“We found him!” Philip said. “The one Moses promised; the one the prophets told us would come to save us. He’s here! The son of Joseph from Nazareth will save us.” And Nathanael scoffed. Come on. Everyone knows the Messiah comes from Bethlehem. Nothing of consequence comes from Nazareth.
Son of Joseph. Nothing good. And only a brief conversation later, Nathanael calls Jesus Son of God. King of Israel. It’s amazing how understanding changes when we meet Jesus. He throws out all of our assumptions about God and replaces them with love.
But how did this strange, brief conversation change Nathanael’s mind? It wasn’t just about seeing him under the fig tree. Nathanael started by telling Philip that nothing good comes from Nazareth. But when he came face to face with Jesus, Jesus said the strangest thing: “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” It has nothing to do with Nathanael’s unnatural innocence but with the history of Israel.
Israel’s founder was Jacob—named ‘Israel’ by God. Israel means ‘struggles with God.’ But Jacob means ‘deceit’ or ‘trickster.’ Jacob was the one who tricked his older twin Esau out of his rightful blessing and inheritance. When Jesus makes his strange statement, he’s throwing Nathanael’s comment right back at him. The comment Nathanael made far from the presence of Jesus. And when Nathanael picks up on the little jab—if nothing good comes from Nazareth, what could possibly be said about Israel—he gets it. This is someone special. Philip was right. This man is from God.
And Nathanael does a complete 180. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He makes another reference to Jacob when he says that even bigger things will happen. Nathanael will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man—just like Jacob saw the angels ascending and descending in his dream. And when Jacob woke, he said, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.”
This is an ongoing theme for John’s gospel account. He is all about the process of recognizing God throughout his account. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word dwelt among us. “He was in the world…yet the world did not know him. His own people did not accept him.” Yet, some did. And soon after, John pointed to Jesus, saying “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Yet, later he will send his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you really the one we’re waiting for, or will there be another?”
In the garden outside Jesus’ tomb, Mary Magdalene remains after finding the tomb empty. She weeps because she is certain grave robbers took his body. She asks the gardener to tell her the truth, and all he needs to say is her name. And her eyes are opened and she recognizes him as the risen Lord.
Recognition takes time. But more than that, it takes a personal encounter. And to be honest, that can be an uncomfortable experience. One that I suspect I tend to avoid. And these days, it has become easier to avoid. It’s become easier to avoid encountering anyone at all. I can stay home behind my computer—where it’s safe. And these days, it has become easier to look at people who identify as different than me with fear, with suspicion, even with contempt. And while I have proclaimed from this place a gospel that accepts people of color and people who are queer, I have also made it unsafe to be different in other ways.
You see, it’s a fine line to proclaim the gospel that pushes us toward justice without condemning those who approach the idea of justice differently than myself. And that line is even more difficult to walk when one no longer encounters other people; when humanity becomes what you read online and hear on the news; when the collective story of the people gets narrowed down to a post or a soundbite.
Can anything good come from Nazareth? Can anything good come from this plague, this pandemic, this ugly political place we find ourselves in? Can anything good come from the mess around us? Can anything good come from our nation? From its people?
Well, if something good can come from Nazareth, and someone without deceit can come from a people founded on a person named for deceit, then something good can come from this reality we’re in right now. Self-awareness, to start with. When we can speak truth to one another in love—as was spoken to me by my own love—new life can happen. Pastor Otto calls this ‘flashing your brights’—pointing out the hurt you see, whether it’s depression or addiction or something else, and doing it from a point of love, not judgement.
But there are other things that come from this, as well. Basically, nothing short of an experience of God’s kin-dom in our midst. That’s what Jesus referred to when he told Nathanael that he’d see even more amazing things than Jesus knowing him and what he said and where he was. Nathanael will see heaven breaking into our reality. He will see change happening—the broken being put together again; the physically AND spiritually sightless given sight; the sick made well; even the dead raised from the tomb! Life is happening even in the most remote and dismissed corners of the world. Even in Nazareth.
There’s a story of a rich woman who encountered Mother Teresa in Calcutta. She opened her checkbook and asked, “How can I help your work?” Mother Teresa told her to put her checkbook away and follow her. She led the woman to a run-down shack in the worst part of town in which a small child lay on a mat and said, “Care for her.” The woman held the child in her lap, wiped her brow, and fed the child. In that moment, both the woman and the child experienced heaven breaking in. In that moment, they saw angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Great Love of the world.
It takes going beyond the comfort of our own walls—whether they are the walls of our house, our Sanctuary, or even just our own minds—to see what God has to show us. And often, we’d prefer to stay inside. Lock the doors—as much to keep us in as to keep the world out. But that is not the way of God. That is not the way of love. And that is not the way of God’s people.
How can we help each other unlock those doors and step into the light of Christ? How can we open each other’s eyes to the God-loved humans that wander this world? How can we move beyond the threshold of our beliefs to truly encounter the ‘other?’ Perhaps we should take a page from Mother Teresa. Money helps make things happen, but heaven is experienced through the actual caring for each other. Wiping a brow, holding a hand, feeding, walking alongside. It means believing that there is something better in this world than what we see and hear. That God is, indeed, out there…and in here (within us)…and leading the way out of locked rooms and closed tombs. God is leading us out of this death and into new life. Can you see it yet?
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church