A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2018
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We can still hear the easy dismissal, the disparagement in these words across two millennia. We can hear all of the superiority the speaker assumes in this encounter with a stranger. And it’s likely, that as we hear that question we are reminded of all the ways we—our culture, our media, our political figures—disparage and dismiss those who look differently, or think differently, or come from different countries or are of different religious convictions.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nathanael’s question was not just a matter of the dismissal of a stranger. It was a legitimate response to Philip’s own question, “Have we met the Messiah?” For there was nothing in scripture, nothing in Jewish tradition, that would lead one to conclude that the Messiah, the Savior and redeemer of Israel, would come from, or have anything to do, with Nazareth. It’s a place that’s unmentioned in Hebrew scripture, of no account in first century Galilee. It was a tiny village, 200-400 inhabitants, a village made up of tiny houses, very poor people, most of them scraping by trying to make ends meet in an empire and economy that thought them of no worth or value.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? It may be a question we ask today as we reflect on our lives and world. Or we might rephrase it, “Can anything good still come out of Nazareth? Are there words of life, of hope, in scripture, does our faith in God, or the good news of Jesus Christ, still speak, still offer life and meaning to people who are seeking connection, and meaning, and hope?
And indeed, it is a burning question today, perhaps the most important question Christians should ask, not because Jesus Christ has no relevance for our world today, but because many of those who follow him have so distorted his message, have turned it into a message of hate and division, have contaminated the good news of Jesus Christ with the idolatry of white nationalism and white supremacy, that many people, ask that question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
As we gather today, on this Martin Luther King holiday, when we reflect not only on his great work against the American original sin of racism, when some of us recall his efforts to combat poverty and injustice for all of America and his prophetic voice against the Viet Nam war, we remember as well that this year marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination and all the ways that in recent years his legacy has been rolled back—with the ongoing challenges to voters’ rights, our profoundly unjust prison system, and the grave inequities in our city and our nation.
All of this may be on our minds today as we come together to listen and reflect on the Word of God, and seek nourishment at our Lord’s table. So many of our Christian brothers and sisters seem to be at peace or eager to embrace the current vision of a divided nation and world, turning their backs not only on their African-American brothers and sisters, but eager to destroy the lives of the millions who have come to this nation seeking new futures in a new place, by forcing them to return to countries they barely know, where their lives are endangers. How do we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in this context, what is the Good News of Jesus Christ for us and for our world?
Today’s gospel reading comes from the first chapter of John. It’s the story of the calling of Philip and Nathanael, and while it is a rich story on its own account, when taken with the immediately preceding story, the call of Andrew, another unnamed disciple, and Peter, it takes on even greater significance.
Before delving into this story, it’s worth remembering the story of the call of the disciples in the synoptic gospels. We’ll hear Mark’s version next week, but it’s enough to contrast the settings. In Mark, Jesus encounters Peter and Andrew, James and John (the sons of Zebedee) as they are mending nets in their fathers’ boats on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus says to them, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.”
In John, the call of Andrew takes place in the wilderness. The way this encounter takes place is especially interesting. John the Baptist sees Jesus and points him out to Andrew and the other disciple, saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Andrew and the other disciple leave John and follow Jesus. Jesus sees them following him and asks them, “What are you looking for?” They respond, “Where are you staying?” Jesus replies, “Come and see.” And they stayed with him for the rest of the day.
All that takes place immediately before today’s gospel reading. The next day, Jesus decides to go to Galilee where he encounters Philip and then Nathanael. The encounter with Philip fits into the pattern of call established in the synoptics, Jesus sees Philip and says to him, “Follow me.” But instead of following Jesus, Philip goes to Nathanael and asks him whether they’ve found the Messiah.
One of the recurrent images in these verses is “to see.” While different Greek words are used from time to time, and Jesus’ “come and see” is phrased differently from Philip’s, the same word is used for John’s “Behold” and Philip’s “see.” In our culture, seeing is believing, except when we don’t believe our eyes. And indeed, in the gospel, it’s not just about “seeing.” It’s about seeing in a particular way, often guided or informed by faith, or by God’s miraculous power.
In Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel, this seeing is also knowing. Jesus identifies Nathaniel, saying something crucial about who he is. Nathaniel asks Jesus how he knew him, and Jesus replies, “I saw you under the fig tree.” When Nathaniel comes to know Jesus, naming him as the Son of God, Jesus replies, “You will see greater things than these.”
Seeing, knowing, believing. These three are all wrapped up together in John’s gospel, offering a complex sequence of how one comes to true faith in the one who is Jesus Christ. But it all begins with, “Come and see.”
“Come and see.” This is our response when confronted by those made fearful by a fake Christianity, turned off by the hate and division, who wonder whether Christianity has anything to offer them.
“Come and see.” That must be our invitation to seekers, and doubters, and despisers of Christianity. We must show them our experience of Jesus Christ; show them what it means to follow Jesus, what the abundant life he offers us is like.
But if we say those words, we must put that abundant life into action. We must welcome the stranger, clothe naked, feed the hungry. We must embrace with the love of Christ all those we encounter, whether they walk through our doors, or pass by. We must be able to show them that here, among us, the love of Christ is experienced and offered, a love that knows no distinctions, a love that includes LGBT people, people of color, people who have come here from countries across the globe in the hope of flourishing, of making new lives for themselves and their families. We must welcome them, embrace them, learn from them, and allow their experience, their lives to enrich and expand our own.
Of course we do all that in so many ways—through our pantry, the homeless shelter, our work against racism, our participation in the Haiti Project. I hope all of you will stay or come back for the adult forum, when Ron Geason will share his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda. I previewed his presentation on Thursday and was overwhelmed by the images I saw, people of great joy and great faith living, working, and singing in difficult circumstances.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Our answer, like Jesus, must be “Come and see.” To invite others to join in our vision of community, of love, to embrace the love of Christ, and be embraced by it, to show the world what human community might be, to show the world, and our neighbors, what our faith is, who the Lord we follow is. Come and see!