A long time ago, an ancient rabbi asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended, and the dawn was breaking.
“could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
“Could it be” asked another, “when you look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”
“No,” said the Rabbi.
“well, then, what is it?” his young pupils demanded.
“The coming of day is when you look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or brother. Because for as long as you cannot do this, no matter what time of day it is, it is always night.”
Today we learn that the task of the spiritual disciple is two-fold. The first task is to discern the face, or hear the voice, of God in the midst of surrounding darkness. The second, is, through the presence of God in the darkness, we come to recognize in the stranger one’s own brother or sister. In our Old Testament lesson, we saw how God calls the boy Samuel, in the middle of the night four times, and how he comes to recognize the voice of the Lord with the help of Eli the Priest. In the gospels, the disciple Nathaniel came to recognize Jesus through the darkness of ignorance around him, through the fog of misconceptions, that keep him from recognizing Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.
Now Jesus saw Nathaniel from a distance, under a fig tree. Nathaniel will forever be famous for his incredulous remark, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth, a despised, unremarkable town in Galilee-a province of a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles. How could the messiah, the divine teacher, be found there? Nathaniel thought like a traditional Jew of his time. His thinking was shrouded in a spiritual darkness that only Jesus could overturn. Jesus does this. Jesus responds generously to Nathaniel in dialogue. Nathaniel, in conversation with Jesus, comes to understand Jesus as Rabbi, the Son of God, and the King of Israel. Nathaniel began to know the messiah from under the fig tree.
The fig tree was one of the first plants to be named in the Bible – remember the story in Genesis, how the leaves of the fig tree covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve? The fig tree was useful in other ways and sacred in many religions. The Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha found enlightenment, was a very old fig tree. Moslems call the fig tree the “tree of Heaven” because the prophet Mohammed solemnly swore by it, saying by fig and the olive, it says in the Koran. The fig tree was even sacred to the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians.
If we were to look at figs the way the ancients did, we would observe an inwardly blossoming flower. The blossoming of figs conveyed the human going through internal ‘blossoming’ during a time of self-reflection. Prophets throughout time have noticed this unique trait about figs, and often used its traits as an analogy to teach the importance about contemplation, meditation, self-reflection and inner growth.
For the Jewish people therefore, the fig tree was a common place of study and prayer. Under the shade of the fig tree, one could pray, contemplate and seek God. No doubt Nathaniel, under the fig tree, recalled how in Jewish tradition the fig tree was a comprehensive symbol of security, God’s power and blessing, economic prosperity, political stability and peace.
Under the fig tree, no doubt Nathaniel recalled how the reign of King Solomon was described (1 Kings 4:25) “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree.”
Under the fig tree Nathaniel recalled the promise of healing and hope from Zechariah “I will remove the sin of this land in a single say. In that day each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree, declares the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 3:10).
Nathaniel, reflecting under that fig tree, remembered the prophet Micah, who reassured the people”….they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.”(Micah 4:4).
So, Nathaniel sat under a fig tree. Seeking what we all seek. Respite from the trials of life. Peace in our frazzled, confused days. Protection from that which threatens us. A sense of prosperity—that somehow, our life has meaning, a sense of spiritual abundance, stability. We seek energy to continue our journey, because we know at times it is long and arduous. We long for that Holy Spirit – to hear our name called, to encounter that or the One who opens our eyes... who pulls us up and out of our pettiness, up out of our judgmental nature. Somehow who guides us to see a brother or sister in the eyes of a stranger or even an enemy, so we can dispel the night that clings to us so tenaciously.
Under the fig tree we pray. That God will call us by name and change us into something better, something more decent and caring.
Tomorrow, as a nation, we honor the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one the greatest prophets God raised up in the 20th century – and who was murdered 50 years ago this April. While many remember him as a leader and catalyst of the civil rights movement in the United states, his work was broader. He grounded all he did in his faith in God. He fought for economic justice, working on behalf of the poor. He died fighting on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, as part of the Poor People’s Campaign – a movement that has been rekindled in our country last month by our nation’s religious leaders. Furthermore, Dr. King called for peace and an end to the Vietnam War.
How did he do it all? He did it all because Dr. King had his fig tree to turn to. He referred to the fig tree in his speeches, like the one he gave at Oslo in 1964 where he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Rev. King reclaimed the potent image of the fig tree and all it stands for in scripture: He said:
“….I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one-day …the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’ I still believe that we shall overcome.” [Where do we go from here? Peace prize acceptance speech in 1964]
Dr. King claimed the image of the fig tree, that image of a place of prayer, enlightenment, safety and abundance as a place for all peoples.
Dr. King had many fig tree moments to get him through. For example, in January 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King received a threatening phone call late at night. He couldn’t sleep. He went to his kitchen and took his problem to God. He sat under his fig tree. He was at a breaking point of exhaustion and about to give up. He spoke to God. At some moment, he experienced the Divine and “could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” His fears and uncertainty ceased because God spoke and gave him “inner calm.” God called him by name in the middle of the night. God found him at the fig tree and gave him strength and knowledge to respond to the injustice that threatened him, his family, his community.
Today we come as disciples, seeking to find dawn in the presence of darkness. We listen in the night like Samuel, for God’s summons. We sit, today, like Nathaniel, under the fig tree to pray, to find Jesus in the most unexpected of places – the Nazareths in our hearts. That place in ourselves we least expect to find God. The places least distinguished, where we are most judgmental – Glory to God, Jesus find us there.
There, under the fig tree, with those moments of desperate prayer, uncertainty, of endless reflection, There, we find ourselves called by God, and we learn to proclaim Jesus as “Divine Rabbi, Son of God! the King of Israel!”
We rest assured that all prophets, all people of faith, have faced the darkness. We acknowledge, as the ancient rabbi reminds us, that we are surrounded by darkness in the middle of the day, a darkness cast by the shadows of the ignorance of our mind.
It is then, that like Dr. King, we turn to the fig tree. To pray. To face the confusion. The sorrow. The Fear. There, under the fig tree, we pour out our hearts. We hear the voice of Jesus, who tells us, like he once old Dr. King, to stand up for righteousness and truth, with the knowledge That that God is forever at our side. And when in our neighbor, in the stranger, in the estranged, in all we mistakenly called different-- we see as our brothers and sisters, we will discover, light, light that darkness can never overtake, has finally come. Thanks be to God.