Come & See
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on John 1: 29 – 51. Focus on the importance of using our own eyes and ears to see what is true and what is not. Check out Jody Sinkway and the choir as they sing – Precious Lord Take My Hand.
Have you ever heard of the Implicit Association Tests (I.A.T.’s)? These tests have been used for psychological research on people’s implicit assumptions about others in terms of a variety of categories — age, race, sexual orientation, skin tone, religion, and others, and there’s evidence that they can be very effective in testing what attitudes and prejudices people hold consciously, but even more importantly they can be very effective in testing our unconscious attitudes and prejudices.
I took two of these tests on Friday. The first test had to do with tax relief versus social programs. On that one I had a slight preference for tax relief over social programs.
The second test was on racial preference and according to the score I had no preference in terms of race, which is do in large measure to the people who have been through and in my life, especially the people of this congregation. That’s not to say I have no prejudices because like Nathaniel: I’ve asked the same question. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth, out of Hackensack, out of Flemington, out of St. Louis, out of Jacksonville and Galesburg, Illinois and you can fill in the blank here of wherever you’ve questioned because of hidden prejudices or assumptions.
I believe that the only way racism and prejudice can be minimized is by living within a multicultural and multicolored environment and that’s why congregations like this one are so special but unfortunately all too rare.
An Implicit Association Test takes 10 minutes or less to complete, and the results are often surprising. – I encourage you to check them out.
In the circles in which I move, “open-minded” is considered a compliment and “prejudiced” an insult, and on the whole, I think this is as it should be. There are some things, though, about how our minds work that make complete open-mindedness impossible and not entirely desirable.
If you place a wax bowl on a pedestal in your microwave and zap it for a while, it’ll become so open that it won’t hold anything. Our minds work in part by organizing information into categories, by keeping things distinct in ways that are artificial but at least occasionally helpful.
People in Jesus’ culture weren’t so embarrassed about some of the things we would consider “prejudice,” and this week’s gospel story is an excellent case in point. Nathaniel is convinced that if he knows which village Jesus came from, he’ll know as much about Jesus as he needs to know – much as he would if he knew who Jesus’ father was.
Furthermore, Nathan is fine with that prejudgment cutting both ways. He asks Jesus literally, “from where do you know me (to be)? What do you believe to be my hometown?” Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree,” in words reminiscent of Old Testament passages in which this image stands for one’s home.
In other words, Jesus saw Nathaniel at home, and therefore knows everything he needs to know about him. His culture wasn’t individualistic or introspective as ours is, so people would have perceived this manner of thinking about who’s trustworthy as being perfectly reasonable.
The entire Gospel of John assesses people in this manner. In fact the first thing we know about Philip is that he’s from Bethesda, the city of Andrew and Peter, and John seems to think that this will tell his readers everything that they need to know about Philip. And this is a reasonable assumption to make since Philip behaves as Andrew and Peter do.
But what makes this passage so amazing is that the people in our story did not stick to what was reasonable or expected. Nathaniel notices that Jesus comes from Nazareth, which indicates that he’s got no messianic credentials, that he’s simply from nowhere’s’ville. But when Nathaniel’s invited to “come and see,” Nathaniel goes anyway, and sees that Jesus is a teacher, the Son of God, and the King of Israel.
This tells me that the crucial question isn’t whether we should or shouldn’t have prejudices, because we do and we can’t help it, but the real question is: What do we do when we’re confronted with something or by someone who doesn’t fit into our prior experiences or expectations?
When Nathaniel is confronted with the fact that Philip believes that this man from Nazareth is the one about whom Moses and the prophets spoke, he’s willing to come and see. His trust in Philip overcomes his prejudice – at least enough for him to go to Jesus to investigate, to question him, and to listen to the answers. That’s what’s important here.
And then, when what Nathaniel hears and sees doesn’t fit with his prior prejudice that nothing good can come from Nazareth, Nathaniel makes another important decision: He revises his assumption. He’s willing to discard his pre-judgments to accommodate new information, a truth that doesn’t fit into his old assumptions and prejudices and this leads to his recognition and confession of Jesus as the Son of God.
That Nathaniel had prejudices is not the issue. We all do. What is at issue is the ability to revise one’s thoughts and assumptions based on new information and experience, and as crucial as this particular turning point is from Nathaniel, he’s going to be asked to do even more radical revisions in terms of his thinking in the days to come.
He’s confessed that Jesus is a blessed teacher, the Son of God, and the King of Israel, but Jesus is not going to behave, as those categories would suggest. Jesus associates with those whom the authorities deem outsiders rejected by God and right-thinking Israelites. He’s going to confront the power of Rome, but not to seek his own crown; he will die the death of a slave rather than take his place at the head of an army. If Nathaniel is going to continue to confess that Jesus is the Son of God, eventually that will mean more than revising his expectations about Jesus. It will mean revising his expectations of God.
Nathaniel will have to let go of the idea that God’s blessing of Israel depends on Israel’s remaining distinct from all the other nations. He will have to follow a mission that invites all the nations to come and join Israel in God’s kingdom. He will have to let go of the idea that God’s justice is about punishing the unrighteous to follow the Son of God who blesses and forgives his persecutors.
And he’ll have to let go of more than ideas: he’ll be leaving behind his village, his family, everything upon which he formerly found honor to follow one whom the world shamed but God exalted. He’ll lose his life, as he knew it, but he’ll find abundant life beyond his wildest expectations.
And this is what God continues to do to us. God is in the business of breaking down our expectations, our prejudices about others and our assumptions about how life is supposed to be and invites us into areas where God is. God is in the business of breaking down all of our barriers and prejudices, not because we’re so bad, but because we can be so much more.
So if you find that your worldview, your views of others who are different from you, is troubling to you, then go and see what God wants you to see. You just might find a whole new world awaits you – one that’s brighter, fuller, bigger, more beautiful and hope filled from the one you assumed it to be. Come and see what is coming out of Nazareth and Hackensack. Amen