“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46]
I have preached exactly one sermon since I retired last December, and it was on the very Gospel lesson that we read today. Those of you who follow the liturgical calendar can remember that this was the reading for January 17 of this year, the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. So, today being Saturday, and me feeling a little lazy, I’m going to take a short cut and pull some thoughts from that sermon. (My first sin of the Lenten season, sloth.)
Today’s reading follows Jesus’ invitation to his first disciples and his invitation to “Come and see.” We pick up today’s story on the next day, when Jesus goes to Galilee and calls Philip, who, filled with excitement, finds Nathanael, and tells him “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” [v. 45]
Nathanael, in reply, blurts out the words that, for me, practically leaped off the page:
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
The question is bristling with prejudice and judgmentalism. The words are skeptical, suspicious, dismissive, and disparaging.
Nazareth was a nowhere town of about 200 to 400 people, located in Galilee, about 70 miles north of Jerusalem. To a pure Jew, the people of Galilee were considered a rude and less cultivated class, and were largely influenced by the Gentiles who mingled with them. They were considered to be of lower moral and religious character. The inhabitants of Nazareth were not only thought to be lower class folk with a distinctive accent, but they were also a racially mixed community.
Think today of the worst neighborhood you know of in your community. That was Nazareth to people like Nathanael.
Philip, I’m guessing, was too excited to be drawn into an argument. So he simply says to Nathanael, “Come and see.”
In yesterday’s reflection I wrote about how in those three little words lies the essence of our witness. We state what we have seen, and believe, and then invite others to “come and see.”
So Nathanael follows Philip, and undergoes a totally life-changing encounter with Jesus. His perceptions are completely reversed. An amazed Nathanael ends up confessing, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” [v. 49]
Let’s imagine now if you had been in Nathanael’s place. If you strictly judged everyone by their place of origin, where they currently live, their politics, how they dress, the color of their skin, or the language they speak. What objections would you have raised? What barriers would you have put up? What prejudices would have gotten in your way?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that in all likelihood, you too, would have rejected Jesus the Christ, because you would have been so confident in your misguided assumption that no good thing could come out of Nazareth, or Washington D.C., or Cleveland, or Youngstown, or anywhere else that carries a questionable stigma.
We all have a little (or a lot) of Nathanael in us. Think about the divisiveness that we are witnessing in this country. The galling assault on the Capitol building that we witnessed on January 6 of this year, was nothing more than the result of our lack of acceptance, our prejudices, our bigotry, our narrow-mindedness.
I’ve read this Gospel passage countless numbers of times, and each time it makes me wonder how Jesus could choose people who demonstrate the same shortcomings we meet in human beings in our daily lives. How Jesus could choose us.
In spite of the shortcomings of the disciples, in spite of our faults and deficiencies, what is evident is that the people whom God calls to do God’s work are ordinary people, not just like Nathanael, but like you and me. We are seen by Jesus just as Nathanael was seen.
This powerful story serves to remind us that God in Jesus Christ has a heart for the lost, for the irresponsible, the self-absorbed, the reckless, the rigid, and the self-righteous alike; black, white, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, independent, gay, straight, young, or old. That large group obviously includes people who make you angry, and people whom you make angry as well.
God’s grace isn’t limited by our limited outlook on life. Jesus knows what we are like, but doesn’t let us off the hook. Jesus, the Son of God, isn’t afraid to dive down into the dirt of this world and change us. By the power of his grace, he strips us of our prejudices, rids us of our arrogance, sweeps away our stereotypes, and takes away every objection we may have, to be called into faithful discipleship.
Our Savior chose to live among the poor and broken people in a middle-of-nowhere village called Nazareth. Today he chooses to live among us.
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A quick reminder that there will be no reflection tomorrow (Sunday).