[This is a sermon of encouragement for all the “little churches,” the small, struggling congregations that seem to make up most of our synod (like the two that make up my dual parish). But I think it applies to big congregations too, when they realize that what makes them great is not their size but their Savior. And I think this message fits especially with the “Witness” aspect of the “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” emphasis of our synod, so appropriate during this Epiphany season. CH]
“Can Anything Good Come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:43-51)
Can anything good come out of Bonne Terre? Can anything good come out of Potosi? Or let’s be more specific: Can anything good come out of St. Matthew’s? Can anything good come out of Redeemer? Those may be the kinds of questions in the minds of the people we meet and talk to. And the attitude behind the questions would be a rather dubious one. Believe it or not, some people may not think very much of those little podunk towns, Bonne Terre and Potosi, or of those little Lutheran churches, St. Matthew’s and Redeemer–if people have even heard of them in the first place. And this, in turn, can create doubts and even embarrassment in our own minds. We might become reluctant or even ashamed to speak up for, and invite people to, our church.
Can anything good come out of Bonne Terre? Can anything good come out of Potosi? Well, guess what, the disciple Philip had to face the same sort of skepticism when he spoke up for a man called Jesus of Nazareth. The response was similar: “Can Anything Good Come out of Nazareth?” So let’s see how that went, and how Philip handled it, and it may give us some guidance and encouragement for our own life of witness.
This was early on in Jesus’ public ministry. He was just starting out, and not many had heard of him yet. Now John the Baptist had been preparing the way, and that helped. John had directed a few of his own disciples to start following this man Jesus, whom John identified as “the one coming after me who ranks before me,” as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”–indeed, as “the Son of God.” Andrew and Peter, James and John–those were these earliest of Jesus’ disciples. And they all hailed from the region of Galilee.
That’s where we pick up the story in John 1. “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee,” it says. Jesus had been down by the Jordan, where John was baptizing. And now from there he goes to Galilee. Funny that he should go there, instead of going to the more important region of Judea and the city of Jerusalem, where all the prestige and the power was. It would be kind of like going to St. Francois County or Washington County, instead of to St. Louis–or, better yet, to Chicago. But for some reason Jesus goes to lowly, backwater Galilee.
Once there, it says, “he found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” Note the authority in Jesus’ voice, in his call. Jesus calls men and women to come and follow him, as his disciples. This is more than just “believing in God,” in some vague, generic sense. This is more than just following some set of rules for good behavior, so that people will think of you as a nice person. No, the call to follow Jesus is much more than that. It means to be where Jesus is, to hear his voice when he is speaking, and to do that all the time, not just when the mood hits. This is the Son of God speaking, and he is saying to you today–yes, to you who hear me preaching in his name–he is calling you, saying, “Follow me.”
So that’s what Philip does. He follows Jesus. And we learn this about Philip: “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” So a couple of Philip’s homeboys, Andrew and Peter, had already heard the call, and now Philip is added to their number. The circle is growing. And it’s happening in Galilee.
And it keeps growing. Having gotten to meet this man Jesus, Philip now, full of excitement, naturally wants to tell somebody about the good thing he has discovered. Philip finds his friend Nathanael and says to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote.” This is a Jewish way of saying, “We have found the Messiah, the one prophesied in Scripture.” That’s a pretty big deal. Israel had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come. And now Philip is saying, “He’s here! I’ve met him!”
The Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One–this would be the great king, the Son of David, who would bring in the end-time kingdom of God here on earth, a kingdom of blessing and abundance, of deliverance from all their enemies for the people of God. This was the one everyone was waiting for. The fulfillment of all of God’s promises. So for Philip to say, “We’ve found him”–this is pretty big news.
“We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote . . . Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Huh? “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph? Don’t you mean somebody we’ve heard of, somebody famous, someone glorious–someone, say, from Judea, from Jerusalem, from some place important? We’re looking for the Son of David, and you’re telling me about some ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’? Who ever heard of the Messiah coming from . . . Nazareth?” That’s kind of what’s going on in Nathanael’s head when he then says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Even in a backwater district like Galilee, there can be some internal rivalries. One small town can look down on another small town as being even lowlier than they. Bethsaida can look down on Nazareth and therefore dismiss anything that comes out of there. That’s what Nathanael was doing with his “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But if he had stayed with that thought, he would have missed out on everything, on the greatest blessing he would ever receive.
Thank God, Philip did not give up on his witness to Nathanael. He persists, he pleasantly persists. He doesn’t get into a long, heated argument with Nathanael over the relative merits of Nazareth, its good points and its weaknesses. Instead, Philip simply invites Nathanael and says, “Come and see.” In other words, “Come along with me, Nathanael, and meet this man Jesus. I think you’re in for a surprise. There’s more here than what you think you’ll find.”
I think this is instructive for us. Philip doesn’t get sidetracked into a discussion over how great or not-so-great Nazareth is. Instead, he’s going to focus on getting his friend to come with him and meet this man Jesus. “Come and see,” he says. Philip is being pleasantly persistent. Same with us. The focus is not on our congregation, how great it is, because, frankly, there are a lot of congregations with a lot more to boast about in that regard. We’re kind of small. We don’t have a lot of programs or a big, glorious building.
But what we do have–and this something no one can take away from us–what we do have, by God’s grace, is Jesus. Jesus is staying here. This is where Jesus is doing his thing–forgiving sinners, giving life, giving direction and power for Christian living, calling disciples to follow him, granting eternal life to all those who believe in him. All this Jesus is doing here, yes, even here in this dinky little church that doesn’t seem like much.
So never be ashamed or embarrassed about bringing people to where Jesus is, no matter how lowly that place may seem. Be pleasantly persistent. You have some good news to share with your friends and neighbors, the best news in all the world. “We have found the Savior of the world–your Savior too. His name is Jesus. He’s the one God has sent to save us. Come with me and meet him at our church.”
“Oh, what church is that?” “Uh, St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bonne Terre”–or, “Redeemer Lutheran Church in Potosi.” “‘Luthern’? What’s that? St. Matthew’s? Redeemer? Never heard of ’em. Do you have a big new building? Do you have a lot of programs? What about a fitness center? I’d like a church with a fitness center.”
“No, for that you could go to, well, a fitness center. But what we do have to offer is something no fitness center on earth can give you–eternal life. Forgiveness for your sins. It comes with this fellow Jesus I’d like you to meet. Come and see.”
Yes, dear friend, come and see this man who went to the cross for you. He it is who wins your full forgiveness for all of your sins, everything that would keep you from knowing God and being at peace with him. This man Jesus did this by dying on the cross for you, in your place, paying a price you could never pay, the cost of everything wrong you’ve ever done. Jesus, the Son of God in the flesh, did this for you, out of God’s incredible love for us sinners. Then this Jesus rose from the dead, showing that when sins are paid for, death is powerless to hold us.
Jesus now shares this forgiveness and this life with us through his gospel, the good news that God wants everybody to know. You get this only in and through the church. And it doesn’t matter how big or little, how well-known or little-known, that church is. The programs aren’t the main thing, the preaching is–and only if it’s the preaching of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. The pure gospel of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament–if it’s got that, that’s the church you want to go to. As long as Jesus is staying there, giving out his gifts, that is what counts. And I guarantee you, my friend, you can find him at St. Matthew’s and at Redeemer.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asks. “Can anything good come out of Bonne Terre or Potosi?” your neighbors are wondering. And, like Philip, you can tell them, “Come and see.”