O’er years of experience and discovery, trial and error, triumph and failure, I have come to this epistemological epiphany, this revelation about knowledge (though I’m guessing you all came to this long ago, for me, it’s been slow to arrive): It’s hard to know, to be certain of anything!
We spend lifetimes gathering information, pouring it into our perceiving and processing frameworks of reason, so to arrive at conclusions that help us make sense of our existence. However, life has a way of confronting us with circumstances that challenge our understandings. When that happens, our reaction is crucial. Do we turn away, refusing to engage the experience or do we face it, risking the shattering of our long-sought, firmly-held sense of what we know?
In ancient Judaism, the fig tree was a place of instruction, reflection, and communion with God. There, Nathanael sits, thinking, praying, searching the innermost depths of his being where only he can go and only God knows or so he believes. Philip approaches with momentous news: “We’ve found the one Moses and the prophets said would come!” Nathanael is intrigued. Could it be the Messiah? Then the remainder of Philip’s announcement: “Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathanael, knowing Nazareth is a backwater, insignificant town, erupts with contempt, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
If you and I, given our perspectives and prejudices, ever have disregarded a place, thus, saying, “I’ll never set foot in that place ever or ever again!” or disrespected a person, thus, saying, “I’ll never listen to word that person says!”, then we have an idea of how Nathanael felt.
Nevertheless, at Philip’s invitation, Nathanael comes to Jesus, who describes him accurately. Nathanael is stunned. “How do you know me?” Jesus says, “I saw you.” Not with physical, but spiritual sight. Nathanael, recognizing he stands in the presence of a stranger who knows him as well as only he himself and God, is compelled to confess, “You are the Son of God!”
Nathanael, so like us. We, so like Nathanael. We all share that universal human tendency to trust our assumptions and to respond with skepticism when faced with anything or anyone that challenges what we think or believe we know.
But, again, it’s hard to know, to be certain of anything. So, it is important that we never confuse our convictions with the truth, with God. Though related (we hope!), our convictions and truth are not the same. For truth, God, yea, life itself is filled with miracle and mystery – not riddles that we, through reason, wrestle to resolve, but realities we cannot comprehend completely. Truth, God, and life always are larger, greater than – thus, incapable of being contained, confined by – our convictions.
So, when we are confronted with contradictions to our convictions and we ask, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” may we, like Nathanael, go out to see…
For it’s hard to believe the Messiah would come from insignificant Nazareth…
It’s hard to believe God would speak to a young boy, Samuel, and not to the learned priest, Eli …
It’s hard to believe the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., holding up a mirror to America reflecting what she was meant to be, but had not yet been, could pierce the conscience of a nation in regard to justice and civil rights.
At the heart of any, all of this is the miracle of transformation. A transformation that occurs when one experiences the mystery of knowing that one is known.(1) When that happens, one recognizes a call to be greater, larger, truer than one previously may have believed possible or than one previously had allowed oneself to be.
Nathanael, realizing he was known by Jesus, was called to confess, “You are the Son of God” and to follow Jesus as his disciple.
Samuel, recognizing he was known and named by God, was called to prophesy and, though terrible was the word he was given by God to declare, he was commissioned, compelled, for the sake of justice, to deliver it.
America, reminded by Martin’s prophetic speech of who she was meant to be, her destiny to grant liberty and justice for all, was called to repent; an act of repentance – and, clearly, for me, given the events of this past week when folk in high places disparaged folk in other places(2) – still in the making.
Maybe that’s why it’s easier to trust our assumptions, especially when something or someone challenges what we think we know. For it’s always easier to remain just as we are or to yearn to go back to the way things used to be. But all of that has little, yea, nothing to do with knowing truth, God, life, and ourselves.
Illustration: Nathanael under the fig tree, Harold Copping (1863-1932)
(1) The psalmist first recognizes and revels in the mystery of being known by God, “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. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it” (Psalm 139.1-6), then responds with the gratitude of acceptance, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well” (Psalm 139.14).
(2) I refer to President Trump’s terse and profane characterization of African nations and Haiti during this past week’s meeting with U.S. lawmakers concerning immigration reform.