“Each and every one of us can claim the very identity that Jesus claims: we are sons and daughters of the one true living God. We are the children of God, and that is what defines us.”
Sarah Stansfield, intern
Wartburg Theological Seminary
Grace and Peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today’s Gospel text, albeit short, contains some interesting lessons for us as a church today. While at surface value, this text seems to be about discipleship, and it is about discipleship to some extent, going a little deeper, one can find traces of a theme of trust as well as the need to prove oneself. However, I would argue that one of the greatest points within this text comes in the form of a question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
I picture Nathaniel asking this question of Philip in a sort of sarcastic tone. He is skeptical, and honestly, he had good reason to be. To place this Gospel text into the context of the time, the Jewish people had been waiting for this great prophet to arrive for hundreds, if not over a thousand years. And now, Philip comes running up to him saying that they have found the one who Moses and the Prophets had written about.
I would probably be skeptical too. But it doesn’t seem as though Nathaniel is as concerned about the timing of Jesus’ arrival, as he is with the place from which Jesus came. Nazareth was not the place that anyone would have imagined the promised Messiah to come from. What would have been expected would be a chief priest, or a King, or even someone like Samuel in our 1st reading today.
But Jesus didn’t fit into that identity. Jesus was simply a Rabbi from Nazareth. Nazerath was a small village near the plain if Esdralon in Galilee. But Nazareth, much like this week’s text, had more to offer than it’s size may convey. Although Nazareth was a small village, it was located right on the Roman Road to Jerusalem and therefore, contact could be made with the entirety of the known world at that time from this small, unassuming village in Galilee.
But still we have Nathaniel’s question. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The place of Nazareth can be used by many for things such as communication, trade, and other such things, simply because of its location. But that doesn’t say much about the village itself. The people who lived in the village of Nazareth were likely not benefitting from the perks of living on this road. Instead, the villagers were probably living in poor conditions, with little money, relying on their trade skills, such as carpentry as Joseph, Jesus’ father, and Jesus Himself practiced, to get by.
Nathaniel asks Philip this question, perhaps as an act if disbelief, or perhaps the place where Nathaniel is from is a rival of sorts with the village of Nazareth and there is a small town rivalry going on, or perhaps Nathaniel identifies with Jesus’ place of origin and is not only being skeptical of Jesus, but of himself as well. If this is the case, Jesus’ response to Nathaniel’s doubt is not only affirming the identity of a Jesus, but the worth of Nathaniel when Jesus said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
We can’t really know for sure what was going on in the mind of Nathaniel, or Jesus for that matter. But we don’t need to in order to understand the point that Jesus brings to light out of this text. Philip responds to Nathaniel’s question, his doubt, and his skepticism with an invitation, “come and see.”
Nathaniel accepts this invitation and through it Nathaniel comes to believe Jesus’ identity, and the worth of He who did come from Nazareth, but Jesus almost seems to scoff at the reason for His belief. “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” This scolding seems to foreshadow the one that Thomas receives later on in the book of John after Thomas professes that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead only after Thomas sees Jesus for himself, “have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
So let us consider this question of Nathaniel’s in a different context. One that is perhaps a bit more applicable to our understanding. What if Nathaniel were to ask can anything good come out of Heart River Lutheran Church?
From an outside perspective, one could see a small congregation, too small to even have a full time pastor. One could judge this church in many ways, and I’m sure many have. But when this church began to meet in this chapel 30 years ago, how many could have answered the question, can anything good come out of Heart River Lutheran Church, accurately, knowing what we know today? I’m guessing that none of us could have imagined the number of lives which have been changed due to the ministry of this church or the ways in which the ministries of this church have changed them.
One could not guess that the ministry of mentoring the youth present here today and those who have come and gone from here and YCC would have the affect that it has, or would expand into what is now Bridges of Hope. I can see all the work that has been done here and I can believe the good that has come from this small, unassuming church. But those of you who have been here from the beginning, you believed in the work of God through this church even before you could imagine what it would look like. Blessed are you who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.
Here now, is another thought for us to consider. In our repetitive questioning of good coming from things which seem to yield no good, we must face the question of ourselves. Can anything good come out of me? The act of loving yourself and of believing in yourself is something that all people struggle with at some time or another. In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells Nathaniel that He has come to know him because He saw him under the fig tree. That alone does not mean much to us, but to Nathaniel, that is enough information to change his entire attitude towards this man of whom he was so skeptical just 2 verses earlier.
What that tells us is that Jesus sees us, and Jesus knows us. And despite what Jesus sees of us and despite what Jesus knows about us, Jesus has not turned His back on us and continues to call us to new life with Him.
Jesus is calling His disciples in his text to great things, and God is still calling us to the same. But Before we are able to share the good news if the Gospel with others, before we are able to invite others to see what good can come from them, we first must understand that the Gospel is for us. Not just a select group of people, not just those who come to church every Sunday, or those who have been raised in the church. The Gospel is not limited by our pasts or our homes, but is given for each and every one of us individually.
The essence of the Gospel is to accept that you’re accepted. We don’t need to change ourselves or fix ourselves, or make the “right” choices in order to be accepted by God. God takes each of us where we are. Once we are able to wrap our minds around this simple, but beautiful, life changing truth, then we can begin to understand what good could possibly come from us. Once we can understand this through the power if the Holy Spirit, then we can help others to come to the same understanding, that they are accepted by God, no matter what their past looks like, no matter what they’ve done, and who they are, what really matters is who’s they are, and they belong to God. We belong to God.
Through this revelation, good will come pouring out from us, because it isn’t left up to us on our own to do good and to make the right choices, but our actions and our characters will be shaped by the knowledge of God’s abounding grace for us, working through us to become good in the world. When God created the world in the beginning, God looked at Adam and Eve and God declared that they were good. That status has not changed. We are still created good in the image of God.
So now we ask ourselves, what is it that defines us? Is it that we come from Nazereth? Are we defined by the poverty we grew up in? Or the abundance in which we were raised? Are we defined by the past we have left behind? I hope that the answer to these questions for all of us is no. Yes, all of these things are connected to our lives, our pasts, our families, our home, and these things make up a part of who we are. We cannot change that. But none of these things define us. None of them are where we, as the church find our worth. Jesus was not simply a man from Nazereth. I am not simply a woman from Wisconsin. We are not simply a church in Mandan, North Dakota.
Each and every one of us can claim the very identity that Jesus claims: we are sons and daughters of the one true living God. We are the children of God, and that is what defines us. It doesn’t change where we have come from, it doesn’t change what we have done, it doesn’t change the problems which we have faced throughout our lives, but it does change our future and the good that can and will come out of all of us. Thanks be to God!
Please pray with me.
God of grace and mercy We thank you for claiming us as your own children. We are humbled by your acceptance of us despite who we have been. We praise you for the Gospel you have given to us and that you have made it uniquely and individually ours. We ask that you guide us in your call for us to live out the good which can come out from us only through you. Help us to live out your call in our lives, both as a church, and as individuals standing before you. Bring healing into our midst and make us whole. In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ we pray,