“You Will See Greater Things Than These”
A Sermon on John 1:43-51 (with 1st Samuel 3:1-20) for the 2nd Sun. in Ord. Time, Year B; preached January 18, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” You can pretty much hear the sneering voice in those words from Nathaniel. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nose turned up and eyes cast down, Nathaniel was ready to dismiss this Jesus guy for nothing more consequential, it would seem, than the town from which he came.
Now, perhaps I should cut Nathaniel a little bit of slack… after all, his friend Philip had just made a pretty extravagant claim about Jesus: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” Philip had said. The one whom all of the scriptures have foretold, in other words… the messiah. That’s a pretty big claim to make about someone. To be the one that all the hopeful hearts of the people had been looking for, the one who was supposed to bring about the restoration of the kingdom and the new era of God’s presence and power among them… you wouldn’t expect all that to come in the form of just any ol’ shmuck.
And for Nathaniel, and plenty of others of his time, I imagine, you wouldn’t expect this one, this foretold and promised one, this messiah… you wouldn’t expect them to come from just any ol’ backwater town, either. We here in the United States tend to be fond of those pulled-up-by-the-bootstraps, came-out-of-nowhere storylines—where a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, can be president and a working-class girl born in Bay City, Michigan, can become a world pop superstar named Madonna. But in plenty of times and places through human history, who you were and where you came from were assumed to be more closely linked… especially someone who was supposed to be somebody important. What could possibly come forth from Nazareth, the little insignificant village that it was? Nazareth in Jesus’ time was such an unimportant little settlement that the earliest references to the town in historical sources other than the Bible come from nearly 200 years after Jesus. Surely, Nathaniel must have thought, how can some guy from Nazareth be the “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” the messiah. Shouldn’t he be from Jerusalem or something? Even little Bethlehem gets mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures as the place where the messiah might come from. But Nazareth?
I’ll confess that to my modern ear, Nathaniel comes off sounding like a jerk, or at least a bit crude. Why be so dismissive right off the bat? At least that’s what our modern sensitivities would say. We’re instructed not to judge a book by its cover, and we speak in our times of that virtue of all people being created equal and that promise that you can be anything you want to be. Someone like Nathaniel, therefore, sounds so close-minded, like the red neck saying to the visitor “you’re not from around here, are you?” or the blue-blood sneering about someone who’s degree came from somewhere other than Oxford or Princeton.
But the truth is, of course, such distinguishing of people based on little more than where they came from is something that still happens day-in and day-out in our own times and in our own communities. Sure, it may not always take the same directly dismissive tone. But that may, in fact, make the reality all the more pernicious and troublesome.
Take, for example, how we deal with education in this country. We as a people are plenty comfortable with a system where the opportunities given to shape a child’s future depend on which side of a town line that child’s parents happen to live. We may not echo Nathaniel, saying things like “Can anything good come out of Willimantic? … or New Britain… or Bridgeport…?” But we’re by and large o.k. with significant disparities from school district to school district and town to town… or at least we’re not uncomfortable enough with it to do anything about it.
And we seem to be o.k. in this world at the moment making broad generalizations and judgments and dismissals of people for their religious and ethnic background. In the wake of the recent terror attacks on that French satire magazine, many, many people in our own country and around the world have been yet again so quick to heap suspicion on all Muslims and anything Islamic. The rhetoric of Islam as a whole being violent and at-war with the West has reared its head again, the actions of the fundamentalist few coloring perceptions of the multitudes more moderate and modern.
Of course, on this weekend, when we especially remember and honor the work and legacy of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior, we also remember a long and still continuing history of our own country and sisters and brothers of our own religious faith dismissing people by virtue simply of where they came from, namely if they or their ancestors came from Africa. For the vast majority of the history of our country, it was perfectly acceptable to ask—and even often to do so in explicit ways—if anything “good” could come from ‘those people’. And, in fact, while we may not be quite as brazen about it anymore, there’s still so much about our society that implies that question. We have not become uncomfortable enough as Americans, as white people, as white Christians… we have not become uncomfortable enough with the systemic inequalities that disproportionately fall out along racial lines in order to actually change the systems. Moreover, we even hesitate to join in the struggle because we’ve been indoctrinated into all the narratives of fear and judgment, the storylines that make black protestors for justice into “thugs” while white college students doing the same things in Columbus, Ohio, because a football game was one are simply labeled “revelers” who got a little out of hand.
In hearing this story of Philip and Nathaniel and Jesus on this particular weekend, I am reminded in these ways of all the times and places where people have judged prematurely and inappropriately, dismissing people and movements on no basis other than that from which they came. But in light of all the light that’s been being shed on the continuing issues we have with racism and racial inequalities in our country, I can’t help but also hear Nathaniel’s question turned back on me, on us. I can’t help but hear that convicting and revealing question, “can anything good come out of the white church?” Can anything good come out of the white church?
In his now well-known Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote:
There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
“Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” It’s been almost 52 years since Dr. King first penned those words, but they seem just as true today as they were in 1963. In his time, Dr. King was writing to address fellow Christian clergypersons—white ones, however—who wanted him to tone down his talk and scale back his tactics. In truth, though, these white Christian pastors simply weren’t interested in dealing with the justice issues at hand. “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham,” Dr. King says to them, “But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
Could anything good come out of the white church, Dr. King rightfully seemed to wonder. In fact, he basically said as much, when he writes:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Today’s story from the gospel of John, though, is not simply a story of Nathaniel’s judgment, but one of call, of vocation, of being invited out of a present into the future which Jesus ushers in. Will we allow Jesus to confront our complacencies and our pre-dispositions, so that we can begin to experience those “greater things than these”? Will we open our eyes and our hearts to the new and transformed realities made possible by Christ’s presence in our midst, even when that presence calls to us from places we may not trust and invites us to go places we don’t want to go? Will we hear the voice of God calling, like to young Samuel, and will we say “Here I Am, Lord”, even when the work to which we are called involves criticism and correction of things we have held dear? Will we “lift every voice and sing”… but more importantly, will we join the struggle alongside those for whom this song is life-blood, so that our singing is not just a token, but part and parcel of a sacred trust?
“You will see greater things than these,” Jesus promised Nathaniel. I hope and pray for the day when we, throughout this country and around our world, will see greater things than these… greater things than we have come to settle for as good enough… moreover, greater things than all we even thought to imagine as possible.
Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, accessed 17 January 2015 at http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.