January 14, 2018 – Epiphany 2B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? It’s not the kind of question that most of us would ask in mixed company, but Nathaniel was only speaking to his good friend Philip, so that kind of prejudice could be overlooked. Nazareth was a Galilean town about forty miles southwest of Bethsaida, where Nathaniel and Philip were from. Those boys had grown up on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and, although we do not know exactly what they had against the people of Nazareth, we can imagine that it was the sort of resentment and rivalry that grows between small towns in a rural community. Maybe those who made their living on the sea looked down on those who lived their whole lives on dry land. Or maybe they didn’t like the fact that Nazareth was so close to the border with Samaria, close enough for the despised half-breed Samaritans to sneak across. Whatever it was, Nathaniel didn’t like Nazarenes, and he wasn’t afraid to say it.
Perhaps we shouldn’t fault Nathaniel for his out-of-hand dismissal of Jesus. When Philip came and announced to his friend that they had found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, the added detail that he had come from Nazareth clashed violently with all of Nathaniel’s expectations. The anointed one wasn’t supposed to come from Nazareth. The prophets made it clear that the leader of God’s people was to come from Bethlehem, the city that had produced David, Israel’s greatest king. Nathaniel didn’t need to hear any more than that. He knew enough about that filthy place to make up his mind. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asked with an incredulous sneer on his face. Those were tough words, the kind of words that cut off communication, but Philip wasn’t willing to give up. “Come and see,” he said to Nathaniel, so they set out to find this notorious Nazarene.
We can imagine what sort of expectations Nathaniel had about this forced encounter, and Jesus seems to have taken advantage of them. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus said to the reluctant Bethsaidan as he approached. The words shocked Nathaniel. They were the spear of truth thrust right into his heart. Older English translations like the King James Version help us understand what Jesus really meant. In them, Jesus identifies Nathaniel as “an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Guile is a word which means “deceitful cunning.” In other words, before Nathaniel could get out a single dismissive epithet, Jesus said to him, “You’re the kind of Israelite who says exactly what you think and hides your true feelings from no one.” Jesus wasn’t interested in pretending for the sake of polite company either. He called him out, taking a jab at Nathaniel’s prejudice, forcing him to bring it out into the open.
“Where did you get to know me?” the astonished brother said. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus replied. Was this some sort of supernatural insight—an instantaneous sizing-up-from-a-distance that only the Son of God could make? Or had Jesus simply walked past Nathaniel when he wasn’t looking and heard him utter the kind of short-sighted rhetoric that the Bethsaidan often used? Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Jesus had spoken the kind of veneer-shattering truth that opens the door for real transformation: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathaniel declared.
Something powerful happens inside of us when the depths of our soul become fully known and we discover that we are loved anyway. This is the profound truth of the gospel, and it is transformational precisely because it is the perfect antidote to our human nature. But it cannot work its power within us if we refuse to listen to the truth. We don’t like truth-telling. We don’t like it when the cracks and faults in our personality are brought into the light. We would rather hide from that truth than encounter it face to face. It is hard enough to have the mistakes that we have made pointed out to us, but it is paralyzing to have our intrinsic flaws put on display.
Whenever someone speaks of our prejudice and privilege and racism, we shut down. We clam up. We lash out. “Not me,” we protest. And our fear of finding ourselves in the crosshairs of righteousness makes us reluctant to speak the truth to those we love. That’s what happened to Eli the priest, who knew that his sons were defrauding the people of Israel when they brought their sacrifices to God but who did nothing about it. Ours, too, is a culture of polite silence. We laugh at friends’ off-color jokes and quietly delete their e-mails because we worry that speaking out might cost us our friendship. But doesn’t that mean that we value their affection more than we value the truth?
Samuel reminds us that God’s judgment is coming upon those who refuse to speak the truth and that God’s harshest judgment is reserved for those in positions of religious authority who choose silence over the disquieting, unsettling, relationship-threatening words of truth. As the custodian of the Holy Spirit, the church is God’s agent of transformation in the world. If the leaders of the church will not speak the truth, then we are guilty of a grave sin. We are guilty of robbing the gospel of its transformative power because the only way that we can be changed into true citizens of God’s kingdom is if we allow God’s truth to confront the depths of our brokenness, our sinfulness, our prejudice, and our racism. Only then can we know what it means to be loved despite our sin. Nathaniel’s example gives us hope because the radical transformation that he underwent shows us what happens when we encounter the Son of God and allow his truth to penetrate our heart. Only then can we leave our prejudice behind and say to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!”
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Haiti? Do you know what is the largest diocese in The Episcopal Church? It’s not Texas or Virginia or New York. It’s Haiti with its 84,000 members. I’m not talking about the Anglican Communion; I mean right here in our very own Episcopal Church. That’s what comes out of Haiti—our brother and sister Episcopalians who seek to love God with their whole hearts, strengths, souls, and minds and to love their neighbors as themselves. Because racism denies the God-given equal value of every human being, it is antithetical to the Christian faith, and you don’t have to watch the evening news to find it. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of West Town? Can anything good come out of East Acres? Jesus sees the truth inside of all of us, and he loves us just the same. He knows our prejudices, yet he loves us despite them. And a true encounter with that love takes those prejudices away because love like that has no limits. If God knows the depths of our sinfulness and loves us anyway, who is it that God doesn’t love?
As followers of Jesus, we are people of that indiscriminate love. God’s love knows no race or color or nationality. It leaves no room for prejudice or racism. If we are going to be the people of God, we must hear the truth about that unconditional love and speak that truth to those in positions of power and to those whom we call family and friend. Now is the time for God’s love to transform our lives. Now is the time for God’s love to transform this world. Will we stand up and speak out in the name of love, or will we be silent and allow evil and hatred to persist where love yearns to take root?