A Week in the Word: Seeing and Being Seen by God

This is a sermon I preached Martin Luther King Day weekend at Emmanuel United Church of Christ in Sanford, NC.

I hope it blesses you!

Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Micah

micah pic

John 1:43-51

jesus-park-bench43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Would you pray with me?

God, we believe you have more light to break forth from your holy word. We pray you open our minds and hearts so that we may see and know what light your Word has for us in these words of Scripture.  As I strive to proclaim your Word, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight.  In Christ’s name, Amen.

In one of my favorite country songs, George Jones describes the beauty he witnesses in the course of one day:  a flower growing through a crack in the side walk, sunset, the look of love shared by a young couple, and the innocent face of a newborn baby. Summing up he sings:

“I saw God today

I’ve been to church

I’ve read the book

I know he’s here

But I don’t look

Near as often as I should …

His fingerprints are everywhere

I just slowed down to stop and stare

Opened my eyes and man I swear

I saw God today “

If he was a singing man, Nathanael could turn to us and sing these same words – “I saw God today”.  He begins our reading full of skepticism.  Viewed from the outside looking in, he starts seemingly separated from faith by unscalable walls of doubt.   Yet by the end he knows God is with him.

Some of you here know what it is like to be a Nathanael.   It is so easy to be full of doubt when you have seen first-hand how people who claim to speak for God have hurt and used you or others who are like you.

It is easy when your heart is hurting because your life or the life of someone dear to you is being shaken by trial to cry out “what good can come out of” this? Some of you have been there. Some are there today.

Others of you are like Phillip, having already found against all odds the walls of doubt and fear come crashing down when you heard  Christ whisper “follow me”.  You know by experience God is near, God is with us.  Yet you see so many Nathanael’s around you whose lives could brim with meaning, overflow with purpose, if only their walls of doubt and fear likewise came crashing down.

I’d wager many of us are bit like both men, with areas of our lives where we know and know that we know that we have been touched by God.  Yet also with areas of our lives where like Nathanael we cry out “what good can come out of this?”

Wherever you are on this spectrum Nathanael’s journey speaks a powerful and compelling word.

First, it reminds us that we are welcomed completely by God, just as we are.  Secondly it reminds us that we are completely seen and understood by a God who believes in us more than words.  Finally, it calls us as a church to be people of welcome who see others with the eyes of Christ.

gods handsFirst, Nathanael’s transformation begins with being welcomed.   We see this in Phillip’s response to Nathanael’s skeptical question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Instead of how we often respond to other’s skepticism about God, Phillip simply welcomed Nathanael –  “come and see”.

“Come and see.”

This is welcome, pure and simple.

It is so different from what often happens.  Often when someone puts up their walls, and expresses their doubt or their cynicism, we end up making things worse, don’t we?  On the one hand, we may throw up our hands saying “they are a lost cause”, treating them as if their hard skeptical questions are a sign they’ve turned their backs on God – never asking what have they been through to come to this point? We often fail to recognize, as Jesus does for Nathanael, that questioning may be a sign that they are honest – a true person, without deceit, who does not pretend to know or have experienced something they haven’t.  On the other hand, we may go to them with hands full of lists of proofs, to answer their objections by argument forgetting that a person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still.  How different from the Gospel example: “Come and see”.

Too often the message people hear is not “Come and see” but Go away. Someone like you isn’t welcome. Go away! Or  You’ve gone too far, and done too much. Go away! Or You have to figure things out, and get your life cleaned up first. Until then, go away!

If this is what you’ve heard, I want you to know: this is not what God is saying to you.  Instead our still speaking God is the one we see in Jesus who scandalizes the well to do and religious by welcoming all, no matter their situation in life, to the table of fellowship.  God is the one Jesus pictures leaving the 99 safe in their pens in search of that one lost sheep.  God is the one saying to you right now “come and see”.  God is saying “My arms are open wide to you”.  God is saying “I welcome you home”.  God is saying “I love you, I accept you, just as you are”.

Turn to someone and say, “You can never go too far or be gone too long for God to welcome you home”.

Turn to another and say “there is always room for you at God’s family table”.  Whatever you have heard so far, I want you to know God loves you and welcomes you, just as you are. Come and see!

Next, Nathanael is able to see God because Nathanael himself is seen.

walking-with-jesus-pms-j7p1When Nathanael comes to check this Jesus out, Jesus’ way of showing him that God is truly with him is not through providing lists of proofs that God was there or evidence to compel him to believe.  Instead Jesus truly takes time to see Nathanael for who he is – and lets him in on it by saying he had seen him under the fig tree.  It is because Jesus truly takes the time to see Nathanael as he is that Nathanael comes to believe that in Jesus God was truly with him.

We often don’t notice it, but people die every day in part because of not being able to find one who truly sees them for who they are.  My wife, Katharine, who some of you met last time I preached here, runs an organization to help youth who are being bullied and abused.   She began this organization out of a disturbing experience.

A young man had gotten into contact with her having heard she was a pastor who, like him, had a physical disability.   He felt no one saw him for who he was due to only seeing his disability.  Everywhere he turned, he was picked on and made fun of for it, treated like he was worthless.   Finally he turned to his church for support.  Surely they would take the time to see him for whom he was, to truly see him as valuable child of God.   Instead they told him he didn’t have faith and that is why he had a disability.   They verses in the Bible like Leviticus 21:18 which said someone with a “defect” or disability like his were an abomination in the house of God.   Kat told me how, to her horror, that day he called her she heard him over the phone cock his gun right before he took his life, overwhelmed by this heartache.  Kat decided that day someone had to be there for these young people before they got to that point and so began her anti-bullying organization.

If you listen carefully to the news, you can hear countless stories just like this one.  Of young people overwhelmed by a world that rejects them, seeing them only for their label – be it disabled, poor, black, Latino, gay, trans, whatever – and not seeing their heart and potential.

Jesus_is_a_FriendThis happens not just in ways that end in suicide.  Just a short time ago, the deaths of young people of color made headlines when one was shot unarmed in Ferguson followed by a string of others across our country.  During this time within walking distance from an old home, just a few counties away from us in Bladen County, a young black boy was later left dead, hanging lynching style from a swing set.

The senseless loss of these young lives is possible in part because some do not truly see all young people as full of the value and promise you and I know they have in God’s eyes.  Even among those still  with us and breathing, this sense of being  alone judged, or unwanted can rob them of the full life they are meant for until they experience being truly seen by somebody.

Do you feel unseen, forgotten?   Just as Jesus turns and fully sees Nathanael, if no one else sees you, know God sees you.  God sees your struggle.  God sees your value.  God sees your potential.

Turn to someone and say “God sees your struggle”.

When I first read this story I didn’t realize fully what was meant by the phrase “I saw you under the fig tree”.   I imagined it was just a tree in his yard, like the tree I climbed in our front yard as a kid.  Instead, the phrase “under the fig tree” is used in the Biblical prophets like Isaiah and Micah to describe where people will go to commune with God when the knowledge of God covers the earth like waters cover the sea.  Sitting under one’s fig tree became by Jesus’ day a figure of speech for knocking down the doors of heaven in prayer.

When Jesus says “I saw you under the fig tree,” he says to Nathanael: I see.  I see your struggles.   I see your heartache.  I know what no-one else knows. I know how you have sought, sought, sought for answers.  Though to the world it looks like every wall is up to God, I know that  in fact you are seeking God’s face and God’s hand.  I see your struggle.

Friend, God says the same to you.  People might have ruled you out.  They might think you aren’t turning to God.  They might think you are pushing God away.  Or just as bad – as sometimes happens when they know you are a believer, they may think you are so holy, so close to God, you are untouched by the pain you know you are feeling so deep.  God sees through whatever your smokescreen is.  God sees through it to your hidden heartaches.  And the Lord God of the universe holds you there, like a mother cradling her child weeping thick and salty tears right alongside yours.     God sees your struggle.  Yet God sees more.

Turn to someone and say – “God sees your value”.

Jesus shows us he sees Nathanael’s value and Nathanael’s potential when, after describing seeing Nathanael under the fig tree, Jesus points to an amazing future for Nathanael – “You will see greater things than these … heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending.”  God sees your value, too.

What is your value?

The Scripture tells us in Psalm 139 you are fearfully and wonderfully made.  You are utterly unique.  Even what others may laugh at, mock, and despise in you  – that difference in you is a part of the matchless gift to the world our God has placed in you.  It is not despite your difference you have value, but in part because of it.

Turn to someone and say – “God also sees your potential.”

When the world looks at you and sees failure, when it turns to you and calls you a loser or a freak, God looks at you with the eyes of love and sees in you unlimited potential.

This is why God speaks over you the promise Jeremiah spoke over ancient Israel – I know the plans I have for you,</p>to prosper you and not to harm you; to give you a future with hope.  God knows that no matter how you’ve been judged, no matter how you’ve fallen short, you are capable of building beauty, joy, love, and peace in this world in a way no one else can, not despite but because of what makes you unique.  You are a person of promise.  God sees it.  And church, God is saying you to you today – You, Emmanuel, are a people of promise, brimming with potential.  I am not done with you yet.

When we begin to experience being seen in that way how it changes our lives!  As Dr. King once said – “A man cannot ride your back unless it is bent”.  When we begin to experience being seen by God both for who we are in our struggle and who God sees in us beyond our struggle, we begin to hold our heads up high.

Finally, if we are a people who proclaim “God is with us” which is what we do when we call ourselves “Emmanuel,” the Bible word meaning “God with us,” we must learn to be people of welcome who see others through God’s eyes.

I shared earlier about some individuals who turned to the church for support, for welcome, to be seen and loved and accepted… and the rejection they experienced which was the final nail in their coffins.  You and I know this ought not to be.  If there is any place hurting and struggling people ought to be able to turn to feel support, it ought to be the house of God. Amen?

If we are called to be Emmanuel people, God-is-with-us people, we are called to be the hands, the feet, the ears, the body of Jesus in this world.  We are called like Phillip to welcome those who have walls up.  We are called to not judge others based on the things the world does but to truly see them, their heart, their struggle, and most of all the person of value and potential they are in Christ.  If we do this we will be true to our name as a church – Emmanuel church, the church where God is truly with us, the church where people come and discover that God in Christ is truly with them, truly for them.

To close the sermon, I want to ask you to listen to the words of this song “Don’t Laugh at Me”.  As you do I’m going to give you a pair of paper glasses.  I want to ask you in closing as you hear this song to think about who you are having trouble seeing with God’s eyes and fully embracing – whether yourself or someone else.  Take this time to pray for God to give you God’s eyes and heart of welcome.   You might even write something on the glasses to represent that one, and put in your Bible or hang it on your mirror at home as a reminder to pray for God’s eyes.

Don’t Laugh at Me

  • I’m a little boy with glasses

The one they

call the geek

A little girl

who never smiles

‘Cause I’ve got

braces on my teeth

And I know how

it feels

To cry myself

to sleep

  • I’m that kid on every playground

Who’s always

chosen last

A single

teenage mother

Tryin’ to

overcome my past

You don’t have

to be my friend

But is it too

much to ask

  • Don’t laugh at me

Don’t call me

names

Don’t get your

pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes

we’re all the same

Someday we’ll

all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at

me

  • I’m the cripple on the corner

You’ve passed

me on the street

And I wouldn’t

be out here beggin’

If I had enough

to eat

And don’t think

I don’t notice

That our eyes

never meet

  • I lost my wife and little boy when

Someone crossed

that yellow line

The day we laid

them in the ground

Is the day I

lost my mind

And right now

I’m down to holdin’

This little

cardboard sign, so

  • Don’t laugh at me

Don’t call me

names

Don’t get your

pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes

we’re all the same

Someday we’ll

all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me

  • I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m short, I’m tall

I’m deaf, I’m

blind, hey, aren’t we all

  • Don’t laugh at me

Don’t call me

names

Don’t get your

pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes

we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings / Don’t laugh at me

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