Sunday’s sermon: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

illusion 2

Texts used – 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

  • One of the most enthralling, awe-inspiring forms of magic acts performed today is illusion. Headlining names like David Copperfield and Penn and Teller make their living on elaborately and convincingly tricking your eye – and, more importantly, your brain – into believing one thing is happening while there is something else happening entirely. This technique is called the “misdirect.” The magician gets your attention focused on one specific thing – an object, an action, a sequined and smiling assistant or a cute, fuzzy rabbit in a hat, perhaps – and while your attention is focused there, the magician performs a different quick and often simple action. Voila! Magic!
    • Often part of Penn and Teller’s schtick = actually explaining the simpler parts of the trick and misdirection itself as their misdirection à keep us focused on their explanation while they perform the trick
    • Works incredibly effectively – even when we know this is what’s happening! – because our eyes and minds are initially presented with one solution which we readily accept → that “false solution” distracts us from what is really going on
      • On psychology of magic: People look for confirmation that their own theory is correct. … The false solution is, therefore, used as a distraction from the real solution. Research in problem solving shows that once we have one solution in mind, it is very difficult to consider alternatives.[1]  → In a way, it’s all about assumptions and expectations. The magician plays on our assumptions that whatever is going on with the misdirect is more important than anything else that might be going on and on our expectation that something amazing will happen … as if by magic.
  • This week, we’re going to explore a little deeper into this idea of Jesus as a Man of Mystery – the ways in which, throughout his ministry, Jesus continues to reveal more and more about himself and his mission while at the same time insisting that his identity remain a secret.
    • Spent a lot of time last week talking about the gospel of Mk because this idea of Messianic secrecy is especially prevalent in Mk → And we will re-immerse ourselves in the Gospel of Mark next week … However, this week, we’re jumping to the gospel of John – to this interesting story about expectations and assumptions about who Jesus is and what he could possibly be doing.
  • Set-up for gospel passage
    • Today’s story follows 3 other short but important stories in Jn’s gospel
      • STORY 1: John’s testimony to the Jewish leaders[2]  → John the Baptist had been stirring up all sorts of crowds and disciples with his message of baptism and repentance and a coming Messiah, so much so that the Jewish leaders were starting to get a little worried. So they sent a few of their own to question John – basically a “who do you think you are?” mission.
        • John’s response = I am NOT … the Christ, Elijah, a prophet
        • Testifies to the coming of Christ: Those sent by the Pharisees asked, “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.”[3]
        • Important story because John the Baptist is basically acting as Jesus’ misdirect at this point → John’s the one creating the spectacle and all the drama. John’s the one with the huge group of disciples. John’s the one publicly (and loudly!) speaking out about God and God’s Kingdom. John is the one garnering all the attention. John is the distraction. And while he’s doing that, Jesus slips onto the scene almost completely unnoticed.
      • STORY 2: baptism of Jesus[4] (talked about this last week) → important because in this encounter as recorded in Jn’s gospel, John the Baptist verbally witnesses to Jesus’ encounter with God: John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”[5]
        • Important because of the expectations that this lays out for the people → The Messiah was supposed to be the one to come and free them from Roman oppression, not in any sort of quiet, spiritual, grace-filled way like God and Jesus had in mind but in a mighty, warrior, overthrow-the-oppressors sort of way. The people expected a gladiator on a white horse with a sword in one hand and a scepter in the other – someone to give the Romans what for and banish them from Israel’s holy home. Instead, what they eventually got was a rabbi on a donkey with bread in one hand, a cup in the other, and nail scars to boot – someone who gave death what for and banished the power of sin and death. Not what they expected.
      • STORY 3: calling the 1st disciples[6]  → John the Baptist is standing around with a couple of his disciples and points Jesus out to them (not super subtle about it either: “Look! The Lamb of God!”), and the disciples – Andrew and Simon – decide to follow Jesus
        • Encounter in which Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter
        • Important because this is the encounter that gets the snowball rolling → First two join Jesus. Then, in today’s passage, two more. Then, later on, a few more. And a few more. And a few more. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In a way, already here in John 1, this is the beginning of the end for Jesus.
          • Again, upending people’s expectations and assumptions about who the Messiah would be – turning those expectations on their heads with a whole new message and whole new reality
  • Idea of blown-away expectations = part of our OT text this morning, too
    • Poor little Samuel asleep in the temple à Now, remember that Samuel is sleeping in the temple and living with the priests because his mother, Hannah, has given him to God’s work.[7]
      • Hannah prayed and prayed for a child → God finally gives her Samuel → to show gratitude to God, she gives Samuel to God’s service when he is only 3 yrs. old
    • So in the middle of the night, Samuel hears his name being called. And as per his expectations and assumptions – because who else would be calling him?? – Samuel runs to the bedside of Eli, the priest, and says, “I’m here! You called me?” Eli, patient but puzzled says, “No. I didn’t call. Go back to bed.”
      • Happens a 2nd time: Samuel hears God calling → thinks it’s Eli → runs to Eli’s side → Eli says, “Nope. Wasn’t me. Go back to bed.”
      • Happens a 3rd time → And this time, Eli tumbles to what is happening. He realizes that Samuel is hearing the voice of God calling him, so he instructs Samuel to once again go back and lie down and, when he hears the voice calling yet again, to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”[8]
    • This is such a clear story about expectations and about how God can and often does function completely outside of what we could even begin to expect or fathom. According to our text, Samuel “didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him,”[9] and yet, that lack of knowledge, that lack of understanding did not stop God from calling him – from calling this little boy who, though he lived in the temple and served the priests, didn’t even know God yet.
      • Often expect our OT prophets and servants to be giants among people – heavy hitters like Abraham and Jacob and Elijah → people who had strong relationships with God
      • And yet in this story, God also turns our own expectations and assumptions about those Old Testament roles on their heads and calls a child. → just another illustration that God can do whatever God wants to do, call whomever God wants to call, work through whatever crazy situation God wants to work through … no matter what we may think about it.
  • Brings us back around to today’s NT story from Jn
    • Day after Jesus calls Andrew and Simon Peter, he decides to go to Galilee → finds Philip along the way → Jesus: “Follow me!” … and Philip does! But before he joins the crowd, Philip runs to get Nathanael, excitedly proclaiming to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”[10] You can almost feel Philip’s enthusiasm and passion jump off the page!
    • But let’s talk about Nathanael’s response for a minute. It’s less-than-excited to say the least. Skeptical … even rude and condescending. “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”[11]  → all kinds of layers of assumptions and expectations wrapped up in that statement
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t significant enough – isn’t a big enough player on the local stage
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t powerful enough
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t prestigious enough
      • Assumption that the little, paltry, inconsequential blip that is Nazareth simply isn’t good enough to produce something as worthy as the Messiah
        • Scholar: Nazareth was a village of 200-400 people. … The Hebrew Scriptures never mention Nazareth, much less associate it with messianic expectations. … In Nathanael’s view, Jesus could be nothing more than a simple new from an insignificant village in Galilee. The Messiah would certainly be of more prominent parentage and come from a more significant town.[12]
    • Friends, as someone who stands up here Sunday after Sunday preaching and praying about the love of God for all people and how grace is a gift given freely with no strings attached – including geographical strings, including racial ethnic strings – I cannot read this passage today and not address this week’s headlines. I cannot speak with you about God’s justice and mercy … I cannot claim a Savior born into the desolation and filth of a stable … I cannot honestly proclaim a Word and a table and a community for all and not denounce the words spoken and condoned by the people in power in this country this week calling Haiti and African nations a name that I won’t say in church.[13] Let’s just say “latrine countries.” First, we need to call out in no uncertain terms how truly racist and prejudiced those statements are. It is no coincidence that those “latrine countries” are all populated mostly by people with darker skin. And we need to name the assumptions being made about those countries and their contributions to the world: that they are not significant enough – not big enough players on the world stage, that they are not powerful enough, that they are not prestigious enough, that these nations and the people in them are paltry, inconsequential blips incapable of producing anything worthwhile. And in the face of those horribly unfair assumptions, we also need to recognize that everyone that Jesus chose to minister to – everyone that Jesus chose to go to in their time of need – found themselves in less-than-perfect circumstances … in “latrine” places in life: lepers cast out of their communities because of their disease, sinners shunned by their communities for their actions, women devalued by society for their gender, Gentiles reviled by Jesus’ own people for their “wrongness” – wrong thinking, wrong worship practices, wrong belief. All of these people were deemed worthless just like the people from these nations were deemed worthless by those in power this week. How often do we make assumptions walking down the street about the person who’s dressed differently than us – the man in the kaftan or the woman in the hijab? How often do we make assumptions when we hear another language being spoken in line at the grocery store or at Target? How often do we make split-second assumptions based on nothing more significant than skin color?
      • NT story today shows just how prevalent those assumptions can be when Nathanael turns them on none other than the Christ himself: “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
      • Scholar: It seems natural that people were disillusioned with who Jesus is. Jesus was unlike anything they had encountered before. Yet, like any good illusionist, Jesus is not forthcoming with evidence or clues that give away all fo who he is. All he does is invite us to come and see. … I wonder if it is Jesus’ way of shaking us up so that we are open to the possibilities instead of distracted by our own conclusions and assumptions.[14]  → Y’all, we cannot deny that assumptions are part of our world, and that very often, just like the assumptions Nathanael made of Jesus, those assumptions are completely unfounded and wholly unfair. But Jesus came, not to reinforce those assumptions, but to obliterate them by revealing the truly grace-filled, all-encompassing nature of God’s love for all people, no matter where you’re from.
        • Find promise of hope and redemption even in the midst of our mistakes – Jesus to Nathanael: Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these!”[15]

[1] Dr. Jeremy Dean. “Psychology of Magic: 3 Critical Techniques” on PsyBlog, http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/08/psychology-of-magic-3-critical.php. Published Aug. 28, 2008, accessed Jan. 14, 2018.

[2] Jn 1:19-28.

[3] Jn 1:24-27.

[4] Jn 1:29-34.

[5] Jn 1:32-34.

[6] Jn 1:35-42.

[7] 1 Sam 1.

[8] 1 Sam 1:9.

[9] 1 Sam 1:7.

[10] Jn 1:45.

[11] Jn 1:46a.

[12] Leslie J. Hoppe. “Second Sunday after the Epiphany: John 1:43-52 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 261, 263.

[13] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/us/politics/trump-shithole-countries.html.

[14] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Second Sunday after Epiphany: Now You See It, Now You Don’t” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 95.

[15] Jn 1:50.

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