Urban legend has it [no this is not a true story but it is a good one] that in 1990 a woman entered a Haagen-Dazs in the Kansas City Plaza for an ice-cream cone. While she was ordering another customer entered the store. She placed her order, turned and found herself staring face to face with Paul Newman. He was in town filming Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. His blue eyes made her knees buckle. She finished paying and quickly walked out of the store with her heart still pounding. Gaining her composure she suddenly realized she didn’t have her cone; she turned to go back in. At the door she met Paul Newman who was coming out. He said to her, “Are you looking for your ice-cream cone?” Unable to utter a word she nodded yes. “You put it in your purse with your change.” Famous people, particularly famous good looking people can get us flustered. But what about famous people that we do not recognize?
How many of you have heard of Joshua Bell? Joshua Bell has a career spanning more than 30 years as a soloist, chamber musician, recording artist and conductor. He is one of the most celebrated violinists of our time. In January, 2007, Bell went into the Metro in D.C. and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript—a youngish man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money and began to play.
For the next 45 minutes, in the D.C. Metro Bell played Mozart and Schubert as over 1,000 people streamed by on their way to work most hardly taking notice. If they had paid attention, they might have recognized the young man for the world-renowned violinist he is. They also might have noted the violin he played—a rare Stradivarius worth over $3 million. It was all part of a project arranged by The Washington Post—”an experiment in context, perception, and priorities—as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste. In a banal setting, at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend, would people stop in wonder and awe and appreciation?” Apparently not
Just three days earlier before the D.C. Metro experiment, Joshua Bell sold out Boston Symphony Hall, with ordinary seats going for $100. In the subway, Bell garnered about $32 from the 27 people who stopped long enough to give a donation.
Here is another true story. At the outset of World War 2 Germany attacked and had overrun Poland. As you may recall, the Polish Army was still using horses when the German attacked with their panzer tanks. And the Polish army had been shredded. Yet even after the fall of Poland, there were in fact remains of the army which were in resistance to the Nazis. One such man was Witold Pilecki, a Polish army captain. In September of 1940 Witold Pilecki did the unthinkable—he snuck into Auschwitz. That’s right, into Auschwitz. Pilecki knew that something was terribly wrong with the concentration camp and as a committed Christian and a Polish patriot he couldn’t sit by and watch. He wanted to get information on the horrors of Auschwitz, but he knew he could only do that from the inside.
So his superiors approved a daring plan. They provided a false identity card with a Jewish name, and then Pilecki allowed the Germans to arrest him during a routine Warsaw street roundup. Pilecki was sent to Auschwitz and assigned inmate number 4859. Pilecki, a husband and father of two, later said, “I bade farewell to everything I had known on this earth.” He became just like any other prisoner—despised, beaten, and threatened with death. From inside the camp he wrote, “The game I was now playing at Auschwitz was dangerous …. In fact, I had gone far beyond what people in the real world would consider dangerous.”
After several month of his arrival beginning in 1941, prisoner number 4859 started working on his dangerous mission. He organized the inmates into resistance units, boosting morale and documenting the war crimes. Pilecki used couriers to smuggle out detailed reports on the atrocities. By 1942, he had also helped organize a secret radio station using scrap parts. The information he supplied from inside the camp provided Western allies with key intelligence information about Auschwitz.
In the spring of 1943, Pilecki joined the camp bakery where he was able to overpower a guard and escape. Once free, he finished his report, estimating that around 2 million souls had been killed at Auschwitz. When the reports reached London, officials thought he was exaggerating. Of course today we know he was right.
Our gospel lesson says, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
In the incarnation of Jesus we have a bit of both stories don’t we? First, Jesus came in his glory, full of grace and truth. He showed himself just like Joshua Bell showed himself and like Joshua, he was not recognized. Joshua played the same music that he had played in the Boston Symphony Hall. Jesus did things like he had done in creation; he turned water into wine, he commanded the wind and waves around him and they obeyed. He multiplied the fish and the bread; he touched the paralyzed and rebuilt the muscles and the damaged nerves; he healed the blind by restoring the optic nerves and reconnecting the retina to the visual cortex in the brain. He rebuilt fractured bones when he healed the lame. He did these things and yet the people around him did not recognize him any more than they did Joshua Bell.
And the incarnation of Jesus is similar is ways to Witold Pilecki’s story. In the same way that Pilecki infiltrated Auschwitz, God came into this world. Pilecki disguised himself as a Jewish man and allowed himself to be arrested in a routine Gestapo street round-up and got into Auschwitz that way. God disguised himself as a baby born of the Virgin Mary and came into this world that way. Pilecki became like any other prisoner, despised, beaten, and threatened with death. Jesus, God in the flesh, also was despised, beaten, and threatened with death. Pilecki organized resistance cells and boosted morale. Jesus also organized resistance cells (we don’t call them resistance cells, we call them churches) and brought new life to people. He gave them hope and faith. He showed them a new way of understanding who God is. He showed them God’s great love for humanity through his love for those around him. Pilecki finally escaped from Auschitz. He had helped some others escape and he provided key information to the Allies. And here is where the stories of Pilecki and Jesus diverge. Jesus did not try to escape. Instead he gave himself over to his enemies. He sacrificed himself so that the rest of us in the prison camp could escape. He died a painful and cruel death. But then He conquered death by his death and then rose again.
That is the wonder and the glory of the Incarnation of Jesus isn’t it? He left the glories of heaven to come to us here on earth. God became one of us. He wasn’t a glamorous movie star like Paul Newman. And he did not simply drop in for an hour or two at the Metro or even several years in a prison camp. He lived here and he showed us himself. Joshua Bell is a great musician, certainly one of the greatest of our generation. Witold Pilecki was a great man and certainly one of the bravest men of his generation. And yet these men as great as they are, are shadows of the greatness shown to us through Jesus Christ and his life.
Our gospel lesson says, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who receive him, who believe in his name he has given the authority, the power, to become children of God. This is the glory of Christmas Day. Amen