The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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Parish Eucharist      14th January 2018
I saw you under the fig tree
Handley Stevens

OT Lesson : 1 Samuel 3.1-10


NT Lesson : Revelation 5.1-10


Gospel       : John 1.43-end


 Our readings this morning – the tenderness and intimacy of Psalm 139, followed by those stories about the call of Samuel and Nathanael, are among my favourite Bible passages, but I want to start from our New Testament reading, Saint John’s vision of the Lamb of God, the only creature able to open the seven seals protecting the scroll held in the right hand of the one seated upon the throne of heaven.


 If you were in church at midnight on Christmas Eve, you will have heard the Vicar drawing a distinction between secrets and mysteries, and suggesting that much as God loves a mystery such as the Incarnation – mysteries which grow ever richer as we treasure the words and ponder their implications year after year – he is not so good with secrets, which he is more inclined to let slip. It’s not that he is careless with secrets – rather that the God of Truth has an irresistible urge to reveal the truth at the right time.  The Lamb of God, whom we identify with Jesus, is the one who is able to open all the seals, the one whose life and death reveal the secret of God’s nature – all-powerful and yet all-loving and therefore deeply vulnerable.  The secret is out.  As John the apostle says in his gospel, we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  The seals have been opened, the secret is out, and we see in Jesus the ultimate truth about God.  Yet the truth, expressed in a human life, remains full of mystery.


 Our stories about Samuel and about Nathanael illustrate this perpetual collision between truth and mystery.  The boy Samuel has been brought up in the temple in the knowledge and love of God.   His heart is open to the message that comes to him from God.  The means of transmission may be mysterious, but the message itself is plain enough, even if it will take courage for Samuel to repeat it to Eli.  When we see in Samuel how open a child’s heart may be to the truth which comes from God, we can understand why Jesus was so fierce about anyone who might put a stumbling block in the way of such a precious gift of faith and insight.  I am very glad that as a church we allow children brought up in the faith and love of God to receive communion with us.


 There is again both mystery and the promise of secrets to be revealed in the verses from John’s gospel which tell the story of the call of Nathanael.  Sadly I’ve never had a sunny enough garden to grow vines and figs, but in the Old Testament, to sit under your own vine and under your own fig tree is to enjoy peace and prosperity. In a hot climate it is also the shady spot where you might take refuge from the heat of the sun to sit and meditate.    


 I saw you under the fig tree.  The inference is that Nathanael was meditating, deep in thought, wondering who Jesus was, and whether he should follow him. At the front of Nathanael’s mind was the issue he raised with Philip: Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  There was nothing in the Scriptures to suggest that the Messiah would come from Nazareth of all places.  Philip does not attempt to debate the Scriptures with his friend.   He just says: Come and see.  And Nathanael is sufficiently interested to do just that.  He comes with Philip, and Jesus greets him with a rather strange compliment – an Israelite in whom there is no guile.  Nathanael recognizes himself.  How did you know me?  I saw you under the fig tree.  The patriarch Jacob had used guile to trick his blind father into giving him the blessing which should have gone to his older brother, but in Nathanael Jesus has seen an honest man wrestling with the truth, an Israelite without guile, who now responds with an extraordinary leap of faith: You are the Son of God.  You are the King of Israel.  Jesus does not challenge this flash of exalted inspiration, but you can almost see the friendly twinkle in his eye as he asks: Do you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? 


 Having brought Nathanael gently down from his cloud, Jesus goes on to explain what he had really seen in Nathanael as he sat under his fig tree.  The imagery comes from the story of Jacob, who was given a new name – Israel – in recognition of his character as a wrestler, one who had to strive all his life, first with his brother Esau, then with his uncle Laban, and finally with the mysterious stranger – perhaps God himself – who wrestled with him as he returned home to seek reconciliation with the elder brother he had cheated out of his inheritance. There is another echo of Israel’s story in the startling promise with which Jesus concludes his conversation with Nathanael (v 51).  As he fled from his brother’s wrath, Jacob was assured of God’s love and protection by that famous dream in which he saw angels passing to and fro on a ladder linking heaven and earth.  Now Nathanael is promised an even deeper insight into Jesus’ true nature as Son of God and King of Israel, an insight even more meaningful than the ladder seen by his ancestor Jacob.  Nathanael would see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, that is to say on Jesus himself, confirming his divine identity not only in the eyes of Nathanael, an Israelite without guile, but also in the eyes of the apostle who tells the story, and of all who will read it, including you and me.


 I saw you under the fig tree.  May Jesus our Lord, the Lamb of God, who knows us through and through and loves us dearly, delight to reveal himself to us more and more, as he revealed himself to Samuel, and to St John, who was inspired to share Nathanael’s story with us, so that we too might believe in Jesus, through whom the love of God calls us into discipleship and continually touches our lives.


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