His Countenance Upon Us
I’ve always thought Nathaniel’s first reaction to Jesus a bit over the top. Jesus walks up to him and says “Nathaniel! Behold a man without guile. I saw you under the tree.” To which Nathanael emphatically replies “Rabi! You are the son of God! The King of Israel!” I have always thought this was a sudden turn, an outburst of enthusiasm. Jesus’ statement was strong, but surely Nathanael’s response was a bit disproportionate. We can’t go around declaring people the Son of God every time they see us sitting under trees.
On Saturday, Elena and I went out to a coffee shop for croissants and coffee. While in Oxford, my sister and I would do this every Saturday: sip and talk and people watch. I miss her, and I’m also glad for my Elena friend. I indulged in a delicious flat white, which is a delightful espresso beverage I discovered in England and have been missing since I left. Starbucks thinks they serve flat whites; they sit on a throne of lies.
The coffee shop we went to has to be the most hipster place I’ve ever been. It’s tucked in a building with tall ceilings on a corner in Hollywood. On a Saturday like this last one, there are great lines of people lined up to get their coffee which is made of equal parts pretentiousness and deliciousness; I can’t complain. All of the male Baristas have beards and smart looking vests. The girls have artistic looking tattoos and thick cut fringes in their hair. All the customers look like they should have their own TV shows, novels, or comic strips. Shapes, sizes, colors, bouncy curls, stringy strands, smiles, frowns. They are a diverse and beautiful bunch. So much to look at. So much to see.
In that crowd was a woman with red shoes and sadness written in the lines of her eyes.
Elena had claimed a table and was staking it out while I got the joe and grub (can one appropriately call a flatwhite “joe” and a croissant “grub”? I don’t know. Oh well). I finally returned, triumphant and eager to begin getting powdered sugar all over myself from the delicious almond croissant I had procured. For a few moments we savored our sumptuous feast and held relaxed conversations to the rhythm of the morning. Then, we felt her.
The table we were sitting at was outside and wedged up beside a long stair case. She sat down there. She wore an oversized black sweatshirt, a black beanie to match, and bright red shoes which were disharmonious with the rest of her dark appearance. Her face was drawn and pale and obscured by pieces of hair rebelliously emerging from the black beanie. Her eyes looked sad, but they looked like they could be happy, like they had been happy before. After sitting down quietly, she set down her small but stuffed bag, and stared steadily at a spot on the pavement. Occasionally, she pulled her long sleeves over her hands as if to stay warm; it was 80 degrees.
I say we felt her, rather than saw her because her presence brought such a sense of sadness and heaviness that as soon as she sat, Elena and I shared glances. I felt uncomfortable, not because of her presence, but because I couldn’t decide what to do. Being my extraverted, bold, and sometimes awkward self, I ventured to tell her that I liked her shoes. Sometimes my mouth runs faster than my brain. It was the best I could think of, okay?
She turned and smiled at me and said thanks. Her eyes could break you in half. So soft, motherly, and worn thin.
Elena and I shared a glance again.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
She turned her head away slowly, almost peacefully, and did not respond. A few minutes later she stood up, shifted her bag on her shoulder, and left.
The day went on, and was a good one, but her presence stuck with me. Her sadness was palpable. It made me feel a bit helpless. I wished I could have done something, said something, been something for her. I wished I could have known her story. As I went about my day I prayed for her. I wondered who else would see her, I wondered if she knew she was worth seeing.
That place was so full of people to see. Elena and I sat there and imagined novels we could write about them all. But in the plethora of people, there is also a possibility of anonymity. The possibility of sitting on the steps, and of leaving un-seen, or at least unknown.
I think so much of life is in the desire and action of seeing and knowing. As flashes of the image of the woman with the red shoes came through my mind that day, I was reminded of my own desires to be seen and known. There have been moments where I wondered if anyone could understand the world in my head and heart, and wondered indeed if I really understood it myself. My own moments of this are so often caught in the net of my beloved ones, but they are there, I think, experiences that beat at the heart of what it is to be a fallen human in a broken world.
It’s funny though. I think as much as we all desire to be seen, we also work hard to have only parts of us seen. We want to be known, but fear people knowing everything. What if someone knew every rude thought I had? Or the silly insecurities? Could they still love me in my sin and silliness?
So, we draw em’ in, we drive em’ out. It’s a dance. It’s a bit silly. Humans are complicated.
I think that’s why Nathanael reacted so strongly to Jesus. Jesus saw him; he was under the tree. But Jesus also knew him: he was an Israelite without deceit. I’ve always wandered what it was Nathanael was doing. Either way, the fact remains: Jesus saw and knew, and for whatever reason, Nathanael responded in worship.
This happens again and again in the gospels. The woman at the well, the man at the pool of Bethesda, the Paralytic, Mary and Martha. Someday, search through the gospels, especially John, and notice every time it says Jesus sees someone, and notice his reaction to seeing them and their reaction to seeing Him: repentance, restoration, love.
Throughout the gospels there is a consistent ministry of seeing. But when Jesus sees, there is no hiding. When Jesus sees, there is no halfhearted dance of hiding and hello-ing. Jesus sees and He sees all. I think that is why so often when people realize Jesus can see them, they respond as Peter did, saying “depart from me! I am a sinful man!” Or, as Isaiah “I am a man of unclean lips from a people with unclean lips.”
But, when Jesus sees it never ends there.
I find that often, when I begin learning something in my life, it crops up again and again. For example, yesterday in Church, the visiting pastor talked about Jesus seeing Peter for the first time, Peter’s confession of sin, and Jesus’ reaction.
“Behold! I say that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell will not overpower it.”
What unexpected words to a confession of sin. But, as the speaker pointed out, to be seen by Jesus is to be seen not only for what we are, but for who we could be, who we were, and for the people we were created to be. When Jesus’ looks at us he sees all that is there. ALL of it, and yet, he calls out the possibility in us because He loves us.
Did you know that the same word is used when Jesus first looks at Peter to recruit him to ministry as when he looks at Peter after he has denied him? Well, I didn’t. Jesus saw Peter when he declared him to be the rock upon which he would build his church, and he saw Peter when he denied even knowing him three times. The speaker pointed out that both of those moments of “seeing” led to redemption. In the moment of Peter’s greatest failure, Jesus did not look away, but towards him.
I think that when God sees us, we are able to truly begin to see ourselves. When God sees us, it restores and makes beautiful. When God sees us, He loves us. Oh, I want to say it again to pound it into my brain. When God sees us, yes, he sees the sin and the mistakes, but overwhelmingly in scripture I perceive that he loves us. His seeing is born of loving and leads to redemption.
When I think of the woman with the red shoes, I pray for her and I trust her to the God that sees her. The same God that sees the strange styles of the Hollywood heroes at the coffee shop, and my own out of place hairs, and the sins and strengths of all of us in between. He sees us and He loves us. May I, may we, like Nathanael let that knowledge lead us to say “Rabi, you are the Son of God.” May his knowledge of us lead love of him.
Well, I’ve rambled enough, and I’m off to my last first day of college classes. But, in signing off let me leave you with what I read this morning: the oldest known text of scripture.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.
May we know what it is that He sees us, and that his countenance is upon us.