“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” These were the first words out of Nathanael’s mouth when his friend Philip began to share the news that he had met the Messiah, and the Messiah was a carpenter-turned-rabbi from the village of Nazareth. Can anything good come out of that little backwater, hole-in-the-wall, wide place in the road called Nazareth…for that is the way it was considered by residents of the larger towns and cities of Galilee like Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Sepphoris.
Philip doesn’t argue with Nathanael, nor try to convince him; he just says: Come and see; come and see for yourself. And Nathanael is curious enough to go along, suspicions and preconceptions in hand, to see Jesus. But, in fact, Jesus sees and knows some truth about Nathanael while he is still a little way off: Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit – no guile, a straight-shooter, genuine through and through, a man who speaks his mind. Nathanael is still suspicious and confronts Jesus: “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus replies that he “saw” Nathanael while he was still under the fig tree. Whatever that was about – second sight, intuition, the Holy Spirit whispering in his ear – it made a big impact on Nathanael, who then did an about face, made an abrupt exclamation of faith, proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God and King of Israel. But we’ll never really know what changed in Nathanael, what his inner motivation was in claiming faith in Jesus. That part of the story has been lost to us.
Tomorrow is our country’s annual commemoration of the life, work, and witness of Martin Luther King, jr – an important day. But I wonder if we sometimes are not in danger of losing some of the important realities of his story.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, was a Baptist preacher and a civil rights leader, but if we honor him merely as an inspirational speaker, someone who said things that we now think are self-evident, we miss a great deal. Dr. King was also a martyr, shot by a sniper on the balcony of a Memphis motel fifty years ago this April. He was not murdered because he made speeches that said we should all be nice to one another, or that we should just try to get along.
He was killed because his work, and his words, and the movement that he led challenged what many people believed about race and power, roles and opportunity in our society, and the way that the African-American community in particular had been boxed-in and oppressed by certain attitudes, practices, and (in some cases) laws. What seems like compassion and common-sense to us today was in many places considered scary and threatening to the powers-that-be, to an economic system, and to a way of life.
The positive changes came at a very high cost to those involved directly in the civil rights struggle, and sometimes to those who were on the side-lines. I think, for example, of the men and women who were beaten, hosed, and bitten by dogs in the march in Selma; of the four girls who died in Sunday School when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by segregationists; of the white Episcopal seminarian who was shot while protecting a young black woman colleague in the voting rights effort, taking the bullet that was meant for her.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Atlanta, Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Haynesville, Memphis…Newark, Plainfield….all the places and the neighborhoods and communities where people banded together to work for civil rights?
A classic way of attempting to keep others in a “less than” position, to try to rob them of their dignity and power, is to speak of them in demeaning and disparaging ways. And so there were many who thought, spoke, and wrote about Dr. King, and his colleagues and supporters and friends, just as derisively as Nathanael spoke of any good -let alone the Messiah – coming out of Nazareth.
This is the season of Epiphany, in which truth comes to light, and we see and understand more clearly – often suddenly - as Nathanael saw Jesus and knew him to be the Messiah. But Jesus doesn’t just leave it there. He pushes Nathanael further: "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." In other words, the fact that Jesus knew who and what Nathanael was would be small potatoes compared to what he might see as Jesus worked to bring to reality God’s mission in the world: the sick healed, the outcasts restored, the poor given justice, the Good News preached, sins forgiven, the Scriptures fulfilled, the coming together of heaven and earth in Jesus. Nathanael’s epiphany about Jesus’ work and identity would continue to grow as he followed him.
Epiphanies are not just about having more information or knowledge; epiphanies change us, make us behave differently. The Wise Men returned home by another road, after having worshiped the Christ Child; Jesus launched his public ministry after he saw and heard the voice of God at his baptism; Nathanael changed from being a skeptical disparager to being a believer after his encounter with Jesus; our American society began to make some important changes after our encounter with the truth of equality, justice, and dignity for all God’s people which was the core of the civil right movement.
But epiphanies need nurturing; they need care and feeding and tending. The disciples walked, and worked, and prayed with Jesus for three years, and they still weren’t ready for the Resurrection. It has been more than fifty years since the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed, and we keep finding new ways in which justice, equality, and opportunity for all people can be made more real. We have, I hope, each had epiphanies and experiences of faith that can still grow deeper roots; can be both nurtured and challenged in our walk with the Lord, in our pursuit of living as Christ’s agents in the world.
Can anything good come out of our struggles with prayer, with Scripture reading, with worship, with the daily challenges of making sense of life from God’s perspective and the choices that go along with that? My answer is a whole-hearted: yes! The good is that we will know more clearly God’s direction and purpose; that we will be connected more strongly to Christ, to the Christian community, and to our fellow human beings; that we will feel and experience what it is to love and be loved; that we will help to make a difference in God’s world for all God’s people.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Yes it can; Come and see!
With the words of this prayer of Dr. King’s, let us pray.
"God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen."
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 14, 2018