My parents were very tolerant people. They had supported 3 of 4 children to that point, going through very good liberal arts college educations, and trying out different majors, like so many hats in a fine shop. But now it was decision time, and when they asked me what my plan was, I said that I thought it would be nice to get a motorcycle as transportation to some temp job, until I could decide on a real career.
This, wasn’t the son they recognized! I had normally been hard working, earnest, and truly a son “without deceit,” much like the disciple Nathaniel. But, I had lost my direction. Though I was living at what had been my home my entire life, I had no idea what home meant any more! I wanted to see the, “greater things than these,” that Jesus promised to Nathaniel, but needed a swift kick in the butt to get there!
When Jesus is baptized, John the Baptist gives his disciples a swift kick in the back side! “Here is the Lamb of God,” he told them when Jesus came by. They leave home and become followers of Jesus, no motorcycle for them either, no place to lay their heads, practically penniless. First Andrew follows, and then his brother Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus says he will build his church.
The next day Jesus found Philip, who was from the same home-town as Peter and Andrew, and he called to him, “follow me.” So Philip left home and became a disciple. Three for three! Jesus is building a team of committed followers. Things are falling into place. Philip then invites Nathaniel to join them – because they’ve found the one whom all of Israel’s been waiting for. He just happens to hail from the little berg of Nazareth, down the road a piece. Nathaniel blurts out, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” So Philip drags Nathaniel along rather reluctantly, and when Jesus sees him and pays him a compliment, identifying him as a standup, honest guy, with “no deceit in him,” Nathaniel, a bit too pridefully asks, “Where do you think you got to know me?”
What happened to just following when Jesus calls? Will he break the streak of 3 for 3? But Nathaniel’s questions and his doubts also break through his calling story so that we learn more about both him, and Jesus. Jesus is a visionary who sees the goodness of Nathaniel’s soul, “truly an Israelite without deceit,” but Jesus the miracle worker is not the be all and end all of his mission. When Nathaniel suddenly confesses Jesus is the Son of God, and King of Israel, Jesus answered him, “Do you believe because I said I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these,” he tells Nathaniel. You will even see the dream of Jacob’s ladder between heaven and earth become a reality!
Today, January 15, is the commemoration of Martin Luther King. He would have been 83 today. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963 Martin delivered a powerful argument for his non-violent civil disobedience, and with just a touch of tongue-in-cheek sermonizing, a message still relevant to us today. It includes the now famous phrase: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He went on to say, “we know from painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given up by the oppressor… Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” …but, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And after detailing the daily humiliations endured by the African-American community, laced with personal examples, he asked with a bit of irony, but not a drop of pleading, to move beyond the waiting: “I hope,” he concluded, “you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” Four months later, from the Washington D.C. Mall, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, he would call this “the fierce urgency of now!”
I am no expert on Dr. King. I am not African-American, and have no personal experience of suffering as a minority. But in the gift of faith given, I feel the call to be a disciple that we all have, to know what it is like to leave home and be focused on becoming a follower of Jesus, a divine demand that pulls us beyond romanticism and takes us on a journey of transformation. Martin, on his journey, went literally all the way to the cross. How far are we capable of going?
So, there is one thing that intrigues me today about Nathaniel. When he asked Jesus, “Where [in the world] did you get to know me?” And Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree [long] before Philip called you.” No one is completely sure what in the world the fig tree means here! But one good explanation I like is that it refers to 1 Kings – where the magnificence of King Solomon’s empire is lauded: vs. 25 says, “During Solomon's lifetime... Israel lived in safety, from Dan [the farthest northern part of the kingdom] even to Beersheba [the farthest point south], all of them under their vines and fig trees.” This quote is picked up again in both the prophets Micah and Zechariah, where “living under the fig tree” becomes a kind of code word for the future hope of restoration for an Israel trying to find itself again, and go back home. But it was taking that privilege of the good life under the fig tree for granted that was also at the root of Israel’s demise.
So, Jesus is trying to pay him a compliment perhaps. To live under the fig tree would mean to be a part of that promise of restoration about to come. But Nathaniel, like all of us from time to time, confuses the romanticism of that good life with the real thing. He’s kind of diggin’ the privilege of sitting under that bountiful fig tree. And that’s when Jesus gives him his Letter from Birmingham Jail speech. We are not at the mountain top yet, my followers! The real journey is just beginning. And the real wonder of Jesus’ ministry is yet to be revealed, when “heaven will be opened and you will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Nathaniel would like to stay home and have this pretty vision without leaving the fig tree. But Jes us calls him out! There’s a “direct-action campaign” that lies ahead for Jesus’ disciples, and it entails carrying our own crosses, and confessing our own prejudice and privilege. There is no pretty motorcycle to carry you there, but only the epiphany of the beautiful ascending and descending light of Christ which indeed blows our minds, and transforms our lives, like nothing else can. Only together, are we truly enriched and “find” the kingdom of God, which is abundant life and joy and peace. Until we all meet under the fig tree, no one can live under the fig tree! Waiting there is not an option! Jesus too long delayed, like justice, is Jesus denied! Come and see!