*** This hymn registers a suspicion of doubt behind John the Baptist’s question to Jesus: “You cannot really be the One who is to come, can you?”
In singing, it would be fitting to sound a sense of awe in the fourth line.We-can-hear-and-see-each-day
One of the great prophecies of Isaiah, recorded in chapter 35, was that the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the prophecy ends with a promise that the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion…and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
More than half a millennium later, in the wilderness of Judea, John the Baptizer preached the kingdom of God come near. Then he found himself in prison, looking for the day when the ‘ransomed of the Lord’ would return. What he heard of the ministry undertaken by Jesus in and around Galilee prompted John to send and ask whether Jesus might be the one who is to come, the Messiah who would enact the long-foretold prophecies of God’s reign on earth.
Jesus’ reply drew partly on Isaiah 35.5, and partly on other prophetic scriptures: the blind receive their sight…and the poor have good news brought to them. It was not so much that Jesus instructed John’s messengers that this was the report they were to give as that they were to tell John what you see and hear. Two questions arise: Were those who could have been expected to be witnesses actually seeing and hearing what was happening? and If they were witnesses of these events, why were they not recognising Jesus as the coming one, the Christ, the Saviour? Perhaps Jesus was commenting on these questions when he concluded his response by saying (B)lessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.
These questions are what undergird this hymn. “We can hear and see each day people healed…” But do we? “We can know, the truth explore: gospel life among the poor…”Yet do we? Do we not rather wonder whether the things we are see and hear cannot possibly be what the prophet suggests they are: manifold signs of God’s ransoming presence in the world. Such doubt and scepticism about Jesus fuels a question “Are you Christ the Saviour?” that expects the answer ‘No. You can’t possibly be who you seem to be’. The hymn begins from this place of scepticism, but, by the end, the question has become life’s most embracing affirmation: “Christ, you are our Saviour”.
It may be thought that to begin with reasonable doubt and finish with an affirmation of faith beyond reason is a disreputable way to behave at any time, and especially when writing a hymn. Yet, in reinforcing the text of Matthew 11.2-6 and 9-11, this hymn aims to lead worshippers to review their experience and their knowledge of prophecy. The Holy Spirit is not named in this hymn, but is understood as enlightening the minds of those who engage with the issues that prophecy unfolds.
Beginning with images from Matthew 11.11b, the last stanza invites the singer to think deeply about who Jesus is. Is he least in the kingdom of heaven yet greater than John the Baptist? And, if he is least, why? Is there perhaps a reference to the Son of Man being the servant of all? Thus Jesus is said to be ‘incognito at the feast…embodied in our midst’. Transposing from another conversation conducted in Matthew’s Gospel, this hymn invites consideration of the question, “What do think of Christ? Whose Son is he?”
The music, written in 1996 on the day that commemorates James Hannington, is intended to reflect the apparent naivety of the encounter between Jesus and John’s disciples; Go and tell John what you hear and see… is so easily said that it’s easily possible to pay no attention to the momentous significance of what is being said. Thus, the music appears at first hearing to be an almost flippant jingle; only with the last line does the music pick up resonances of the immense implications of John’s question. Singers may like to render the last line more quietly than the first three, allowing a sense of awe to emerge.