The familiar images of Christmas – the star, the Inn, the manger, the shepherds, the wise men – are all found in the Gospel accounts given by Matthew and Luke.
This Advent I’ve been reflecting and teaching on a less familiar but just as important Christmas account – the Gospel of John. In the first chapter of his account of the life of Jesus, John reflects on the mystery, meaning, and significance of the incarnation. Incarnation is a translation of the phrase in-flesh; it points to the heart of the Christmas story that Jesus left heaven and entered into humanity. The heart of John chapter 1 is the 14th verse:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory,the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
In the last post I reflected on some of the ways that this passage conveys the deep and wide love that God has for us, and how that is demonstrated through the incarnation. For this post I want to take a different twist. Once John is finished talking about the incarnation, he applies it in a unique and profound way. He tells the story of the selection and recruitment of the 12 disciples, and focuses particularly on the response of Nathanael:
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip,he said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanaeland told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law,and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth,the son of Joseph.” 46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelitein whom there is no deceit.” 48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi,you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” 50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,youwill see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’the Son of Man.” (John 1.43-51)
V45 is a great picture of what Advent is – God had promised the people that he would reveal himself in a way that would blow their minds through the Messiah, but they had been waiting and waiting for that time to come. Now, Philip says this is him! This is the one they had been waiting for.
It is how Nathanael responds in V46 though that is particularly fascinating: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
That’s a really significant detail required to understand both the significance and meaning of the Christmas story. If we take a step back it should be easy to empathize. If you heard God was entering into earth, how would you expect it to come?
How does the president come? Our whole city shuts down. The highways and byways are closed. He is surrounded by an entourage. There is security. There are fans. There are curious onlookers. Every detail is thought through. Every contingency is planned for. It is an absolutely huge deal.
If the president gets that kind of treatment, what would we expect for God’s entrance?
Matthew and Luke emphasize the immediate environmental surroundings of the incarnation of Christ – an overfull inn, a barn, a manger, and animals as his initial worshippers. But John emphasizes this detail: Jesus was from Nazareth.
Why is that significant? Nazareth was small, rural, and unimportant. It was off the map, and up to this point it was thought of only as a backwoods place. In fact, according to Wikipedia, there is not a single historical record of the town in ancient Jewish sources until the 3rd century AD, which “likely reflects its lack of prominence both in Galilee and Judaea.”
This is the Christmas story – the story of the incarnation: Jesus was born not into a mansion but a manger; not to a wealthy family but a poor family; not to big city lights but to an obscure rural village; it wasn’t royalty who received him but peasant shepherds.
That is great and interesting, but let me ask the “so what?” question. Why does that matter? What does it mean for us?
What Nathanael asks in V46 is the question of the human soul: “Can anything good come from there?”
That is where the incarnation ties in – Genesis 2 says that the triune God said, “let’s create humanity in our image,” and then in John 1 the triune God says, “let’s enter humanity to renew and redeem and to become a light that leads to life.”
If Jesus would have come into royalty and power and acclaim it would have been appropriate, but ultimately discouraging to the question that haunts our soul. But because he came in a manger and to shepherds and to peasants and to a poor rural village, it’s as if he is saying, “Trust me. If the king of kings and lord of lords could come out of a backwoods village that nobody believed could produce greatness, then what can I do with you?
This is the point I think John is trying to make: God didn’t just create the world, he entered it. God didn’t just create you – he enters into your life. New light, new life.
One of my favorite parts of this encounter is the dramatic change in Nathanael’s life based on this reality. In one moment Nathanael is asking, “Can anything good come from there?” Yet only minutes later he is saying something completely different. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” What he had been tempted to overlook and diminish because of its humility had now become the source of an entirely new perspective on life.
That’s what the Christmas story can do. The incarnation is about Jesus entering humbly but powerfully into the most significant question that lives inside of you – can anything good come from there? It meets our deepest fear and our deepest need.
That is my prayer for you this Advent season. I hope you enjoy the presents and the decorations and the time with family and the holiday cheer. But ultimately I pray you will have an encounter similar to that of Nathanael, and that the incarnation will connect you to the experience that Jesus truly is… the Son of God.