Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 18, 2015
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!
Nathanael was a follower of John the Baptist. So was Andrew and Philip. So Philip came to his friend Nathanael all excited. “We’ve found him! We’ve found him! The One!” And Nathanael’s response was… and that would be who? And when he heard that it was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael says to Philip, “Now think about this. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a no-place, a bit like Murphy, Idaho, the county seat of a desert county near where I grew up. The main notable feature about Murphy was that it had one single parking meter.
Nothing in scripture or tradition spoke of Nazareth, there were no prophecies about the town, no prominent families or powerful associations. Nobody expected the Messiah or anything else good to come from Nazareth. Nathanael wasn’t so much swayed by the enthusiasm of friends, and he didn’t go along with what Philip said just to be polite. As a follower of John the Baptist, he took this Messiah stuff pretty seriously, and there is no reason to take the word of someone who has gotten all emotional, even if he is a friend.
Philip says, “Come and see.”
One of the most puzzling exchanges in scripture is what happens next. I think there are pieces left out that would have made more sense to people who knew more about the followers of John the Baptist than we know today. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and he says—“There’s an Israelite in truth, but without deceit.” The first person who had the name Israel was the Patriarch Jacob, who was well known for deceiving everybody—he tricked his brother, his father, his father-in-law… Yet Jacob also wrestled with the angel of God and received the vision of the ladder to heaven, access to the way and presence of God. So Nathan is Israel without the tricks.
When Jesus says this, Nathanael perceives that he somehow knows him—“Teacher, where did you get to know me?” The answer to Nathanael’s question is cryptic: “I saw you under the fig tree.”
Fine. He saw him under the fig tree. To our modern ears that sounds pretty, pastoral, and figs taste good. But it meant something different to those in the time of John the Baptist.
Commentators have a lot of theories, and most of them admit they are all speculation. Here’s something that people back then who knew a bit about John the Baptist and his followers and who knew their scripture would know: The prophet Zechariah (who just happened to have the same name as John the Baptist’s father) had prophesied about six centuries before, as the people of Judah returned from the exile in Babylon. He was encouraging the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. He spoke of a messianic figure, called the Branch. And at one point he writes this: “I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of Hosts, and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.” So Jesus’ reply to Nathanael is “I saw you under the fig tree.” I think that Nathanael heard in that statement the fulfillment of that prophecy, “I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day.” In that mercy of God, things are so transformed that Jacob will not need his tricks, or guile or deceit.
We live in God’s kingdom, and that is not a kingdom of wishful thinking or pretending that things are how somebody thought they should be. Here at this time, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus finds this person, who is seeking the truth, without varnish or tricks. “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel!” But even so, Jesus doesn’t just slap him on the back and welcome him to the bandwagon. These titles: Son of God and King of Israel, are titles of the messiah, but they are titles of the messiah as Nathanael expected—the purification of Israel and Jerusalem, freeing that land of its guilt. But Jesus says to him, “It’s not just under your fig tree, there is much more.” Jesus loved Nathanael. He did not say he was wrong—but he challenged him to see much more.
This weekend we remember a man who responded to Jesus’ challenge. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke directly, without guile or deceit about his experience and that of his people. And he allowed God to shape that experience into a vision of hope and peace that others could not perceive or expect.
Jesus has much more for us. More than Nathanael saw, and more than any of us expect—and probably much different than we expect as well.
“Amen. Amen, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The ladder that gives us access to heaven is the life of Jesus himself.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant the your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.