Advent season provokes a question: why didn’t Jesus stay in Bethlehem after he was born? It would have been smarter for him to be raised there. Bethlehem had some proud history. Bethlehem could boast of Boaz, Ruth, and Jesse. David was anointed king by the prophet Samuel in Bethlehem. Bethlehem looked good on the resume. Yet, Jesus grew up in the hill country, in Nazareth of Galilee. Not only does the town of Nazareth not get good marks in the New Testament—the townspeople revolted against Jesus’ first sermon and tried to throw him off a cliff—some scholars strongly suggest there was no Nazareth at all in Jesus’s time. He was from “nowhereville.”
How can these ideas about Jesus help us understand Advent/Christmas?
In Mark 1, Mark contrasts two geographical areas from which people came to John the Baptist for baptism. In verse 5 we read of massive amounts of people coming north to the Jordan River area from Jerusalem and Judea. By contrast, in verse 9 we read of Jesus coming south from “Nazareth of Galilee” to meet and be baptized by his cousin John. Unless you know the social milieu, you will miss the tension in these seemingly insignificant geographical notations. A mass of people come from “the developed” areas, the closer-to-God areas, the areas of Zion, the area of the Temple, and the area where there were some very wealthy Jews. Jerusalem was Ivy League, double-shot, mocha-latte country, filled with PBS clientele. Decked-out BMWs were not uncommon.
Jesus, on the other hand, was from Hicksville. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was asked about Jesus’ town. Moonshine, perhaps. Jesus was raised in the equivalent of Appalachian “hollers.” A “holler”, a variant of “hollow,” is a small valley between hills in rural American South. Jesus was poor and from a poor family, a country bumpkin. Nazareth was hand-plow and ox country, cornbread and brown beans country. Jesus was dumb as a stump according to the “edgycated” ones in Jerusalem. Dangerously, demonically dumb according to some. People from Galilee had an accent, a northern drawl. Peter, Jesus’ disciple, was identified by it (Matthew 26:73). Peter probably said, “Ah tell ewe, ah jes’ don’t know such a feller as zat dare Jeezus, dagnabbit!” Galilee was a region known to be disinterested in and ignorant of Torah (God’s holy Law). This was a sorry stereotype, of course, but it stuck to Jesus. He was considered a “no name” (see John 9:29) from across the tracks, perhaps, even born out of wedlock. He was conceived out of wedlock, for sure. One rabbi, Johanan ben Zakkai, once lamented, “Galilee, Galilee, you hate the Torah; your end will be seizure by Romans!” Not good.
So much for God favoring smart, cool, people who live in gated communities and suburbs and who drive Hummers and other SUVs to latte-making cafes; who read New Yorker and discuss Mozart. God seems to dig mule-and-wagon types with missing teeth and tobacco breath and who read the Sears catalogue and drink black Folgers from cracked cups and say things like “Jeet yet?,” which being interpreted means, “Did you eat, yet?” I imagine that Jesus would have liked country music that laments the loss of all that is precious…like the dog, the double-wide, the pick-‘em-up truck and the boot-scootin’ woman. Advent—literally a “down-to-earth” miracle for us to ponder this season.