John 1:43-51 (NRSV)
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 toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get 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.” 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.”
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Well, yeah, good things can come from Nazareth, and places like it. Nazareth is an excellent example of how grace can pour forth from society’s lowest places. God’s grace—the love we don’t deserve but receive anyway—has a funny habit of flowing uphill.
In some ways, we covered this with the Christmas story, when we talked about how Jesus came from poor members of a downtrodden people, living in what seemed like nowhere. The idea seems worth revisiting this week. Arrogant Roman leaders would have considered Nazareth one of the outhouses of the empire.
We can tell from Nathanael’s words that even Jews didn’t have a very high opinion of Nazareth. It was no metropolis; modern archaeologists estimate less than 500 people lived there in Jesus’ day. And yet, in the story, here comes Jesus, straight out of Nazareth, bearing down on his next disciple with revealing perception.
The Eternal Gift
As Jesus walked from Nazareth into full-fledged ministry, he carried with him all sorts of gifts we still barely comprehend today. As the story plays out, there is the greatest gift of all, eternal life.
Jesus’ ministry, rooted in the truth of who he is and the love he wants to share with the world, got him nailed to a cross. We now understand it had to be that way, that the death of a holy, sinless, perfect savior was necessary for us to escape the shackles of our own sins. We know the resurrection of this same savior, fully God and fully human, proves that death has been defeated. We believe, and we are saved.
What a gift to come out of Nazareth! There is more, though. The grace poured out upon us is not just something for the next life. It is for this life now.
This story of Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus reminds us of what I call the gift of astonishment. What? You had a vision of me under a fig tree, before we ever met? We can tell Nathanael was astonished because he jumped straight from cynicism to declaring Jesus the Son of God.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I like to be astonished from time to time, so long as God is the one doing the astonishing. I discover that life is about more than mundane, day-to-day events.
My big astonishment in life is that God would give me the same experience twice, once as a child and again as a young adult, so I would get back on track with him. And there are little astonishments that keep coming, too.
I like it when I see a vision for how something might be, and then discover someone else, perhaps one of you, has seen the same possibility or dreamed the same idea. I sense the Holy Spirit is at work in those moments, and I know we’re really a church.
I like it when God shows me how people are not what I expected them to be. I’ll give you a simple example. Where I was raised, I did not know a lot of black people, and the few I did know seemed to be trying to blend in and not be noticed. What I thought I knew about black culture came from one black karate instructor who grew up in Jonesborough, Tenn., and too much 1970s television.
Then I moved to the Atlanta area, where I lived for 13 years, working downtown most of the time.
I’ll not claim to be any expert on what was going on before my eyes; I often didn’t understand actions or attitudes unfamiliar to me. But I was regularly astonished by how tightly knit inner-city black communities could be, and how the culture could be quite matriarchal, with older women commanding a kind of respect that in many ways held their sometimes difficult world together. Many of those authoritative women, by the way, were not shy about speaking openly of their love for Jesus.
Beyond the dominant black culture, I also think of a Vietnamese friend I made in Atlanta, a former refugee who barely made it alive to Hong Kong on a rickety boat, and then eventually made his way to the United States. I learned a lot about perseverance just being near him.
The World Is Our Parish
I continue to expect to see God’s astonishing grace at work in people very different from me. One of the nice things about being United Methodist is that we are from everywhere, from Africa, from Asia, from Central America, from Haiti* and other Caribbean islands. As we have struggled with the issue of biblical authority in the UMC in recent years, words of encouragement from our African brothers and sisters have particularly inspired me.
What unites us globally, regardless of whether worldly people consider our particular home “high” or “low,” is the larger vision Jesus described as he recruited Nathanael to his little team that would change everything. For there is astounding grace, jaw-dropping, weeping-with-joy grace still to come.
Heaven and earth will be remade and reunited through Christ’s work. The walls that divide us will be torn down. Racism, poverty and political ideologies will give way to the uniting truth that Jesus Christ is Lord.
With God working in such powerful, unpredictable ways, a man would have to be a fool to show disdain for people from low places.
*On a personal note, I am particularly conscious of a very good thing to come out of Haiti, a nephew, adopted from an orphanage there by my brother and his wife. My nephew’s name is Nathaniel, by the way.