The second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, 2015 – 1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending
and descending upon the Son of Man.
Over the Christmas holidays our son Nicholas, who is a young man of much energy, organized us all to go see Interstellar. Interstellar is a kind of apocalypse and a story about salvation: the earth is afflicted with crop disease; the people are starving; the land is drowning in dust. Enter the hero: Matthew McConaughey, rugged and monosyllabic. He rockets up into the heavens to find a new life for the people. There are moments in the movie that are beautiful: the first sight of Jupiter, for instance, surrounded by the silence of space; the eerie organ accompaniment as they travel among the stars. The beauty of the movie, in fact, is precisely interstellar. Earth is a raging dust-storm, good only to be left behind. And the hope is interstellar too. Salvation is found in the stars, and in the heroic individuals who sail off into them.
In our gospel, by contrast, salvation comes down to earth. It begins with a fig tree, and the man who sits under it; a fig tree, of all things, rooted and grounded in earth. It is on the fig tree in the first place that this story of salvation turns.
This fig tree bothered me for years, because it seemed so unlikely a prompt for Nathaniel’s complete about-face, his transformation from cynic to believer. Here’s Nathaniel, the great skeptic. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he says. Not for him the excitement of Philip; the eager belief of Andrew. “We have found the Messiah!” I don’t think so, Nathaniel says. He has, after all, good reason to doubt. He lives in a time of small things, a temple of no particular glory; a people and a faith in some way diminished. Rome rules in Jerusalem, priests and Sadducees work with the Romans; the emperor’s image is stamped on the currency of Israel’s common life. Where now is the Israel who was to be set apart, a light to the nations?
It is no wonder Nathaniel doubts. Have we ever, he might have thought, been further from the worship of God on his holy hill? Have we ever been more compromised, less faithful? Prophecy is rare in Israel and as in the time of Eli, vision grows dim. Do not speak to me of Nazareth, Nathaniel says to Philip. Do not speak to me of hope. For Nazareth is not the place of Israel’s deliverance, and this is surely not the time.
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars,
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.
(T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men)
This is the Valley of the Shadow, and in the Temple we cannot see.
Philip says to Nathaniel “Come and see.” And this is where the plot turns, and cynicism yields quite unexpectedly to faith, and Nathaniel is re-born. “Before Philip called you I saw you,” Jesus says, “sitting under the fig tree.” And Nathaniel says, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!”
Why? What difference does the fig tree make?
In days to come, says the Lord through the prophet Micah,
The mountain of the Lord’s house
Shall be established as the highest of the mountains….
Out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.
But they shall all sit under their own vines
And under their own fig trees,
And no one shall make them afraid.
This is the hope of Israel for restoration; the time of God’s salvation, Jesus says, is now. And he names Nathaniel a part of it. Before Philip called you, Jesus says, I saw you. Under the fig tree I saw you: I name you an Israelite indeed, you belong to this act of God’s salvation.
Why does the fig tree make a difference? It is not just that Nathaniel hears in Jesus’ words the prophet’s promise of salvation. It is that he is called. “Look!” Jesus says as he sees Nathaniel coming. “Truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.”
As in former times God chose Jacob and gave him the blessing and called him Israel, so now Jesus calls Nathaniel. He names Nathaniel Israel, as God named Jacob before him—only this time he is the Israel in whom there is no guile. In this man Nathaniel, in whose cynicism Israel’s hope grows dim, by the grace of God the beginning of an Israel re-made. This is the time of the promise spoken in the prophet Zephaniah.
For I will leave in the midst of you a people
Humble and lowly…
They shall do no wrong and utter no lies;
Nor shall a deceitful tongue be found
In their mouths.
And Nathaniel says, in the words of the same prophet, from the same passage (in the LXX): “You are the King of Israel.” Our God is in our midst.
Our God is in our midst: this is important. Matthew McConaughey goes shooting off into the stars. Nathaniel is asked to sit under the fig tree, in the midst of his people. For this is the shape of salvation.
In response to Nathaniel’s initial profession of faith, Jesus speaks to him another vision: Do you believe because of the fig tree? This is not the half of it. Do you call me Rabbi? You do not yet know who I am. You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. Heaven stooping down to earth; earth lifted up to God on the body of the Christ. Salvation takes finally the shape of the cross. This hope we have is real. It is down-to-earth. There is room in it for the fig tree, and for the joy of sitting under it. It is real as Jesus was real, Jesus the man walking among us, Jesus the child born to a young mother in Bethlehem. It is God reaching out and touching us, taking us by the hand and drawing us back to him.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the Father’s only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth.
The love of God is known in the hands of Christ stretched out, touching us in our need and in our suffering (as Ephraim said so well last week), Jesus living and dying here with us. There is no substitute for the hand stretched out: stretched out to touch the hand of the other, to walk with them in their need and in their sorrow, and in their joy, day by day. This is the shape of salvation. God did not, as it turns out, strike the heavens and come down, on clouds and the wings of the wind. He was born a small child in Bethlehem, and he dwelt among us.
And that is so much harder.
Like the magi’s journey, in this time of the Epiphany. They did not just see the star and send their gifts, worshipping by donation. They got on their camels and travelled to the place where the star led them. And they did not know where they were going, and they did not know the way. “Such a long journey,” Lancelot Andrewes said, preaching about the magi and the star on Christmas Day, “A cold coming they had of it. Just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey. The ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.”
It is not easy, to reach out and touch and walk beside, day after day; to seek in the flesh the face of Christ. But it is the way of love.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.
You are the Son of God, Nathaniel said to Jesus.
Praise be to God: in you I have found the salvation of my people.
See, Jesus said to Nathaniel, what that salvation looks like. My body a ladder stretched out between heaven and earth; Jacob’s ladder now made flesh; Jesus in the body and the blood the stairway to heaven. In Christ Jesus lifted up against the sky, God’s love touching the earth to save.
There is a wonderful painting of the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi in Florence. It is worth a trip to Italy just to see it. It is by Gentile da Fabriano, and it is a baroque explosion. The magi all in gold, a confusion of horses, exotic animals from the East—monkeys and leopards and birds of many colours—a page boy kneeling down to take off the magi’s spur; courtiers in fancy dress and every shade of skin; real jewels embedded in the canvas…and in the distance the star.
But in the foreground is this: a circle of quiet at the end of the long road, where Mary holds the child Jesus on her lap. And the oldest magi takes off his crown and kneels down, and the child leans toward him, as children do, and touches his old head in blessing.
Such a long journey, at the hard time of the year, when we are too busy; when the way is uncertain; when the commitment is costly. But the end is this: the hand of Christ stretched out to touch, and in this touch the blessing.