Christians around the world are changing their social media avatars to the arabic letter "n." In so doing, these Christians are reminding others around them to pray, and to stand in solidarity with believers in Iraq who are being driven from their homes, and from their country, by Islamic militants. The Arabic letter comes from the mark the ISIS militants are placing on the homes of known Christians. "N" is for "Nazarene," those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps it's a good time to reflect on why Nazareth matters, to all of us. The truth that our Lord is a Nazarene is a sign to us of both the rooted locality and the global solidarity of the church.
Jesus is from somewhere. Yes, the eternal Son of God transcends time and space. He was with the Father and the Spirit in love and glory "before the world was" (Jn. 17:5). But in his Incarnation, Jesus identified with a tribe, with a genealogy, with a hometown.
He "went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: 'He shall be called a Nazarene" (Matt. 2:23). Some of Jesus' contemporaries rejected him because of where he was from. Nathaniel infamously asked Philip, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (Jn. 1:46). His question is entirely sensible. Nazareth was a powerless backwater, not the sort of urban, elite center that we are told drives cultural change. Philip's response wasn't an argument about Nazareth; it was simply to say, "Come and see."
For some, the issue wasn't just Nazareth particularly but rootedness itself. "But we know where this man comes from, and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from" (Jn. 7:27). They were quite mistaken. It is "the Beast" who is from nowhere, "rising out of the sea" (Rev. 13:1), representing humanity in its origins-denying self-exaltation (Rev. 13:18). Our Lord Jesus, on the other hand, is from "the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations" (Isa. 9:1). We know where this man is from.
Nazareth, though, reminds us that God's purposes are global, transcending our tribal and national categories. When Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he was received with joy and awe, until he told his fellow villagers that they really didn't understand what he was saying. Jesus demonstrated that God's purposes had always gone "outside the camp." He showed how God had raised a Gentile woman's son, and healed a Syrian leper. (Lk. 4:24-27). In Nazareth, Jesus was setting the stage for the Great Commission, as the Spirit drove the church to all of the nations (Acts 1).
God embedded us with a need to love home. When that's absent what fills its place is pride and ingratitude, as though we came from no one and we are dependent upon no one. When a hurricane warning is issued for south Florida, I pay attention. But when one is issued for the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, my hometown, I'm riveted. That's the way it's supposed to be.
In Christ, we have been brought into the life of Jesus. We are hidden with him, joined to him as a body to a head (Col. 3: Eph. 5). This means that, in a very real sense, Nazareth is our hometown. We belong to Jesus, and Jesus belongs to Nazareth. We are connected then to everyone who is also in Christ, not simply because we believe the same things but because we belong to the same Body.
We are "one new man," and "fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God" (Eph. 2:15, 19). That's why Christians in America and Australia and Nigeria ought to care, and to pray fervently, for persecuted Christians in Iraq, in Sudan, and everywhere else in the world where they are endangered.
The Islamic militants mean it for evil when they mark homes with "N" for "Nazarene." They assume it's an insult, an emblem of shame. Others once thought that of the cross. But in that intended slight, we are reminded of who we are, and why we belong to one another, across the barriers of space and time and language and nationality. We are Christians. We are citizens of the New Jerusalem. We are Nazarenes all.
The church may be hounded and jailed and even crucified. But the church can never be beheaded. The Head of the Church is alive, and engaged, and on his way back. In the meantime, there will always be those who will ask, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" Our answer, from now until the Eastern skies explode should be simple: "Come and see."