Sermon preached at LifeSign on 11/19/2011
Text: John 1:43-51
Whenever I read Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I think about my hometown. Some of y’all know that I come from Durham, North Carolina. Durham is typically considered to be the ugly stepsister of the two other cities in the Triangle – Chapel Hill, the trendy college town where you can’t get a cup of coffee for less than $5, and Raleigh, the state capitol and home of Americana music, which is like alternative for country. Durham is ugly. We’ve got old tobacco warehouses, run-down ballparks, and tons of abandoned strip-malls with graffiti all over them. Lots of kids on facebook who live in Durham write “Dirty D” as the name of their hometown, because Durham is dirty.
In the last five years, some major changes have taken place in Durham. It started when a couple of former Duke basketball players launched a real estate firm called Blue Devil Ventures that began to revitalize the downtown area. It’s been really cool to go back to Durham and see all the new shops and clubs and bistros popping up all over the place. But there’s also been some anxiety among long-time Durham natives about these new developments. Will Durham keep being the gritty, rough-edged place to live that it’s always been or will it get trendy and expensive like Chapel Hill? I recently joined a new facebook group called “Keep Durham Dirty.”
I think there is a legitimate concern that Durham will lose its organic rawness if it gets too trendy, but there’s another root to the anxiety that you might call the hipster paradox. As long as Durham remains neglected and undiscovered, it has a certain appeal to people who enjoy saying cynical things about towns that have too big a ego like Chapel Hill. Whenever a town becomes successful and popular, it loses its hipster edge because it loses its cynicism. If we keep it dirty, then we can stay cynical. And there’s a way in which cynicism is more attractive than success.
How many of you enjoy being cynical, on occasion? Well I do. I’m a recovering cynicism addict. I’m addicted to asking cynical questions like the one Nathanael asked about Jesus: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Durham? Can anything good happen in America? The era in which we live is defined by cynical questions, particularly if you read too many Internet news articles.
Our age delights in discovering scandals, ulterior motives, and the secret double lives of famous people. And there’s nothing better than a scandal involving a preacher. The media throws out this cynicism like Halloween candy and we scarf it down until we’re sick at our stomachs and depressed.
Nathanael lived 2000 years ago, but he had plenty of reasons to be cynical himself when his friend Philip said that he had found the messiah that the Israelite prophets had written about. Jewish people in that day lived under the boot of the Roman Empire. They were allowed to practice their religion but they were treated like second-class citizens. They were taxed heavily. As tensions grew during this desperate time, there were all kinds of wannabe heroes going around claiming that they were the long-awaited messiah from scripture who would lead Jewish people to their liberation from Roman rule. These fake messiahs would organize protests that were quickly and brutally repressed by the Roman soldiers. Rome wasn’t big on the whole “freedom of speech” thing.
Jesus’ hometown Nazareth was located in the region of Galilee, which was a particularly mischievous hotbed for radicals such as Judas of Galilee who led an armed uprising against the same Roman census that forced Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. Judas also founded the Zealots, a militant Jewish sect whose revolt years later would result in the complete destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. So Nathanael had reasonable cause to question what good could come out of Nazareth. Would this Jesus son of Joseph be another fake messiah? Would he try to start something that would get Philip and Nathanael in trouble with the Roman authorities or even killed? What good could come out of Nazareth?“Come and see,” said Nathanael’s friend Philip. Come and see. Three words that would change Nathanael’s life. Three words that shatter cynicism. “Come and see” is something that children say a lot. My son Isaiah is in that phase of life where everything is exciting. Jacko-lanterns, soccer balls, the small fountain in my office, and especially the microwave. When a two-year old grabs your hand and says, “Come and see, Daddy,” it kills whatever cynical thoughts you might have had in your head. I think this is part of why Jesus says that we have to receive the kingdom of God like children, because we cannot enter God’s reality unless we allow ourselves to be overtaken by the innocent delight that makes it not seem unreasonable to grab our friends by the hand and tell them to come and see what God is doing in our world.
So Nathanael lets his friend Philip take him to meet Jesus. I love the way that Jesus greets Nathanael. He could have said, “What’s good, bro? I hear you been saying stuff about my hometown!” But he says instead, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” This is the only place in the gospel of John where the word Israelite gets used. John normally uses the word ιουδαιος to refer to the people who Jesus talked to. We translate this word “Jew,” but it can also mean “Judean,” or one of the natives of Judea who looked with disdain upon Galileans like Jesus.
For Jesus to call someone a “true Israelite” was a tremendous compliment. For him to say that Nathanael was someone “without deceit” is a very positive spin on his cynicism. It’s saying that Nathanael was a no-nonsense kind of guy. What blows Nathanael’s mind is when Jesus explains how he knows that Nathanael is a true Israelite without deceit. Because Jesus saw him under the fig tree when he was talking smack about Jesus’ hometown! In other words, Nathanael knows in that moment that Jesus can see right through him, but that He’s decided to describe what He sees in the most positive terms possible. Because Jesus is the opposite of cynical!
Jesus goes on to tell Nathanael: “You will see greater things than these. You will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” And whether Jesus is talking to Nathanael about the day when He would ascend to heaven after His resurrection or the time when He will come again with the angels from heaven at the end of time, His words also capture something beautiful about the way that our eyes can be opened by God when we are converted from our cynicism into faith in the reality of His kingdom. We too can see heaven open when we look at the world through the eyes of faith. The word for angel in Greek – αγγγελος – can refer to the supernatural creatures that surround the throne of God, but it can also mean just “messenger.” God is sending us messengers all the time! God is always using people in our lives to encourage us, to challenge us, to test our faith, all for the purpose of drawing us into a closer walk of discipleship with Him. Many of you in this room have been angels in my life whether you knew that’s what God was up to or not.
We’re not going to see God’s angels all around us if we’re addicted to cynicism. All that we’ll ever see when we look around are dirty run-down tobacco towns or Pleasantville suburgatories. And all that we’ll say is “What good could happen in a place like this?” But when we come to Jesus, He refuses to leave us that way, because He sees our real beauty, the way that we could be in Him, true Israelites in whom there is no deceit.
Are you ready to see heaven open up? Are you ready to enter the world of hope that Jesus died on the cross to give us? Are you ready to see the world through kingdom eyes and be a witness of God’s kingdom? Jesus is ready for you. He’s been ready for you to become the person that He made you to be. So come and see what our savior has in store for you!