Picture the scene: imagine a nation living under an oppressive regime. Sadly it’s not too hard to do that these days – we only need to think of what conditions were like in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, in Libya under Gaddafi, or currently in Syria under Assad. There are many other countries too with appalling records for having a repressive society. I am sure we all are aware of other countries where human rights are violated all the time.
When we think about what it was like in Israel at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry we have to remember that at that time the Israelites were living with the reality of Roman rule and oppression. The Jewish people often say “there is nothing new under the sun.” There have always been oppressive regimes; sadly, there probably always will be. And so in Israel, there were real tensions and discontent amongst the people; much like there has been in the countries I mentioned earlier.
The people were desperate to be liberated; they were desperate for someone to come and raise up in revolt against the Romans. They believed that God would send them a revolutionary to lead them to freedom…and the title they had for such a person was the Messiah.
I wonder, if you were expecting some great liberator to come, especially one sent by God, where would you expect them to come from and who might you expect them to be? And this brings us to our reading today in which we learn about the calling of Nathaniel.
We don’t know a great deal about him except that he was from Cana in Galilee. It was in Cana that Jesus did his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding feast. Nathaniel’s name means “gift of God”, although as a disciple he is often referred to as Bartholomew. He, like so many others, was sceptical of the thought of a Messiah or Saviour coming from Nazareth. Nazareth was one of those backwater villages with a population of less than 200, and it was hard for anyone to imagine that the Saviour of the World could possibly come from such a place. We know that Jesus spent his boyhood years in Nazareth before beginning his earthly ministry when he was about 30. After moving his home to Capernaum, Jesus returned to teach in the synagogue of Nazareth twice more, but was rejected both times by the people. On one occasion the townspeople were so outraged at Jesus that they tried to throw him off a cliff to his death. Not exactly something that sells Nazareth as a place to us is it?
We are told that Nathaniel had been under a fig tree. Such trees could be tall and provided fruit. But they also acted as shade from the blazing sun. The spreading branches and thick leaves were an ideal place of shade and shelter. It was a common occurrence for a person to sit in the shade of a fig tree to reflect, contemplate and to wrestle with the issues of life. It was also a place from which Nathaniel could observe what was going on around him; he could see what Jesus was up to from a distance. John in his writing makes us aware that Jesus makes reference to the fact that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. These may be a clear indication that Nathanael was troubled or conflicted; he had heard about Jesus of Nazareth and now he was able to see him for himself. Is he seeking guidance? Was Nathanael wrestling with the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah? Did he not believe whilst sitting under the fig tree? Is it because of this honest wrestling, this element of doubt that Jesus is able to say that Nathanael is a true son of Israel.
We can be just like that in life too; we find our “fig trees” in life where we can sit and observe what is going around us, where we can grapple with things and get our heads together. I am sure you all have such special places. And when we do grapple with things, and try and make sense of life and what is going on, it is reassuring to know that it isn’t wrong to doubt. It is good to be honest with ourselves, to be real. Real people have real doubts, real people are part of this wondrous mess that life can be sometimes, real people are people just like you and me.
We may not see Jesus standing right before us as Nathaniel did, but he is with us all the time. When we have an encounter with Jesus, he often speaks right into our heart and shows that he knows us. Like Nathaniel, we may find ourselves asking “How do you know me?” But there is nothing about us that Jesus doesn’t know. Whatever experiences we have had in life, there is nothing that Jesus doesn’t know. And he comes and calls us because he loves us despite ourselves and he delivers the goods; he doesn’t let us down.
This place of meeting, this church building can be a place for all of us to sit and shelter from the pressures of everyday living. It can be a bit like an oasis in the desert. This isn’t simply my church – it is our church, the church of this parish. Here we are offered that space, safety and opportunity to consider the questions of life; and I’m not talking about the little questions like what colour socks should I put on today, I am talking about us trying to make sense of why we are here, what does our future have in store for us? Jesus longs to engage with all of us, those of us who are sitting under a fig tree or in a church or wherever.
You may be feeling like Nathanael with doubts and questions whether you are here for the first time or if you are regular member of the congregation. But I tell you this; if you are looking for answers, I truly believe you are in the right place. You are in a place of prayer, a place of healing, a place of forgiveness, a place of love and a place in which you are valued beyond measure.
Nathaniel got it. He said to Jesus “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” As we think about Nathaniel’s response, and how we may have been sitting under our fig trees watching life go by and trying to make sense of it all…no matter where you are in your life right now, I offer you an invitation. Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes to pray. If you would like to respond to Jesus maybe for the first time or even to recommit yourself to him now I invite you to simply raise your hand. No one else will know. And then I will pray a prayer and we can make it our prayer together:
Lord Jesus Christ,
I know that I have sinned
and done things that have hurt you.
I am willing to turn away
from what is wrong in my life.
I want to go where you lead in the future.
Thank you for dying on the cross
so that I might be forgiven.
Come into my life this day;
Come in as my Saviour and Lord:
Come in to be with me for ever.
Thank you Lord Jesus.