““Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.”
-from John 1
In the beginning, the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters. It was then that the Voice began to speak.
God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
The week continued in the same pattern. The voice spoke, and a world blossomed into being. The sky took shape, under the direction of the hovering voice. The land rose up out of the seas, and then trees rose up still higher.
The daytime sky was given the sun, a brilliant light, and the nighttime sky was decorated with the moon and a generous helping of stars. As the voice continued to speak, the seas were filled with all sorts of living creatures. The sky was given over to birds on the wing.
Next were animals, on the sixth day. Majestic elephants, graceful deer, tiny squirrels skittering up a tree trunk.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness. God set them – male and female – as the first caretakers of all of the rest of creation. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
The Voice didn’t stop speaking on the sixth day, though. It kept speaking- kept calling.
The Voice spoke through prophets. It spoke through poets. It spoke through men of power and status, and through little servant girls. It spoke through burning bushes and stubborn donkeys, when necessary.
And then, in the fullness of time, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
In the beginning, you see, was the Word– but the Word is eternal, always reappearing. The Voice of Creation always has more to say. The light shines in the darkness, just as it did on the first day of creation, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He wasn’t the light, but he bore witness to the light. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
Jesus went along through Galilee, calling disciples. One man he called, named Philip, went off to tell his friend about this wonderful discovery – that the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
Philip said: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
And his friend Nathaniel replied: bpppth. (That’s a loose translation.)
I have to say that I love this. John starts with this image of the cosmic Christ – the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and he was with God in the beginning. Sure, Luke has the angels singing when Jesus is born, but John is the one who goes all out to make it clear that with Christ comes all the majesty and glory of the Voice from in the beginning. The Voice that said let there be light! has come to light the world. John approaches his subject, here, with awe.
And then the chapter ends with Nathaniel saying, “Bpppth. Nazareth? Are you kidding me? You think you’re going to fool me with that? What’s next, a Chinese finger trap?”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
Some of you might find Nathaniel an easy, if uncomfortable, character with whom to identify. Right here, he sounds like an eye-roller, a cynic, a doubter of the first degree.
That – let me be clear – is not the same as being a seeker. A seeker is looking for something, right? A cynic, on the other hand, is convinced that there is nothing to be found.
Nathaniel doesn’t ask his friend Philip any questions. He doesn’t seek out truth. He just rejects the story out of hand.
Nathaniel has two things in his favor, though:
First, he’s playing the odds pretty well; the chances that something good has come out of Nazareth are pretty low. I mean, it’s Nazareth. This is like saying that the Son of God has come to save all of humanity, indeed all of creation, and he’s the son of Joe from the feed store in Port William. With no prejudice against the Port Williams and the Nazareths of the world, if you’re Nathaniel and you’re making your guess as to where the next source of astounding power will be found, you’d increase your chances by looking toward the Washingtons and the Jerusalems.
The second and more important thing that Nathaniel has in his favor, though, is how he responds to his friend when Philip says, “Come and see.”
This is where we find that under the sarcasm, Nathaniel really is a seeker. If there’s something to be seen, he’s going to show up to see it.
So here’s a question for you, Friends: what did Nathaniel see?
He met a man, in today’s passage, who knew him before they had met. He met Jesus, who claimed that he would see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
Nathaniel went to a wedding in a town called Cana, one where a horrible faux pas was committed- the hosts ran out of wine. He saw Jesus perform a miracle, not to accumulate power or prestige, not to draw attention to himself, but just to keep a party going.
Nathaniel returned, one day, to the preposterous sight of his great Teacher sitting by a well and talking with a Samaritan woman. He was there when they stayed two days in that woman’s dirty Samaritan town, teaching and preaching, because of that socially unacceptable conversation.
Nathaniel saw an invalid pick up his mat and walk, after meeting with Jesus. He saw five barley loaves and two small fish feed more than five thousand people, with twelve baskets of bread left over. He saw Jesus walk across stormy waters to reach them in a boat, on the Sea of Galilee, and then watched the waves subside.
Nathaniel saw Jesus claim to be God. He watched Lazarus, dead four days, walk out of his tomb and shed his grave clothes. He saw Jesus, surrounded by a great crowd, enter into Jerusalem.
Nathaniel saw this mighty man take on the role of a servant and wash his own students’ feet.
And then: Nathaniel saw Jesus arrested. His friend Philip said come and see, and this is what he saw: the promised Messiah led away in disgrace.
What Nathaniel may have seen over the next few days is unclear. Most of the disciples went into hiding, fearing that they would be next. Nathaniel was probably among them. They had been bearing witness to the light that has come into the world. Now they’re doing their best to avoid being seen in the light.
Nathaniel, we should note here, is not recorded as having seen the empty tomb. Other disciples, like Mary Magdalene and Salome, like Peter and John, came back to the room where the others were hiding. They were telling confusing tales of soldiers struck down and angels giving directions and stones rolled away.
Picture Nathaniel in the back of the room, waiting, watching, thinking it over.
Picture Nathaniel’s surprise when the locked door doesn’t open and yet there is Jesus, standing with them, saying Peace be with you! Nathaniel saw Jesus hands, pierced by nails, and his side, pierced by the sword.
Then, Jesus begins to speak.
Before I tell you what he said, though, let me mention one other thing that Nathaniel saw: he saw Jesus give some serious speeches. At the end of the thirteenth chapter of John, Jesus says “Come now; let us leave.” He then continues to talk for another three chapters – and these are not short chapters! – before going anywhere.
What Jesus has to say here, having come back from the dead, amounts to less than thirty words in English: Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Ok. You remember how John’s Gospel started, not at Christmas, but at in the beginning? John’s Gospel presents to us a Christ who was present before the creation of the world, who knew Abraham personally, who claimed to be God. John offers us a Christ who was there on the sixth day of creation, scooping soil into a human shape, breathing life into the dirt, creating you and me.
Listen, Friends, because this is the most important thing that Nathaniel saw: he saw Jesus – the Word that spoke the world into being – as he began to recreate that world. Nathaniel was willing to come and see, and for his trouble, Jesus breathes the new life of the Holy Spirit into him.
Nathaniel is a seeker, see, but he is also -in the end- a finder. Nathaniel has sought, and he has found what he was looking for.
Jesus, in this moment, tells his disciples an odd thing about sin. “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
If one were told this, and one did not have the Holy Spirit rattling in one’s lungs, then one might think: hm, this gives me power over people who have sinned. I get to choose whether or not they are forgiven.
Nathaniel, I think, has seen too much of Jesus to fall into that trap.
Forgiveness is not just one of our powers, Friends, gathered here as the church. When Jesus recreates the world, when Jesus blows fresh life into these bodies, the foundation of this new creation is forgiveness. Forgiveness is what brings the dry bones to life.
Forgiveness is not our prerogative, Friends. It’s our job description.
God is calling us to practice forgiveness with abandon. God is calling us to be a people who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, choose not to bear a grudge. God is calling us to gather up all the debts that are owed to us – by friends, by family, by whomever – and stamp them paid and release them to the wind.
Receive the Holy Spirit. Receive the breath of the new creation. That’s the Christ that Nathaniel saw. Can you see it too?
The first bit of monologue that God is given, way back in the book of Genesis, is this: Let there be light! Surrounded by welter and waste and darkness over the deep, God does not list the failures of the dark. Rather, God speaks creating words of light.
Can we listen, now in our time of waiting worship, for the Voice that continues to recreate us?
Can we, created as we are in the image of the Light-speaking God, speak light and creative power into the lives of others?
Breathe in the Holy Spirit. Speak forth Light. Can we come and see the Christ that Nathaniel saw, and be changed by that sight?