Beyond Belief John 1:43-51
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip 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.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And 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.”
Dundalk? You grew up in Dundalk? My colleague was a little surprised. I could see it on his face, hear it in his voice. It was a reaction I had experienced before. For some reason I didn’t fit his expectations of someone who came from Dundalk. I understood completely.
You see I grew up on the other side of the tracks so to speak. Dundalk, Maryland was a working class, blue-collar town. Located in southeast Baltimore County, it was a town where most people worked for Bethlehem Steel. They worked hard, tried to get ahead, and hoped and prayed their children would get a good education and never have to work in the steel mill.
I don’t know why my hometown bore the brunt of such prejudice. Perhaps it was because folks weren’t wealthy, or as educated, or fit the usual expectations for being successful. I do know that people didn’t expect much to come out of Dundalk, so today’s scripture hits home for me.
In John’s version of Jesus calling the disciples, Philip finds Nathanael and tells him they’ve found the one Moses and the prophets wrote about. He’s Jesus, son of the carpenter Joseph, from Nazareth. And Nathanael gets that look on his face and that tone in his voice and says, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Peter Woods in his own reflection on this text reminds us that “Nazareth wasn’t a good place to put on your Curriculum Vitae as your place of origin. In fact if there was Facebook back then, you wouldn’t acknowledge that you were from there on any social media. Nazareth was a dump. It didn’t feature in any Old Testament prophecies. No great personage had come from there. It wasn’t the seat of any power and no great families hailed from Nazareth. It was a simple backwater town. No great schools, colleges, universities.
There was nothing. Nazareth was nowhere.”
So how could the Messiah come from Nazareth? Nathanael’s mind could not fathom it. He wouldn’t allow himself to see beyond his own beliefs and assumptions about Nazareth. The Promised One couldn’t come from that place. It wasn’t possible, it just wasn’t possible.
How many times have you missed opportunities to experience God’s presence, to experience something sacred and holy because of your own beliefs and assumptions about where God might appear? How have your own preconceived notions about God gotten in the way?
Take worship for example, what is it that you believe has to happen each Sunday in order for God to show up? In order for worship to be meaningful, and for you to be open to God’s presence? Do we have to sing one of your favorite hymns? Do we have to have a certain amount of silence, or say a particular prayer, or sing the Doxology? Or does it start even before that with finding a parking space? With sitting in a particular pew, near certain people?
What is it that has to happen on Sunday morning in order for you to be open to God’s presence? Have you ever been surprised to see God at work in worship when that hasn’t occurred?
Or what about that difficult situation you are facing? Can God only be present if everything turns out all right, if everything turns out the way you hope and pray it will?
So often our own beliefs and assumptions about God get in the way. They blind us from seeing God moving in the world and in our lives. They bind us tight so that we cannot experience the Spirit of God in our midst. Sometimes our beliefs deafen our ears so that we do not hear God’s call, or God’s prompting.
Nathanael would have missed God’s call had it not been for Philip. Philip’s response to his question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” wasn’t defensive or argumentative. It was a simple invitation. Philip said, “Come and see.” In those three words was an invitation to move beyond his beliefs, to let himself be open to the possibility that God might be at work in this Jesus guy from Nazareth.
Methodist pastor Cynthia Weems recalls a similar experience in her first pastorate. It was there that she met an 11-year-old boy named Victor at youth court. A friend had asked her to serve as a translator for Victor’s father, who spoke only Spanish, because Victor was about to be tried for shooting a child in the leg with a BB gun. Cynthia writes, “Violence and trouble were of life in Victor’s neighborhood. In the gospel of John, when Nathanael ask Philip if anything good can come out of Nazareth, he might have been talking about Victor’s neighborhood or about kids like Victor.
After the jury had deliberated, Victor was given the maximum punishment of 25 hours of community service plus four jury duties at youth court. As I explained the verdict to his father, I realized that the family lived only blocks from the church I served in the urban core of our Midwestern city. It was decided that Victor would begin his community service hours at our church the next day.
His first task was to help clean up an unused youth room on the third floor. It hot, dusty, and messy up there – not a particularly congenial setting for someone trying to maintain moussed, spiked hair. But Victor took the task seriously and assured me he could make a difference in the room. If he did, I told him, the room could become a youth room for him and his friends.
It didn’t take Victor long to turn that musty room around. At one point he came across a large cross that he placed on a table so that the two objects resembled an altar. He then positioned the entire apparatus – altar and all – in front of the east window. He told me that had considered many places for the corss, but this seemed to be the most fitting. ‘This is a church, isn’t it? Every church should have a cross in the window so those of us on the outside can see it.’
Victor had one more responsibility during those weeks. We needed help with vacation Bible School. Victor wasn’t sure about doing any kind ‘school’ in the summer, but he said he’d help. When he invited his friends, our VBS was blessed by Javier, Pedro and Fernando. . . . During the week of vacation Bible school with Victor assisting me and his friends participating, his buddy Pedro came to me with a question: ‘Pastor, you know those community service hours that Victor has? How can I get some of those?’
I was moved to attention. All of the other voices crying out for attention stopped. I was silent. Then I listened. The voice of the Lord was about to speak a new vision. It was clear and came with a challenge: Do kids have to shoot someone with a BB gun before they are invited to your church?
From that day on, Victor and his friends guided our Wednesday afternoon youth ministry on the third floor of that church in a once dusty, messy room. The cross stayed in the east window, but more and more young people began to see it from inside rather than from the outside. Victor and his friends respectfully demanded access to a building they thought had been closed to them . . . .
And this first time pastor had her eyes opened beyond what she believed was possible. Who would have thought of the holy possibilities that might come out of translating at youth court?
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can we move beyond our own beliefs and assumptions about God and open our eyes to the holy in unexpected places and people?
Nathanael accepts Philip’s invitation to do this and he goes off to meet Jesus. He makes a bold confession of faith but Jesus isn’t too impressed.
“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?
In other words, because you think I have divine powers and know something about you? Just stick around Nathanael, just wait and see. Move beyond your beliefs and,
“You will see greater things than these.”
We don’t hear anymore about Nathanael until the end of the gospel story. Jesus has been crucified and word is going around that he’s appeared to some of his disciples. Nathanael is one of them. He’s with the others on the beach and Jesus appears to them and invites them to breakfast. And once again he shows them greater things.
We know Nathanael. He’s one of us, tied to his beliefs and assumptions about God, about where and when and how God will appear and be experienced. Just waiting to see the greater things that reach far beyond our beliefs. Amen.
Sermon by Bonnie Kline Smeltzer
University Baptist and Brethren Church
January 22, 2012