There’s a fun book originally for children, where they have to find a character among crowded scenes. The ‘Where’s Wally?’ books require you to look out for Wally in his distinctive red striped shirt, blue trousers, glasses and bobble hat. It’s produced a number of spin-offs. This one is ‘Where’s Will’, based on Shakespeare’s plays, and you have to find him. There is even one where you have to find Jesus.
Searching, looking, finding, then what? Nathanael in our gospel reading (John 1:43-end) is on the lookout. He knows his Hebrew Scriptures and the Messiah is not supposed to come from Nazareth. His response about Jesus coming from Nazareth sounds like a bit of inter-town rivalry, can anything good come from Nazareth? And it can be read that way. But more likely is that he is really saying, this man can’t be whom we are looking for because he doesn’t tick this crucial box. So Nathanael is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit, he is faithful and devout. You can’t pull the wool over Nathanael’s eyes.
Jesus’ response that he has seen him under the fig tree seems to be a deal clincher. It’s an odd statement and puzzles most New Testament scholars. We have a fig tree in our garden and it is lush when in full bloom. Every now and then I have to trim it and it brings out a cold sweat in Susan when I emerge with clippers and saw – I get a very stern warning not to get carried away.
Figs make their first appearance in the Bible in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve sow fig leaves together to cover their modesty after they have eaten the mysterious fruit of the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3). Fig leaves are big so cover a larger area, but they are a bit rough so I’m not sure they’d be that comfortable. What Genesis doesn’t say is that the fruit was an apple; that’s a western folk-story adding a layer that is not there.
A friend suggested the other day that the tree in the garden could be taken to be a fig tree and that would explain why it’s named next but the apples are not. So, my friend wondered, is Jesus making a call-back to the Garden of Eden? John’s Gospel makes call-backs to creation, not least in the prologue with opening words mirroring how Genesis begins, ‘in the beginning’. ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1); ‘In the beginning when God created’ (Genesis 1).
So Jesus is taking Nathanael back to creation and the implication is he has seen him in his first, original state, known him before he was formed, like in our Psalm. Nathanael has been searched out and known, his thoughts discerned from afar (Psalm 139:1). It’s an interesting thought.
Nathanael with his tick list sees what he expects to see and needs to have his eyes opened wider. He needs to see new possibilities that surprise him and as he does he becomes a follower of Jesus. Our last hymn this morning, ‘Will you come and follow me’, includes that wonderful line about ‘going where you don’t know and never being the same’. Being open to new possibilities and the surprise of God’s grace appearing where we don’t expect it does take us into places we don’t know and changes us.
It is easy to stay in our comfort zone, but the Holy Spirit disturbs us, calls us on and today’s Gospel is about being called to follow God in Jesus Christ, which is the primary calling that we all have. For many it also leads to exploring other callings, in ways to live this out in specific ministries – lay ones and ordained ones. All of these are living expressions of Jesus’ call to follow him, to come and see.
Nathanael is taken back to the story of Jacob, where he sat down and was given a vision of heaven opening with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28:10-end). He too will see a vision of heaven opened and visions bring an encounter with the holy. That leads in so many surprising directions.
Today we are being encouraged to keep as ‘Well-being Sunday’. I wrote in the newsletter this week about the Samaritans’ campaign calling tomorrow ‘Brew Monday’ as a twist on ‘Blue Monday’; an encouragement to be kind to one another and ourselves. One of the ways we help our mental health is through seeing that there is a purpose and a deeper meaning to life, not least our life. We are searched and known, loved and held.
Even in a crowd, which is something we are to avoid at the moment and there have been some ‘Where’s Wally’ jokes on that, even then with 6 billion people on the planet, we are not just faceless, one among so many others, but a unique child of God. Just like Wally stands out, so do we. We are all called by name, known, searched and given an encounter that changes us.
Sermon for Epiphany 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th January 2021