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Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth?


The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 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." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." 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."

JOHN 1:43-51

Sermon (by The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor)

Can anything good come out of Nazareth??


Nathaniel’s response to Philip’s claim that they had found, ‘him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,’ reveals his assumptions, his scepticism, his critical nature. For Nathaniel, Nazareth could never be the source of something good. Why he believes this, we have no idea…looking at archaeological evidence, Nazareth was a Jewish city, likely with many craftsmen, maybe being more conservative than other cities, but we don’t know whether any of this contributed to Nathaniel’s scorn of the place. But it is his scorn that leads him to assume that Jesus, because of his association with Nazareth, could not be good.


So Philip challenges his assumption, telling him, ‘come and see.’ Philip offers him the opportunity to see for himself…almost saying to him, ‘you doubt what we have said about Jesus? Well come and see…come and check him out, then decide.’ Nathaniel goes, maybe he thinks he will prove Philip wrong showing him how Jesus is definitely nothing great, or maybe he is just curious…we can’t ever know.


And as Nathaniel approaches Jesus, Jesus speaks, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Somehow Jesus knows that Nathaniel is unlike well-known deceitful characters, such as Jacob who tricked his brother in the book of Genesis. Nathaniel is frank, honest, speaks his mind, doesn’t hide who he is and what he thinks.


But despite what Jesus says, despite the fact that Jesus has accurately captured Nathaniel’s character, Nathaniel’s beliefs about him are not easily changed, he questions Jesus…‘"Where did you get to know me?"  “How do you know anything about me?”  He remains critical, questioning, stubbornly sticking to his assumptions and doubts about Jesus. So, Jesus replies, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." And it is this statement, this really odd statement, that leads Nathaniel to exclaim, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathaniel praises Jesus, identifying him as a Rabbi, son of God, a king. Somehow the fact that Jesus saw Nathaniel under a fig tree has led him to exclaim who Jesus is.


In our Gospel Nathaniel is characterised as someone who makes assumptions about others, is sceptical, doubtful, critical. However, when Jesus speaks about him being under the fig treen, his character shifts and he proclaims Jesus’ identity. This transformation happens quickly, in but a few verses, we don’t know exactly why his mind has changed, why the fact that Jesus saw him sitting under a fig tree has any significance…but something has happened to him, something has changed within him. It is when he encounters Jesus, when Jesus speaks to him, that his assumptions, his scepticism, his doubt, his criticism, all disappear and he acknowledges who Jesus truly is, he sees Jesus’ identity and he proclaims it.


While the Gospel contains many narrative gaps, leaving us grasping for answers about what has really changed Nathaniel’s character, figuring all of this out is not vital for us to experience the good news the author of John is presenting to us. Nathaniel embodies our own imperfections…he, like us, makes assumptions about others, is judgemental, is sceptical. We might even see in him arrogance, a sense of knowing better than others, like Philip…a hubris that each of us from time to time demonstrate.


And while these traits don’t characterise Nathaniel in a positive light, notice how Jesus doesn’t hold this against him. Jesus doesn’t respond to Nathaniel’s judgement with judgement, but Jesus takes the time to engage with him. Jesus doesn’t see Nathaniel as a lost cause, too stubborn to change, but Jesus speaks with him and keeps doing that, even when Nathaniel responds with doubt.


The encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel is a reminder that while God knows our deepest flaws, the judgements we make of others, the times when we think we know better, are better than those around us…none of this is enough to cause God to give up on us. Nothing we do, even if we think the worst thing possible about someone, feel hate and anger in our hearts…is enough to cause God to shut down, judge us, or cast us aside. God is steadfast and God keeps engaging with us, no matter what. God will never, ever, push us aside or ignore us. Can we accept this and hold onto this truth??


I wonder if Philip knew all of this and this is why he didn’t give up on Nathaniel? Maybe Philip knew exactly how Jesus would respond to Nathaniel and he invited Nathaniel to come and see Jesus, because he knew that when he experienced God’s grace through this encounter, he would change. As much as we are like Nathaniel, I think this Gospel is also calling us to be like Philip. To go into the world and invite the Nathaniels in our lives to come and see what we believe, to come and see the God whose grace knows no bounds, who will change lives, who does not judge anyone despite all the judgement we carry in our hearts.


Can anything good come out of Nazareth?? When Nathaniel speaks this phrase, we see him as someone who makes assumptions, has prejudices, is flawed as we all are. But our Gospel shows us that this isn’t enough to prevent Jesus from engaging with him, loving him, as he does for us too. And we need to hold onto this amazing gift of grace, do our best to accept it, and then go out into the world and live so others might come and see this truth. Can you imagine the difference in people’s lives, the lives of our family and friends who are burdened by so much, to know that imperfections and all, God never stops engaging any of us? That we are all so deeply loved that despite those times when are fully being like Nathaniel, judging others because of something superficial, their past, their culture, their outward appearance…God does not ever do this to us, God never ignores us or casts us aside? That at the heart of our faith is a gift of grace, freely given love, no matter what we do? So we need to go out into this world and do our best to live this truth each day…to accept it in our hearts and then to call others to come and see this wonderful good news.  Amen.


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