St. Luke’s UMC
March 10, 2019
There’s an amazing number of well known people who to overcome the words of skeptics that were spoken into their early lives.
Thomas Edison was told by one of his teachers that he was “too stupid to learn anything.”
Walt Disney was fired from his job with the Kansas City Star in 1919, because according to the editor, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
When the Beatles auditioned for Decca Records in 1962, Dick Rowe told Brian Epstein, their manager, that “guitar groups are on their way out.”
Elvis Pressley was told he “would be better off going back to his job as a truck driver.”
Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job because, she was told, she got too emotionally involved in her stories.
Because he struggled at math and foreign languages as a boy one teacher said of Albert Einstein that “nothing good will come of him.”
What causes someone to speak such words of skepticism? Who knows but that they may have had good reason. If we had known those people at such points we may have said the same, and who knows but that such words motivated people to do better. It’s hard to say, but one thing that’s for certain, no skepticism regardless of present reality can determine future possibility. Today we look at the story of a chance encounter that became a change encounter which Jesus had with a young man we could aptly name, The Skeptic.
Before delving into this story I want to make a quick observation about the book we are using for this season of Lent, the Gospel of John. John is identified as the disciple whom Jesus loved, also the author of the three letters near the end of the New Testament. John’s Gospel is believed to be the last written of the four Gospels. It’s tone and style are markedly different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. They are called the synoptic gospels. Synoptic means, “seen alongside of.” They all tell the story of Jesus’ life chronologically each with their own unique emphases. John, however, is told very differently. John is not concerned with the order of events but the nature of who Jesus is.
Toward the end of chapter 1 we read that Jesus begins calling people to be disciples. We recognize the names from the other gospels, Andrew and his brother Peter. Except in those gospels Jesus calls them to leave their nets while fishing. In John there is no mention of them fishing. Instead we are told that Andrew and one other were disciples of John the Baptist, and they were encouraged to leave John to follow Jesus. So clearly we see, as in the other gospels, that Discipleship Means Giving Up Something. In the other gospel they give up fishing. In John they give up a belief. They had believed in John, now they are asked to believe in Jesus. Discipleship always means giving up something. Sometimes it is practical: a career, a habit, our clinging to wealth. But other times, discipleship means letting go of a proposition, an idea, a belief. If you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, did you have to give up any beliefs? Maybe prejudices? Maybe some things you had believed about God but found the closer you studied Jesus the more those beliefs didn’t work for you. Maybe beliefs about your own life.
So on to today’s story. The next person Jesus calls to be a disciple is Philip. Philip finds his friend Nathaniel and tells him basically we have found the one we have been looking for. We get the since that Philip and Nathaniel were serious seekers after God. They probably studied the Torah and looked for the coming Messiah. Now Philip says, “I’ve found him. He’s from Nazareth.” Nathaniel’s response to that news reveals something of his personality. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” I like the way The Message translates Nathaniel’s statement: “Nazareth? You’ve got to be kidding?”
His skepticism gets revealed and perhaps for good reason. We all are tempted to discount and look down on places that appear insignificant. Isn’t that why you can drive into some towns and see signs that tell you of famous people who come from that town. It’s a way of saying, “We matter. Our town is significant.” Let’s test our knowledge this morning of Indiana towns. I’ll mention a small city or town and you see if you can name the famous person from there.
Seymour, Indiana…John Cougar Mellencamp
Peru, Indiana…Cole Porter
Here’s an easy one, Gary, Indiana…Michael Jackson
Columbus, IN…Mike Pence, but on their welcome sign, what name is even larger? Race car driver Tony Stewart.
Union City…my administrative assistant, Marsha Thompson. But her name isn’t on the side, instead they put the home of The McCoy’s. Anybody remember their hit song? “Hang on Sloopy!” When Hang on Sloopy is your claim to fame, you needn’t put anymore.
Well, if you had gone to Nazareth in Jesus’ time the sign would have said, “Welcome to Nazareth: Home of Nobody Special.” Ellsworth Kalas says, “Nazareth had done nothing to win a place in Jewish history or affection. It produced no poet, no king, no notable prophet.” (The Thirteen Apostles, p.61) So no wonder Nathaniel is skeptical, but his question shows that his skepticism has crept into cynicism. He doesn’t just say, “Nazareth has never produced any known people.” He puts a judgment to it. Can anything good come from Nazareth? His skepticism has become cynicism, and Cynicism Won’t Rest Without a Verdict.
When Nathaniel says, Can anything good come from Nazareth, he’s asking a rhetorical question. The answer to him is, “Of course not!” He’s offering a verdict, not an investigation. Since Nazareth had never produced anyone notable, the conclusion for him was, it never will. When we allow cynicism to creep inside us, it doesn’t stop at asking questions and being skeptical. It needs a verdict. Have you ever been tempted to do that?
Ever said about someone, “They will never amount to much.” “That plan will never work.” “That’s a lost cause.”
A few weeks ago I was watching Duke play Louisville in basketball, and they were having an awful game. Duke could nothing right to the delight of the Louisville crowd. I complained, “They stink. They’re going to lose. Game over.” And kept repeating lines to that affect. When they went down by 23 points with about 8 minutes to go, I told Susan, “I don’t need to watch this anymore. I’m going to bed.” Susan responded, “Good.” The next morning I found a note by the coffee maker. Susan had written the final score with the words, “Duke’s biggest comeback in history.” I got on the internet to confirm the unbelievable. So I wrote on the note for Susan, “The comeback started when I went to bed, so I suppose they have me to thank.”
It is so easy to predict a finish when cynicism sets in. We could call that the Nazareth Syndrome, the temptation to give up on something and conclude the worst. Do you have any Nazareths in your life today? Maybe it’s a relationship. Perhaps you have a child with an addiction, or a spouse who wants to leave, or a friendship that has gotten divided. Are you tempted to see it as a Nazareth and say, “what good can come from that?”
Maybe it’s a work situation that is going downhill and you are starting to tell yourself that nothing good is going to come from it.
Maybe it’s a financial problem, or a health crisis, and you are turning it into a Nazareth and saying, “Nothing good will come from this!”
Do you have any Nazareths today? What can turn that thinking around? According to this story, it’s actually rather simple. When Nathaniel asks his cynical question, Philip does not offer an explanation. He doesn’t give a reason why he thinks Jesus is the Messiah. He just says, “Come and see.” And amazingly Nathaniel does. Against his own inclination he goes to see Jesus. He simply makes room in his skepticism.
You see, We Are What We Make Room For. If we are people of hope, we make room for hope. If we are people of love, we make room for love in our hearts. If we are people of joy, we make room to celebrate. We are what we make room for. Remember, a key principle of discipleship involves giving up something. We have to move something out of the way to make room for something better.
National Geographic created a program called This Is Us with Morgan Freeman. It looks at stories that connect all of humanity: power, love, war, peace, freedom. In one episode Freeman travels with another African American man who has been significant in leading a white man from Mississippi out of the Klu Klux Klan. The three sit down together and in this scene Freeman asks him what made him leave the KKK. Take a look at this…(video)
Remember in the Gospel of John disciples had to give up a belief. That is what this man in the video did. He was forced to be with other people in which he saw them as people, not just a race, or sexual orientation, or religion. He saw their humanity in a way that made him see his own. He let go of a belief, in order to believe something better.
Let me ask you, do you believe something today you did not believe ten years ago or twenty years ago? How did you get there? What changed your mind? Did you open yourself up to a new idea? Typically we can’t receive new ideas when we are afraid to let go of something. Maybe we just like believing that a person will never change. It’s just easier to see them that way. Maybe its safer to hold a belief about an issue and ignore learning anything new. But when we are willing to just come and see, we never know where it might lead.
Nathaniel met Jesus. Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite…” Now that would have been a title of respect. Jesus was saying, “Look, a very devout person.” “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Nathaniel basically says in response, “Have we met before?” Jesus said, “Before Philip approached you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Suddenly Nathaniel knew he was in the presence of someone special. He said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the king of Israel.” In other words, “Philip was right. You’re the One!”
Why the sudden change? One minute he can’t be the Messiah because he’s from Nazareth. The next minute he’s the Son of God. What changed? Jesus saw him under the fig tree? What did that mean?
Many homes had large fig trees in front of them because of their large sprawling branches. Most homes were one room. A fig tree in the hot summer provided shade that was like having another room. Some scholars point out how people would use this as a place for prayer and study.
Ellsworth Kalas offers and interesting thought. He says, it may be like a teacher today… So what this means is Nathaniel realized Jesus was watching him. Jesus had his eye on him and wanted to get to know him.
Now other scholars point out that we can’t really know what made Nathaniel respond as he did, and that seems to be the point. Nathaniel felt like Jesus knew something about him that was personal, intimate that he could not have known without divine ability. As Tim Keller says, “It was so private, so significant, so astounding to him that Jesus would know that and still affirm him.” (p.17)
We say that God knows the secrets of our hearts. We look on the outside of a person but God looks on the inside. God knows everything he think. What a shattering notion. Yet, to experience God and know that he still accepts us is a profound experience. Somewhere in this mysterious encounter is the idea that Jesus knew the inside of Nathaniel and still wanted him to be a follower. For Nathaniel that experience cause him to reverse all his skepticism and yield to a God who loves like that. He discovered the Messiah he had been looking for.
Searching Always Precedes Discovery. That should be rather obvious. If you have lost your keys then searching for them will obviously precede finding them. Yet, what an important spiritual reminder. When we are willing to just come and see, to be open to explore we find that we can discover things that are better than we currently have.
In my devotion this past Friday I shared a story by Thomas Long, now retired professor of preaching. He tells about a church in the Midwest that had gotten rather sideways over a decision to support a local medical clinic. The clinic served the families of local migrant workers. One of the forceful members of the board spoke against supporting it. He said, “These workers are in this country illegally, so we’d be supporting illegal activity.”
“But they are people,” said others on the board, “and they need medical care.” Back and forth it went getting very tense at times. They decided to table the vote until next meeting. The next day the pastor was at lunch with the member who spoke out so loudly against supporting the clinic. On the way back to the church they passed the clinic and the pastor asked if he’d mind if they stopped by so he could show it to him. He could vote against it, but at least see it first. Surprisingly the man agreed.
They sat in the waiting room as the pastor explained how the clinic works, the number of people they serve, and so on. The nurse came out and called a name. A little boy walked across the room rubbing his arm in anticipation of the inoculation that was coming. A few minutes later he returned now really rubbing his arm. His lip was quivering as he looked for his mother, but she had gone back by this point with his younger sibling. So he looked for any sympathetic face. He looked at this man who came with the pastor and walked over to him and got in his lap and put his head on the man’s chest.
The man rather uncomfortably put his arms around the boy, sort of surprised by the compassion he felt. But that surprise was nothing like the rest of the church board when he stood at the next meeting to call for the vote to support the clinic.
It All Started When Someone said, “Come and See” That’s all it takes. Just come and see. Not come and vote. Not come and change your mind. Not come and do something different. Just come and see. Because if Jesus is in the encounter, what will happen is we will see someone’s humanity. And as long as we want to argue issues, that’s probably where we will stay, in argument. But when we see someone’s humanity, we never know what we might discovery.
Nathaniel was looking for someone with answers. He was seeking issues. Instead he encountered Jesus who saw his humanity and it changed him.
Is there some area in your life you need to come and see? You need to give it a second look. Don’t close the door so quickly. Don’t say, “Well, I don’t see the need to talk about this matter because my mind is made up.” Just come and see.
So one last thought before we finish, who can you invite to come and see? Clearly people who follow Jesus invite others to come and see. That is how life changing encounters happen. So is there anyone you can invite to come and see? A neighbor? A friend? A colleague. Easter is six weeks away. Start now. Who is someone you can invite to join you that day?