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  • Dr. Bruce Havens

Learning Something New

a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens

Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.

January 20, 2021

John 1:43-51 NRSV

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Last week I began this message but wasn’t able to finish due to technological difficulties… specifically my computer screen went black and I couldn’t see anything and it wasn’t coming back on. So allow me to begin again.

I began last week by saying

Everyone loves to learn something new, right? That is, if it confirms what we already believe or believe we know. No one seems to like learning something new that doesn’t fit what we already know or believe. This is even more true if it strikes at the bedrock of what we have always seen as a cornerstone of our values. I think this may be in our genes, something that has always been a fact. It certainly seems to be the operative construct of our time. There is a phrase that describes this experience. It is “cognitive dissonance.”

Cognitive dissonance is the experience of learning something that is in conflict with or causes “dissonance” with what we thought we knew or believed. Anyone who grew up believing in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus knows what I mean. [I will say no more in case there are younger ears listening.] Our reaction to “cognitive dissonance” often takes us down one of two paths. We stop where we are and refuse to follow that disruptive information to find out if it is true. We simply refuse to accept the invitation to “know” differently. The other is the choice to accept, despite our cognitive dissonance, the invitation to “Come and see.”

Nathanael believes that those who come from Nazareth are no good. Let’s admit it, he is prejudiced against people from that town. We don’t know why. We don’t know the reasons he believes this. But the Gospel of John says that when Philip tells him that the long-awaited Messiah, the one to be anointed as King of Israel, has come and he is some peasant son of a family from Nazareth he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” One assumes that means he believes that anyone or anything that comes from Nazareth must be bad. But Philip, who told him this news, invites him to “come and see.” And, unlike most of us, Nat does.

He goes and encounters this Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus and he have a bit of dialogue that is pretty strange. Jesus sees Nat and says, “Ah, here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” One writer comments this is a bit of a slap back at Nat for his comment about Nazareth. Remember, Jacob was the birth name of the man God renamed “Israel.” His birth name, Jacob, meant “crafty” or “cunning,” or if you stretch a bit, “one full of guile.” And Nat responds, “How do you know me?” Jesus says, “I saw you under a fig tree before you ever met with Phil.” This inspires Nat to enthusiastically declare Jesus the Son of God, the King of Israel, and, well practically everything but the next coach of the Jaguars! A Savior! [Joking!]

This is one of many things in the Bible which hold hints and allusions to religious and cultural meanings we have no knowledge of as 21st Century North American citizens. So let me share another bit of background that I think is worth knowing to understand this passage. The writer put it this way: “Take a quick side trip with me” to the Prophets, the folks that bear “witness to the Messiah.”

In the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the “old testament,” “there were many titles given for the Messiah—Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, Desire of Nations, and the Branch of Jesse. Or simply, the Branch. In Jeremiah 33:15, for example, the prophet promised, ‘I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.’ Daniel promised, ‘a branch from her roots shall rise up in his place’ (Daniel 11:7). And in Zechariah, the prophet promised: ‘I am going to bring my servant the Branch…. On that day, says the LORD of hosts, a man shall call his neighbor under the vine and fig tree” (Zechariah 3:8b-10). So notice the messianic expectation: when the Messiah comes—that is when The Branch comes—an Israelite shall ‘call’ his neighbor under the fig tree.”

So what? Well, just a hint that sometimes what we think we know, may not be all there is to know. So what? Well, we seem to be teetering on the brink of a complete societal breakdown, even civil war, because no one seems interested in a] examining what they “know” except to confirm what might be their actual ignorance, and b] Nat offers us an example of someone willing to learn something new, and in so doing, maybe discovers his salvation. He was willing to overcome his cognitive dissonance about people from Nazareth.

But there is one more Biblical reference you may not have caught. Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, [“When Heaven and Earth Meet,”, 1/15/2012], shares yet another Jacob reference--this time to Jacob’s ladder. [Jesus] says to Nat “you will see angels will go up and down on the son of man.” That is, upon himself. He’s talking about Jacob’s experience in Genesis 28 where heaven approached so close to earth that the two realms could meet. Now in Jesus--not just in a geographical place--in Jesus, the realm of God would come that near.”

Now here’s the good news. She suggests that, “Heaven is where love reigns. Where there is room for all God’s children at the table. Where, … nothing’s broken and no one’s missing. Not at all what earth is like. We know what earth is like. A glance through the morning paper [ or the internet] shows us a world that couldn’t be more different than God’s realm of love. And yet, in Jesus, the unexpected happens. And Nathanael sees it. Heaven gets a foothold on this earth.”

If we believe God intends heaven to be something completely apart from earth, somewhere we go to, to get away from earth, then perhaps it is time we experience some “cognitive dissonance.” Those Prophets from the Hebrew Scriptures, and many prophets who have spoken since remind us God intends this earth to be the location of heaven, now, not just in some afterlife. This past week we remembered one of those prophets who continues to speak to us from beyond his untimely death.

Rev. Watkins writes, “The time is 1955. The place: Montgomery, Alabama. The issue is forced segregation on city buses. Local pastors are gathered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church--strategizing. Rosa Parks has recently been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. Her trial will be coming soon.” The city’s black leaders are striving to find a way to challenge the hell on earth in which they live in Montgomery, Alabama. But they are undecided. Then an unlikely leader steps forward. A young preacher from Atlanta, a Rev. King, raises his hand, and a bus boycott becomes a small act that ends up changing that city, the region, and our nation. It began when a vision, a dream, that heaven on earth was God’s will got a foothold in one young man’s mind. He invited the rest of us to come and see the vision he had, the dream he dreamed.

Heaven got a foothold on earth because someone was willing to work to change things. His words and actions caused many to suffer “cognitive dissonance.” It forced laws to change, unjust actions to have consequences, and people to decide whether they were willing to think and act differently or not. Many did not and still have not. They are still caught up in their white privilege and their racist fears of someone different from them. And that young man was murdered just a few years later and our country, though it has made some progress, continues to be divided by our inability to accept that “injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere,” as Rev. King so eloquently reminded us.

Some of you wonder why I am always talking about Biblical justice. Well, the reason is that I believe that where there is true Biblical justice that is where heaven and earth meet, and until there is justice for all on earth, there will be no heaven anywhere. If that statement causes you some “cognitive dissonance,” let me explain what I mean. I don’t believe those who may be sitting in some distant realm we think of as heaven, can look down on those of us who are experiencing the injustices of this earth and be at peace. I think if you think that heaven is freedom from the worries and sorrows of earth, then you must believe that love ends when we die. I don’t believe that is true. I think those that love us – if they are in heaven, if there is a heaven – then they still love us, more perfectly than ever before. I think that they, along with God, see what is happening now and weep. I believe they, along with God, are hoping we will open our eyes to a different way, a better way, that we will learn something new and become a new person, that we will be “saved,” if you want to call it that.

I fully understand those who are protesting the current political realities because they feel that the politically powerful have left them out of the economic benefits for the few. I fully understand that in frustration some want to change our system completely because even as white people they feel left out, left behind, treated unjustly by the political systems that run our nation right now. I don’t understand those who have reversed the meanings of democracy and freedom to mean “I get freedom and democracy, but you get to keep suffering injustice and inequality.” I even understand some of the violence on both sides, but I don’t understand an unwillingness to learn a new way, to learn new truths instead of simply denying that anything I don’t already believe is untrue. I don’t understand those who blame Jesus for taking up weapons to kill and maim others in his name. I don’t understand those who say God wants them to overthrow a government even when they have been lied to that an election was stolen. I think they need to find a different source of truth instead of believing people who have chosen the way of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda chief of the Third Reich who said, “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic, and or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Maybe it is time to turn from lies and prejudice and hatred of others and start dreaming of and working for a new world that is truly based on justice for all and freedom for all. If that thought is causing you some cognitive dissonance, and you can’t imagine a new world, a new way that is better, that is more truly heaven on earth then maybe you need to meet this man Nathanael met.

His name was Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe you have heard of him. A lot of people say they believe in him as “Son of God,” and as “Savior.” But I have to tell you I think a lot of people need to come and see something new. I think it is time we all “come and see” how to “learn something new.” The old ways are broken. It is time for something new. The Jesus I know said, “You will see greater things than these.” The Jesus I know said, “Behold, I make ALL things new.” Don’t believe me? Come and see. Maybe you will learn something new. AMEN.

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