Nazareth

The Low Places

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.

Wow!

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.

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Blinded by a Presumed Past

Mark 6:1-6

I suppose it should be of some comfort that even Jesus struggled when near the people who had known him the longest.

Outside of his hometown of Nazareth, he was Jesus the miracle worker, Jesus the prophet, Jesus who could be messiah and king. Just before returning to Nazareth, he had raised a little girl from the dead. But in Nazareth―well, it’s hard to impress the home folks, particularly when you’ve grown up in a little place where people think they know everything about you.

Jesus’ teachings and actions were the same in Nazareth as they had been elsewhere; the Nazarenes even acknowledged his wisdom and his deeds of power. They simply could not accept that such remarkable signs were coming from this particular man, whom they had seen grow from a boy.

When you get right down to it, their prejudice against Jesus likely stemmed from bad theology. The people of Nazareth had certain expectations about how God should work, and they could not match their expectations with some facts I think they had long assumed about Jesus and his family.

It’s hard to piece together what the problem was simply by reading Mark, primarily because Mark contains no account of Jesus’ conception and birth. For those events, we have to rely on the early chapters of Matthew and Luke and make a few reasonable assumptions about how those events would have been perceived in Nazareth.

As any good Christian knows, Jesus’ conception was not normal. While his mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, but before they were married, an angel told Mary she would conceive the Savior of the world through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, with no man involved. She accepted the task and became pregnant.

It took another angelic visitation for Joseph to accept what had happened. That leads me to think that a lot of people in Nazareth would have struggled with whether Mary’s pregnancy was appropriate.

Compounding the problem is that right after conceiving Jesus, Mary left the village to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She did not return for three months, Luke tells us. Even if she wasn’t “showing” at three months, it wouldn’t have taken long for her pregnancy to become obvious, and some simple math as she neared her due date would have become the basis for a significant scandal.

Maybe the rumor was that Jesus’ father was a man other than Joseph. Certainly, this rumor went on for some time. The Greek philosopher Celsus, who was a second-century opponent of Christianity, promoted the idea that Jesus’ father actually was a Roman soldier stationed in the area. Early church fathers had to spend a significant amount of time showing that Celsus had no evidence for his claim.

Maybe the rumor was that Joseph was the kind of man who could not control himself until the wedding night, impregnating Mary early. Most likely, both rumors floated about, and if Nazarene gossips were like most other gossips I’ve known, they took great delight in repeating both.

It’s notable that in Mark 6:3, the Nazarenes are quoted as calling Jesus the “son of Mary” rather than the son of Joseph, an odd variation in a culture that emphasized a man’s paternal lineage. (There are variants in some manuscripts of Mark where the verse reads “son of the carpenter and of Mary,” but even then, Joseph’s name is avoided.)

Whatever the precise details of the rumor or rumors, it’s not a stretch to think that when Jesus went home to Nazareth, he still was considered “illegitimate,” a product of sin rather than a product of the most holy conception in the history of the world. And that problem of perception, that undeserved stain on Jesus’ reputation, was enough to keep the Nazarenes from accepting the astounding wisdom and evidence before them.

It’s also possible that as residents of an insignificant village in what most people considered a backwater province of the Roman Empire, the Nazarenes simply couldn’t accept the idea of someone homegrown being that important. I see some of that at work when they point to Jesus’ family and essentially say, “Wait a minute, he’s with them, and they’re like us, nobodies.”

I saw this attitude in my previous job, when I worked for a company that spent a lot of money on reforestation efforts in Central and South America. It was hard to get people in those areas to accept the idea that native trees were the best trees to plant. Many of these very poor people in tiny villages on the edges of the rain forests believed they needed North American trees―everything north of them was better, they reasoned, so the trees must be better, too.

The Nazarenes’ lack of acceptance―more precisely, their lack of faith―astounded Jesus, even with his divine understanding of how sin and salvation work. The effect of their unbelief was so powerful as to prevent him from doing great works, although he still was able to heal some of the sick.

All this causes me to wonder: How do our own prejudices interfere with Christ’s work in the world today?

Is it possible we miss the Holy Spirit at work because we expected him to come some other way? For example, will an inspired word from a homeless person mean as much to you as the everyday words of a prominent member of society?

Do we even go where we might hear holy words and see great signs in lowly places?

We need to be mindful that Jesus entered the world in a way so humble that his circumstances likely were misunderstood as shameful. He also grew up among a people with no sense of pride or place.

Don’t be surprised if Jesus is still most visible among such people and places today.