Is Jesus legit? That is the question that both Matthew and John are trying to answer in their own way. Nathaniel phrases the problem Jesus faced well;
“Can anything Good come out of Nazareth?”
You see it would have been better for Jesus and his family to have stayed in their ancestral home of Bethlehem. As Matthew and Luke tell us that is where the Messiah is supposed to be born in the line of David. Bethlehem is right next to Jerusalem, the Holy City of God, the center of Israel. In the Jewish mind it didn’t matter if you are traveling North or South, up hill or down hill, you are always going “up” to Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem is the most important place in the Jewish world.
Nazareth, on the other hand is about sixty three miles north of Jerusalem, far from the center of attention. It is within the region of Galilee, which Matthew calls “Galilee of the Gentiles” because it is on the edge of what would be Hebrew territory and many Jews in the region had a lot of contact with people who were culturally different from them. While Samaria was despised because the people there were seen as half breed Jews and heretics, Galilee, and Nazareth, where forgotten, for it was a small fishing community, outside of people’s attention. Imagine a town on the Mexican border, to get a sense of the cultural differences going on. Then imagine a town on the Canadian border, to get a sense of its political significance. While there is a huge amount of controversy around the Mexican border right now, no one really cares if you cross the Canadian border. That is sort of what Galilee was like. The cultural difference of living next to Mexico, with the indifference of living next to Canada. Sorry if I have offended any Canadians or Mexicans. Just trying to express an analogy that makes sense.
And yet Matthew tells us that Jesus ending up in Nazareth, isn’t just about his family fleeing persecution, or Mary and Joseph moving from their ancestral home back to their hometown, as Luke argues, but is instead a fulfillment of scripture. To quote Matthew, “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.”
There is a bit of a problem exegetically, by that I mean the message we gain from the text. The problem is, as far as most scholars can tell, there is no direct text in the Old Testament that says Jesus would be called a Nazarene. That is perhaps why Nathaniel in John expresses skepticism about Jesus being “of Nazareth” because there is no direct scripture reference to suggest that the Messiah would have lived most his life in Nazareth. Matthew, most scholars agree, is pretty knowledgeable about scripture, so it isn’t probable that Matthew is just misquoting the Old Testament. Scholars think that there are two main possibilities about what Matthew is trying to get at here. First, scholars think that Matthew might be using a Hebrew word play with the Hebrew word neser, which means branch, with Nazarene, because Isaiah 11:1 says that the Messiah shall come from the “branch” or family of Jesse. The other options, is that Matthew is saying that Jesus would be “looked down upon” or despised, which would fulfill scriptures like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. One commentary I read entitled this section of scripture, “coming home to obscurity,” which I think makes the point well.
What good can come from Nazareth? One could as easily ask, “what good can come from Indiana?” Or, “what good can come from Pierceton?” A reporter I met recently described Indiana and the Midwest as “fly over country,” that being the part of the country that us West and East Coasters fly over to get where we want to go. Yet, Indiana’s state motto is the “crossroads of America” a motto that was adapted in the 1930’s because many railroads intersected in Indiana, and the soon to be constructed Interstate Highway system would find a major nexus in Indianapolis.
What good can come from Pierceton? Well if you are looking for antiques or a good elementary school to send your kids, we are the place to be. I took a look at the town history, on the town website to get a better sense of the history of the town because I think the history of an area reflects on the spiritual heritage of the area. It seems there was great difficulty founding the town of Pierceton, because the founders John Butler Chapman and Lewis Keith, wanted to found the town along the rail road that was going to be built, but they didn’t know the exact location of the line. I found it interesting that in 1852-53 they hired Otho Means, “a big red headed surveyor to lay out a town about half a mile north of where Pierceton is today.” One could say you have hired another red head to be a surveyor, but this time a spiritual surveyor to help you determine where the Lord would have you go. Hopefully, I will do a little better than Otho, who missed where the rail line was placed, and thus they had to relocate. According to the website, “Pierceton was the leading town of the county outside of Warsaw, for at least thirty-five years. It was a lively town politically during this time, always sending creditable delegations to the county seat whenever any big political demonstration was being held. Pierceton in those days was full of activity based largely on woodworking industries. This is now a thing of the past for our supply of wood has sadly diminished. Logs cut and sent to mills here today would not have been accepted one hundred and sixty years ago.” What I read in these sentences is a town that took on a leadership role in the community, a community of hard working and creative people. A town of wood workers, which reminds me of Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter. Yet, the history suggests that Pierceton’s role in leadership in the larger community has past, that things are not as they once were.
I also noted when I moved here that this entire area has a history of religious revival. Right down the road is Winona Lake, where Billy Sunday did his crusades in the 1920’s. And I have often noted that Pierceton is right in the Middle of Warsaw, North Manchester, and Columbia City. As far as location we are centrally located, and can draw from a large circle in the community. And like Nazareth, our town is not the center of attention. However, our God is a God of the margins, when his people thought the Messiah would rise up from the great city of Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world, God showed them that he grew up in Nazareth, right next to the Gentiles, the foreigners. While Matthew is clear that Jesus first came for the lost sheep of Israel, he is also clear that Jesus commands us to go to all the nations, to every people group. The promises of God are not just for those at the center of attention, for those in the gleaming cities, for those with a good heritage and family, but as Peter said after the Spirit fell at Pentecost in the book of Acts, “ the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:39). People may ask what good can come out of Pierceton? And that is exactly why God will bring great good out of Pierceton, because people don’t expect it. And God loves to surprise people.
I have been surprised as I have gotten to know this congregation and this town. Any congregation that feeds hundreds of people every year with chicken pie for over a hundred years running, is a congregation that has faithfulness embedded in its Spirit. I was reminded of this faithfulness recently when I was having lunch with Dominic my “little” from Big Brothers and Big Sisters at Pierceton Elementary. I was sitting in the cafeteria waiting for Dominic and talking to one of the parents who was waiting for her son to come to lunch. I mentioned to the mother that I was the new pastor at the Presbyterian Church. She told me that about ten years ago she was having pretty hard times and our church had provided Christmas gifts for her and her family. She was going to another church at the time but she was truly grateful. I could see in the expression on her face the pain that time in her life had caused her and her family and how grateful she was to our church. And that was ten years ago. I have heard more than once that 90% of ministry is just showing up. 90% of ministry is just being faithful with the things the Lord has given us. And as I have gotten to know you all I see that we are 90% to where the Lord needs us to be because this congregation knows the meaning of faithfulness.
What then is the 10% to make for a vibrant and growing church? I think this 10% differs for every congregation. But I think a lot of it has to do with a common vision. A lot of it has to do with knowing where the Lord is directing us. Why did Joseph and his family decide to settle in Nazareth? Perhaps it is because it was where he was living before he came to Bethlehem, as Luke suggests. But Matthew doesn’t really comment as to whether Joseph knew or did not know about Nazareth beforehand. Instead, Matthew tells us that part of Joseph’s decision to move was common sense. Archelaus, Herod’s son became in charge after Herod died, and apparently Joseph didn’t think the violent dictator apple fell far from the violent dictator tree. Part of it, we are told is that he received direct communication from God, in the form of a dreams. The first dream told him to leave Egypt. The second, warned him about Archelaus, though Matthew is vague if the dream told him to go to Nazareth. So part of having a vision is having common sense about the circumstances you are in and the possibilities available to you. Nazareth, which was about 60 miles from Bethlehem, was about as far as Joseph could reasonable travel by foot or by horse back. And part of the 10% is believing that when Jesus said his sheep hear his voice that he really meant it. That God does have a particular will for our lives that we can know if we seek Him.
A vision that the Lord has put on my heart over the past few years is preaching the Gospel to those who were not raised in the church. Imagine that ministry is like a lake. The shore is the church and the water is the shifting waves of the world. I believe what the world needs is a dock. A solid place on the water that can help lead people to shore.
Whether we think it is a good thing or a bad thing, the fact is that institutional Christianity is loosing its grip on our culture. Many people my age identify as the “nones” or the religiously unaffiliated. They believe in God but they don’t see the point of church, and perhaps they have been hurt or judged by the church. Church is a culture that is foreign to many people. Many think they have to have it together, they have to believe the right things, they have to do the right things before they come. But a church built on a dock comes to them and says, I know the world is full of chaos, I know you have swam to the bottom of the world and found it to be pretty shallow, and I know you are looking for more but you don’t know how to come to shore. But you can come to the dock. You can belong before you believe. It doesn’t matter if you feel you are important or unimportant, if you think you are a pretty good person or a screw up, if you were raised in church and know your theology, or if you have never been to church a day in your life and feel like you are groping in the dark for an unknown God. Because God works in unexpected ways, he is calling together an unexpected people, in an unexpected place. For you who are wondering today about what this church thing is about, what this Jesus thing is about, I say if you are thirsty you need only come. I say to you what Philip said to Nathaniel when he asked, “What good can come from Nazareth?” “Come and see!” Because we gather here to be with each other and to come into the presence of God, not to dress up and pretend like we have it all together. And to those saints who have served faithfully but have grown tired as this congregation’s numbers have shrunk I say to you what Paul said to the Galatians in Galatians 6:9, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.