Second Sunday After the Epiphany | John 1:43-51
I See You
Nathanael was a dreamer. There is nothing wrong with that, and there is much that is very right about sitting under a fig tree and watching the world around you. It doesn’t have to be a fig tree, or even a tree at all. A park bench will do, or a curb, or a quiet corner.
In some ways dreaming must have been easier in Nathanael’s day—fewer distractions. On the other hand, where did he find the spare time? Life was more difficult then, or so we think as we busy ourselves with our gadgets and conveniences. We have traded the joy of a meal for the convenience of fast food, and we have come up the less for it.
Perhaps that is what Nathanael was doing when Jesus spotted him: having a meal. There are worse places to have lunch than under a tree. Of course, he may have been taking a nap or waiting for a friend.
Jesus saw something in this young man, not that we even know how old Nathanael was. He could have been quite old. He may have sat under that same tree with a loaf of bread and a little wine every day for forty years, for all we know. Maybe he was famous for sitting and day dreaming, the sort of old man who feeds the birds with scraps from his lunch.
Jesus spotted him as an honest man. Maybe there was something open and inviting in the way Nathanael looked out at the world, expecting something to happen or someone to call him to join an adventure.
He certainly got one.
Jesus promised Nathanael that he would see “…heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man.” That would be something, heaven opened to our view, and angels coming and going. I wonder whether Nathanael ever got to see it. If so, the Gospels fail to mention it. If Nathanael wrote a Gospel himself, it has been lost. We may never know whether he saw those angels. We do know that he saw plenty after that day under the fig tree.
He was amazed that Jesus had seen him and known what sort of man he was, just from looking at him. It must have been a simple thing for Jesus, like a circus announcer knowing at a glance whether a child will prefer the tigers and elephants or the clowns. Whether the insight Jesus had was human or from God, Nathanael was amazed.
You ain’t seen nothing yet, Jesus told him.
According to the Gospel stories, Nathanael saw the sick healed, the blind given their sight, and the dead raised back to life. He heard some of the most profound teaching that has ever been spoken on the planet. He listened as one man challenged the practices of an ancient religion and belief systems stretching beyond the Roman empire. Perhaps even more amazing, more spellbinding, was watching a man walking willfully and purposefully toward his own end.
We are mesmerized by computers and video screens. We are astonished by government waste and abuse. We are fascinated by the failures of the famous, enthralled by the excesses of the rich, captivated by the atrocities of terrorists, evil regimes and unlikely lunatics. Why are we amazed at these things?
We walk past children and flowers as though they were commonplace throughout the universe. A fig tree doesn’t get a second glance, even if it got a first one, and nobody wastes time standing around under the thing. Viruses replicate, stars flame, and water dances within and around us, pouring through our veins, falling from the sky, dancing as ice crystals and clouds, and we either take no notice or complain. We move in bodies made of stardust, and we have forgotten the wonder of it.
There is so much in our lives that should astound us, so much that should settle or shake our faith. We are amazed when we stumble upon the things we did not see but that were there all along.
A kind word from someone when we did not know we were seen. Disregard from people we love. Love from someone we had not noticed. The laughter of children, the love of dogs, and the toleration of cats. The ability of human beings to get out of bed when the day before has taken everything. Sunlight. Starlight. The vivid elasticity of memory. The power of dreams. A changing heart. The brevity of our years.
We should stop to look, stop to be seen. Breathe the air, watch the light, look for what is in plain sight that we have not noticed. Hurrying is not the best use of our time. Being busy is not the same as being alive. Talking about God is not the same as being touched by God.
Nathanael professed faith in Jesus as soon as they met. It was not because of what Nathanael saw in Jesus. It was because he understood that Jesus had seen something in him.
We are surrounded by people, captured on cameras, pulled into roles that fill the minutes of every day, and still we often feel that we are unseen, unknown, strangers to one another, moving so very alone and invisible through crowds of people like ourselves. We realize that the people who do not see us are themselves also unseen, that each of them is as surrounded and as alone as we. And we do not see them, because we are lost in our own solitary way through the crowd. We tell ourselves that we value our anonymity, that it is safe.
When you were under the fig tree, I saw you, Jesus said. I noticed. I saw you standing there, unseen by everyone but me.
It is amazing what being seen, really seen, by another human being can do.
Imagine being seen, really seen, by God.
That is what faith is all about.