This sermon was delivered on January 14, 2018. It was also submitted in my ordination papers, and got pretty solid reviews if I do say so myself. Enjoy!
–Grant, The Nerdcore Theologian
43 The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.
45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”
46 Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Philip said, “Come and see.”
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. 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 I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”[a]
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Each time I’m asked to move to a new town as a pastor, I almost always find myself sent to some place I’ve never heard of. I’ll admit, when it happens, I have a look of incredulity and skepticism that this place even exists.
When I was a kid, I started out in Sweeney, TX. Well, I was born in Houston, but I really remember Sweeney. At age eight, I was told we were moving to Pasadena…and I was crushed. Sweeney, small and out of the way as it was, was my home. It was the only home I had known. And now, we had to move to someplace new? A place that I frequently mispronounced? Of course, once we moved there, I loved it, but that initial skepticism is what I remember. I had to come and see for myself.
The same thing happened when I was told we were moving to Dayton. I had never even heard of Dayton. I’d heard of Dayton, Ohio, but not Texas. Again, I was skeptical. This is a joke right? I just lived 6 years in the cozy industrial suburbs, and now I gotta move to the middle of nowhere again? And of course, when we did, I found new things to love about Dayton, new people, new experiences. But I had to come and see for myself.
Fast forward past my childhood and into my career, and the pattern reappears.
“Grant, you’re moving to Canton.” “Where?”
“Grant, you’re moving to Lufkin.” Huh? I think I’ve driven through there before, maybe.”
“Grant, you’re moving to Hemphill.” “Oh, great, Hempstead! I know that place.” “No, Hemphill.” …”Huh?”
Each new place might as well have been Nazareth to me, which is to say that deep in the recesses of my brain, I had Nathaniel’s question pop in my brain. Can anything good come from this? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
That’s a question that can be asked in many ways. Sometimes, it’s asked out of ignorance; I’ve never heard of that place, so how can I trust it? Sometimes it’s borne out of prejudice; I’ve heard of what goes down in Nazareth, so I’m not going to trust it. But there’s a kernel of it that we all have: curiosity and healthy skepticism.
People are curious by nature, and it’s good to have that curiosity. Skepticism is part of that curiosity. Skepticism is rarely a primary impulse, but a secondary one. Skepticism appears when our self-defense is raised. Is it safe? Is it trustworthy? Is it good?
Jesus was subject to such skepticism frequently. In fact, he was met by it from all sides, even his disciples. Here, at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, he was starting from the bottom, so to speak. Philip and Nathaniel were two of the first, and became a model for how discipleship is spread even still today. “Who’s that?” “Jesus of Nazareth.” “Nazareth, huh? Can anything good come of this?” To which Phillip, and I, respond: “Come and see.”
What we need to be able to do is separate our unhealthy prejudices from our healthy skepticism. Skepticism, doubt, and questioning are the lifeblood of a living, healthy faith. Prejudice is the opposite: it kills faith, infects it, twists it, and replaces it with self-importance, self-reliance, and ignorance. The crucial difference between the two is the willingness to hear the call: come and see.
“How do you know me?”
By all accounts, people rarely listen to that call, to come and see what Christ is doing, and to follow him. Keep in mind, then, that Jesus knew us long before we knew him.
One of the core teachings of the United Methodist Church is our emphasis on grace. God’s grace is freely and openly available to everyone, no matter where you are in your life. One of the more peculiar kids of grace that our denomination emphasizes is that of “prevenient” grace, grace that comes before us. Put simply, it’s grace that God gives to us before we even know God. God shares that grace with us freely, drawing us ever closer to God, and pointing the way to him in every moment of our lives. This grace acts as protection, strength, and love, but also as a magnet, an appetizer, as just a little bit of what God gives us before we truly understand him, and accept him into our lives.
Suffice it to say then that God knows us well. God has knew us before we were born, and knows us better than we know ourselves. When Jesus proves this in the sight of Philip and Nathaniel, they are astonished. What might appear as a mysterious parlor trick is truly Jesus displaying this deep grace and love to newcomers. He knew us, and he loved us, long before we even met him.
It’s evident too that there had to have been something about the way Jesus said it, or carried himself, that made this not a moment of terror, but of wonder. In saying “I saw you under the fig tree,” Jesus wasn’t trying to scare Nathaniel, but to reassure him.
“You will see greater things than these!”
This moment of reassurance was Jesus’s answer to Nathaniel’s question: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
How? Because it proved that there was a deep well of wisdom from which Jesus draws from, one which we have access to in the Spirit–one that cast into doubt all of Nathaniel’s prejudices against Nazareth.
Nazareth wasn’t known for being a terribly important place. In fact, it was a small fishing village on the coast of the sea of Galilee. No great people had ever come from there before. No academies like the ones in Athens or Rome were founded there. No great temples were founded there, like the ones in Jerusalem. It wasn’t the seat of any economic power. It was just a nowhere town that stank of fish.
Jesus, on the other hand, proved that, with a few words, he could counter any doubts Nathaniel had. In just saying he knew him, Nathaniel was able to have faith in Jesus. It took strength of character and faith for Nathaniel to even seek Jesus out.
The prevenient grace that God had given to Nathaniel was enough to bring Nathaniel to follow Jesus as a disciple. Jesus had faith in Nathaniel first, and Nathaniel responded. That’s far more than many of us would do. Why? Because many of us have prejudice that masquerades as skepticism.
Nathaniel was skeptical, but tested it out by following through with action. Prejudice does the opposite. Prejudice, prejudging, keeps us from following through. It keeps us from changing. It keeps us from stepping out in faith, and rather, staying where we are in fear.
Everyone has prejudicial impulses. I had them when I was confronted with the prospect of moving to wherever I was appointed. But I didn’t stay in that impulse. I got to meet people in those new, strange places. I got to know them. I grew to love them. My prejudice didn’t stay prejudice. It moved from prejudice to skepticism, and with time and testing, it even turned into faith and love. You all gave me grace, and for that, I’m thankful.
That is grace we can give to everyone. If one of the core teachings of the United Methodist church is the grace of God, we should be the first to step out in faith for others.
Nathaniel was called out, and asked to “come and see” this Jesus. His skepticism was tempered by faith. And eventually he answered the call to follow Christ. That’s how it always works best. We must first come and see where Christ is working, and follow him to where he leads us.
It might be in unfamiliar territory. It might be with people that we are suspicious of, people who come from places that test our prejudices. But Jesus never judged us harshly. Jesus knew us before we knew him. So we can therefore know that Jesus loves all of us. We are all the beloved of God, given grace by God. No prejudice can restrain the boundless potential of the grace of God.
With that in mind, Jesus calls out to you to come and see him, to come and see his kingdom. Will you heed the call? Will you come and see?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.