Do You Believe?
A few years back Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy went on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. They often ended their show with all four of them on stage doing a bit called “I believe.” The rhythm is one of them says “I believe” and then follows it up with a joke. Some examples include:
I believe that if you let somebody cut in front of you in traffic and they don't give you the little "wave", it should be perfectly legal to get up underneath 'em, get 'em loose, and put 'em into the wall.
I believe you show me a three year old running around a flea market in his underpants drinking Coca-Cola out of a baby bottle, and I'll show you a future NASCAR fan.
I believe that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you cannot baptize cats.
I believe that sometimes you gotta wreck the truck to get the insurance money to make the truck payment.
Now, we could analyze those jokes for their rhythms, for their observations, for their set ups – and I have, but that is beside the point I want to make this morning. Instead, what I want to share with you this morning is how they devalue the word “believe.”
As these comedians use the word, and as most people use the word today, “believe” is little more than an observation they have made about something in life. Instead of saying, “I have observed with some frequency and regularity that this outcome is likely given the parameters in place,” they shorten it to “I believe.” They say they “believe” in something when they have confidence that, more times than not, their observation reflects their view of reality.
Since this kind of “belief” is based on observations, it has little relationship to the spiritual and religious belief in a divine “evidence and conviction of things not seen.” If what we believe in is limited to what we can see, then we cannot have a true saving faith in Jesus Christ. And the surprise is that if we limit our faith to what we can see, we end up lying to God as we practice our faith.
That’s why our reading for today feels a bit off. Nathanael was someone who refused to lie to God or to himself. And I have more to say on this, but first, like the comedians with their “I believe” jokes, I have to set this up.
Anyone here ever been to a magic show? Even though we understand the power of gravity, we may see the magician make things float in the air. Even though we know what happens when a sharp object cuts through something, we may see the magician put the item back them together unharmed. Even if we remember our physics lessons about the conservation of matter and energy, we may see the magician make things disappear and reappear out of thin air.
Magicians know that we believe what we see. So, by the use of distraction and misdirection, the magician gets us to look at the wrong thing, or to look at the wrong time, so that we can’t see what the magician is doing to enable the illusion. The result is that we see something that seems magical. We can’t explain it, but we know we saw it, and so we believe it happened.
Sometimes, the magician will ask for a volunteer from the audience. The first thing established in this magical relationship is that they have never met before. In our reading, Jesus sees Nathanael under the fig tree, and then makes what Nathanael considers to be an astonishingly accurate claim. It is almost as if by magic Jesus knows who Nathanael is, even though they have never met before.
Setting aside that Jesus is God, and so of course would know all there is to know about Nathanael, I want to look for the moment at something else. I want us to look at what Jesus sees, instead of only what the gospel writer tells us we are looking at. Or, perhaps, we need to look exactly where the gospel writer tells us to look, but we don’t know what we are looking at when we focus there.
We are told that Nathanael is sitting under the fig tree. To us, this sounds like someone sitting under an oak tree, or sitting under an elm tree, or even just sitting under the clear blue sky. We are focused on the sitting. But the readers of John’s gospel would likely know that this is how the rabbis described the study of the Torah. Persons doing Bible study were said to be “sitting under the fig tree.” Jesus sees Nathanael studying his Bible.
That’s not so unusual. Lots of people study the Bible today, and they study it for lots of different reasons. But why someone is studying the Bible can tell us a lot about the person doing the studying.
Some people study the Bible in order to support what they already believe. There is a story about a woman who brought home a plaque that said, “Prayer changes things.” She put it up in her kitchen, above the sink. Her husband came home, and said, “Take that down, please.” She said, “Why? Don’t you believe in prayer?” He said, “Yes, but I don't believe in change.”
Some people study the Bible to be inspired to find godly answers to their questions in life. This approach treats the Bible as if it is the answer book for every question, if we can only figure out the right way to ask the question. You can check this out for yourself – browse the religion section in any book store, and you will find books on the Bible way to wealth, health, romance, happiness, parenting success, diet, and many of the other challenges we face in this life.
We could lift up lots of other reasons to study the Bible – to reconstruct history, to explain human behavior, to discover the location of lost cities and their possible treasures, and reasons we may not even be aware of having. Perhaps the best reason to study the Bible is one that doesn’t make much sense to the world today.
I think Nathanael was studying the Bible “to be known by God.” In other words, he wanted to know who he was before God. Nathanael wanted to know how God saw Nathanael, because God’s opinion is the only opinion that ultimately matters. God has made us. God knows us before we are born. God knows our thoughts before they are on our lips. God knows our days are numbered. God knows who we are. God even knows why we are here in this place at this time for what purposes of God. Nathanael wants to know what God knows about Nathanael.
That is why Jesus described Nathanael as someone who is “without guile.” To be “without guile” is another one of those expressions you don’t hear much today. To be “without guile” is a rather formal way of saying that someone doesn’t know how to lie. And more than simply avoiding lies, a person without guile is committed to finding and knowing the truth.
Perhaps that is why we don’t hear that expression much any more. Our culture today is predicated on the assumption that everyone lies. Or, if that sounds too harsh, our culture settles for what Steven Colbert calls “truthiness” – something that feels true to me but which may have little or no basis in fact or reality. Someone who is without guile is committed to seeing past “truthiness” in order to find the truth. This commitment to truthfulness can also be called “veracity.”
John Wesley wanted to make sure we understood what it means to be “without guile.” To be without guile, he wrote, is about “artless sincerity” because we are always seeking to do the will of God. “Cunning,” Wesley cautioned, “is deceiving others for the purpose of attaining something other than the will of God.” The deception comes when we show ourselves to be something we are not, or by hiding something that we are, through distraction and misdirection, so that we can claim something that is only God alone can claim – that we are good enough, and loving enough, and holy enough.
To be “without guile” also requires what Wesley called “simplicity.” Simplicity avoids flattery and compliments when speaking the truth. Simplicity avoids these because they are the devices we use when we want to get something from another person, or from God, and we are not convinced that they would freely give us what we are seeking from them. In the end, it doesn’t even matter if the compliments are deserved or not. If our intent is to distract and misdirect the other from seeing how we are trying to manipulate them, then we are lying to them.
Veracity, artless sincerity, and simplicity – that is what Jesus sees in Nathanael. And it is from that vantage point that Nathanael can see who Jesus is. Nathanael isn’t looking to hide who he is, or to present himself as someone he is not. He isn’t looking to persuade Jesus that he is already good enough, and he doesn’t feel the need to butter Jesus up with fancy titles. He just sees Jesus, who sees Nathanael just as he is – a sinner, aware that he is a sinner, seeking the God who loves him, seeking the God who can make him whole. And that is why Nathanael doesn’t just see a middle-eastern man, dressed in local clothing, talking to others. Nathanael sees the Son of God.
Nathanael was sitting under the fig tree, looking to find out who he was before God. Nathanael was sitting under the fig tree trying to figure out what he should believe about his relationship with God and his neighbors, without lying to himself or God. And in doing this, he saw Jesus as the Son of God.
When we read our Bibles, we need to ask, “Who am I in this story? How have I fallen short before God? How have I failed to love my neighbors?” As long as our focus is on looking for proof to support what we already observe, and to justify what we already do, we are lying to God about who we are – that we are sinners in need of a savior.
When we spend time in prayer, we need to ask, “Can Jesus’ love and grace be seen in me?” As long as our focus in on the sins of others, without seeing our own sinfulness, without seeking a humility that allows Christ to work through us, we are engaged in a faith based on distraction and misdirection, and not on the grace of Jesus Christ.
God sees who we really are. God see the selfishness, the short-sightedness, and the sinfulness of our heart. God sees our pride, our pursuit of power, and our preferential posturing. God sees our loneliness in life, our failure in faith, and our anxiety over acceptance. God sees all the ways we fall short, and all the reasons to condemn and judge us. And there isn’t a lie good enough that we can tell that will blind God to the truth about us.
God sees all of this, yet the good news is that this is not all that God sees in us. Through the ministry of Jesus Christ, we know that God sees what God intended for each person. God sees past the lies, past the insincerity, and the past the complicity to see the real us, to see the “made in the image of God” us, and even to see the “restless until we rest in Thee” us. Jesus came to help us see in us, and in each other, the gift God intends us to be – which is the gift and work of perfecting love.
It is time to take a good look at our selves. It is time to take a good look at our hearts. We may not like what we see, but like Nathanael, it will enable us to see the grace Jesus offers us. It will enable us to see the gift of God that comes to us in other persons. And this is something worth believing in!
The point of this is not that we should feel bad about ourselves in order to be good Christians. The point is if we want to believe in Jesus Christ, we need to see Jesus Christ as he is, which helps us to see ourselves, just we are. To be totally truthful before God, we simply and with all the sincerity we can muster, want to see Jesus as our Lord and Savior! And then we will be able to say, as disciples of Jesus Christ, I believe.
UMH 256 “We Would See Jesus”