“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon today comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, today we celebrate Saint Bartholomew, one of Jesus’ disciples, a man we know very little about. And I think that is alright, because our focus on a saint’s day should not be on the saint himself, but instead on who that saint pointed to through his words and actions- Christ. Before we begin, I think I should clear up something that might cause a bit of confusion. This is Saint Bartholomew’s day, but in our text, we don’t seem to encounter anyone named Bartholomew. There’s Philip, Nathanael, and Jesus, but no one else. You see, some biblical scholars (and apparently the folks who put together our lectionary) believe that the man named Nathanael in John is the same person called Bartholomew in the other Gospels and in Acts. You can ask me for the specific reasons later, but at least we can all agree that for the purposes of this sermon, Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person. If so, then this is Bartholomew’s shining moment, his only recorded words in the New Testament. John the Baptist has only two days ago pointed to Christ as the one he was preparing for, and then on the next day, Jesus called Andrew and Simon Peter. In our text, the fourth day of John’s Gospel, Jesus called Philip.
“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘follow me.’ Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’” The amazing thing about Philip is that he does not stop to worship Jesus, he does not ask any questions, but he runs away. Now, I doubt that Jesus said ‘follow me’ and Philip turned tail immediately, but the important thing to note is that his first act as a disciple of Jesus was to find someone else to bring to Christ. I’m sure there are some of you in here who can relate, especially those of you who became a Christian later in life. The enthusiasm of your conversion though the power of the Holy Spirit sent you out to tell others, to bring them to the blessed waters of Baptism, to bring them into contact with Christ’s life-changing Word. For those of us, like me, who have been life-long Christians, we can often struggle to find that same enthusiasm, and even the enthusiasm of a new Christian fades away. Philip’s example is one that speaks directly to us- we go from this place where Jesus comes to us, out into the world, and what we speak are not our words, but instead they are the words of the Scriptures. Even when we are met with skepticism and rejection, when the Nathanael’s of the world scoff at us, we can simply say with Philip “come and see.” Come and see where Christ comes to people in His Word, in water, in His Body and Blood.
This sounds great, but Nathanael’s question should give us pause, even if it did not seem to slow down Philip one bit. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If we stop to think about it, this is a ‘good’ question. The Greek word used here for ‘good’ has a strong practical, pragmatic meaning. It means that a person or thing has met a certain standard, and could easily be translated as ‘useful.’ Is Jesus useful? If you go to Barnes and Noble and search the ‘spirituality’ shelf, or even go to a Christian bookstore, you will find plenty of writers who think that He is. Jesus has been portrayed as a ‘good, useful’ teacher throughout history, and today is no exception. He has been claimed by almost every type of group on the face of the planet, from politics (did you know Jesus was a communist?), to food (did you know Jesus was a vegetarian?), to social issues (did you know Jesus was a homosexual?). Jesus has been found quite ‘useful’ by many people throughout history, but is this the Jesus of the Scriptures?
In the Gospels, when Jesus is called ‘good’ (with that specific Greek word) by someone, He almost always deflects attention to His Father. God the Father is good and useful, but Jesus does not look at Himself in the same way. Why? Because Jesus did not become man to be useful or ‘good.’ In fact, His coming had quite the opposite effect. In our text, we read how Saint Bartholomew came to faith. He would later die for that faith, in a gruesome, terrible way. Following Christ, for Saint Bartholomew and many others, was not ‘useful’ or ‘good,’ but instead it led to death. Following Jesus is anti-practical, anti-pragmatic, and it usually means a harder life under the cross. Christians in America don’t have to think about martyrdom very often, but even in a country where we have religious freedom, Jesus isn’t very practical. Following Christ does not gain us money, it does not solve all of our problems, it does not bring us an earthly life of bliss. Following Christ is tough, and it often means hardship, as we struggle to live our faith in a world that rejects it. I suspect this may be a reason we are reluctant to follow Philip’s example. We can only offer to the world around us a Jesus who often makes life harder. In fact, that is what tempts us to fall away. Why stand by Jesus when He only brings trouble?
So Nathanael is right. Nothing ‘good’ comes from Nazareth. Jesus is not practical, He is not useful, He is not pragmatic. He is in fact quite the opposite. Associating with Him means a cross, it means hardship, it may even mean death. God the Father is the good one- He created and sustains all of creation, bringing fruit from the earth and rain from the heavens. God is good, but Christ is something else entirely. What is He? If we look at the rest of our text, we will find our answer.
Nathanael’s skepticism melts away very easily. All Jesus has to do is demonstrate His divine knowledge and all-seeing eye, and Nathanael is hooked. “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to Him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’” St. Bartholomew then confesses boldly: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” When you are reading the Gospels, one of the most important things to pay attention to is the names given to Jesus. This name, “the Son of God,” is very important. This is the foundation of our faith, that a man born in first century Palestine named Jesus of Nazareth, is true God. He is not simply a man, but He is God, and as God, He has taken human flesh, and He has taken it on to save.
And how will He do this? Nathanael’s second name for Jesus seems to give us the answer: “You are the King of Israel!” A king? Now this is truly ‘useful’ and ‘good.’ A messianic king will surely throw off the yoke of the Roman rulers and establish a kingdom on earth that will last forever. Two thousand years from his birth, Christians in upstate New York will live in luxury and security because they belong to this kingdom, the most powerful kingdom on earth! Nathanael is wrong! Something good did come out of Nazareth! And so many would think- and many still think this today. But the next time that Jesus would be called the ‘King of Israel’ or the ‘King of the Jews,’ He would be hanging on a Roman cross, giving up His life, shedding His blood for our sins. Jesus truly was a king, but He was not a practical, pragmatic, ‘good,’ or useful king. He was a king who could only establish His kingdom through His death. This death at the hands of sinful men, at the hands of those He came to save, would wash away the sins of the entire world, and establish a heavenly kingdom. When He rose from the grave triumphant on the third day, His kingdom was established and your sins were forgiven- especially your sins of not following Philip’s example and bringing His message to others. Christ was not ‘good’ or ‘useful’- He was a Savior, and as our Savior He endured the shame of the cross for you!
Nathanael’s bold confession causes Jesus to caution this enthusiastic new disciple: “Because I said to you ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’” This was not exactly Christ’s greatest miracle, and Nathanael’s response is a little too enthusiastic. Jesus does not want Nathanael to be carried in the wind by every desert preacher who makes a prediction or two. Jesus wants Nathanael to follow Him because He is true God and true man, and He is the one who will reconcile God and man. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This third name of Christ, the Son of Man, is only used by Jesus Himself, and it is used to designate His state of humiliation, as He walked this earth as a man, taking on all of our sin and the punishment we deserved and taking it to the cross. But after the cross came the resurrection, and after Easter Sunday Christ was enthroned on high, and his prophecy to Nathanael, to Saint Bartholomew, was fulfilled. In Genesis, Jacob has a dream where He sees a ladder to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending upon it. God speaks to him and says, “In you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Christ is this promised offspring, and through His death and resurrection, all families on earth truly are blessed! Christ has replaced Jacob’s ladder as the link between heaven and earth, as the only means by which we can attain heaven. Christ is not ‘good’ or ‘useful’ in this life, but despite all the difficulties we may face, He will bring you to eternal life in heaven through His shed blood.
This blood has washed away all of your sins, as Christ has come to you in your sinful condition as the Son of God, as the King of Israel, and as the Son of Man. This forgiveness sends you back into the world to speak of Christ and the great things He has done for you. You cannot offer a God who promises an easy life, but you can speak of a Savior who has gone to the cross for all people and has delivered you from sin and death, you can invite those around you to ‘come and see,’ to come and see our Savior and our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. May this message sustain you and send you back into this sinful world carrying the light of Christ, Amen.