– Maybe you have been watching this new show, “The Chosen”? A show about Jesus’s disciples. I enjoyed it very much, and would strongly recommend it to you. It really makes the Gospel come to life. Those people we’ve heard so much about, suddenly they become alive, you discover their stories, their families, their friends, their joys and their struggles, their hopes. From “flat characters” they become 3D people.
Of course, it’s just a story, the screenwriters elaborate based on the little we know about the disciples. Because indeed, there is very little we know. It’s especially the case with Nathaniel we meet in our passage of the Gospel today – although he was one of the 12, this passage of John’s is basically all that the Scriptures mention about this man.
So what do we learn about Nathaniel in this passage? Well, as I was reading it, I thought it was funny you know, because I realized I had always assumed that Jesus picked his disciples among young men full of strength, energy and enthusiasm. But it’s hardly the case here, isn’t it? The least we can say is that Nathaniel doesn’t run to meet Jesus. As Philip announces him the incredible news, that “They have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophet wrote”, Nathaniel does not seem very responsive. He rebukes Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, and then, when he is finally introduced to Jesus, he asks him: “Do you know me?”, the kind of rebuke you would give to someone you haven’t met yet and who act a little bit too familiar with you.
– And so here it is, in a few lines, what we seem to learn about Nathaniel: he is sarcastic, and even a little bit prejudiced, cynical, a tough cookie. As I was reading this, I was thinking that maybe I wouldn’t want to make friends with him – but maybe he wouldn’t want to make friends with me either. He does not seem to want to make friends with Jesus. And yet, Jesus wants to make friends with him. Jesus tells him: “I saw you under the fig tree” and we are left to wonder what it could mean.
Well, as you can imagine, scholars and theologians have elaborated on that for centuries. The fig tree is known to be a symbol for Israel, it is also the traditional place where one would study the Torah, the Law of Moses Philip is speaking about. So it makes for a lot of symbolism but it does not help us much to get to know the character. I was thinking about that this week as I was working on my sermon, trying to focus my thoughts while constantly going back to the news: watching the news, talking about the news, thinking about the news, worrying about the news. And then this is what happened to me. At the end of the day, I had to leave my apartment just to take a 10mn break from all of this, books, TV and devices, and I sat on a bench in a park. That’s when I raised my eyes and realized I was sitting under a tree. Oh it wasn’t a fig tree, probably a magnolia – although for me it’s hard to tell in this season – but I had to smile and Jesus’s words came back to mind: “I saw you under the fig tree”. I thought about Nathaniel.
Maybe he was also looking for a break, maybe his soul was tired. Maybe he was longing for something. When Jesus tells him that he saw him under the fig tree, he doesn’t mean so much something like he saw him with his eyes, like we would bump into somebody we know on the parking lot or at the store. Jesus means that he could see him, who he really was and what was going on inside of him. Maybe, beyond the mask of cynicism and toughness, Jesus saw defensiveness, Nathaniel’s weary heart and his longing for something real. A man “with no deceit in him”, looking for something, or someone, who wouldn’t deceive him.
And Jesus comes to meet him and in a short sentence shows him that he knows him, that he sees him and that he cares about him – exactly what the God of Israel has always been doing, as we are reminded in our psalm: “Lord, you have searched me out and known me, you know my sitting down and my rising up, you discern my thoughts from afar“.
– Thinking about Nathaniel gave me hope for all of us who may not feel young, or full of energy and enthusiasm, as we are wearied and discouraged – maybe because of our our own individual circumstances, maybe because of what’s going on in this country and in the world, maybe because of all of this. Jesus knows about that, sees through that and raises disciples among these people. Jesus actually came on earth at a time when people were weary and discouraged and had kind of lost hope in better days.
So what makes the difference? What makes Nathaniel stand out in spite of being so much like many people at his time and like so many of us? What can we learn from him?
– Well, I think something important is that, under his cynicism, we can understand that he didn’t want a cheap consolation. He was looking for the real thing and if it wasn’t there, then he wanted nothing at all. He didn’t want to be cajoled or entertained by a false Messiah, by empty words or a fake religion that was all about rites and disconnected from the longings of the heart and the search for justice and truth. We hear Nathaniel shout for joy when he finally realizes who Jesus is: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel”. He has found the real thing. But this is what we learn from him: we cannot find the real thing if we aren’t real too, wholehearted, refusing the hypocrisy Jesus spent his life condemning. It means of course that we have to renounce false gods and false saviors who shift away the responsibilities from us or comfort us with illusions when life becomes difficult. Somehow, like Nathaniel, we are to be able to face the darkness of the world, of our lives, to endure the pain.
So one of my questions for us today is: Are we able also to confront the pain and the darkness, to see them for what they are or do we turn our backs on them in ignorance and denial? “Epiphany” is the time of the year when we celebrate the light, but how can we find the light of Christ is we are blinded by an artificial lights? Can we find true hope and true salvation if we cling to unrealistic optimism and superficial healing?
– This is where we may want to draw the line between becoming cynical and looking for authenticity. I am amazed to realize that, in our readings today, everybody has a dream! Samuel has a dream, MLK has a dream, and even Nathaniel starts to be able to dream again. What does it mean to have a dream? Once again, it shouldn’t be cheap consolation that just comforts us when life gets too hard. On the contrary, having a dream is to have a vision, to see a way through when life is difficult. Not only for ourselves, but also for others. Jesus promises Nathaniel that he will see great things, Jesus rescues Nathaniel from his discouragement and his cynicism by giving him a vision, and from that Nathaniel can start his ministry with Jesus, in the same way that MLK started his ministry having this vision of justice and equality for Black people, in the same way that Samuel will become a priest according to God’s heart after God has thrown down the sons of Eli who abused their power as priests.
– How do we do that? How is it that we are given a vision? It’s maybe a question we want to think about as we are heading to our Annual meeting, renewing our commitment to the mission of our church.
Maybe we also need to sit under the fig tree, in spite of the business of our lives, or in spite of our fatigue or loss of energy. We need to sit under the fig tree and search our souls for something real so we are given also the invitation to “come and see”. Maybe Nathaniel was praying on that day, asking for God to show up in his life, maybe he had words for this prayer, maybe he didn’t. Yet he had faith enough, in spite of all his doubts, to follow Philip.
This week, I attended a formation about prayer. And what the leader told us that I found very striking is that, for her, prayer wasn’t about saying these or those words, standing or kneeling. She said that prayer was about showing up and be attentive. Make ourselves available to God – and God does the rest. She told us this funny story that she has a very good friend who is also her colleague and on her birthday, her friend showed up with something for her, but she was so busy at work, her friend had finally to interrupt her to ask her: “When will you be able to give 10mn of your day so I can give you the gift?”. And she said to us: it looks so much like our lives. We run from one thing to another, would it be only in our minds, all the while God is standing there waiting to give us a gift. She said: prayer is to open up to receive the gift. We don’t have to be young, strong, full of energy or enthusiasm, God will refresh us as Jesus refreshed Nathaniel in the blink of an eye on this day he met with him.
I will leave you with those words MLK spoke in his sermon A Knock at Midnight, confessing his own feelings of weariness and discouragement, and how the Spirit of God would find him in prayer and meditation to restore his strengths:
Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world . . . He promised never to leave me . . . I don’t mind telling you that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I moved through Mississippi, and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticism even from Negros, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work is in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick souls.