Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
—John 1:46

For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Jerusalem is the center of the earth. On old maps, that’s how it’s depicted; the rest of the world revolves around Jerusalem.   Jerusalem is God’s capital city.In the previous installment of this Cloister Walk sermon series, we looked at Jerusalem, the most beloved and treasured, but also, for that very reason, the most disputed city in human history.

Today, we’re dealing with a very different kind of place. Nazareth is anything but the center of the earth. Nazareth was a hick town in the sticks of an obscure corner of the Roman empire.   It’s only 90 miles from Jerusalem to Nazareth, but in terms of stature and prominence, it’s a long way–from the center to the edge of the earth.

If you needed directions to Nazareth in Jesus’ day, you’d be out of luck because almost no one could tell you how to get there. It might not even be on whatever passed for Google maps in the first century. Nazareth was legendary for its invisibility.

Nazareth is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, nor anywhere else outside the New Testament, until the third century A. D., by which time, of course, a carpenter who grew up there had made it famous.

In Jesus’ day, the footprint of Nazareth covered about 60 acres, or a little less than a square mile, or about one-quarter the size of Kenilworth.

In Jesus’ day, the population was less than 500, almost all of them tenant farmers who tended a few acres of wheat or grapes on land owned by somebody else, or shepherds, or shopkeeps, and at least one carpenter.

When you get home, Google a painting called “Christ in the House of His Parents,” by John Everett Millais. Joseph is showing Jesus how to plane the surface of a door to a high sheen; all around the shop are posts and beams and spikes and nails; the artist seems to be saying that one day too soon, Jesus’ enemies will use the tools of his trade to take his life from him. If you haven’t been to Nazareth and are unlikely to go, that’s how I hope you’ll picture it: Jesus hammering bookshelves together as an apprentice in his father’s shop.

Sixty acres, 500 folk, not on any maps. Nazareth was legendary for its inconspicuousness. That’s the backdrop for our first Gospel lesson from St. John this morning. Like King Arthur and Robin Hood after him, Jesus in this passage is just beginning to gather together his Knights of the Round Table, or his Little Band of Merry Men.

Andrew, Peter, and Philip are the first to recognize something drastically new and different in this rabbi from Nazareth. Philip runs to find his friend Nathanael. Almost out of breath, Philip tells Nathanael, “We have found the one promised by Moses and the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Nathanael is underwhelmed. Nathanael, you see, is an intellectual–sophisticated, urbane, world-weary, and distrustful of extravagant religious claims. As Stuart Scott might once have put it, Nathanael is “as cool as the other side of the pillow.” He’s heard it all before and is not about to be taken in by the latest tele-evangelist who comes down the pike, especially if it’s a blue-collar working stiff in army boots and tool belt from the hick town of Nazareth.

Nathanael, you see, is from Cana, another hick town just down the road from Nazareth, the next exit on the expressway, so Nathanael knows all about hick towns. Nathanael hates that about himself, that he’s from a hick town in Galilee rather than from Jerusalem or Athens, that his college degree is from Dupage, not Dartmouth or Duke.

And when Philip says, “We have found the Messiah, Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth,” Nathanael responds with a legendary verbal sneer that has echoed down the centuries: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

And I love the way Philip responds to Nathanael’s insult to every Nazarene who’s ever lived: no visible hurt, no audible anger, no obvious disappointment. Philip “stays in his chair,” as they say, and responds, calmly, demurely, tersely: “Come and see.”

Just “Come and see.” Try it out. Give it a whirl. Take it for a test drive. It is the finest evangelistic intervention that was ever spoken. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Come and see.

So that story about the early days of Jesus’ ministry comes from St. John. Luke also has a story about Nazareth from the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry. After hanging out in the big city of Jerusalem during the early years of his adulthood, Jesus returns to his hometown to preach his first sermon to his family and friends and neighbors and Sunday School teachers in the Nazareth synagogue where he grew up.

His text is from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, the Year of Jubilee for everyone.” And then he snaps the scroll closed, announces to the stunned congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and sits down, the shortest sermon in living memory.

Jesus’ arrogance and chutzpah enrage the hometown folk so thoroughly that they try to throw Jesus off a cliff. Even the residents of Nazareth themselves couldn’t believe that anything good could come out of Nazareth.

If you’ve ever been to Nazareth, you know that at the precipice of a steep ridge in that small town is a little chapel known as The Church of Our Lady of the Fright. Don’t you love that? Who says the Christian Church doesn’t have a sense of humor? The Church of Our Lady of the Fright, or, simply, Mary’s Fear, or Notre Dame de l’Effroi, is said to be the place where a mother’s heart was struck with terror when she thought her neighbors were trying to murder her son.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asks Nathanael. “Come and see,” says Philip. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives,” says Jesus.

Do you think Nathanael got an answer to his sneering question in the ensuing years as he tagged along behind Jesus’ Little Band of Merry Men across the Palestinian countryside and watched Jesus turn water into wine and a lad’s little lunch into a lavish banquet for 5,000 and touched a leper and spoke truth to power and hung out with crooks and prostitutes and made blind men see and lame beggars walk? Do you think he got an answer to his condescending question? Do you think Jesus’ neighbors ever got an answer?

So let’s learn at least this lesson from that Nazareth stone in our Cloister Walk. Let’s learn what God can do with modest materials. Let’s notice what God can do with almost invisible places, and unassuming folk, and quiet beginnings, and unsung but hugely significant deeds.

I’ll bet you a hundred dollars that God chose Nazareth as the Messiah’s hometown not despite its legendary invisibility, but precisely because of its insignificance. God wants to show us what God can do without us.

So let’s learn what God can do with modest raw materials. Maybe sometimes you think you’re from Nazareth. Maybe you think you lead a small quiet life. Maybe you’ve never been west of the Mississippi. Maybe you have an Associate’s degree from Community College and you’re surrounded by all these Kellogg MBA’s. Maybe you never earned a six-figure salary, not to mention seven. Maybe you’ve never won the French Open or the Triple Crown or the Stanley Cup. Maybe you’ve never had a battalion of employees waiting breathlessly for your wise word of leadership.

So what? You are God’s hands and feet and voice and heart in this world, and you have no right to diminish your impact by underestimating your significance. Don’t you know how much good can come from Nazareth, by the hand of God?

How many times have you seen It’s a Wonderful Life? Maybe every Christmas, right? George Bailey thinks of himself as a small, quiet, invisible failure. He dreamed of seeing the seven seas and the seven continents and the seven wonders of the world, but he never got out of Bedford Falls. He dreamed of studying engineering and mastering the science of architecture, but he never had any learning beyond high school. He dreamed of building soaring bridges and towering skyscrapers, but instead he manages a penny-ante Building and Loan.

And he asks himself, “Can anything good come out of Bedford Falls?” But then Clarence the Angel comes along and says to him, “You’ve been given a great gift, George: the chance to see what the world would look like without you.” I’ll bet if a lot of us had the chance to see what the world would look like without us, we’d find that it would look a lot shabbier without us.

Never diminish your impact by underestimating your significance. Or that of those around you. Maybe your self-regard is not deficient but excessive. Maybe you’re a Nathanael who always thinks he’s surrounded by small-town Nazarenes. Do not make this mistake. That rookie analyst who hangs out on the edges of the conference room and never says a word? You take him out to play golf with clients and he doesn’t know which end of the golf club to hold? He’ll write some little trading algorithm that’ll help you smash the competition.

That awkward eighth-grader who keeps to herself and skips the games and the dances and has no visible friendships? She’s the one who’ll one day discover a replacement for fossil fuels.

Wherever she went, Maya Angelou used to talk about her Uncle Willie, who ran a tiny grocery store in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas. Uncle Willie was paralyzed on the left side of his body and walked with a limp for much of his life. He’d left Stamps twice in his lifetime, once to go to Little Rock and once to visit his sister in California.

When Uncle Willie died, Maya Angelou flew to Little Rock and walked into the office of the Vice-Mayor, Mr. Bussey. Mr. Bussey said to Maya Angelou, “The State of Arkansas has lost a great man. The United States has lost a great man. The world has lost a great man.” Maya Angelou said, “My Uncle Willie?” Mr. Bussey says, “Yes, your Uncle Willie taught me to read.”

Returning the favor, Mr. Bussey gives Maya Angelou a police escort from Little Rock to Stamps so she can attend Uncle Willie’s funeral. She says, “Dead, he was still protecting me.”

When she gets to Stamps an Arkansas State Legislator shakes her hand and says, “Your Uncle Willie was a great man. Because of Mr. Bussey, I am what I am.” And Maya Angelou says, “All this because of a man who said nothing else in life except ‘God is my salvation. Love is the bedrock on which I stand.”[1]

By the way, this is probably neither here nor there, but today, the population of Nazareth is about 80,000. It is home to several high-tech companies, and is sometimes called the Silicon Valley of Arabic Israel.

But when you think about Nazareth, remember that little carpenter shop–Joseph the Master Craftsman, and Jesus the Apprentice–and notice how the tools of the carpenter trade bookend the life of Our Lord–beams of wood and nails of iron at the beginning, beams of wood and nails of iron at the end. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Come and see.


            [1]Maya Angelou in a lecture at Trinity Institute, Trinity Church Wall Street, 1990.