January 15, 2012
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
In the Gospel of John, it is John the baptizer’s disciples who seek out Jesus, after John has testified to who he is. Here Andrew is originally one of John’s follower. When he finds Jesus, he goes and gets his brother, Simon, and they follow Jesus. This morning we read the story just after that, where Jesus goes to Galilee, and there he finds Philip, and Philip goes and calls Nathanael.
It is interesting that in each of these two first stories, one person sees and hears Jesus, and goes and calls a brother or a friend to come and see and hear him for themselves. Andrew goes and recruits Peter. Philip recruits Nathanael. Never doubt the importance of personal invitation.
Reading this story raises an important question: What’s up with the fig tree?!!?
Jesus sees Nathanael, and calls him one without guile. Surely it is only one without guile who would say out loud, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Not a very PC statement. Not the sort of question good, polite types ask out loud. Oh, they still ask such questions. They just don’t say them out loud!
Nathanael, who has never met Jesus before, says, “Do you know me?” “Before Philip told you to come see me, I saw you under the fig tree.” And with this Nathanael calls Jesus Rabbi and son of God and King of Israel.
And so I ask again, what’s up with the fig tree? Why does Jesus seeing Nathanael there warrant such effusive praise and merit such immediate devotion?
Is the fig tree a messianic symbol? Some dramatic reminder of covenant? Some element of the exodus that will immediately draw the readers’ and hearers’ thoughts back to prior acts of salvation?
Fig trees were prevalent enough that it gets mentioned about as often as olive trees in the Bible. But there is no great symbolic meaning to the fig tree. It is not an allusion to some great sweeping story of faith.
Apparently the fig tree under which Nathanael was sitting was just a fig tree. The point of the story, it turns out, is not that we know what the fig tree means. I believe that the importance of this story comes in the fact that Nathanael knows which fig tree Jesus means.
We can imagine that sitting under the fig tree was the lowest point in Nathanael’s life. Maybe that was where he prayed those deep prayers that only come with tears and wracking sobs. Maybe under the fig tree is where Nathanael would go to bury his grief.
And he was seen. Someone saw him in that moment when he was most vulnerable, least guarded, most human in all of its messiness.
We know why we guard ourselves from vulnerability: some would look on us in scorn; some would look on us with judgment; some might use our vulnerability against us. And yet, when Nathanael was seen, it was different. Because when Jesus saw Nathanael, he did not judge, he did not scorn, he did not use his vulnerability against him. He called him.
In this calling is meaning and purpose, but there is also blessing and acceptance.
We distrust such grace, don’t we? Anyone who has survived junior high school has learned how to guard their heart and not be vulnerable.
And yet, here is one who sees us as we are, warts and all.
Here is one who is well acquainted with our sorrow and our failings, our frustrations and our anger, and who looks at us still with the eyes of compassion.
I often wonder why the committee on the Lectionary chose to match certain texts together, and why to skip certain verses, like in this morning’s psalm.
I think in these skipped verses we find some of what Nathanael was feeling regarding being seen in the fig tree moments of his life.
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee,
the night is bright as the day;
for darkness is as light with thee.
I can remember these words in my prayers at guest housing at Children’s Hospital when Mira was recovering from her surgery. The lowest places I have ever been, God has been there, whether I could see the grace or feel the presence or not.
That is why Nathanael is willing to praise and willing to follow. Because he has been seen and he has been known, more fully than he knows himself, and in this he realizes that he is fully, completely, warts and all, loved.
And so are you.
Thanks be to God.