“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Lessons for Proper Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year B): 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; and, John 1:43-51.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael has some opinions, some assumptions, about 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 maybe we hear in that question the reminder of the ways we disparage and dismiss – disparage and dismiss those who are from a different place, those who look differently, speak differently, think differently, 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? On the one hand, the question is asked today as we reflect on our own lives of faith. Today, we might rephrase, “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, meaning, and hope?

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.

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, 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.

So, on one level, the question, Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?,” is a question still for us. Do we still believe that something good can come out of Nazareth?

If we can say, “Yes!,” and recognize the good news of redemption and abundant life in Jesus of Nazareth, then we are invited (maybe, it is fair to say that we have the obligation and duty) to put that into action, by telling our story of what it means for us to live the abundant and redeemed life. We are invited to put that into action, as well, as we welcome the stranger, clothe naked, feed the hungry, embracing with the love of Christ all those we encounter. 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 of gender, race, creed, color, class, or sexual orientation or identity. We are invited, in the name of Jesus, to welcome and embrace because something good has come out of Nazareth.

On the other hand, the question is asked today as we reflect on our relationship with the world. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is, after all, a pretty brazen assumption on the quality of Nazareth? Do we have our own Nazareths? Don’t we, even (or perhaps especially) as people of faith, make these and all sorts of other assumptions every day. 

Sometimes we make assumptions about other people, about how they will behave or what they will say or what we can expect. We assume what people will say or believe or think or contribute based on some arbitrary set of standards or rules. Other times we might look at particular situations or encounters and assume that nothing good could possibly come of them. Then, of course, there are those times we look at ourselves – the light and the dark (a long-borne secret, a daily-faced illness, the addiction we hide, a troubled relationship, loneliness, grief) and know that it cannot possibly get any better. How can anything good come out of this? 

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” These are assumptions that act as limitations. They narrow our vision, and they close off the possibility of change and growth, of a different way of being, or a new life. Ultimately, they impoverish our faith and proclaim there is no room for God to show up and act. These types of assumptions become hiding places.

Nathanael doesn’t doubt that God will act, fulfilling the promises of the covenant. Nathanael isn’t even surprised that Philip could have found the one about “whom Moses in the law and the prophets spoke.” Nathanael’s shock and disbelief come when Philip says that he came out of Nazareth. No way. Not there. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

We all have our Nazareths: people, circumstances, or even pieces of our lives borne out of fear, prejudice, guilt, and woundedness. We take our past experiences, real or imagined, and project them onto another person or situation. We just can’t see how anything good can come out of Nazareth. We cannot believe that God could be present, active, and revealed as coming from Nazareth whether it be another person, situation, or part of yourself – especially that person, situation, or part.  It’s so hard to see life in the midst of death, hope in places of despair, and the good and beautiful in what looks like the bad and ugly. It’s sometimes easier to assume that nothing good can come from Nazareth. 

For us, Nazareth is a blind spot. For God, however, Nazareth is the place of God’s manifestation and self-revelation.

But God will not be limited by our assumptions. For every Nazareth, there is an invitation to “come and see.” For every assumption, we make there is a deeper truth to be discovered, a new relationship to be experienced, and a new life to be lived. Nazareth is the place of God’s epiphany.

There is more happening in Nazareth than we ever thought possible. You see, not just “anything good” comes out of Nazareth. The One who is Good comes out of Nazareth.

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