Preached by Rev. Todd Weir

John 1:43-52

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Calling Disciples, He Qi , from Art in the Christian Tradition,

“Hey, where ya from? You gotta accent!” I heard that a lot when I moved from Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Boston to attend seminary. It amused me hearing someone from Worcester (Wuh-stah!) tell me about my accent! Yes, I am from a flyover state. When I was in college, NBC News broadcast from Sioux Falls for a week, and every night David Letterman would make fun of the night life in Sioux Falls, (Sooo-Falls, he would say with his elitist little smirk, probably formed by being born with a silver spoon in his mouth! Yeah, old insults run deep.) We wrote him a letter. “Dear Dave, You are probably unaware that the Dakotas host the largest number of missile silos and Strategic Air Command bases in the country. If we succeeded from the Union we would become the third largest nuclear power in the world, so show us some respect.”

 

When I hear Nathaniel say “What good can come from Nazareth,” I totally get it. I want to shut his mouth. We all carry a certain geographical hierarchy, when people tell us they are from Detroit, Cleveland, or Alabama, Chicopee, Springfield, Holyoke, the Peoples Republic of Amherst, or Northampton, behind its tofu curtain and rainbow sidewalks. Freaks and Geeks!

 

What was so bad about Nazareth? It was just a little village, fewer than 500 people, nothing special. It is also in the region of Galilee full of revolutionary ferment, full of insurrectionists, troublemakers, you know- labor organizers, abolitionists, human rights activists and so on. Trouble! Rome made sure there were extra security measures for Galilee, plenty of legions and tear gas. Herod had an aggressive “stop and frisk” policy, Galileans were profiled, and a few crosses always helped.

 

When Jesus meets these disciples, did he sense Nathaniel’s prejudice, seeing skepticism in his body language as his eager friends dragged him along? Jesus meets Nathaniel with proactive and open-hearted, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Flatterer! Good opening line. Nathanael cautiously asks him, “Where did you get to know me?” In other words, “You are not sweet talking me into this messiah thing.” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” This makes a huge impression, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” What is going on here with Nathaniel’s abrupt turnabout to praise Jesus?

 

John’s Gospel is highly symbolic, and the author assumes the reader knows what all the symbols mean. When the gospel says Nathaniel was under a fig tree, the writer isn’t just describing the shrubbery, everything introduced to the narrative means something. Fig trees can have a double meaning. First, Rabbi’s often retreated for study and prayer under a fig tree. This is practical because the large leaves create a canopy that blocks the afternoon sun. Fig trees are a haven in the heat when you can’t do other work, where you can reflect and meditate. Fig trees also symbolize the good life and how life will be after the Messiah sets the world straight.   The prophet Micah is a good example of what happens when the messiah comes:

 

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more;

but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,

and no one shall make them afraid; Micah 4:4

 

That makes me want to sit under a fig tree and savor a moment to reflect upon peace. And if I were a devout Jew of the first century, my first duty in prayer would be to pray for the messiah to come. Perhaps we can now make some sense of this encounter. As Nathaniel approaches, Jesus recognizes a man whom he saw go under the fig tree earlier in the week, so he greets him with praise as a fellow bible reader. When they make a connection, sparks fly, there’s a little Bible-geek “bro-mance” going on, and Nathaniel shocks even himself by blurting out, “Hey, you are the real deal, the Messiah.”

 

This is characteristic of many encounters Jesus has throughout scripture. Jesus notices things about people and brings them to new awareness. Jesus notices Zacchaeus up in the tree, and tells him to come down and talk. He stops in the middle of a crowd and says, “Who touched me?” Everyone is touching you, Jesus. Then the woman with a hemorraghe comes forward and he heals her. Jesus notices when the children are being kept away and welcomes them, he hears the blind man Bartemaeus shouting in the midst of a crowd and speaks with him. Jesus has this uncanny ability to notice people who are ready for change.

 

Jesus does not just say, “love your neighbor,” and leave it at that. He lives with awareness, a mindful compassion, and he touches peoples’ lives. He is that guy, the one who says the right words to speak to your heart, that guy who writes all his thank you notes by hand and brings tears to your eyes. Jesus is the one who gets the big picture of what God is doing in the world, he is the fulfiller of the big picture, but he lives it out in the small picture of daily human encounters, like this one. “Hey, you are the kind of guy the world really needs. What’s your name? Nathaniel, right. Where did we meet? Oh, I just saw you going under the fig tree and I knew you had the right stuff, so I hoped to meet you.” And the relationship flows from there. And Nathaniel thought nothing good could come from Nazereth.

 

Jesus playfully teases him a bit, saying “You believed just from this. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”   As a Bible-geek, that is a reference to Jacob’s ladder, when Jacob dreamed of seeing a ladder up to heaven and angels going up and down to the earth. Jesus is standing there on the bottom run of Jacob’s ladder, connecting God’s realm to the earth. Jesus is the one who finds the angels in the ordinary lives of people he meets.

 

This leads to an important takeaway from our story this morning. John’s Gospel places this calling of Nathaniel right in the first chapter, and it tells us something of the character and mission of Jesus. Nathaniel is a devout man who reads the scriptures, prays and wants to see God’s will done on earth, yet he can still say, “What good can come from Nazereth?” He’s full of human prejudice. Yet Jesus sees the angel within Nathaniel, his desire to truly know God with all his heart, soul and mind. He has that first part of the Great Commandment. Jesus is going to show him how to also love his neighbor. Jesus is going to show him that there is good that can come from Nazareth, and from Samaritans, Syro-Phonecians, and from blind beggars, lepers, prostitutes, adulterers, and tax collectors. When todays Nathanaels say what good can come from Ferguson, from people blocking traffic in protest, or what good can come from police, or from immigrants, Muslims, Evangelicals, feminists? What good can come from the Pope? If you want an anti-racism training, just read the Gospels and see how Jesus encountered people. Even though racism is an institutional phenomenon, we don’t have to act like we are institutionalized when we try to deal with it.

 

I find great hope in this passage, especially as we remember Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement this weekend. Imperfect and prejudiced Nathanial was invited to discipleship, and because he could see a better way and join the Beloved Community. This is my hope hope, as we struggle through difficult conversations about race and the changes required of us establish justice for all people, that we will find our better angels and learn to encounter others as Jesus did.