March 30, 2014 - The Fourth Sunday in Lent

"Seeing is (Not) Believing”
Loren Crow, Ph.D.

1 Samuel 16:1-12; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Amen

Seeing is believing. The reason we say things like is that they’re more or less true. Of course we all know, and sometimes we’re even aware, that there’s more to it. "To see" is quite a bit more complex than just taking an object from the outer world and putting it, like magic, into our mind. For one thing, the most ordinary objects are actually composed of millions of particles in constant motion. Furthermore "seeing" involves: photons being generated by a light source, bouncing off of and refracting from those millions of particles, and striking the nerves in our eyes, producing a current that makes its way to our brain and gives a sensation of sight. In fact seeing is as much a matter of what happens inside the brain as it is of what goes on out there in the world. And yet we all have the sense that seeing something is primary evidence, even the most important kind of evidence, the kind of evidence that can't be denied, nor should it.

But seeing is not, after all, believing. As our technology improves, the boundaries between visual stimulus and reality become increasingly hard to gauge. We look at two-dimensional TVs and perceive them as three-dimensional objects. Virtual reality changes how we practice medicine and to wage war. Movies like The Matrix and Avatar raise the question: is it possible that one day we will wake up to find ourselves living in virtual worlds whose reality is mainly mental rather than physical? What if we live there already and always have? My guess is that stories like those will continue to challenge our presumptions about always and only believing what we see. 

What I want to notice is that what’s so often hidden from us is stuff that’s really wonderful. It struck me last week, as I noticed the plants emerging from the ground, and the flowers from their buds, that none of this could take place if there hadn’t been a whole lot going on underground, or at the tips of branches, of which I’d been unaware. Whether you call it the divine logos or nature's mystery, the unseen world is the 90% of the iceberg that goes unnoticed almost all of the time. 

This is why even the best of us are deeply flawed when it comes to making judgments about others. We heard this morning that Samuel himself, who should know better than anyone that appearances can be deceiving, would have anointed one of David’s older brothers. God has to remind him that the usual ways of identifying who the important people are don’t actually work very well, and the reason is that we see only what’s visible. We’re too easily deceived by appearances, whereas God sees the truth about people (יהוָה יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב “YHWH sees the heart”). And who God chooses — at least if we look at Scripture this is true — are not typically the beautiful, the rich, and the well thought-of; it’s the lowly shepherds, the ones no one else expects. The reason for this is not, as some suspect, that God’s ways are simply weird or wacky; it’s that we lack sufficient insight to perceive what to God is obvious. We see only in part; God sees the whole.

The story we heard this morning from the John’s gospel illustrates the point. It’s not so much that “the Pharisees” (let alone “the Jews”) were so stupid or so wicked that they couldn't see the evidence that was set out in front of them, but that many of us (not just them) are unable to do so. These Pharisees, or at least some of them (see v. 16), fail to see what God is doing in Jesus because they’re used to thinking in terms of what God did in Moses. Now the point in the story is NOT that they were wrong to find God working through Moses (God surely was); it’s that they should also have paid attention to Isaiah. 

For example, Isaiah 35:5-6 says

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, 
and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 
then shall the lame man leap like a hart, 
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. 
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, 
and streams in the desert

If they had heard Isaiah (and in fact many other places in the OT), they’d have realized: in Jesus God was acting like God always does, saving His people from their distress, bringing light into the darkness, and bringing those who have been cast out back into the Kingdom. These Pharisees, who were in general good religious people like you or me, no doubt could believe that the Kingdom of God was coming eventually; the idea that it was here among them, right now? Well I might have to see it to believe it, and I bet that you might too.

The truth, though, is that we have to believe it to see it. Seeing is as much a matter of the mind as it of external realities. How often we miss the truth, the beauty, the miraculous in our midst because it fails to conform to our pre-conceived ideas! Seeing only what we are prepared to see, we miss the wonderful. But here comes this man whose whole life has been changed by Jesus, whose story persistently refuses to be ignored. This man was born blind, not because either he or his parents had sinned, but so that “God’s works” (τὰ ἔργα τοῦ Θεοῦ; that is, what God is doing) might be “made obvious” (φανερωθῇ). Made obvious to whom? Why, to us Pharisees, of course. God is not content to let us continue in our myopia, but gives us signs that call us to a new way of being, called faith — a way that trusts in God’s sovereign goodness. With the eyes of faith, we begin to observe not the deathly world that’s all around us that’s plain to see, but the life coursing through root and branch that will soon bring forth fruit. One way to say it is that the world actually changes, the valley of the shadow of death becomes a banquet laid out and overflowing; another way to say it is that we come to recognize the limitations of our vision and learn to trust God. Either way, our Lenten existence in this world, which St. Jerome called a “vale of tears,” is caught up into the larger and more hopeful LIFE that is the real truth of God’s reality and of which we see only part. 

What’s true for the whole world is also true of our neighbors, our children, our parents, our husbands and wives, and even ourselves. Like Samuel we’re tempted to judge people according to the standard given by our culture, a standard that is based on observable and measurable criteria. But this misses the mark. It’s not so much that our standards are incorrect; it’s that their field of view is too small. Our standards may be right and yet our judgments wholly unjust. We are able to see what’s out there on the surface for all to see, but only God can see the heart. That’s why only God’s judgment is really just.

Because I see only the outward appearance, I tend to forget how much I don’t know about people. Their emotional life, their thought processes, their histories, the pains or joys they secretly feel, are all totally hidden from my view. And that’s just the present tense; of their future I know nothing at all. Who knows how we will be transformed over time as God patiently molds us, like a potter molding clay. But the very truth is that God sees our heart, and not just who we are now but also who we can be a thousand years in the future, and thinks we’re worth the effort.

This is why we can have hope for ourselves and for others. God sees the truth about us and lovingly, oh so patiently nourishes the good while cutting the bad, as a master gardener knows just where and when to prune. Most of this goes on unseen to the mortal eye until the moment when, beyond all expectations, we look outside our window and notice that something really amazing has been going on right under our noses. The incredible, beautiful truth was there all along though we were unable to see it. When will we finally know fully what now we barely glimpse? I have no idea. But I think we can trust the God who promises it. In the places and in the people where we least expect it, where we see only hopelessness, God sees and is busy perfecting such glory that when, at last, we see it, it will take our breath away. Until then, our baptismal vows bind us to "seek and serve Christ in all persons." Christ is there, in them and in us, waiting to be discovered. We must seek Him in them. For now we see only very partially, dimly, but we have the strong assurance that someday we shall see face to face.