There’s a passage in the first chapter of the gospel of John where a guy named Nathaniel expresses his skepticism upon first meeting Jesus of Nazareth:
“Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?”
Nathaniel appears to have come from the region along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which was the home of a significant fishing economy. As such, the region was a busy, bustling area that would have had a fair amount of cultural activity.
Nazareth, on the other hand, was in the boondocks.
Located in the hill country to the west of Galilee and now one of the largest cities in northern Israel, it was believed to have had a population of only around 400 people during the time of Jesus’ life.
And so it’s perfectly natural that Nathaniel’s first response was basically, “Who the heck is this hillbilly? What good can come from that Podunk little town?”
The least likely people from the least likely places
A consistent narrative theme across the breadth of biblical literature is one of something coming from nothing.
It’s always the least likely people from the least likely places that seem to make the most impact.
The younger brothers, the ignored women, the previously outcast…these are the characters that carry the story forward.
It seems like God may actually have a purpose for people in the margins.
Which has some interesting implications for our current cultural and religious dialogue.
Threatening constructs of identity
There’s a lot of debate in the public square these days around the political preferences and activity of white evangelical Christians.
And without getting directly into that debate, there’s a particular aspect of it that I think needs to be pointed out.
It seems for many (not all) evangelicals who identify as conservative or traditionalist, there lies a desire for power and control. A need to impose their particular belief systems on everyone else.
As I wrote a couple weeks ago, I suspect a lot of that has to do with fear.
And honestly, I get it. When your particular tribe has been able to define itself as the “norm” in public life for such a long time, it’s scary to think that other ideas are starting to take hold, especially if you believe those ideas threaten your conceived constructs of identity.
Our buddy Nathaniel might have been experiencing something similar.
When his friend Philip introduced Jesus as “the one Moses wrote about in the law and the prophets,” (John 1:45, CEB) Nathaniel’s first reaction was probably something like, “Wait, what? But he’s not one of US. He’s not from around here. Why should we follow him?”
What good can come from Nazareth?
I wonder if that’s how a lot of the modern American evangelical movement feels today.
It’s clear to anyone paying attention that the sands are shifting for Christianity, especially in the global west.
And a big part of that movement is that people who are not white men are beginning to express their own experiences of the divine that don’t necessarily align with the way things have “always” been done and the things that have “always” been taught.
The people who have traditionally held power and control in our institutions are beginning to find that there are other voices besides theirs in the world.
And while a lot of them might see that as a rejection of the gospel, it could be that maybe something new is happening to which we ought to pay attention.
Something that really is good news.
Moving in the margins
A lot of people with whom I’ve been in conversation recently are starting to notice all of this.
We’re seeing that some really powerful things are starting to happen in spaces that have traditionally not been centered in the broader culture.
And while some of those spaces are geographical, like the hope being found for recovery from addiction in my home region of Appalachia, others are coming from populations of people that have been traditionally decentered by colonialist patriarchal systems.
And for those with eyes to see, Jesus is moving in those places.
Among people of color.
Among LGBTQI+ communities.
Among the poor.
Among the young.
People in those spaces are not only finding their voices.
They’re showing the world that Jesus doesn’t tend to work in the centers of power and privilege, but in the margins.
The new Nazareths
And so a lot of what manifests itself as stubborn resistance to change might really be the beginnings of a slow awakening to what really can come from the new Nazareths of our time.
As a 50-something-year-old, cisgender, heterosexual white guy, it might seem a bit contradictory for me to be championing this movement away from my own place of privilege.
But I think if we’re really paying attention to Jesus, we might begin to see a way that’s better for all of us.
Not just for our group, but for all of humanity.
But to get there, we have to begin to really embrace our diversity.
And to get there, we need to step aside and let others lead.
We have to quit fighting for control and instead do everything in our power to get out of the way and enable folks from the margins to tell their stories, to speak their truths, and to employ their considerable gifts and talents to benefit our collective common good.
Jesus is always coming to us from Nazareth.
It’s time we paid attention.
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