Some time towards the end of the nineteenth century, a man named Huxley who was intelligent, quick of mind, and never lost an argument, attended a house party at a grand, country estate on a Saturday night. When Sunday morning rolled around, many of the guests who stayed the night prepared to go to church.
As one who was naturally skeptical, Huxley did not propose to go. In fact, he was somewhat irate at his fellow party-goers at their sudden righteous intent. Given what all had happened the night before, Huxley could not believe they still wanted to go to church.
“Suppose you don’t go to church today,” he challenged his friend who he knew to have a simple yet radiant Christian faith. “Suppose you stay at here with me and tell me what your Christian faith means to you this morning, and why you are a Christian.”
“But,” said the man, “you could demolish my arguments in an instant. I’m not clever enough to argue with you.”
“I don’t want to argue with you,” Huxley said, gently. “I just want you to tell me simply what this Christ means to you.” So, his friend stayed with Huxley at home Sunday morning and told him most simply of his faith. When he had finished there were tears in Huxley’s eyes. “If only I could believe that,” he said. (adapted from William Barclay, “The Gospel of John” Volume 1 – The Daily Study Bible Series – Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975, p.92)
Huxley’s response speaks to an aspect of our faith that sometimes gets crowded out because of our compulsion to be rational, persuasive and argumentative. And yet, this more heart-felt dimension is what, I believe, ultimately defines, motivates and describes our faith at its core. Because it’s more about a personal experience of Jesus rather than clever argument, persuasive logic and rational explanation.
Prior to Nathanael’s life-changing encounter with Jesus — as described in the Gospel for today (John 1:32-51), Nathanael was skeptical about his friend Philip’s proposition that they had found the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v.46) — Jesus’ hometown. A Roman garrison was stationed there, so people living in this small, insignificant hovel of a town were associated with the hated Roman occupation of Palestine. The notion that the one who would save them from the Romans would come from Nazareth — which, moreover, was nowhere mentioned in any biblical prophecy — was unbelievable, un-credible.
Then, when Nathanael goes with Philip to see Jesus, and Jesus says that in Nathanael there is no deceit nor guile (v.47), Nathanael questions Jesus’ integrity: “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael was skeptical that anyone could give a verdict like that on so short an acquaintance. I think we can relate: How can you say anything about me when you even don’t know me! Who do you think you are?!
In short, this encounter with Jesus starts off on rocky ground. It doesn’t look good from the standpoint of trying to start a good relationship with someone. How often do we know of friends or family — even ourselves — who have given up on faith, the church, God, all because we felt put off, even offended, initially by something that is said or done. Or, how often have we given up on a spiritual practice after just trying it once? I think we can sympathize with Nathanael’s initial objections.
But then, something changes. How does he move from cynicism to belief, from questioning and doubt, to praise and confession? What happens?
It’s the fig tree. The turning point happens when Jesus speaks to Nathanael’s heart, not so much his mind: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (v.48), says Jesus. These simple words turned Nathanael’s heart from suspicious questioning to confessing Jesus as the Son of God.
The fig tree in the bible stood for peace (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4). In ancient Israel, this was a place on one’s property where one could go to be undisturbed, to find quiet. Because the fig tree was leafy and shady, it was the custom in the arid, Mediterranean heat of the day to sit and meditate under the roof of its branches. Perhaps this is what Nathanael had been doing on a regular basis — sitting under his fig tree, praying for the day when God’s Chosen One should come, and meditating on the promises of God.
When Jesus speaks those words, “I saw you under the fig tree…” Nathanael must have felt that Jesus had seen into the very depths of his heart, and read the thoughts of his inmost being. Nathanael must have said to himself, “Here is the man who understands my dreams! Here is the man who knows my prayers! Here is the man who has seen into my most intimate and secret longings, longings which I have never even dared put into words! Here is the man who can translate the inarticulate sigh of my soul!” (ibid., p.93)
It’s the fig tree. What can we say about finding our own fig tree? What are the qualities that describe this place where we meet with God? And where God convicts our hearts?
First, you will notice, Nathanael’s fig tree is not “Sunday morning”, so to speak, where the formal liturgies are practised. It is not to say temple worship was unimportant, even vital, as a place of communal gathering where faith was nurtured, sustained and grown.
But what we are talking about here is where personal, daily faith is nurtured, sustained and grown. Jesus said, “Pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). We are not talking here about going to church every Sunday. We are talking about our intentional, discipline of prayer and meditation from Monday through Saturday. This Gospel suggests that a daily practice is critical in preparing the heart to recognize God’s love for you.
Preparation and practice is important in our faith. Philip and Nathanael had studied the scriptures and anticipated in their regular prayer the coming of God’s Chosen One. They were, in a sense, ready to receive Jesus. Those of us brave souls who went to a Yoga for Christians class the other night must have walked away with the strong impression, as I did, that regular practice is so important. Because those of us who don’t, still feel it today!
As with any exercise, spiritual or otherwise, you can’t simply snap your fingers to be an expert. With Christian meditation, for example, you can’t just go once and decide whether it’s for you or not; it’s about a long-term vision of practice and intention and discipline. It’s like tending a garden.
Where is the place you go daily to be under your fig tree? Is it a special chair in your living room? Is it a spot on your front or back deck? Is it in the forest on your back-50? Is it a rock on the river-side? Is it connecting with the expansive outdoors? Is it doing a certain physical exercise? Is it some object that you hold or look at to remind you of something or someone precious? Where is your fig tree?
And if you will look for one — It is a place where hopes and dreams are nurtured in your heart. It is a place where the good promises of God are given shape and sustenance. It is a place where faith then begins to affect your decisions in daily life, with joyful anticipation of God’s presence everywhere.
Canadian radio broadcaster Stuart McLean wonderfully tells the story of the “Lottery Ticket” (a necessarily paraphrased and adapted version follows here). Tommy gets a phone call telling him that his grandfather, Lewis, suddenly died. Shortly after the news of the death circulates among the family, the question of his un-scratched lottery ticket comes up. For over ten-years — longer than that, in some people’s minds — Grandpa Lewis kept his faded, un-dated lottery ticket in a box on the mantle, un-scratched. The prize, one million dollars.
“It’s a winner, it’s a winner!” he had often and regularly announced with deep conviction and belief. “It’d be more than that if you’d just scratch it!” rebutted his brother Lawrence. “Just think of the interest it would have made in all this time!”
“Or, I would have none!” argued Grandpa Lewis. “Know what happened to that lottery winner in Toronto, or that family from New Brunswick who won it big? Besides, I don’t need the money. It’s not about the money!
“But, tell me, what would you do with a million dollars?” he would always ask anyone who mentioned his un-scratched lottery ticket. “What is your heart’s desire?” Then he would listen very carefully, and ask, always: “Is that really what you would do?”
When the family gathered to plan the funeral, they argued about what to do with the lottery ticket since it wasn’t mentioned in the will. There were seven in the family, divided between the ‘scratchers’ and the ‘non-scratchers’, the believers and those who didn’t believe. Tommy counted himself as one who wanted to leave the ticket alone. But the ‘scratchers’ had the edge. “Just be done with it. Then we would know one way or another.”
They decided that after the funeral service, they would gather around the mantle upon which sat the box containing the lottery ticket. Silence shrouded the meeting. What would they do if in fact it was a winning ticket? What would they say, if it wasn’t?
When uncle Tony was delegated to open the box, he lifted it off the mantle, opened it, then slowly looked at everyone in the room. When he tipped open the box for all to see, they were surprised to find Grandpa’s Lewis’ lottery ticket missing. And in its place, seven newly purchased lottery tickets.
A week later, Tommy and his girl-friend, Stephanie, sat around their kitchen table. Stephanie asked, “I wonder what happened to the lottery ticket?”. Tommy confessed, “I buried it with Grandpa Lewis. I put it in his pocket before we closed the casket.”
“Why would you do that?” Stephanie asked, reflectively.
“That’s where it belonged. I wanted to trust him. Because I realized that throughout his life, Grandpa needed hope more than he needed money. To him, dreams were more important than a pile of money. Whenever he took out that lottery ticket and waved it in our faces, he could hang on to hope. And challenge us to think very deeply about our true heart’s desire.”
Both were surprised to learn, later, that everyone still had their lottery ticket, unscratched.