The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
It wasn’t as simple as some coming from the north and some from the south, this isn’t an example of the old north-south divide which can affect many places, not just the UK. Philip, Andrew and Peter were from Galilee. Nazareth is in another part of Galilee. It wasn’t that Jesus spoke with a different accent from them, they were all northerners. But they were still prejudiced. Nathaniel assumed that nothing good or interesting could emerge from a place like Nazareth and especially not a Messiah. The towns and village around the Sea of Galilee, of which Bethsaida was one, places like Capernaum and Tiberius, places like Magdala, were busy and economically sound, places of business and trading. What was the use of a place like Nazareth?
I like to think of myself as not being prejudiced. I’m middle class, moderately well educated, travelled, read. I vote what I think is the right way. I preach an inclusive gospel and try to live that out to the best of my ability. But scratch me, and not so very deep, and I think you would find some prejudice, some ways of judging people or places that I’m not very proud of, some ways of categorising people as soon as I meet them that I feel ashamed to admit to.
Is it the newspaper I see someone reading? Is it when I see a family emerging from a fast food outlet? Is it when I hear a particular regional accent that I can’t bear? Is it hearing which programmes people watch? I was brought up to be a ‘Blue Peter’ child, we never watched ‘Magpie’ that was a bit downmarket, all those dungarees and perms that John and Peter and Val would have never come on screen in!
Be honest. If you’re not you will never challenge those unworthy attitudes that are deep within you. And the bigger prejudices that are around based on ethnicity, colour, gender, sexuality, wealth, education, have you really tackled those, as an individual, in the place where you work, in your church? I’m staggered to hear some of things that are said in the General Synod when we are debating women or gay people. It’s more than shocking, its scandalous – yet these are people who claim, like me, to be good Christians.
Philip tackles it head on. ‘Come and see’ he says to Nathaniel, and he takes him to Jesus.
We’re not told if Nathaniel leapt at the opportunity – ‘Great, lead me to him!’ – or whether he was more reluctant, had to be persuaded to have his opinions challenged and changed. The next thing that in fact we are told is that he is meeting Jesus, who shatters his preconceptions and leads to a moment of epiphany, a recognition that the one he had just dismissed is the one for whom he has been waiting and looking.
Could anything good come out of Nazareth? Of course Nathaniel was wrong. Perhaps it wasn’t the most obvious place in which to find anything amazing, life changing, earth shattering. But in fact it is the place in which God found Mary, the place in which God found Joseph. They were ordinary, unassuming people, the sort you might walk past and easily decide were nothing to bother with. But God found something there in Nazareth, something good that he couldn’t find elsewhere, he found such deep faith, such obedient response, an open door through which his work of redemption could begin.
We have been Bethlehem bound. When we arrived in Bethlehem we could have walked past the stable door. It isn’t the kind of place you would expect to find the Son of God; we could have ignored the signs and relied upon our own instincts, listened to our own prejudice – ‘no way, not here, there must be a mistake, we’ll look elsewhere.’ But, thank God, we didn’t. We stopped at that stable door and lifted the latch and went in and found God.
The only way in which we, individuals, institutions, communities, churches can confront the prejudice that lies just below the surface but manifests itself in so much of lives and decision making is to hear Philip’s invitation to us, day in, day out – ‘Come and see’. It will be uncomfortable, talking to that homeless person, meeting the benefit claimant, working with refugees, worshipping in a different way, talking it through with a gay person, trying to understand the political stance so different to our own, but unless we are willing to do what Nathaniel was willing to do, to go and see and to have his opinions confronted, challenged, changed then we will never really meet God who is never the God we expect.
I love the poem ‘Crabbit old woman’. It was written in 1966 by Phyllis McCormack whilst she was working in a nursing home and it captures so well the judgmental attitudes that we can all have. It begins
What do you see, what do you see?
Are you thinking, when you look at me-
A crabbit old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice,
I do wish you’d try.
And it concludes
So open your eyes, nurse, open and see,
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer-
Society, our lives, can only change and become more God like if, on the journey we are making, we hear the invitation ‘Come and see’ and respond.
open my eyes to the truth around me;
cleanse my mind of old prejudice and judgments;
confront, challenge and change me.