Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

What a derogatory question! A town rubbished in a short statement from a respected Jew. Nathaniel said it so it must be true. You can hear people saying that and repeating his question, because that is exactly what happens when celebrities or popular politicians or newspapers make sweeping statements. It happens because people are too ready to stereotype and scapegoat others; they are too lazy to find out the truth behind such statements and too ready to find corroboration: ‘everyone says it’. Do we find discrimination and prejudice in the Bible: absolutely. We are going to be reflecting on the three readings we have had today and think about how God dealt with such prejudice.

However, let’s lighten the mood a little, before we get serious again. Look at this slide and tell me which group of people it is describing: PP

They are:

  • Very punctual
  • Dress in a strange way – wear socks with sandals
  • Love their pets more than people
  • Eat a big breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans and toast
  • Drink lots of tea
  • Like second hand shopping
  • Lay out in the sun in the middle of the day

Well who do you think is described here? I used to be able to tick five of these, now only four, but that’s not a bad hit. Is this all there is to English people? How else might you describe them? 

Stereotypes are bland; they are blunt instruments that reduce people to a few characteristics and as a result make them a focus of fun or dismissal. Upon such stereotypes, judgements are made about the reliability, responsibility, trustworthiness and value of people. If you don’t believe me, read Nathaniel’s question again. In one fell swoop he dismissed the whole of Nazareth, and if he had the general conception of the north in mind, the whole of the region. Can you see how easily it happens? Just reflect on the attitude of people to migrants crossing the Channel and how the government wants to crack down on immigration and those seeking to enter Great Britain – and according to our Home Secretary who is the daughter of immigrants, this includes students from overseas because they have dependents.

If we are going to grow as an intercultural church as opposed to a multicultural church – one in which cultures exist side by side but don’t interact – we need to reflect on this. We will need to be a church that trusts people who are different, values them, accepts them as brothers and sisters in Christ and be prepared to surrender our stereotypes and preconceived ideas. In short we have to abandon the bland statements and dig deeper, growing in understanding and appreciation of each other.  We are one in Christ Jesus, and as I have said before, that doesn’t mean we are clones.

So let’s briefly reflect on these three passages and how God dealt with the obvious prejudice expressed. The passage from Isaiah is very familiar because it is always read at Christmas. It is a passage of hope in the midst of judgement and impending disaster. From where was the disaster to come? From the north – that place on the borders of pagan nations. A place that was always questionable, because it was on the important trade routes and so people were constantly mixing with Gentile sinners and undoubtedly not keeping strictly to Jewish laws and customs. It was a place of darkness because it was distant from the centre of worship; it was open to other influences; it lived in the shadow of the invader. Yet the prophet Isaiah brings a message from God to say that it is from here that the deliverer, the Prince of Peace will come. It is this area that will be the source of rejoicing and the disposal of the instruments and results of war. 

In the light of this prophecy, it is surprising that Nathanael comes out with, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ How is it that an educated and respected community figure, who surely would have known the scriptures, can make such a devastating statement? We only have to look at popular opinion today to realise that it happens all too frequently. We only have to look at history to realise how such statements have been used to stir up hatred and division. Interestingly, Jesus clearly respects Nathanael. Jesus who came from Nazareth, must have been aware of the prejudice that existed towards the area. Jesus would have been identifiable by his accent, just as Peter was identified by his accent when he was in the courtyard of the high priest. It is in the presence of Jesus that Nathanael is humbled, realising who he is. The prejudice, one hopes, was demolished and he wouldn’t make such a sweeping statement again. Or he might have done what is often done: all those people are like this, but I live next door to one of them and they are different. Of course that immediately negates the first part of what has been said.

Too often, both in church and outside we are willing to jump to conclusions without really getting to know people. That applies to all cultural boundaries: the view northerners may have of southerners and vice-versa; the view the Irish may have of the English and vice-versa; the view black or Asian may have of whites and vice-versa; the view catholics have of protestants and the view traditional Baptists like us may have of charismatics. Can you see how easily these stereotypes slip into our thinking and will therefore affect our attitudes and behaviour?

How did God deal with this? Clearly Nathanael was taken aback by the thought that God could possibly send the Prince of Peace from Nazareth – from that place. God, through deciding to let the great light dawn in the land of darkness, turned all expectations on their head. Of course we see this reflected in the incarnation story we will be re-telling in a few weeks time. Shepherds are the first to hear the good news. Foreign dignitaries go to the obvious place for such a birth. But it is foreigners also who are among the first to worship Jesus. The whole Christmas account reflects the fact that the Prince of Peace shines out from a dark place. The poor, the oppressed and the marginalised are able to relate to this Prince of Peace, because he has been where they are. The rich and powerful are humbled and can only lay aside their learning and wealth, kneeling in humility before the Wonderful Counsellor. 

This is how God dealt with the prejudice and discrimination. Read Mary’s song.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

 He has brought down rulers from their thrones

    but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

    but has sent the rich away empty.

It is a powerful song of turning things upside down as God the Saviour comes. You can see why oppressed people can readily associate with these texts, whereas those of us who are comfortable might find them strange or spiritualise them.

So what of the final reading we had? Well I think that here we have an example of mutual prejudice. If any culture says they don’t have any prejudices and they are just the ones targeted, they are deceiving themselves. Prejudice happens between different cultures, and between the cultures within cultures. In this short account we have the long standing clash between Jew and Samaritan clearly emerging. How does Jesus deal with it? He is having none of it. The Samaritans will not help because Jesus is going to the wrong centre of worship, as far as they are concerned. They won’t even extend common hospitality. The disciples respond predictably. Well what can you expect from Samaritans. Not only are they rejecting Jews they are rejecting Jesus himself so let’s teach them a lesson and burn them up. (There are some Christians who would like to do this to people with whom they disagree. Thank goodness God has not given them the power or the authority.) Here we see mutual prejudice in action. Jesus rebukes the disciples. A rebuke is harsh and puts people in their place – and the disciples are put firmly in their place. Then Jesus goes on to another village, because he knows that not all Samaritans are like the small group he has encountered. The disciples should know this, because when Jesus was talking to the woman at the well, in Samaria, they went into town to buy food. When the woman told the townsfolk about Jesus, they came out to see him, many believed and he stayed there for two days. 

There are numerous examples of Jesus disregarding stereotypes and prejudices in order to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is for all and he had come for all. In spite of its many mistakes, the Church has also shown this. Although there are still barriers to be overcome, I believe the church is still becoming more inclusive of all who come seeking Jesus, and is willing to step outside its human boundaries. We will be looking at how the early church in Acts began to cross those boundaries later in the series. 

So what about us? What can we do to grow as an intercultural church? I think it begins with a desire to see Emmanuel reflecting the picture of Revelation in which those from every ‘tribe, language, people and nation’ come together in the worship of God. It begins with a desire for that to go beyond the short period we are together on a Sunday. Then we need to take some steps in order to enable it to happen. We can

  • Learn to pray together. This involves coming together face to face at regular intervals to be in each other’s company meditating on God’s word and praying.
  • Learn to eat together. We need to get back to doing this following a long period in which it was not possible. In doing so it is not a case of providing ‘their’ food and ‘our’ food, but a variety of foods we can all share and enjoy together.
  • We need to reflect on the prejudices and stereotypes we hold and be prepared to abandon them as we recognise each other as brothers and sisters, equally loved and valued by the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • We need to step across the mental boundaries we have. This will involve speaking with people we don’t usually speak with,  and making the effort to connect husband and wife, children and parents. It will involve taking the time to learn about each other.
  • It will  mean we are not prepared to accept the excuses we make for ourselves. We can all say we are too busy or too old, or too stuck in our ways. I really don’t think Jesus would accept that as an excuse.

Emmanuel Baptist Church has an exciting future because we have the opportunity to embrace different cultures, broaden our understanding of the world, deepen our understanding of the Bible and ‘the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God’

Paul prayed this prayer for the church at Ephesus:

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have 

power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and 

long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that 

surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the 

fullness of God. Ephesians 3:17-19

I think this is a prayer for us at Emmanuel. We will find the fullness of God as we grow together as an intercultural church. This is how we will begin to bring the Kingdom of God on earth living out ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.