Can anything good come out of Nazareth? This is what Nathaniel asked, and then there is God’s answer to Nathaniel’s question that I think becomes most important to us. What does come out of Nazareth? It is generally assumed that Nazareth was not highly thought of –perhaps a small subsistence community built around agriculture. It was probably poor in nature and low in stature. Perhaps a little like some of the small communities of our world today. In the heart of West Virginia there is a small community called Cabin Creek. To pass by it South of the state capital, Charleston, you will likely see a slightly isolated, impoverished area, with homes pushed up against the hills on one side and a creek flowing through the narrow valley on the other. To travel by Cabin Creek, WV one might look at it and say, can anything good come out of that place? And yet it was in this area that NBA hall of fame great Jerry West grew up.
So, enduring is Jerry West reputation in professional basketball that the NBA logo featuring the silhouette of a player driving with the ball was draft from a picture of him. Jerry West took West Virginia University to the NCAA championship game and then became one the NBA greats. The point to this illustration is that good things; even amazing things can come out of the most unlikely of places. God is at work amid the places we might deem lowly or even all too common. Who would have guessed that a great basketball player can come from a place where it is hard to find enough clear level ground to even build a basketball court?
Today as we consider our world, and the aftermath of a violent mob storming the capitol building, it is easy to find oneself unsettled about what happened. It is easy to focus on our fears and the things we are worried about. In these days of quarantine and isolation I think it is easier to be controlled by our frustrations and even anger. We live in a time when we may feel like we have less control over life and perhaps this causes us to fight for control of something. Do you perhaps ever stop to wonder what effect the pandemic has on our feelings about life as a whole? I wonder how much of the turmoil in life is a result of our current state of being. Do we wonder, “Where is God?” In our biblical text life under Roman rule was not so great either. Many wished for better. Many looked for a messiah. This was their hope for a better day, but where was God to be found for them. Well, the disciples found God rising up out of Nazareth.
The story goes that Philip encountered Jesus and became excited about what he was hearing and seeing. Philip became convinced that Jesus was indeed the Christ! The one whom God had sent to assume the Throne of David, secure Israel’s independence, and lead the nation back in the true worship of God. The messiah was to be understood as both a political and religious leader. There was not so much a thing as separation of church and state in 1st century Palestine. When Philip heard Jesus preaching and saw the way he taught and healed, he was convinced that he was the one.
Now the great thing about Philip was that he had a friend named Nathaniel. As I think about this text, I get the general impression that Nathaniel was probably a sort of noncomplex, honest, straightforward man of faith –A common person in many ways with a sincere desire to know God better. He was probably the sort of person that Philip knew would be very interested in his discovery of Jesus.
We know this because we are told that Philip was from Bethsaida the city of Andrew and Peter. Andrew and Peter were fishermen by trade. Bethsaida means “The house of fish.” There is a very good likelihood that Philip and Nathaniel had done their share of fishing as well. They were just a common type people. Probably generally educated, but not overly so.
Secondly Jesus identifies Nathaniel as a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit. There are some things going on in this interchange between Jesus and Nathaniel that we are going to talk about in a minute, but first let us take Jesus words at their face value. I think his words to Nathaniel were something of a compliment to Nathaniel’s character. Jesus was saying here is a man who is sincere and honest in his love for God and country. Nathaniel was probably the type of person in that what you see is what you get –simply honest and direct. We also learn something about Nathaniel in the fact that Jesus said to him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Now everyone in Jesus time probably had a fig tree planted in their yard. The fig was a common food that people ate, and the tree served to provide shade from the sun. It was common in Jesus time to associate sitting under a fig tree with a person taking time out for daily devotions, study, and prayer. The implication of Nathaniel sitting under the fig tree was that he was involved in prayer and study at the time of Philips arrival.
So, Philip approached his friend, and excitedly began to share with him, “we have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” For Philip this idea must have intrigued him. His friend was telling him that he found the Christ. Was it possible, but Nazareth? He replies, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was probably a bit like Cabin Creek, WV. You just can not see how it would produce much of anything of any greatness. Besides this as Nathaniel was a student of the scriptures, he knew there was nothing about Nazareth bringing forth God’s Messiah. I do not think Nathaniel was prejudice, he was just telling it the way he honestly perceived it. Nazareth seems to be an unlikely place to find God’s chosen one. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Philip just said come and see. Come and see for yourself! Come and see what I have found and make your own judgment. Come and see and give me your opinion, and Nathaniel does. He walks with Philip to see Jesus.
Now what is interesting about this text is that on arriving Jesus begins to use a play on words. I think we miss hearing the full context of Jesus discussion with Nathaniel because it gets lost in translation to some extent. However, Jesus words to Nathaniel play off the whole story in the Old Testament about Jacob and Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven. In the story of Jacob who came to be called Israel, Jacob was everything but direct and honest. The name Jacob basically means supplanter. The Old Testament tells of how Jacob is found fleeing from his home, because he conned his father into blessing him as he would have Esau who really was considered to be the eldest child. He did this by conniving with his mother, and earlier he got his brother to trade him his birthright for a pot of stew when he was hungry. Now Esau was making plans to kill him, as a way of getting even. Jacob, who came to be called Israel, was a tricky one. When Jesus sees Nathaniel, he says well here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. Jesus words are a word play that intentionally contrasts the character of Jacob to that of Nathaniel. This connection of passages is strengthened by Jesus further use of the image of a ladder to heaven.
Now Jacob in the Old Testament saw in a dream a ladder ascending into heaven and the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it. The implications are that the angels are God’s messengers carrying our prayers up and our answers from God down. This is what Jacob, who so often used various levels of tricks, deceit, and pretensions, saw. To Nathaniel who is a person without deceit Jesus tells him, “You shall see the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Nathaniel, whom Jesus identified as a person without deceit, would gain a greater vision than even Jacob. One in which the connection with heaven would be Christ himself.
In the midst of this conversation Nathaniel quickly changes his mind. Nathaniel was coming to check out this Jesus he never had met and finds that Jesus seems to already know who he is. After Jesus makes an opening comment about Nathaniel’s character, Nathaniel ask him, “Where did you get to know me?” How do you know who I am. Jesus tells Nathaniel, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Now we do not know exactly if Jesus perceived Nathaniel through some spiritual means, or if he simply looked across the way and simply saw Philip going over to talk with him, but the fact that Nathaniel felt Jesus had correctly perceived something about him from a distance seems apparent. This revelation of Jesus knowledge concerning Nathaniel was enough to cause Nathaniel to believe.
Possibly Nathaniel perceived that Jesus was making reference to the very text he was reading and studying under the fig tree It may have been that very text of Jacob at Bethel he was reading. Consider what it would be like if you were by yourself reading the Bible and praying and then you meet someone who is able to tell you what you were studying, and maybe even praying for. Such I believe was Nathaniel’s encounter with Jesus. Come and see Nathaniel, and Nathaniel is convinced. ‘Rabi you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel.”
Yes, up out of Nazareth came God’s most remarkable answer for the world, and Nathaniel, who, most commentators associate as also being the disciple named Bartholomew became one of Jesus 12 disciples. He was a witness to Jesus ministry, his life, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. He beheld the glory of God in the person of Jesus the Christ.
Perhaps one of the things we learn in this text is that in the incarnation God is indeed present with us, where we are at, even in our present moment. Can anything good come out of the wayward lost moments of life? Does God know us in our brokenness or in our poverty of spirit? Is God near us even in our sickness and grief? Maybe we can think of Nazareth as being a symbol for all those lost and impoverished places in life. At the beginning of the day the capitol building of the United States was in beautiful condition –clean, orderly, well maintained. At the end of the day its windows were broken, its floors scuffed, doors busted, offices ransacked, and items stolen. Our congress still met among the rubble to finalize our national election. Is God in the brokenness?
Well yes, because Jesus came up out of Nazareth. God has chosen to dwell in lost places, and they don’t influence or scare God one bit. God can bring the savoir of our world up out of a place called Nazareth. God can use the simple honest people like Peter, Andrew, Philip, or Nathaniel to witness heavens glory and be the witness of hope for eternal life for all. God can endow a young boy with a great talent for basketball in a small community called Cabin Creek, WV. God calls us out of the violence, fear, frustrations, and sickness to know him better. Sometimes we just have to get up and see it for ourselves.
Follow God with a sincere and honest heart as Nathaniel did. Know and believe in the one that God has sent into our world. The people of Jesus time needed a messiah, and so do we. By this I mean we do not need world domination. We may not even need to “Make America Great Again,” but what we do need is the perseverance of God’s love within our hearts. That love is what Christ gives, and I think that love is what will make us great.
What would have stopped Nathaniel in our text from knowing Jesus would have been a refusal to go and see Jesus. If he had just sat under his fig tree, he would have missed God’s blessing for him. However, Nathaniel lived with a hope, an expectation, and vision. He like many were prayerfully waiting for the Messiah, and so he encountered God’s great work in our world within Jesus, even in unexpected places. The story for us is the same thing. If we prayerfully are anticipating God’s work, and willing rise when the time joins us, we too shall behold the glory of God made known in Christ for our present circumstance. God is with us in these lowly places too. Can anything good come out Nazareth. The salvation has been revealed in Nazareth. Amen.
John 1:43-51 (NRSV)
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 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.”