I’m a really big fan of maps. I think it’s really cool when someone can take the outline of a country and tell me something really interesting about that place. Like this one series of maps that I saw, that had the fifty states overlaid with different, interesting “most” or “best” rankings. One of them was a picture of the commonest fast food restaurant in each state. Another was the favored football team. And one of the most interesting was the one that showed Google’s autofill answer to “why is this state so…” It can be eye opening to see what others think of where we live or where we come from. And sometimes, those opinions can be less than kind.
Take Nathanael’s words from our gospel reading this morning for example. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, admittedly, he might have had a point. See, Nazareth was so insignificant a town that it didn’t even show up in any historical record, anywhere, until 200 years after Jesus. Archaeological digs there suggest there weren’t more than 400 people living in the town. And Nazareth was set in the region of Upper Galilee, which was part of the rough-and-tumble frontier of Jewish settlement. It would be like saying someone who just emerged from far western North Dakota was going to change the world. No one important, much less the Messiah himself, was ever expected to come from that kind of place.
So Nathanael made his dig about Jesus to his good friend Philip, the kind of cynicism and cruelty that you really only share with your friends, when Jesus responded. Nathanael has just insulted him, his hometown, and his whole background. But instead of trading insult for insult, Jesus said something unexpected. “Look at this, an Israel that won’t deceive anyone with flattering lies!” By reframing what Nathanael said, Jesus changed his whole outlook. We see that incredible change right away with how quickly Nathanael went from skeptic to true believer—“you are the king of Israel; you are the Messiah!”
It’s incredibly easy for us to just see the worst in people, isn’t it? The person who cut us off in traffic is an irredeemable jerk, nothing more. The server shouldn’t be working here if they can’t get a simple order right. The person on the other side of politics is either an idiot or evil, because no one smart or good could believe what they believe. And other people do the same to us, simplifying our whole person into our worst qualities and judging us on that. Which pushes us to simplify them, too, into their worst qualities. And on, and on, and on. We’re really good at it.
But when we do that, when we ascribe the worst to everyone, it does something. It hardens hearts, and puts people on the defensive. It forces others to react with vengeance on their mind. Jesus could have shot back at Nathanael, shut him down with a withering retort—“look at this Israelite that thinks he’s better than everyone”—but he didn’t. Doing that would only have pushed Nathanael away, made him more cynical, maybe even caused him to think of a meaner thing to say next time. Instead, he took what Nathanael said and reinterpreted it so that it was with the best possible meaning. He showed Nathanael how to be better.
And he does that with us too.
When we are called to be part of God’s mission through the waters of baptism, like Bo is today, God could look at our worst qualities. God could easily look into our future and past and pick apart our worst decisions and cruelest acts and focus our attention to that. But that’s not what God does. In baptism, God sees the best of who we could be. Where others may see cynicism and bluntness, God sees honesty and integrity. Where others see us as weak or easy to manipulate, God sees hopefulness and a willingness to care for others. Where others see either snobbery or crudeness, God sees a discerning eye or a welcoming spirit. When God reframes who we are, and sees us for the best that’s in us, it inspires us to embody that goodness that God sees. Like how Nathanael was changed by Jesus’ words.
And then, equipped with this knowledge of the best of who we could be, God empowers us with the Holy Spirit through the waters of baptism. God brings us into this mission to right the wrongs of the world with our unique gifts, growing in hope and love with the whole communion of saints in the church around the world, helping others see the best that they could be because through the Spirit, we can see others through God’s eyes. We can see the best of who they can be, rather than just the worst of who they’ve been. And from that, we can work together to transform the world so that it, too, can see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.
Last week I talked about baptism as the induction into God’s own revolution that will change the world. And that is still true—in baptism, we are recruited to bring God’s kingdom into existence through the power of the Holy Spirit, transforming the very way we live together so that the suffering are cared for, the sick are healed, the poor are filled with good things, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the lost and alone are brought into a loving community. But transforming the systems of the earth to match the kingdom of God is not the only thing that happens because of baptism.
We are also transformed. We are turned from brokenness toward hope and goodness. Because of baptism, we become the kind of people who love our neighbor with the same kind of love God has for them. We become the kind of people who are cut off in traffic and imagine the driver has simply had a hectic day and was distracted; or assume the server messed up the order because they received some bad news this morning and are in a fog; or remember that people believe passionately in things we disagree with because they’ve experienced the world differently, and we could learn from each other. In baptism, we are freed to see people like God sees people, and show them the kind of person God knows they can be.
So the next time that you are tempted to shoot back at someone’s “can anything good come from Nazareth?” take the time to wonder. What good could come from seeing them differently? How can the Spirit lead you both to show God’s love more fully in how you can respond? How has your baptism changed you and empowered you to turn an argument into a dialogue? And how is the Spirit going to lead you to be the kind of person that God saw in you when you were baptized?
Thanks be to God. Amen.