Out of Nazareth

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 14, 2024

I looked it up, and I’m right: I’ve talked about this before (in the summer of 2022). But there’s an illustration—a meme, I guess—I see online a lot that really bothers me. It’s sort of a cartoon, and it’s intended, not to be funny, but as a source of inspiration. The artist is a Brazilian cartoonist named Genildo Roncho, here’s what it looks like:

It’s a picture of a bus on a narrow mountain road. In the bus sit just two men. One man is seated on the side of the bus that looks out onto an expansive view of hills and a river and a golden valley. The other man is seated on the opposite side of the bus, and from his window, all he can see is the rock wall of the mountainside. The man with the view is smiling and happy. The man without the view is dejected and sad.

In the original, Genildo (that’s how he signs his illustrations) has given this picture a title: Sometimes it just depends on us. And he’s also given it a caption: Choose the happy side of life! I don’t think I’ve ever seen it posted with the words—probably because they’re in Portuguese, and I’ve only seen it posted on American social media accounts.

The easy assumption to make here is that the two men chose their seats, and also their outlook. One chose the expansive, positive outlook. The other the narrow, depressing outlook. And if you see it that way, the message is a good one: Choose happiness; choose positivity. I can’t help but agree with this message.

Except I see a major problem here. And perhaps this puts me in the category of the guy who chose the depressing point-of-view. But I can’t help but think of all the people who don’t get to choose their seat on the bus. Some people can’t afford a seat with a view. Others don’t have the resources or the connections to know which seats are the good ones and which ones are the bad ones. Some people are told they’re not allowed to switch seats. And some—because of their previous experiences in life—don’t even bother to try anymore to improve their lot. I’d like to think that I can choose the positive viewpoint. But who am I to judge those who don’t—or even those who can’t.

For whatever reason, there are lots of people on the wrong side of life’s bus. The way they look, their social standing, the money they don’t have, the place they’re from—all of these are factors that might cause somebody to have something other than the most positive outlook. Not everything’s a choice. We may try out best to improve our outlook or to make a positive difference, but there’s always going to be somebody to remind us why we can’t or why we’re not good enough.

This is nothing new. For as long as there’s been human civilization, there have been people on the inside and people on the outside, people on the side of the bus with a nice view, and people who look out onto a rock wall. And once again, not everybody gets to choose their seats. We saw a bit of it in this morning’s reading from the gospel. I’m sure you noticed the little exchange between two of Jesus’ first disciples. Philip told Nathanael, “We’ve found The One we’ve been waiting for—his name’s Jesus, and he’s from Nazareth!”

And what did Nathanael say back to Philip? He asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Nathanael was ready to put Jesus in his place—the place where hillbillies and country bumpkins and poor people and people with the wrong accent or the wrong color skin or whatever have been put since forever. He was a nobody, and not worth the amount of time it took to pronounce the name of his backwater hometown.

I can relate. I’m from Eastern Kentucky. And if the United States has a Nazareth, it’s definitely Appalachia—especially the Kentucky part of Appalachia. When I meet people and tell them where I’m from, the nicest thing many of them can think of to say to me is, “Oh, you don’t seem like you come from there.” (I assume that most of the people who don’t say that to me probably think I fit the bill perfectly.)

And so we can’t always take charge of what others think of us or what others say about us. And it sometimes effects us negatively. When we see somebody whose outlook isn’t positive, this is something we need to remember: We don’t know where they are in their journey, and we don’t know the burdens they’ve had to bear. Remember this rule: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

And Jesus, the One from the hills—the One of whom Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” is with us wherever we find ourselves. He taught us that God loves us no matter who we are. He paid the ultimate price for his beliefs that went against the conventions of his day. And because the grave couldn’t defeat him, we know that love is stronger than death.

And this is important to remember when people say of us, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” or “How much worth can there be to anybody with their background?” …or their bank balance or their appearance or whatever it is people might say about us.

But sometimes it’s not others who say it, but we ourselves. Sometimes it’s not so much that we are from Nazareth, but that we ourselves are Nazareth. “Can any good come from me?” we might find ourselves asking.

And we’ve probably all been there. I’ll give you an example from my own life. Sometimes I think I probably talk so much about my own health, that people might think I’m whining or complaining. If so, that’s not my intent. I just want to be upfront about my heart because it’s just part of who I am, and I’m still alive and kicking.

But when I was in the hospital and the doctors told me I had congestive heart failure, my attitude wasn’t so good. My experience was that that was usually the last thing people had before they died. And so I figured I wasn’t long for this world. And it was along about that same time that I had been looking for a pastoral call—not as an interim, but as a settled pastor. But at that point, I saw myself as Nazareth: Could any good come out of me at that point in my life?

Just before all this had happened, I had begun serious talks with this congregation. And at this point, I decided that I wouldn’t seek a call—that I couldn’t seek a call. But I did something very unhealthy at this point: I just ghosted the search committee. Unhealthy people often do unhealthy things. If we can’t imagine that anything good can come from us, our actions probably aren’t going to be good.

But Pilgrim Church persisted and here I am. I don’t know how much good I’ve done, but I trust that, even if I am Nazareth, God can still bring forth good works from my life.

When in your life have you felt like Nazareth itself? When have you taken upon yourself all the assumptions people have made of you, or when have you given up hope of ever being any good to the world? Well, Jesus is here to tell you that, despite what people said, despite its obscurity or its history, Nazareth made a big difference in the world. And so can you.

Before this morning’s scripture lesson came to an end, Jesus said something very strange, but very important. He doesn’t mention Jacob’s name, but we can recognize his story in the last verse of John 1, when Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.”

You see, Jacob was a scoundrel. In our everyday language, we’d call him a jerk. He spent his early life trying to take what wasn’t his. From the moment of his birth, he was scheming to steal his twin brother’s birthright. And when he’d finally gone too far and he was caught up in his lousy tricks, he fled with nothing but the clothes on his back. He had nothing left and no hope of the wonderful life he thought was going to be his. No good could come from him now (if it ever had).

But as he was fleeing, he slept out in the open, a stone for his pillow. And he dreamed a strange dream of a stairway (or ladder) upon which the angels of God were going up and coming down. And in the dream, God promised him his love and protection. And when he awoke, Jacob named that place Bethel, which means the house of God, for he had dreamed of the gateway to heaven.

And that’s what Jesus is referring to when he talks about that stairway in verse 51. He is the stairway, the ladder, the gateway to heaven. So out of Nazareth has come One who will bring God closer to us, and bring us closer to God. Because of him, know that God is by your side, even when others don’t understand who you are. And because of him, know that God can do something in you and through you, even when you wonder if anything good can come from your life, for God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him [Philip. 2:13].
—©2024 Sam Greening