The mayor of the little village could not believe his eyes. He had to read the message for the second time. The message had just been delivered to him on horseback by the royal messenger of the King himself. The message read: “I, King Edward, am on a tour of the northern provinces, and I would like to stay in your village tomorrow night. If this is agreeable to you, please have prepared a warm supper and a place of lodging.”
“Well,” said the finely dressed horseman, “May the King stay in your village tomorrow evening? He awaits your reply.”
“Why, of course,” said the mayor, “who would turn down the King of the land? I hesitated only because I was so shocked. The King has never visited this village, but yes, yes, we would be honored to have him stay here. He is greatly loved in these parts, so yes, by all means, tell him we will look forward to his arrival.” With that, the royal messenger thanked him, turned, and rode off swiftly.
The mayor was so excited and so nervous that he did not know where to begin. What an honor, but only a day to prepare! Why, a month would hardly be enough time! He called together his entire staff and all of his servants, issued all sorts of instructions and orders, and soon, everyone in town was hard at work, decorating the banquet hall, preparing the finest food, and cleaning the streets. All the most important people would be invited, and there must be enough food for everyone. All that night and all the next day, everyone raced around, preparing for the arrival of King Edward. By late afternoon they were ready, and the mayor, his wife, and all their important friends stood by the road, waiting to receive the King and his great company of aides and soldiers. The town had never looked better.
Just then, a solitary figure came walking down the road. He was poorly dressed, had only a ragged sack on his back, and his clothes were covered with dust from the journey. Well, the mayor was not very happy to see this. He had already ordered that all beggars be kept of the street that day, and now with the King arriving at any moment, this shabby man had to be dealt with. The mayor called quickly to one of his servants. “William,” he said, “take that traveler down the road to old Jacob’s hut. Tell Jacob that I would like him to give this man lodging for the night. Jacob is a good man and will not refuse you. Hurry up! We must get this man out of here.”
With the beggar out of sight, the welcoming party resumed their wait. They waited and waited. Minutes passed, then hours, and then it was well past midnight, and still, no King. “Well,” said the mayor, “maybe the King got delayed, and maybe he just decided not to come. Kings can do whatever they want, you know. Maybe he will be here tomorrow.” So they all went home, very sad and disappointed.
Meanwhile, William, the servant had taken the shabby beggar down a long winding path, into the forest, and to the little hut of old Jacob, the woodcutter. When they arrived, William explained the situation to Jacob, who graciously accepted the command.
“There is not much here,” said Jacob, pointing to his supper laid out on the rough wooden table. “Just some bread, some soup, and a warm fire. But you are welcome to it,” he said, “and you being a traveler, I’d like to hear tales of the places you have been.”
So old Jacob and the beggar passed the evening in jolly companionship. The stranger told stories of beautiful lakes and mountains that he had seen, of faraway cities that he had visited, and of strange people and customs that he had encountered. The old wood-cutter had never heard of such things, and his eyes were wide with wonder as they talked long into the night. It was a never to be forgotten evening for Jacob.
When morning came and the visitor was about to leave, he handed Jacob an envelope and asked him to give it to the mayor. Thanking Jacob for his hospitality, the shabby man disappeared down the road.
Late in the morning, the stranger’s message reached the mayor. What he read left him shaken. It was on the same royally decorated paper as the previous message, and it said: “I wish to express my sincere gratitude for the fine provision of food and lodging, and the generous hospitality of such a fine host. You could not have chosen for me a better companion than Jacob. Perhaps on a later visit I can meet with you.” It was signed, KING EDWARD.
This is a story of recognition— or, one should say, of the failure to recognize. The King came to visit, but his appearance was not what the people were expecting, so he was not recognized. The mayor hurried to get him out of the way, and sadly, they never got to meet the King at all. That wonderful, once in a lifetime opportunity was missed.
The New Testament also tells the story of the visit of a king to his people, the King of all heaven and earth. This King also came for a visit, but he also did not look like what people were expecting. And he too was shuffled to the side, and then even killed, by those who wanted to get him out of the way. They also failed to recognize the one for whom they were waiting, and they missed the most important of all opportunities.
In the first chapter of John are some of the saddest words in the whole Bible. The Gospel of John begins with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and through him all things were made. In him was life, the lift that was the light of all people… And then that Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word is Jesus, the Son of God, Savior of the world. Verses ten and eleven, those saddest of all verses, speak of him, and of how he was not recognized: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own received him not.”
Can there be any more disturbing words in all the Gospel writings? He came to his own, but his own received him not, and not only did they not receive him, they killed him. They were looking for, hoping for, waiting for the promised Messiah from God, but then, when he was right there in their midst, they did not recognize him. He was too ordinary, he was not spectacular enough, he did not fit in with their expectations or their agenda— and they did not recognize him, just like the mayor did not recognize King Edward, who to his eyes looked too ordinary.
But this first chapter of John is not all bad news. The very next verses tell of a very different reaction. Not everyone would fail to recognize Jesus. Right after it says, “he came to his own and his own received him not,” it goes on to say, “But to all who did receive him, and who believed on his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.”
John 1:9-12 — The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
2 Corinthians 2:19a — God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.
Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day.
–From the 1971 musical Godspell,
Based on a prayer by Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)