Sermon on 14th January 2018

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

SUN 14 JAN 2018

 Revd Angus MacLeod MA BD

 

“Nathanael asked Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?”

Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” John 1:48

The contemporary American writer and environmental activist, Wendell Berry

has lived and farmed in the state of Kentucky for many years.

The woods and its inhabitants are his great inspiration.

 

Best of any song

Is bird song

In the quiet, but first

You must have the quiet.

 

In a volume of poems, entitled, The Timbered Choir, one piece begins:

 

I go among the trees and sit still,

All my stirring becomes quiet

Around me like circles on water.

 

I go among trees and sit still…

Today’s gospel starts with a man sitting beneath a tree.

The image is no chance one.

The scriptures have plenty significant plantings.

The Garden of Eden, Elijah under the wilderness tree,

Jonah in the shade opposite Nineveh,

Zaccheus clambering into the branches, the better to see Jesus.

And from the prophet Micah, the beautiful passage

of the future messianic kingdom and the promise of peace:

“…they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;

The scholars see the tree as a sign of the presence of God.
and the term “under the fig tree” as an ancient Jewish idiom

that means studying the messianic prophecies.  

Nathanael knows those prophecies;

Bethlehem will be the Messiah’s birthplace.

On the other hand, Nazareth – a village of 200-400,

dependent upon the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee.

Nazareth lent no special status to its inhabitants.

So, Nathanael is sceptical about Philip’s enthusiasm:

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

You can hear the hostility in the question.

It is worth imagining how Jesus might have responded.

“Here is a cynic, locked in by prejudice;

here is one careless and unthinking in his words

Had it been us, faced with Nathanael, how would we have reacted to him?

 

Mercifully, it is Jesus doing the looking.

Mercifully, Jesus looks past the prickly exterior and sees the honesty.

Jesus names the quality he wants to bless and cultivate.

 

To Nathanael’s consternation, the small-town Messiah hails him:

“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

It was a salute that a devout son of Israel would admire.

“Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,

and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Psalm 32:2

 

Taken aback, suspicious: “How do you know me?”

“I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Echo of Micah: they shall all sit under their own vines

and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;

the fig tree, lovely symbol of the peaceful kingdom.

Perhaps since childhood, Nathanael had inhaled Micah’s vision;

perhaps Jesus recognised his longing, his seeking heart.

 

Nathanael responds dramatically to the reading of his soul:

“Teacher you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” –

the titles that would accompany him to the Cross.

 

Jesus responds:

“O Nathanael, I’ll show you things greater than this.

You are impressed because I recognise the dreams you dream

and the tree you chose for shade.

But I will give you glimpses of heaven upon earth

and earth’s gateway to heaven.”

 

Again, words that resonate deeply.

From the scrolls of Genesis, (read today);

the outcast Jacob fleeing the wrath of Esau, the brother he has tricked.

Brought to the point of despair in the desert.

Lying down, exhausted, alone –

Laying his head upon the stone that holds the mystery of an altar.

 

Then the great healing dream;

a ladder, stretching from heaven to earth;

a ceaseless traffic of angels, ascending and descending;

earth to heaven and heaven to earth –

a thin place, where the veil between God and God’s creation, is gosamer thin.

 

Jacob awakes: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!

This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:16.17

 

On the foundation of those ancient words Jesus fashions a new promise:

“Nathanael, I will show you a way – I will be a way.

Let me be the ladder to raise your horizon;

Let me be the link, that you might walk with angels.

For this I have come –

to open your eyes to wonders of heaven already here,

to quicken each life that awakens to me.”

 

Nathanael’s waiting beneath the tree ends in epiphany;

The season we now celebrate.

Jacob and the dreaming stone became Bethel, the house of God;

now Jesus, the stone the builders would reject,

is the new gateway to the Divine.

 

Bethel to Bethlehem – a world

where the sacred lies a mere hair’s breadth away –

and the Christian life – a pilgrimage marked by those unexpected ladders

that bring the beyond into our midst.

[Francis Thompson “Turn but a stone and start a wing.”]

 

Bethlehem to Bethany – cradle to cross –

we are heirs to Nathanael’s encounter;

Son of God, King of Israel, Prince of Peace –

God speaking to us in the only language we can really understand –

that of love, freely given, at great cost – for us.