"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
Posted January 19th, 2009
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
That’s Nathaniel’s honest question to his friend, Philip, who wants him to meet the one he believes to be the person Moses and the prophets talked about, Jesus, the one who also happens to be from Nazareth. Nobody knows for sure why Nathaniel’s question was an honest question, but Jesus himself describes Nathaniel as an honest man, a man who doesn’t lie, so there must have been some good reason why Nazareth had a bad reputation. A Roman garrison was stationed in Nazareth. Maybe that was enough to ruin the village, to make it “unclean”, incapable of anything good. If that’s true, it would be like a modern Jew telling a friend that he had found a fellow Jew living in from Gaza who could finally bring peace between Jews and Palestinians. “Can anything good come out of Gaza, with all its terrorists and bloodshed and poverty and despair?” would be an honest question to ask. Philip’s response is equally honest: “Come and see.” And just as it was easy for Nathaniel to dismiss Nazareth, for whatever reason, as being so bad as to be hopeless, so was it also easy for Nathaniel to accept the fact that Jesus had prior knowledge of him, that he had noticed him under a fig tree before Philip even spoke to him about Jesus, as all the evidence he needed to change his mind that his initial judgment was completely wrong, that indeed something good, something very good, in fact, the very Son of God and the King of Israel had come out of Nazareth and knew him as the honest man that he was.
Eli, the high priest in the temple at Jerusalem, had been asking himself the same question: “Can anything good come out of this temple?” He knew how bad things were, how corrupt the temple worship had become, and he felt powerless to do anything about it. His own two sons, Hophni and Phineas, the very men with the right to inherit his job, had desecrated the temple, first by taking the very best part of the sacrifices offered to the Lord for themselves in a brazen display of disrespect, and also by fornicating openly with the female members of the temple staff. Eli had tried to stop them by shaming them with the truth about their conduct and by appealing to their family and religious honor, but to no effect. And so he was asking himself, “Can anything good come out of the temple?”
Today we learn that the answer is “Yes.” A boy, an acolyte, a fledgling young man coming to the age of reason and spiritual discernment, Eli’s apprentice, Samuel, was God’s answer. God tells Samuel how he will bring goodness back to the temple, after Hophni and Phineas die at the hands of the Philistines when they vainly take the ark of the covenant out of the temple to protect themselves and their fellow Jews on the field of battle. Samuel will lead a repentant nation to reclaim the ark and bring it back to the temple. Eli knew that it was the Lord speaking to Samuel, because he knew that only God could bring goodness back to the temple, and even though it meant the loss of his own children and the end of his family’s place of honor as high priests of that temple, he could accept the greater good that God would do through his godson, Samuel, who would fulfill the role that his own sons betrayed.
Paul, the apostle to the church in Corinth, also asked himself that same question, “Can anything good come out of Corinth?” Corinth was known the world over for its sexual immorality and overall social decay as a large cosmopolitan seaport city on the main shipping route between Asia and Europe. No Christian community that Paul had ever founded presented the kind of cultural challenge that Paul found in Corinth. That first Christian community was sharply divided in their loyalties, some loyal to Paul, others to Apollos, others to Peter, and still others to Christ, no faction understanding that only together, united by the Spirit of God, would they be the very Body of Christ, capable of bringing good out of Corinth. In today’s lesson we learn that these same Corinthian Christians were still being tempted to practice, in the name of their newfound freedom in Christ, the same sexual immorality that was rampant throughout the city. Paul had to remind them that they couldn’t do whatever they wanted to do with their bodies because Jesus had purchased them, as the slaves they had been to their own sexual desires, in order to be free from the tyranny of such unbridled desire and free for God’s higher purposes. Indeed, in Christ, God had made them the very temples of the Holy Spirit. Christ would one day raise their very bodies from the dead, something which not even the procreative power of sex could do. Until then, the Holy Spirit would give them the power to flee from such temptations, as well as to bring goodness out of a notorious place like Corinth, through the fruits of the same Spirit and the Spirit’s gift, among others, of self-control.
David’s psalm today also expresses his renewed hope and the joy of knowing that God would one day bring good out of Jerusalem, where he eldest son, Absalom, had staged the coup d’état, forcing him to flee for his life into the wilderness. Like Eli, David will have to suffer the disgraceful death of his wicked son, though in this instance it will be at the hands of his own general and not a foreign enemy. God will honor his covenant with David and bring good out of the political disaster he had, in some sense, brought upon himself, by raising up another son, Solomon, to the throne instead.
We, too, may be asking ourselves the same question that Nathaniel, Eli, Paul and David asked: “Can anything good come out of Washington, or Wall Street or the high counsels of the church or Detroit or anywhere else that, from a human point of view, is hopeless?”
Thank God that Jesus knows our honest questions before we even ask them! And thank God that his goodness does not fail, even if we sometimes must suffer a painful and tragic loss, no matter where we are or what our circumstances may be! That is the good news that God wants us to hear today: that he is good, that he understands, and that he intends to bring good out of whatever evil we may be facing, which is bigger and more powerful than we are. Goodness will begin to emerge in every situation when someone, like Samuel, is willing to say to God, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Jesus brought goodness out of Nazareth because he was first and foremost someone who was willing to listen to his Father and to serve him. The same was true for Samuel and Solomon and that fledgling congregation in Corinth, though they tested Paul’s apostleship of them to the very limits.
In a world with so many distractions as well as evils, God is in charge. He is speaking to us even when we are not listening. If he is silent, it is only because we refuse to listen. When the natural consequences of our ignoring him finally get our attention, he will bring goodness out of every time and place through those who sincerely seek him to hear what he has to say and to serve him. God often speaks to us in the middle of the night, like he did with Samuel and David, and probably Paul as well, because that’s a time when we aren’t so distracted and can focus on what’s most important, our relationship to God and our place in his larger plans for bringing good out of a village, a temple, a capital, and a metropolitan area when someone, in the middle of the night, first says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” AMEN.