What a curious exchange between Nathaniel and Jesus: having been called to leave his house by one of Jesus’s first followers, Philip, to come and see this Jesus, the Messiah, the one foretold in the law and the prophets to save Israel, Nathaniel says skeptically, ‘oh geez, can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nazareth was a city roughly 55 miles north of Jerusalem. During the time of Jesus, the Jews held those from Nazareth, a city within the region of Galilee, in low esteem. The low view of Nazareth is important in understanding Matthew’s claim that Jesus “fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that He would be called a Nazarene” Mt. 2:23. Now let me say that as far as I can tell, nowhere in the OT do we hear that Jesus would come from Nazareth. And yet the Word of God has included this particular wording. Why?
I’d suggest that this has to do not with a physical place, but rather how the Messiah comes into the world. That’s what the prophets were talking about that Matthew picks up on: Matthew is referring to those prophecies regarding Christ that reveal how others will despise Him and treat Him poorly—as we hear in psalm 22 or in Isaiah 53, scorned by everyone, even friends, rejected by all mankind, or in so many of our figures from the OT: see Joseph betrayed and enslaved by his own brothers, only to free his brothers from their crime against him, the weak boy David, whom no human would choose, who would be chosen by God to become King over Israel, Job who would be stripped of all his power and capacity to become nothing … all these people should remind us of who Jesus is and how he came into this world. They foretell of his coming.
Nathanael’s mocking question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” then foreshadows the fact that Jesus would be mocked more earnestly by others. That it is through foolishness rather than human wisdom, through weakness rather than strength, through humility and vulnerability and openness to others rather than where power, control and force exist, that God comes and can be seen. Nathanael asks the question, at first unaware of the significance of doing so. In asking it, at first he becomes like everyone else who through time and throughout history, offers scorn, skepticism, doubt, disgust that anything good could come from submission and vulnerability.
Notice that Philip doesn’t force, manipulate or coerce Nathaniel, nor does he try to convince him with logic or rhetoric or evidence. Instead he simply says, “come and see.” This is fascinating. Nathaniel doesn’t follow because he has been forced, or because he’s provided evidence to follow Philip to see Jesus. So why does he go to see? Curiosity? Maybe. Hope? Maybe? Deep desire? Maybe. But I think it’s actually much more important, much deeper than that.
When Nathaniel gets to Jesus, Jesus proclaims: “here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathaniel, replies, as most of us likely would, “where did you get to know me.” Jesus replies: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” To sit under a fig tree is a Jewish symbol for one’s origin. Listen to our psalm for a moment: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.”
Jesus’s answer is that he knows not just who Nathaniel is now, or what Nathaniel desires now. He knows what Nathaniel was made for, what Nathaniel will accomplish, what makes and breaks him, how and when he was born and when he’ll die and now. He knows what Nathaniel most desires. And what is it that Nathaniel desires? Apparently, what all humans were made to desire: God. “For in you there is no deceit, Nathaniel.” And here Nathaniel becomes Samuel: “here I am Lord,” a follower and judge who leads God’s people by proclaiming or sharing God’s life with others. My Lord and my God, “here I am Lord,” send me. “To whom else could we go,” here I am Lord, you know that I love you and yes, I will feed your sheep.
My point in all of this is that while our curiosity, intelligence, hope, desire, despair and desperation may drive us to seek a saviour, it is actually not our seeking; it is not our following that comes first. Rather the reason we are driven by anything other than a basic need to survive and procreate - like animals - is because God wrote his law of love into our very being as a calling. That calling comes in a plethora of forms for each individual person, for each Church, for every parish, over our lifetimes as it has for all of God’s servants and Churches through time.
It can be difficult to discern that it is God calling us; like Samuel, who mistakes God’s call for Eli’s voice, we might mistake God’s calling for someone else’s: surely God cannot be calling us to do that. Surely God cannot be leading us there. I don’t have the capacity to endure that again. I cannot sustain that. I will not do that. How many people in Scripture answer God in this way: hint, read the book of Jonah who gets swallowed by a whale and then severely sunburned. Think about what being in a whale and being sunburned really mean in God’s story telling. If we were, as a parish, to answer God’s call - not to appease our own desires or to obtain our own comfort - but to share the resources God has gifted us, what would you say that means for our future as God’s followers? AMEN