Sermon "Under the Fig Tree"
Rev. Lonnie Richardson
Sunday, January 16, 2000
Under the Fig Tree
(How Jesus related to the seeker/follower)
I think that perhaps one of the most attractive features of Jesus was his ability to instantly know at a very deep level the person to whom he was talking. It was especially attractive because he didn't reject anybody, no matter what they were like inside.
I was given a mug for my 40th birthday with the name "Lonnie" written on it. Underneath the name was a poem with all the characteristics of Lonnie. Uncannily, most of the characteristics fitted me quite well. Uncannily that is, until I browsed amongst similar mugs in a shop and read the characteristics of Larry and Tom and Joe and Jack and discovered that they nearly all fitted me to a `t'!
There are some people who seem to be able to look into your very soul, and read your character just as if they're reading a book. I wonder whether all of this is some sixth sense, or whether it's a trick which can be learned, or whether it's something else.
Perhaps it's just an ability to listen well. The first principle of good listening is to reflect back to the other person in different words, what they've just said. In a way, it's like holding up a mirror. But it's often greeted with an astonished, "How did you know?"
The answer is that I didn't know, but have merely repeated in different words what I've just been told. Really good listening, concentrating on and hearing everything somebody says, is still fairly rare. And it's even rarer to discover somebody who can listen so well that he or she can actually hear what isn't said, can hear the background feelings and emotions behind what's said. So that those who experience this sort of deep, concentrated listening for the first time feel that the listener knows everything about them, and can almost see into their soul.
Jesus was undoubtedly an excellent listener. But his powers went beyond simple listening into the realms of really seeing into a person's soul. He always seemed to know exactly what a person needed to hear. It might not always have been what that person wanted to hear, but it was always the truth about them, and a truth which may well have been hidden deep in their own unconscious.
So Jesus saw immediately into the hearts and souls of the Pharisees and called them whitewashed tombs (Matt. 23:27). And when the rich young man asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all that he had and feed the poor (Matt.19:16-22). But when a lawyer asked him the same question about eternal life, Jesus didn't mention money but told him to love God and to love his neighbour (Luke 10:25-28).
Jesus saw into Nathaneal before he'd even met him, and he liked what he saw. "Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit," Jesus said about Nathaneal. And his words were immediately proven true by Nathaneal's response. Nathaneal said, "How do you know what I'm like?" Jesus simply replied, "I saw you under the fig tree." And that was enough for Nathaneal. He immediately accepted Jesus' words at face value and instantly became a follower.
It sounds a very naive reaction and perhaps it was, for those without guile tend to be naive. But it may be that someone in whom there is no guile is able to pick up at a very deep level, the degree of goodness of the person to whom they're speaking. And because they have no guile, people like Nathaneal can respond instantly to that goodness without suspicions and doubts and uncertainties clouding their judgment.
Now, if some stranger said to me the first time we met, "I saw you standing under the old oak tree and therefore I know everything about you," I think my response might have been, "Oh yeah?" I would have been much more suspicious than Nathaneal, and would have wanted to know a great deal more about the stranger before I could be very vulnerable.
Again, I think that perhaps one of the most attractive features of Jesus was his ability to instantly know at a very deep level the person to whom he was talking. It was especially attractive because he didn't reject anybody, no matter what they were like inside. Jesus knew the rich young man was selfish and greedy, and that his money was more important to him than life itself. But Jesus still offered him the route to eternal life anyway. And when the young man rejected it we're told that Jesus was sad, because he loved the young man despite all his imperfections.
And the reason that Jesus was so ruthlessly and painfully honest with people, was that the honesty gave those people an opportunity to see themselves as they really were and to do something about it. Honesty holds up a mirror to the real person. But it's the most difficult thing in the world to receive real honesty from other people, because it means not only hurt pride, but also relinquishing cherished illusions about ourselves. And that's a very painful process.
Jesus hasn't changed. He still has the ability to instantly know us at a very deep level. We may no longer see him face-to-face, but he still sees us under the fig tree and knows all about us. In fact, if God is within us as well as being out there and up there, then God is involved in everything we do, in every thought we think, in every emotion we feel.
We can do nothing apart from God, for God is as much a part of us as breathing. But we can hide from God, by pretending God doesn't exist, or even by using church and ritual and tradition to keep God in a safe box where God can't threaten our cherished illusions.
But if it's eternal life we want, life overflowing with joy and happiness, then we need to allow Jesus to see us under the fig tree and to know all about us. We need to open ourselves to his penetrating gaze, not in fear and trembling that he will discover our worst secrets, but confident that even when he discovers those horrors deep within, he will still love us.
And once we allow him to gaze upon those dark, hidden secrets, they will disappear, because darkness is instantly changed when the light flashes up on it. And secrets are secrets no longer when they're out in the open. And then perhaps, Jesus will say to us too, "Behold, here is an person in whom there is no deceit." Under the fig tree.
Holy God, we feel uncomfortable about you seeing right into our soul, because we suspect there are things there that you'd hate. We're not really aware of them, they're buried so deep, but we're so afraid you'll discover them and be revolted by us. God of love, help us to really believe that you actually love us just as we are, that you're not looking for perfection, and that we're fooling no-one but ourselves . And then Lord, help us to hold your hand and come out into the open, so that you can see us clearly under the fig tree. I ask this through the one who was ruthlessly honest yet full of compassion, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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