In the Name....
Did you know that the Easter Bunny is real? I’m serious. In the museum of the University of Wisconsin you can see, with your own eyes, a stuffed rabbit which comes from … Easter Island. The Easter bunny – right?
Gee, I thought “seeing is believing.” Well, maybe not all the time. But, isn’t that what happens in today’s Gospel where the sceptical Nathaniel sees Jesus and, as a result, becomes a believer? Not really, because, despite the adage, seeing alone is not sufficient to elicit a response as dramatic as that of Nathaniel. I mean he virtually falls at Jesus' feet - “You are the King of Israel!” No, there’s something more going on here. Perhaps, we should say that “experiencing is believing” because that's what really affects Nathaniel - not the sight, but, the experience of Jesus, and that is the lesson we find presented in today's Scriptures.
The Old Testament told us the story of how God called the young Samuel and it said that this took place in a time when "visions were not widespread and the word of the Lord was rare.” And it further relates that the chief holy man, Eli, was suffering from dimming eyesight. What all these details are trying to get across is that this was a time when everybody, from the highest to the lowest had literally “lost sight” of God (you see how we use the metaphor).
This was a time when people were not seeing, when they were not experiencing God. When even Eli, God's chief spokesman, was in this condition the people were living with little direction. Dark times indeed, for we heard that Eli's sons, who should have inherited their father's spiritual leadership, were living worldly lives and Eli, instead of reprimanding them - and again the metaphor - turned a blind eye. And so God chose Samuel to be a new leader for his people.
Now, as the story goes, Samuel had never experienced God and turned to Eli for help in understanding what was going on. Eli had drifted so far, however, that he, who of all people should have understood had to struggle. But, when he did figure it out, he accepted the judgment because at least he could remember what is like to experience God. And as Samuel grew, so the passage concludes, the people came to recognize him as a true prophet because "the Lord was with him".
In the Gospels, Philip is first introduced to us as a disciple of John the Baptist, another person widely recognized as one with whom the Lord was. People flocked to John because, in what he said and did, he represented an experience of God which was very lacking in their time.
Now Nathaniel was a very pious and devout man himself. How do we know this? Because, when told that the Messiah was none other than Jesus of Nazareth, he refuses to accept it. Okay, so how does rejecting Jesus make him pious and devout? Well, let's back up a couple of weeks and remember the Three Wise Men. When they came looking for the new-born king they were directed to Bethlehem because that's where the Bible said the Messiah would be born. So, by objecting, Nathaniel reveals that he knows his Bible. No Messiah is coming from Nazareth.
But, that said, he doesn't end the matter there. He knows his Bible, but, he also knows Philip and senses his enthusiasm and sincerity and so, despite his objections, he is humble enough to investigate what might be a new experience of God. After all, as Eli learned with Samuel, God can act in unexpected ways.
And finally, we see the depth of Nathaniel's understanding when Jesus says he saw Nathaniel – and this is an idiom - “under the fig tree.” Now that takes some explaining. The fig tree is a national symbol of Israel, just as we speak of the shamrock representing Ireland or the maple leaf of Canada. And the phrase "under the fig tree" is a reference to certain messianic prophecies in Micah. In other words, when Jesus says he saw Nathaniel "under the fig tree" he’s not saying that he saw him eating his lunch in the shade. He is saying that he knows something spiritual about Nathaniel that only God could know. The point is that Nathaniel has a powerful, personal, experience with Jesus in terms he can understand.
Well, it's been a long time since Nathaniel, longer since Eli, but, in a sense, both are still alive and well in our society. The question is, which one are we most like? Is our eyesight 20/20 or 20/2000 when it comes to the experiences of God?
There are those who say we live in secular times when visions are rare. Others say we live in religious times and point to the number of church buildings in our society as proof. But, do people see God when they look at a church building? Of course not, in one sense. A church building is an important symbol of God’s presence. But, Eli kept a temple, also an important symbol of God's presence, and yet, his, and the peoples’ eyes had grown dim when it came to the living reality of that presence. And so it is today.
Some communities are full of Eli’s who only remember how God acted in the past. Others full of Nathaniel’s who see Him act daily and look to the future.
What sort of people are we? The answer lies not so much in what goes on within these walls as what goes on outside. Yes, we build buildings for worship, for study, for fellowship, and to provide a sacred space. But, as go about our business in life we carry the fruit of our worship, we carry the results of our study, we carry the bonds of our fellowship, to make every space around us sacred for, as the second lesson reminded us today, we are the true temples of the Holy Spirit wherever we are.
And all we need to make the space around us sacred, all we need, is - just like Nathaniel - to have seen the Lord, to have experienced Him. And once we've done that, say to others, "Come and see what we have seen."
Can anything good come out of Kent County? Absolutely. The Lord is with us and we are under the fig tree. Let’s invite others to see what that means.
In the Name...