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Good From Nazareth

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

 Epiphany 2B    John 1:43-51

Whose is this Nathanael, anyway?
Who is this guy who responds to his friend’s invitation to meet Jesus with such sarcastic skepticism?

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” His friend Philip had just told him that Jesus did, and that Philip and others had found him to be the fulfillment of their people’s long-held hopes and dreams.

“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote! Jesus…from Nazareth." And Nathanael said “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

So I’ll ask again: Whose is this Nathanael, anyway? And how did he get dropped from our 21st century world with all of its sarcasm and skepticism and bigotry, right into the New Testament? Where does Nathanael come from, if not our day and our own unapologetically crass cultural climate?

John says that Philip was from Bethsaida, a city at the top of the Sea of Galilee, where the Jordan River enters from the north.  Since they’re friends, most people assume that Nathanael is also from there, but John doesn’t say so directly. So let’s, just for today, pretend that he was somehow time-transported from our day and world, complete with all of its crass bigotry, skepticism and sarcasm.

Obviously, Nathanael didn’t care much for Nazareth or for people who came from there. Nazareth was also in Galilee, but in a different, more desert and backwater part of the region. We don’t know what Nathanael knew or was taught about “those people” who come from Nazareth, or whether his bias against them was born of his own experience, or just a product of simple ignorance. But like all bigotry, it closed his mind and blinded him to seeing anything good in a fellow human being.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” wasn’t really a question. It was a sarcastic and nasty comment.  Nathanael knew already that, to him at least, the answer was “no” and he could care less if it offended any Nazarenes to hear him say it.

John, by the way, is the only gospel writer to mention Nathanael, and he only shows up again once at the very end of the gospel, listed as one member of the disciple-group that Jesus fixes a post-Easter breakfast for beside the Sea of Tiberius. But again, I think we know who Nathanael is and where he comes from. Each of us surely know people just like him. And all of us, if we’re honest, have sometimes been just like him.

Tomorrow is the day our nation remembers and honors the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is also a day that many see as a time to rededicate our nation, or at least ourselves as citizens to the cause of racial justice and equality. Martin Luther King certainly knew lots of Nathanaels and worse. Sarcasm, I’m sure he could handle. Bigotry, he was used to. But bald-faced hatred and threats was what wore him down.

In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, King wrote about something that’s become known as his “vision in the kitchen:”

“I was ready to give up.” he begins.  “With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.’

At that moment,” he writes, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; ….and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once,” he concludes, “my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."

When faced with bigotry, skepticism, sarcasm, self-doubt and much worse, Martin Luther King Jr. heard God call him to focus not on those things but on the cause of justice and his calling to stand for truth.

Which seems to me is pretty much what Philip and Jesus did when faced with the skepticism and sarcasm and bigotry of Nathanael.  When Philip tells his friend that he has found the Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth, and Nathanael responds “Sure you did. Now tell me: can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip made a choice. He could have gotten defensive and tried to convince Nathanael either that Nazareth wasn’t so bad or that even if it was, there were still some good people there.  He could have followed Nathanael into the gutter of name calling and label him an anti-Nazarite bigot.

But instead, Philip just said “Come and see.” In other words, when Nathanael went low, Philip went high.  He stayed focused on the truth he’d come to see and wanted Nathanael to see. He simply invited him to come and see for himself. And when Jesus saw Nathanael coming to see for himself, instead of challenging him for disparaging Jesus’ home town, he found something positive to commend in Nathanael, who obviously at least wasn’t afraid to say what he thought.

Jesus said “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile, no careful choosing of words in order to avoid offending anyone, no deceit! He says what’s on his mind.” And Nathanael, seemingly surprised by this compliment, but skeptical still, wonders, “Where did you get to know this about me? What makes you so smart?”

And here’s where things get strange. Jesus says something about seeing Nathanael under a fig tree before Philip had told him about meeting Jesus. And somehow, that simple comment breaks through all of Nathanael’s skepticism about Jesus, and his sarcasm about Nazareth and he calls Jesus by two of the highest titles a Hebrew could use: Son of God and King of Israel.

And then, in his own kind of “come and see” response, Jesus says in essence. “Did that impress you, that I saw you under a fig tree. You haven’t seen anything yet. Stick around, Nathanael, and you’ll see even greater things.

Which brings me to us, and to our response to the all too many Nathanaels around us, whether they are in our families or neighborhoods or the White House. Because whenever people turn to bigotry and belittling other places and people to distract and divide, we too need to stay focused on God’s will and speak truth. And when they use sarcasm to cast doubt on our message or motives or sincerity as Christians, we need to not get defensive and sidetracked but to remain clear about what it is we understand our God is calling us to be and to do.

And when instead of Nazareth, some of the Nathanaels of our community and world begin to disparage the church and people of faith, and perhaps greet our invitations with skepticism, claiming perhaps that we’re only interested in their money, or complaining that religious belief is the cause of most of the world’s violence, or that because some religious leaders are immoral and corrupt, none should be trusted, or that what happens inside of churches on Sunday morning is mostly boring and antiquated, or that Christianity is itself judgmental and exclusive and harsh, ..then… instead of getting defensive or discouraged or cynical ourselves, we need to stay focused on our calling, remember why we do the things we do and how important this weekly gathering together is,
and remember to stand up for our faith, and for justice, stand up for truth, and most of all continue to invite those Nathanaels to come and see for themselves, and remember that in all of those things, God will be at our side forever.

Nathanael says, “What good can come out of Nazareth?” What difference does it make to gather together with a bunch of people around ancient stories you’ve all heard before and to sing hymns with too many verses? What’s the point of standing in line for a crumb of bread and sip of wine every Sunday? Who needs the responsibility of serving on a church council? Why give away good money that you could either save or spend on yourself? 
Why fight with kids who’d rather not go, don’t see the point of Sunday School classes, and even worse doubt and question your motives in making them do so?

Sometimes it can seem like we need to deal with a whole world of Nathanaels, while Jesus only faced one. Sometimes, even, Nathanael is us. But John would insist that all of them, beneath their skepticism, derision and doubt, are looking for the same thing that we are, the same Messiah, a God of grace and truth and a world of justice and peace.

And if we not only say “Come and see,” but also provide a living experience of Christian faith and community that is real and genuine and honest for them to see when they do come, then they’ll be as easily convinced as Nathanael was, and eager to see the greater things to follow.

So while I don’t know how Nathanael got plucked up from our day and world and plopped into John’s gospel for us to grapple with this week, I’m glad that he did. This gospel story has a lot to teach us, just as they all do, right here, week after week.     AMEN