This post refers to John 1:43-51.
Sometime last year I started wearing reading glasses. I had noticed that the letters on the pages were doing interesting things like losing their edges and turning into greyish pixel patterns.
I went to the optometrist and complained, “I can no longer read in bed unless I try to hold the book between my toes. What’s wrong with my eyes?”
He just laughed, “Nothing that being under 45 wouldn’t fix.”
Some of you have already told me that when it comes to reading glasses, I’m a baby. Apparently +1.25 is nothing compared to what I have to look forward to from here on out, and eventually I may just have to get me a pair of binoculars.
I did OK in worship, with the bulletin and the hymnal, until Christmas Eve when I noticed – with the lights dimmed just a little – that the words I was singing didn’t always match what you all sang. Within a year, seeing, for me, changed from something I pretty much took for granted, to the daily miracle it actually is.
One afternoon last year, I learned another lesson about vision. It was a simple test: watch a video clip of two basketball teams and count how many times the team in dark jerseys pass the ball to each other. They were a fast-passing team, but I can be very focused when I have to, and I had my new reading glasses that didn’t give blur a chance. I watched that ball like a hawk eyes a rabbit, followed its every move, and counted, 1‐2‐3‐4…
The clip ended, I had counted sixteen passes, and I was eager to have my count confirmed. Instead, I was asked if I had seen the guy in the gorilla suit.
Gorilla suit? No, I hadn’t, but there’s no way I’d miss a guy in a gorilla suit showing up in the middle of a basketball game – I thought. I played the clip again, and there he was, in plain view, casually walking among the players, big, tall, hairy, turning to the camera and waving, and slowly walking off the scene. I was so busy counting passes, I would have missed just about anything in that clip that didn’t announce its coming with a bang or a flash.
I have to assume that this is how I see things not just in funny little experiments; this is how I look at the world, this is how my attention can be so absorbed by some things, that I literally fail to notice the gorilla in the room. They don’t make glasses for that.
The first thing Jesus says in the gospel according to John is a question, “What are you looking for?” In the flow of the story, the question is addressed to a couple of disciples who used to follow John the Baptist, but now follow Jesus. In the flow of my reading, the question slows me down to a complete stop, and I ask myself, “What am I looking for?”
I am looking for peace and joy; I am looking for truth, for a sense of fulfillment, for a way out of some of the messes we have made. I am also looking for a job for my friend who couldn’t make his mortgage payment in three months; I am looking for a future without fear for him and his family.
But I’m also the guy who needs glasses to see clearly what’s within arm’s reach; I’m the guy who’s so good at keeping his eye on the ball that he misses the gorilla – I wonder if somehow the things that I’m looking for keep me from seeing things that are obvious to others, more important things, perhaps?
What are you looking for? You have your own responses to that question, just like Jesus’ first disciples, and Jesus simply says to all of us, “Come and see.”
His words are an invitation to look at the world from the perspective of his path, an invitation to seek in his company whatever it is we are looking for; but his words are also a challenge to leave, a challenge to walk away from familiar ideas, expectations, and preoccupations, a challenge to have our vision adjusted by him. Come and see, because until you come there’s nothing to see.
Warner Sallman has done a number of religious paintings, and one of his most famous ones shows Jesus standing at a heavy wooden door, knocking.
The frame of the doorway and other elements of the composition create a heart‐shape so obvious that you don’t need to know the title of the painting, Christ at Heart’s Door.
The message is clear: Christ is at the door, knocking, open your heart and let him in.
Here at the beginning of the gospel of John, the message is almost the opposite: open the door and come out; leave the confines of your familiar world and see. You cannot have one foot on the threshold and the other on the way, stretching your neck to catch a glimpse of what may lie ahead. You gotta come in order to see.
In Sallman’s painting, it’s only Jesus outside the door, but in John’s opening chapter the scene looks different: it’s pretty crowded. There’s Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael – it’s like John drilled a little peephole in Sallman’s door so we can see some of the disciples who are on the way with Jesus and overhear what they say.
“We have found the Messiah,” Andrew tells his brother.
And Philip says to Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
They have found something, someone, and we don’t know if what they found is what they were looking for, or if whom they found forever changed what they were looking for.
Nathanael hesitates, he is suspicious. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Martin Luther thought the question impertinent and Nathanael a dunce and called him “a silly old sheep.” Others, however, including Augustine, suggested that Nathanael was a much better student of Scripture and prophecy than Philip and therefore knew that the Messiah long expected would be neither the son of Joseph nor a native of Nazareth.
I’d say, if you don’t expect anything good to come out of Nazareth, you don’t pay attention to what’s coming out of Nazareth, and you’re likely to miss the best thing ever to come out of Nazareth.
Philip’s response is marvelous. He doesn’t argue with Nathanael; he doesn’t call him prejudiced or “a silly old sheep;” he doesn’t pile up theological assertions loud enough to silence any doubt or dissent; instead he quotes Jesus in the most inviting way possible, saying, “Come and see.”
On Christmas Eve, when the heavens opened and shepherds heard the good news of great joy and angels singing, “Glory to God!” – what did they do? They said to one another, “Let us go now and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us (Luke 2:8‐15)."
And the wise men in the East, who saw a star announcing the birth of a king – what did they do? They set out and followed it until it stopped over the place where the child was (Matthew 2:1‐12).
The good news of Jesus Christ doesn’t begin with a set of doctrines about the Messiah, the Son of God, or the king of Israel, but with a word that sets people in motion.
In John’s gospel there are no angel choirs in the fields or bright shining stars that attract exotic people from far away. In John’s gospel there is Andrew who talks about what he has found in Jesus, and Philip who talks about Jesus who found him, and we can see them through the peephole in the door, and they say, “Come and see.”
The first thing Nathanael discovers in his encounter with Jesus, is that Jesus knows him, and that he saw him long before Philip called him.
The scene resonates with lines from Psalm 139,
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Nathanael has his eyes opened when he realizes that Jesus has seen him and known him all along, that searching and finding is not just a one‐sided quest of people looking for answers, but God’s mission long before we begin to ask.
Nathanael has his vision adjusted and his outlook changed, and we overhear his confession, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!”
In John’s opening chapter, the cup of testimony overflows with names and titles, each adding new dimensions to the identity of Jesus the Savior: Word become flesh, true light, Lamb of God, Rabbi, Messiah, king of Israel, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth, Son of God ‐ but as long as we remain behind the door, peeping through the spy hole, we are just watching religious theater, spiritually uplifting theater perhaps, but theater nonetheless. The key line is, “Come and see.”
The promise to those who open the door and step out is the fulfillment of an ancient dream.
Jacob, son of Isaac, and ancestor of Israel, was on his way to Haran to find a wife for himself. He spent the night in the field, “and he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”
The Lord renewed to him the promises made to his ancestor Abraham, and said, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go; I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:10‐17
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus promises to those who come that they will awake as from a sleep and they will see what God’s people had been looking for since the days of Abraham and Sarah. Come and see.