Yes, we are going to focus on the Gospel. Even though the lectionary threw us a curve and tossed in this text from John instead of the Mark we were expecting and will continue with next week; it is the Gospel that guides us. But it brings a light to the interactions in this text by looking back at the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures before we wrestle with Nathaniel and his sarcasm. So, go back and read I Samuel 3:1-10. It’s a familiar story and kind of fun to tell. As always, don’t assume that everyone in the congregation has already heard it so you can just skip over it with a passing reference. “You know, the call of Samuel story!” Many won’t, and some who do remember it won’t remember it well enough to catch the echo in Nathaniel in the Gospel text. So, if you decide to use it, tell it again.
Tell it; don’t just read it. Or read it and then tell it. Let it live and breathe. Tell the story about the boy who thought his old mentor was off his rocker, mumbling in his sleep. Tell the story about the mentor who had lost his grip on everything and thought the boy was just being annoying. Until the light dawned (we’re in Epiphany, remember?), and they realized that God just might have something to say even to them. Tell the story as if it were happening to people in the congregation. Because it just might be. Some of those sitting out there might have had troubled sleep the night before because God has been trying to get their attention. So, tell the story to see if they recognize themselves.
Once again, the lectionary stops before we find out what is really going on. So, we have only half a story here—a great half, to be sure. Lots of lessons are tucked away in this half a story. The starkest is signaled by the very first verse: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days...” Why is that? Did God not have anything to say? Or did the people forget how to listen? Was the weight of the world simply too much to bear and no one was lifting their eyes to heaven? Was the darkness so deep that no one remembered the light? We don’t know. All we know is that the Word of the Lord was rare in those days.
Yet God spoke. That’s our first wake up call, I suppose. In a time when the Word of the Lord was rare, God spoke. Maybe that helps explain the situation a little bit. Not that we need to find who is to blame, not that we need to know who is at fault, but God still spoke when visions were not widespread. How easy it is to give up on God, to decide that we are on our own and God has abandoned us because we don’t have a clear vision. The Word is rare in our days. We feel cut off; we feel alone, as though no one understands what we are going through, as though no one cares that we are struggling; we are hurting. So, we develop that layer of cynicism, a sarcastic streak that keeps the world at arm’s length to protect ourselves. And we hear even less of a word of hope because that is what we have come to expect.
That’s the attitude that seems to be reflected in one of Jesus’ disciples. Well, before he became a disciple anyway. As we turn back to the Gospel text from John, we find the calling of Nathaniel. Nathaniel appears only here in the Gospel of John. Some scholars think that the Bartholomew mentioned in the other three gospels is Nathaniel. William Barclay even argues that Bartholomew is a last name, translated as “son of Tholmai.” So, his name might have been Nathaniel Bartholomew. Maybe. Others argue that Nathaniel wasn’t even a real person, but rather a representative of a human trait of pride and prejudice and the need to listen for the call. It’s hard to tell really, but it is obvious that there is something of significance going on here.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The Word of the Lord was rare in those days. We don’t know why Nathaniel said what he said. Maybe he just wanted to be left alone, didn’t want to be bothered by Philip and his new best friend. Maybe he really thought anyone from a hick town like Nazareth wouldn’t have anything of significance to say to him. Maybe he had given up the search that Philip was still on. Maybe he had decided he didn’t need a Messiah after all. He was doing all right on his own.
But was he? Are we doing all right on our own? Most of the time, we think so. Most of the time, we are content with the world as it is, with our lot in it. Most of the time, we are grateful that things aren’t any worse than they are. And the Word of the Lord is rare most days.
Every now and then, we ache to hear that Word. When we let down our guard, in our heart, we long to know and to be known. We want so much more of life than we settle for most of the time. We want our relationships to be deep and satisfying. We want those we love to trust in that love; we want to live the fullness of that love. We want someone to know us, all our weaknesses and strengths, all our beauty and ugliness; to know us and love us still.
It almost sounds like fantasy, doesn’t it? Such knowledge, such love is not possible in this world, a world where the Word of the Lord is rare. So, we bury such thoughts, such quiet desperation behind the facade of being all right, of not needing anyone or anything. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Or anywhere for that matter?
Well, yes, it can. Out of Nazareth can come the one who knows and who loves still. Out of the darkness of the night can come the voice that calls us by name. Out of your church filled with hypocrites and sinners can come a sense of family and community that remakes us. Out of your house can come a trust and openness that gives you that sense of home you were created for. From surprising people can come unconditional love that builds us up and makes us whole.
We all need a wakeup call from time to time to keep from sleeping through our own lives. It is a call to hope. Speak, Lord, your servants are listening. Because something good is coming to us. Or rather, something good is already among us. Let us claim it, even as we claim our call to be what Christ has called us to be.