Is Seeing Believing?
Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV)
In 2015, a picture of a dress became a global topic of discussion. Was it white with gold stripes, or was it blue with black stripes? [show picture of the dress] The dress was going to be worn by Cecilia Bleasdale to her daughter’s wedding. She snapped a picture of the dress and sent it to her daughter. Her daughter disagreed about the perceived colors, and she posted it on Facebook to get her friends’ opinions. Some saw the dress as white with gold lace stripes, and some saw blue with black lace stripes. It actually was blue with black lace stripes, but it highlighted what neuroscientists have been studying for years: that human beings often see or perceive differently for a variety of reasons.
Neuroscientists have studied how the human brain takes our prior beliefs (or expectations) and uses them to interpret what we are experiencing in the present. This is known as Bayesian integration, and “MIT neuroscientists have discovered distinctive brain signals that encode these prior beliefs. They have also found how the brain uses these signals to make judicious decisions in the face of uncertainty” (Trafton).
The book Perception: How Our Bodies Shape Our Minds, by Dennis Proffitt and Drake Baer, discusses how our bodies can influence our perception and decision-making. For example, studies show that easy-to-read statements or rhyming statements seem truer than statements that are worded in a more complex way or that don’t rhyme. In another study, people who were tired thought distances were farther than they actually were, showing how our physiological needs for food and rest can affect how we perceive reality. One study in the book revealed that people’s accuracy in simple math calculations was impaired up to 45 percent if the resulting answer would contradict a political belief they held (Suttie).
We can find that these skewed perceptions can affect us when it comes to our faith. We can read scripture passages in the Bible, and we think we understand what they mean, but we often forget that we are reading from our own cultural perspective (for this author, that equates to a modern American or Western industrial viewpoint) when the scriptures are an ancient text written to a mostly agrarian people in the Middle East a long time ago. This is why understanding the context of a passage is useful because we learn a little about cultural norms at that time and the audience to whom the scripture was written. By being aware of our inherent biases, we can understand the truth of scripture without resorting to taking verses out of context and misapplying them.
You can take heart that we are not the first group of people to misunderstand scripture. The Jews living during Jesus’s day were watching for a Messiah, but their prior beliefs and expectations made them miss it when he came. Even the message of John the Baptist was not understood. Let’s read today’s text.
[Read Luke 3:1-6, NRSV]
What can we notice about this passage?
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2 NRSV)
The first couple of verses read like a “Who’s Who” in terms of political power in ancient Judea. A Roman emperor, Tiberius, ruled over the Roman governor who ruled over local Jewish leaders who were put in place by the Romans. Luke might have taken this opportunity to set the stage for the reader for John the Baptist’s entrance, or he might be contrasting human “kingdoms” with God’s kingdom and God’s way of moving in the world.
It was in this political context that “the word of God came to John” in the wilderness. The “wilderness” has been portrayed in several biblical accounts as a place of desolation, but at the same time, a place of provision. Think about the Old Testament stories of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years with the provision of manna and quail (Exodus 16), or a bit later in the story, Jesus’s experience of Satan’s temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11).
We can speculate that John’s time spent in the wilderness enabled him to be able to receive (perceive) the word of God.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3 NRSV)
John’s response to receiving the word of God was to preach repentance (Greek metanoia). Metanoia means more than a simple “I’m sorry.” It means an about-face, a new way of seeing oneself and others that results in transformed behavior.
The next few verses recount Isaiah’s prophecy of the one preparing the way for the Messiah. Straight paths are the most direct and the least confusing ways to get where you want to go. Perhaps verses 4-6 are a metaphor to show how God’s ways are better than human ways.
As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:4-6)
- 5: Notice the use of contrasts in the verse: valleys are filled, mountains made low, the crooked made straight, rough ways smoothed. The use of contrasts suggests that God’s systems (that is, his ways of moving in our world) often contradict human beings’ typical expectations and beliefs. The prophecy by Isaiah seems to say that for people to understand or perceive what God is doing, there must be a new perspective about oneself and the world. This “new way of seeing” is contrary to our typical tendencies or expectations. We expect mountains to be high and crooked roads to be, well, crooked. These verses symbolically portray the preparation we need in order to “see” Jesus in our world as being different than what we might expect, similar to what our ancient Jewish counterparts had to go through.
- 6: The “salvation of God” is Jesus: Emmanuel – God with us. The wording “shall see” here often means “to see with the mind” or “to perceive (with inward spiritual perception)” (https://biblehub.com/greek/3708.htm).
Being able to see (or perceive) that Jesus was the Messiah required a new way of thinking, one that broke free of preconceived ideas and expectations. This was true for Jews in the days of John the Baptist, and it is still true for us today.
Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, NRSV). How many people saw Jesus but did not realize (or perceive) he was God in the flesh because he was not fitting the script of their preconceived notions? We run the same risk of being blinded by our own cultural and personal biases unless we make an effort to transform the way we view scripture and our world.
- Recognize we all are affected by biases. Because we are human, we cannot help but be affected by our culture, our personal history, our education, and lots of other variables. Understanding this helps us take a step back and pause when we begin to feel self-righteous or inflexible when it comes to a particular issue. We need to take a moment to analyze whether our response to God’s word is motivated by his love for us and for others or by firmly held beliefs based on our own perception and preferences.
- Understand that the truth of scripture is bigger than the cultural context it was written in. We recognize that often scripture seems like it doesn’t apply to us today. When this happens, it’s usually because we may be reading it with a modern, Western viewpoint (or another cultural viewpoint, depending on where you are in the world) rather than asking a few questions:
- Who is Jesus? Is he the Savior of the world, or just for those I socialize with?
- Why is the author including this story here?
- What change is taking place, and what would the significance of that change be to the people living during that time?
- What does this story reveal about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
- Repentance (metanoia) is how we prepare our hearts to properly perceive God at work in our world. We engage in “metanoia” when we recognize that our grasp of reality or truth is always affected by our personal beliefs and biases, and even our physiological needs for rest and food. We humbly remain open to the larger truths of scripture that speak to our world today without getting caught in the weeds of legalism, where we pick and choose ancient practices that seem to suit us and expect others to follow. We realize that God’s way of moving in the world is very different from what we might expect or even want (at times), and we continue to grow in our ability to “see” what personal biases stand in the way of fully loving God, ourselves, and our neighbors.
We started with a dress that was blue with black lace… or was it white with gold lace. Our eyes can be easily fooled. More importantly, we learned that our human way of viewing ourselves, others, and the world is easily skewed. By humbly accepting these limitations, holding an attitude of repentance (metanoia) and openness, and asking God for wisdom and discernment, we will be able to see and perceive the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at work in our own lives and in the lives of others.