Let's Talk About Nazareth
The next day, John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
The next day, Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 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.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’
Let’s talk for a minute this morning about Nazareth.
Most of us know that Jesus was from Nazareth, right? It’s not where he was born, of course— he was born in Bethlehem because Joseph and Mary had to travel there for the census. But as far as where Jesus grew up, and as far as what we would consider his hometown to be, that would have been Nazareth. And of course we have all heard of Nazareth, because much of the action in the Gospels takes place in and around this small village. However at the time, I have to tell you, Nazareth wasn’t exactly a destination spot. Nazareth was a small village of around 200-400 people. 200 to 400 people. Can you imagine living in a village that small? My graduating class in high school was over 600 people. This town was smaller than my graduating class in high school. This town was smaller than the average audience at the Guard Theater on a Friday night. This town was smaller than the average membership rolls of a small to medium sized church. Anyway, you get the point— Nazareth was small. And so perhaps as you can imagine, being as small as it was, it was also very poor. Most, if not all of the people who lived there traveled to the larger city of Sepphoris, or other surrounding towns, in order to earn their livelihoods. The residents of this village were mostly uneducated farm-workers, day-laborers and peasants. Most of the homes in this tiny village had only two rooms— one for the humans and one for the animals. The town of Nazareth did not appear on a single map of the region until the third century C.E. Nazareth is mentioned nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, and nowhere in any other literature of the time— not the Talmud, not the Midrash, not in the works of the famous Jewish historian Josephus. Nazareth, in 1st century Palestine, was, in one scholar’s opinion, “an inconsequential and utterly forgettable place.”
All of this explains why, when Phillip tells his friend Nathanial about a potential Messiah from the village of Nazareth, Nathanael responds rather harshly with the words, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Of course, we already know the answer to that question. And as it turns out, it doesn’t take long for Nathanael to change his mind. Philip responds to his friend’s skepticism by simply inviting him to “come and see.” And so Nathanael does, and so Nathanael sees. But more on that in a minute.
This morning’s text from the Gospel of John is what is known traditionally as a “call story.” Similar stories occur in the other three Gospels, perhaps the most famous of which is Mark’s version, in which Jesus calls out to his future disciples from the shore, saying, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, and sort of inconceivably, they leave their nets and their boats behind in order to do just that. But call stories are not just limited to the New Testament. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we read tales of God calling upon ordinary people to do extraordinary things-- people like Abraham, who is called to leave his home and start a new nation at the spry age of 75. Or there’s Moses, who is called to lead his people from slavery into freedom, despite the fact that up until this point in his life he’s kind of been something of a coward. There are plenty of lessor known call stories as well— one of my favorites being the call of Samuel, which is our other lectionary text for today. In this story, God calls to young Samuel three times in one night, and each time, Samuel mistakes the voice of God for that of his mentor Eli in the next room, and each time he hears the call, he runs into Eli’s room enthusiastically shouting, “here I am,” only to discover his mentor sleepy and utterly confused. I love that story because it’s a good reminder that sometimes we don’t always recognize our call from God, and sometimes it takes a few attempts at answering it before we manage go in the right direction.
In any case, this morning’s story is part of this larger genre of call stories. And traditionally, as modern day Christians, we read these texts, and we try to discern how they might instruct us in our own particular journeys of faith. We attempt to glean some insight within them on how God might be calling us in our own time and place. However, this is not always the easiest task. Throughout the centuries, the subject of our call to discipleship has often been a topic of lively discussion, and sometimes— maybe even increasingly— contentious debate. Some Christians believe that “saving souls” is the one and only thing we should be worried about (although even then, the very definition of salvation, and what it means to be “saved” is certainly up for debate). Others would argue that seeking things like justice for the poor and liberation for the oppressed should be our primary directive. Some of us may be tempted to brush all of that aside, and rely exclusively upon Jesus’ final command to his disciples— to love one another as he loved us. But even then, what exactly does that look like? Wouldn’t that mean that we have to be willing to give our lives for others—to literally give up everything— not just for our friends and family, but for everyone— if we want to call ourselves disciples of Christ? How many of us are at a point in our spiritual development where we are ready to do that? No, none of this is quite so easy.
And yet I would say, as difficult as it may be, and as complicated as it may seem sometimes, that we are at a point in our history as the church, particularly here in America, where this question of who we are called to be as followers Jesus may just make the difference between our survival as an institution with integrity and our decline into cultural obscurity and irrelevance. So I think this is a really important question for all Christians to be talking about. How is God calling us today? Who does God call us to be? What does God call us to do?
I suppose there are many different ways to answer these questions, and I’m pretty sure that the Christian church is not called to always be the same exact thing, from one generation to the next. I believe that scripture is a living Word, and I believe in a Still-Speaking God, and so I believe that Christians are called to many different tasks, depending on who they are, and where they are, and depending on their particular circumstances. However, as a group of people living in a specific place, living in a specific time, and sharing a number of common experiences, I think we can find some guidance in these texts to help us discern how God is calling us in this particular moment that we are living in. Which leads me back to this crappy little town called Nazareth. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
I had a seminary professor who used to say something along the lines of “anytime you draw a line to keep certain people out, you can be sure that Jesus will be standing on the other side of that line.” I doubt there is anyone in this room today who won’t know what I’m talking about when I say that we’ve had some lines drawn in recent days. And essentially, the sentiment behind these lines has been something to the tune of— can anything good come out of Haiti? Can anything good come out of Ghana, or Nigeria, or Sudan? And I guess if we’re going to be talking about this, we should also recognize that there were plenty of lines drawn before this week. Lines that said-- can anything good come out of Syria? Can anything good come out of Yemen, or Somalia, or Chad? Can anything good come out of Mexico? Now granted, we’re talking about entire countries here, not a single tiny village. But I would argue that the sentiment is the same. These are places filled with people who are poor, many of whom are uneducated and lack opportunity, many of whom face political or religious persecution. These are places filled with people that some would say are insignificant and utterly forgettable. There are people in power right now who want to write these people off. All of them. Just because of where they are from. Actually, if you look at where all of these people come from, it seems pretty undeniable that it’s not just where they are from, but also because of the color of their skin. And so when it comes to our call as Christians living in this moment in 21st century America, I suppose I would start with my seminary professor’s statement, but I would amend it slightly to say that anytime we draw a line-- or build a wall, or write a law-- that is designed to exclude, or keep certain people out, you can be sure that Jesus will be standing on the other side of that line— especially when the people on the other side of that line are people who are poor or sick or starving, people who are displaced by war or natural disaster, people who are victims of persecution or oppression, or children who have no other future than to become nameless soldiers in someone else’s war. Jesus stands with them. And when these lines are drawn, I believe our call as followers of Jesus living in 21st century America is to stand with him, and with them, on the other side of that line. To stand with the people who come from places that other people think are insignificant-- places like Nazareth— that provoke reactions of distaste or disgust. To stand on the other side of that line and say, come and see. Come and see that there is so much good in these people, come and see their beauty and their wisdom, come and see that they are our brothers and sisters, come and see that our humanity is bound up in their humanity, and that to deny the dignity of their humanity is to stain the integrity of our own. As the man whose legacy we will celebrate tomorrow said, “we are caught together in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one, affects us all.”
Now at this point I want to be clear about something, and I think this part is really, really important. It’s very easy, with all this talk of lines and walls, to fall into the trap of ‘us vs. them’ thinking. Jesus is with us, not with them. God is with us, not with them. But we know, don’t we, that that’s not really how it works. We are all God’s children, and we are all beloved. And you know, I believe that God doesn’t want any of these lines to be drawn at all. God doesn’t want anyone to be excluded from the kingdom of love. Why do you think God chose to walk among us as a son of a poor carpenter from a shithole town called Nazareth? Maybe to send the message that we need to stop drawing these lines to begin with. We need to stop disregarding people because of where they are from, or the color of their skin, or because they haven’t had the same opportunities as the rest of us. Jesus stands on the other side of the line, and we are called to stand with him, for the very purpose of bringing people together from both sides— to eventually make that line obsolete—to be, in the words of the prophet Isaiah—repairers of the breach. We are called to stand on the other side of the line— not to judge, or shame, or deny the humanity of those with whom we disagree— but rather, to call out to them with our hearts open and our hands outstretched, offering them an invitation to come and see. Brothers and sisters, I still believe that we are not called to fight. We are called to invite. We are called to stand with Jesus-- to stand for love, compassion, mercy and grace-- and to invite others to join us. We are called to do exactly what Jesus himself did-- to invite others to come and see that there is another way, and that this other way has room for every single one of us-- no matter who we are, no matter where we are from, and no matter what we have done. God’s kingdom of radical and abundant love has room for us all. Come and see. Amen.