Christian reflections

Appearance and Truth

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When my husband Daryl and I first started dating, one of our pastors asked us to be his newborn daughter’s godparents. We were honored, but also a bit miffed.

“We’re not…married,” I said to Pastor K.

“I’m aware,” he said.

“Then how can we…?” asked Daryl.

“You’re both wonderful people,” K said, “and even if you don’t get married—which, by the way you totally will since I set you up and I’m not usually wrong about these things—we would still want you, Courtney, to be our daughter’s godmother and you, Daryl, to be our daughter’s godfather.” He crossed his arms firmly and grinned. “So there.”

That’s how we found ourselves standing proudly by as his sweet little girl was baptized one cloudy autumn morning. After worship we headed to K and his wife’s home for the after party where a delicious brunch buffet awaited all their friends and family. Somewhere between the cinnamon rolls and the fruit salad we ran into Pastor E, one of the church’s senior clergy.

“How are you?” asked Pastor E, two bites into his bagel.

“Really great,” I said, reaching for a plastic cup filled with orange juice. “The baptism was so beautiful this morning, though Daryl and I are both a little tired. We didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“Really?” he asked, innocently, glancing from me to Daryl and back again. “I didn’t know you two were married.”

“Oh, we’re not,” I said, waving off the idea. Pastor E stared at me blankly. An awkward pause stretched across the air between us. He slowly put his bagel back onto his plate.

Suddenly a realization slapped me upside the head. Pastor E was reading into my two statements which, when put together, didn’t sound so good. We didn’t get much sleep. But we weren’t married. O.M.G-G-G. (Oh my good-gracious-GOLLY.)

“No, ha-ha-ha!” I said, spilling immediately into nervous laughter. “We’re not married! And I was sleeping over last night. But not like SLEEPING-with-him sleeping over. Ha ha! I live an hour away but we go to church together on Sunday! So I sleep on his couch on Saturday nights! In the living room! We aren’t and will not be sleeping with each other! Unless we get married! We stayed up all night watching The West Wing and his three roommates were there the whole time! Seriously—there wasn’t even any kissing!”

As I babbled, Pastor E eyebrows slowly inched up into his hairline. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. [Pastor E is the type of classy, thoughtful individual whose thoughts probably all take the form of Shakespeare quotes.] Daryl grabbed me gently but firmly by the arm and led my glowing red face out to the car.

Pastor E thinks the unmarried church volunteer godparents of Pastor K’s baby were up all night HAVING SEX,” I hissed to him through clenched teeth.

“I know,” he said. “I’ll let K know to tell him this isn’t what it looks like.”

Have you ever had one of those moments where you wanted to yell, “This is not what it looks like!”? I still cringe a little when I remember Pastor E’s face as I verbally backpedaled all over the living room. We cleared up the misunderstanding in the days that followed, but it took months before I could run into any of our church’s clergy without speed walking in the opposite direction. So awkward. Soooo very awkward.

It’s bad enough getting caught in an awkward situation when it’s just an honest mistake. Worse yet is when it isn’t. When we want to yell, “This is not what it looks like!” when, in fact, it’s exactly what it looks like. There are few feelings worse than getting caught in something embarrassing, awkward, or outright wrong. Do you remember the sinking feeling in your stomach, the flush of red to your face, the pressing desire to yell, “This isn’t what it looks like!” even though you and everyone else knew that it was?

This is what happens to Nathanael in John’s Gospel. His friend Philip runs to tell him the good news—he’s found the person the prophets wrote about—a Messiah who would come to bring about God’s kingdom on the earth! The person Moses wrote about! Philip and Nathanael have studied these Scriptures, hoping against hope that they would be fortunate enough to witness the Messiah’s coming in their lifetimes. They’ve longed for him but have not been at all certain of it.

And then Philip meets Jesus and he knows. The Lord has come.

Philip runs to Nathanael, his friend and comrade in hope, overwhelmed and overjoyed at his discovery. He finds Nathanael lounging in the shade of a fig tree, just passing time during the heat of the day.

“We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about!” exclaims Philip. Details pour out. He tells Nathanael that the man is Jesus, son of Joseph, and that he comes from the village of Nazareth.

Nathanael doesn’t respond, “Praise God!” Nope. He doesn’t respond, “At last our hopes are coming true!” No again. Nathanael, certain he’s out of hearing range of anyone important, snorts, “Nazareth? Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip’s jubilation is met not with joy but with sarcasm, cynicism, and prejudice. Nathanael doesn’t like Nazareth, and he doesn’t care who knows it.

Now Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, was an easy target. It can perhaps best be described as the New Jersey of the ancient near east.

[I spent three years as a resident of New Jersey, and in that time I probably heard eight bajillion jokes about the state. It’s a beautiful state with incredible history, rich culture, sandy beaches, and gorgeous parks, but people don’t give you a chance to talk about that. Nope. They’re all, “Does everyone dress like they’re from Jersey Shore?” or “Do you guys get regular lung cancer screenings because of the pollution?” Hardy har har. Mock all you want but people pumped our gasoline for free in the dead of winter, New Jersey gave us Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, and Princeton is the birthplace of the ice cream cone. You’re welcome.]

Nazareth was ripe for jokes, some of which were true. Easy to pick on. Not a place people were generally proud to hail from.

But unlike New Jersey, Nazareth was rural. Not a place where you’d find well-educated people or anything cosmopolitan. Definitely not a place you’d expect the Messiah to come from. How could Jesus possibly save the world if he came from a backwater village? Nathanael puts words to what many others likely thought. There were much more likely places for the Messiah to come from. Jerusalem, for one. Maybe Philip needed to check his sources.

We say stuff like Nathanael does all the time, don’t we? We are a sarcastic people, full of one-liners and witty retorts. We quip behind closed doors, we vent to close friends, we crack wise behind others’ backs. If someone told us that the Savior of the world was coming from some hillbilly settlement, far from the centers of political, financial, social, and academic power, we’d probably scoff, too. I know I would.

Making fun of whatever or whomever is one step down the social, political, academic, or financial ladder is a dark but predictable part of human nature. Yet Nathanael’s mean-spirited jest betrays more than just snobbishness. It highlights a side of who he really is.

What we say in private always reveals something about who we are. Who we really are. As Jesus himself noted, “What you say flows from what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45). What comes out when I am not watching my words, when I let down my guard, when I forget to be on my best behavior reveals something about who I am. The same is true for you.

Back to Nathanael. He’s just sitting under his fig tree making small talk. No big deal, right? Except his small talk reveals part of his heart that he’d rather keep hidden. The sarcastic part. The dismissive part. The prejudiced part. The part that’d rather blow Philip off than take a chance in being surprised by something holy.

But here’s the thing: Nathanael runs out of places to hide as soon as he meets Jesus. We all do.

Philip takes Nathanael to find Jesus, and when he does, Jesus pokes a little at Nathanael’s Nazareth zinger.

“A true Israelite!” Jesus says to Nathanael in greeting. “A genuine son of Israel –a man of complete integrity.” Jesus both gently chastises and praises him for his comment. Whether or not Nathanael thought he’d be overheard, there’s something to be said for his honesty in saying what was on his mind rather than putting on a façade. Jesus manages to address both things in a show of his lordship and his love. Nathanael is floored. This guy, this Nazarene, seems to know him. Not just his outer cleaned-up-for-society side, but also something about who he really is. As B.W. Johnson wrote in The People’s New Testament way back in 1891:

Nathanael, who had never met Jesus before, was surprised to hear himself spoken of as one known.

With all the effort we put into our external appearance—how we look, what we own, the ways we present ourselves, what we wear—it’s shocking to find one who is so familiar with us.

“How do you know about me?” Nathanael asks. He is shocked. He is humbled. He is a little freaked out. There’s no room to say, “That comment under the fig tree? The thing I said that made me sound cranky and biased and totally dismissive of you—a person who clearly knows things? This isn’t what it looks like!” Jesus is aware of it all. It’s one thing to make fun of New Jersey—it’s another thing entirely to make fun of New Jersey within earshot of someone from New Jersey. Nathanael’s prejudice exposed and his heart laid bare, he cannot hide any longer. He is fully known.

This happens when we encounter Jesus. We stand in front of him with our metaphorical double-Spanx on and he says, “Come on, dear one. I made you. I know what you look like under all that. Honesty is our best starting place.”

No matter how we work to tidy up the outward appearance of our souls, trying to behave in a civilized manner, attempting to hide the sins that plague us, doing our best to put a good face on our wounded hearts, Jesus looks at us and sees right through our carefully constructed façade and into our mess. And he loves us still.

He loves us deeply and intimately and fully and radically and unapologetically. He loves us for what we are and wants to lead us to what we could be. More fully alive. More fully his. More fully our true selves—the selves he created, unencumbered by sin and freed to serve him with gladness and singleness of heart.

What are you hiding?

How can you let Jesus in?

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