn’t even bother to name it. They had no children, which meant that even their family line would go unnoticed. The most conspicuous thing that ever happened to Zechariah was that, every once in a while, his name might get picked, seemingly at random, from the names of his fellow priests. Then, he’d have to go into a small, secret, holy, hazardous place in the temple and make a meticulous offering for everybody he knew and loved and for those he didn’t. The work was terrifically important and mostly unwitnessed.
But then, suddenly in the first chapter of Luke, God’s gracious attention arrives in a way that even a sad and preoccupied Zechariah can’t miss. An angel appears to the old man as he’s doing his exacting task in the temple and tells him that his prayers have been heard. He and Elizabeth are going to have a child. Zechariah responds with a cantankerous question, How can I know this for sure? Unlike the teen aged Mary who asks the same angel a similar question, but out of reverent desire to be in on what the Living God is doing—How can these things be?—Zechariah’s question ends in silence not in song. Mary sings the Magnificat. Zechariah is struck mute by the angel. Mute, that is, until his baby boy shows up. And then the crotchety old fellow busts out in a song, too, a lullaby over the cradle of his son, John the Baptizer, this child who will someday capture the notice of his nation and will, in turn, help that nation to behold the salvation of their God.
Let me pay attention to the Small People in our church for a minute. Here’s something the children have probably already figured out on their own: nobody sees you the way you deserve to be seen. Even if you have the Most Devoted Parents Ever, you still feel things and think things and do things that nobody really sees. Your life is far more mysterious than can be attended to. When our covenant children tell something amazing thing about their lives, we oldsters will try to concentrate. But, really, we ought to just flat out write a song.
We Big People know something of this not-getting-noticed from our own experience, too. Like Zechariah, you do important work every day of your life, and often in small back rooms. Your work matters. People rely on it, even when they don’t acknowledge it. And mostly they don’t, not as much as it deserves. Sure, sometimes, there’s something messed up in our desire to be seen, as if life were an Instagram account. But the desire to be attended to has a rightness to it, too. The best answer to that desire, breathed in the contemplative silence of Zechariah or sung out in the gorgeous song of Mary, is that when God notices the nobodies, they become beloveds. When the gospel message arrives for you in sermons, in conversations, in quiet prayer, go ahead and let it be unto you as the Lord has said. Beholding and being beheld in that way really does mean that everything’s going to be okay.