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Good Things in Nazareth

John 1:43-51

John 1:43 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.”

*****

Sometimes the hardest thing to see is what’s right in front of your face. Have you ever been in a panic looking for your keys or your phone only to realize that you were holding them in your hand, or you needed your sunglasses and they were already on your head? Whenever we do something like this we can’t help but feel stupid because it should be so obvious, but when you start telling yourself a story like “My keys are lost and I have to find them and they must be in one of the places I usually leave them,” it becomes really easy to lose sight of what we think might be obvious. Our eyes and our brains are really good at filtering information for us, but sometimes we filter out things that would be really helpful.

We like to think that we’re very objective and rational, that our eyes show us what’s there, but really we see what we want to see, and to see anything else, even things that maybe should be obvious, we need someone to show us. This is what our favorite writers or preachers do for us. This is why it can be so helpful to go see a counselor. This is why we need to have friends who don’t just nod and agree with us all the time, but who are able to say, “I’ve noticed you keep talking this way, but I think you’re being too hard on yourself.” Sometimes to see, to really see, what’s right in front of our faces, we need someone to see us and show us what we’re missing. “Hey dummy, your glasses are on your head!”

In our story this morning, Jesus helps Nathanael to see what he could not see on his own. This is the beginning of what it means to be a disciple. We become disciples when the scales fall from our eyes and we can repent of our old stories that had blinded us to God and our neighbors.

Jesus has come to the Galilee and called Nathanael’s friend Phillip to “follow him.” This is the context for the story: Jesus goes to the Galilee to call disciples, to call people to give up everything and live a different kind of life in anticipation of a different kind of world. This is already interesting because if you went to Jerusalem, the big city, and you asked someone about Galilee, you would probably have heard a story about what that place was like: the Galilee was barely a part of Israel, it lay on the other side of Samaria from Judea, Jerusalem, the Temple. The Galilee was supposedly poor, rustic; people in Jerusalem talked about the people there as simple and uneducated. They were fishers and farmers. If you were a professor at Temple University, you did not go looking for your next doctoral students in the Galilee. But that’s where Jesus is from, that’s the land, those are the people he knows, and so he knows that the story told in Jerusalem about the Galilee is not entirely true. So Jesus goes there to call disciples.

After Jesus calls Phillip, Phillip goes to Nathanael and tells him that the one promised by Moses has come, and it’s Jesus from Nazareth. Nathanael’s response is incredulous, Can anything good come from Nazareth? To which Phillip says, Come and see.

At first, Nathanael can’t see it. He can’t imagine that the Messiah, the chosen one, the King, might come from Nazareth. Even though Nathanael is from Bethsaida, a fishing village in the Galilee, he internalizes the story they tell in Jerusalem about the north. That story blinds Nathanael to the possibility that anything good at all could come from Nazareth, much less the new king. Nathanael’s condition here is one of blindness. The story he tells himself about Nazareth, and perhaps about his own home too, blinds him to the reality that is right in front of him.

Part of what this Scripture is doing is reminding us that the stories we have learned to tell about certain people and places are just that, stories. And stories are always told from a point of view. And no point of view sees everything. The story Jerusalem tells about the Galilee might just be wrong, whether or not the Messiah shows up there. The Galilee might not be a wealthy place, but there are goods other than wealth, other ways to find joy, other ways to make a life. But if you value wealth and power and efficiency above all else, then you’re going to tell a story that makes invisible the poor, the powerless, and those who take their time. Can anything good come from Nazareth?

Its a question, we, living in the United States of America, living in Chapel Hill, have been taught, have taught ourselves, to ask. Can anything good come from Iraq? Can anything good come from Libya? Can anything good come from Haiti? Can anything good come from West Virginia? Can anything good come from Mississippi? Can anything good come from Fayetteville Street? Can anything good come from a tiny baptist church when there are megachurches popping up all over the place? Many of us secretly, or not so secretly, believe there are good places and bad places, places that produce good things and places that need to be the recipients of good things because they don’t have any for themselves. The world is divided up into those who have good things to offer and those who not only have need, but have nothing to offer. These are the assumptions behind statements like, “Oh no one really lives there,” or “That’s a bad part of town,” or “They’ve really cleaned up that area?” No one? Bad for whom? What (or who) was making it dirty?

This way of imagining our world is blinding, concealing the way the world really works. Imagining our world in these terms makes it look as though the wealthy, the educated, the powerful are the source of all good, and the poor, the uneducated, the blue-collar have nothing to offer. The haves have what they have because they are industrious, and smart and moral; the have nots suffer because they are lazy and stupid. Otherwise they’d be haves. This story is the greatest trick the rich ever played, convincing the world that they do all the work, while the working class is but a black hole of need.

Does anything good come from Nazareth?

Yes. There are people there, people who live and eat and have babies and worship and work and produce. The city needs the countryside, or they don’t eat. The general needs the soldiers, or he’s just a guy in a costume. The CEO needs thousands of cashiers, or their businesses don’t work. The 13 American colonies needed Haiti to imagine revolution. During Reconstruction, when white supremacists were asking why black Americans shouldn’t go to Africa, the black liberationist writer David Walker answered, “Because we built this place.” White folks got rich because they set things up to where they didn’t have to pay wages, but black folks did the digging, the lifting, the planting, the hammering. Can anything good come from Nazareth? Please. Can anything good come from Jerusalem or Washington DC? Maybe everything good is already in Nazareth! But Nathanael doesn’t see it. And so he doesn’t see who Jesus is either. He thinks he knows that place as desolate, so he can’t imagine finding water, much less living water there.

And perhaps Nathanael can’t see it for himself either. Maybe this is also a story Nathanael tells about his own life. When Phillip comes, he gives Nathanael a claim about Jesus and a call for Nathanael. “This is the one whom Moses talked about” and the implication is Come with me to follow him.” So when Nathanael asks Can anything good come from Nazareth, he is asking both “Is this guy for real?” and “Is this really possible for me?” Remember, Nathanael is not from the big city either. He’s from the Galilee, Bethsaida. If he’s better off than Jesus, it’s not really by much. If Jesus is from the projects, Nathanael’s from the trailer park. Can anything good come from Bethsaida? Why would the messiah be calling me? How could I have anything to do with what God is doing in the world? That’s for other people, more talented people, more gifted people, people with more resources. What good can I do? The messiah can’t really come from Nazareth because if they could, that means I could be one of their followers.

Many of the stories we tell about the world also disqualify us from working for God’s kingdom. The powers of this world are just so big. Who am I, up against insurance companies, and banks, and armies, and Walmart and Amazon?

Maybe in response to these grand concerns, the Spirit speaks to us as Phillip spoke to Nathanael, “Come and see.”

Nathanael goes with Phillip to Jesus, and Jesus says to him, Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit, which I’m sure for Nathanael was an odd thing to hear from someone who he’s meeting for the first time. How could you possibly know that? I saw you under the fig tree before Phillip called you.

When Nathanael can’t see, Jesus sees him. Nathanael is seen before he learns how to see, and it’s in being seen by Jesus that he gains sight. Jesus sees Nathanael under the fig tree just as God saw Adam and Eve hiding in the garden behind their fig leaves, and he calls him out just the same. (Nathanael, your glasses are on top of your head!)

Jesus sees us. Jesus sees what we’re hiding from each other and from ourselves. Jesus sees the stories we hide behind, that we tell ourselves and that we use to filter out our neighbors and our own calling to work for God’s kingdom now. God sees and because God sees, our own sight does not set the limitations for what is possible. There were good things in Nazareth before Jesus ever got there, there are good things in the Galilee, there were already goods in the colonized, gentrified, exploited places of our world, there are goods that you have to offer God’s kingdom in the struggle against the kingdoms of this world.

And even if you don’t see them, we believe in the God who sees, who makes a way where there is no way. Black women have for years written and preached that it was Hagar, the African slave woman, who names God as “the God who sees” because God came alongside her in the wilderness and promised that her seed too would be a great nation. When God’s people would narrow our vision, declaring certain people, certain places, certain classes, certain races, even ourselves “no good,” God still sees and calls us to see, too.

I think this is why Nathanael responds the way he does. His eyes are opened when Jesus tells him that he is seen. Nathanael, the whole world and the voices in your head tell you that you’re no good, that no good thing could come from you, but I see you. And you will see the heavens torn open and angels ascending and descending upon the son of man. You will see, and once you see you won’t stop seeing. You’ll see good news in yourself, you’ll see it in your neighbors, you’ll see it in Nazareth and the Section 8 housing and the trailer park and supposed “third world” countries, and you’ll weep that you’d been so blinded to the people who are already there and the love you might’ve shared with them if you hadn’t been so high and mighty.

Friends, God sees you, too, underneath your fig tree. God sees your fears, your secrets, your shame, your blindness to yourself and your neighbor, and God doesn’t look away, as though to say “Nothing good could come from them.” In Jesus, God says, I see you. Now, come and see for yourself. Open your eyes to what I am doing in the world, to the good that was always, already here. Open your eyes to your neighbors who are good, too, who were never invisible to me even if they are to Washington and Wall Street. See the heavens open and proclaim the good news ascending and descending from my new world. Amen.

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