Jan 27, 2009
Psalm 139: 1-18 & John 1:43-49
Rev. George N. Miller
(My entire sermon is influenced by the message Rev. Alex Molozaiy preached at Eden Theological Seminary in January 2003. To this day it is one of the greatest, most touching and influential sermons I’ve ever heard. His take on John1: 43-49 has forever left a mark on me. Thank you Alex)
Once there was a pastor who was asked to come and pray with a parishioner’s mother. The elderly woman was lying in bed with her head propped up. An empty chair sat beside her.
“I see you were expecting me,” the pastor said.
“No,” responded the woman in a frail voice. “Who are you?”
The pastor introduced himself and said “I saw the empty chair and figured you knew I was coming.”
“Oh yes, the chair,” said the old woman, with a smile. “Would you mind closing the door?”
She began her story. “I’ve never told anyone this, not even my son. But all my life I never knew how to pray. I’ve heard pastors talk about it, but it went right over my head.”
She coughed and continued. “Then one day a friend said to me:
‘Prayer is simply a matter of having a talk with Jesus. Just place a chair in front of you, and imagine Jesus sitting in the chair. Then speak to him in the same way we are doing right now.’
“So,” said the old woman, “I tried it, and liked it so much that I do it every the day. I’m careful though: don’t want my son to see me and think I’m crazy.”
The pastor was deeply moved by the story and encouraged the old lady to continue doing just what she had been doing. He prayed with her and returned to church.
Two days later the son called to say his mother had died. “Did she die in peace?” the pastor asked.
“Yes,” said the son, “When I left the house for the store Mom told me she loved me and kissed me on the cheeks. When I got back, she was gone.”
“But there was something strange about her death: I found her leaning over with her head resting on the chair beside the bed. What do you make of that?”
The pastor, wiping a tear from his eye said “I wish we could all go like that.”
...This is a story about prayer; this is also a story about presence.
Presence is a vital part of ministry. Presence is the ability to truly be there for another person.
Being present says “I love you”; being present says “You matter and are a person of worth.”
Unfortunately, there are far too may people in our world who feel horribly alone.
What we’ve heard today are two Scriptures which challenge the notion that anyone is ever truly alone.
Psalm 139 is called a song of “most personal expression.” It portrays human experience in all its dimensions, stating that no matter what or where, God is present in our lives, and knows us.
The Psalmist asks God “Where can I go from your spirit?...If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even then your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
This is a song about knowledge, that the God who made us wonderfully, who knew us even when we were yet unformed, continues to know us at all times, in all places, no matter where we are.
This is a song of comfort, stating that no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, God is right beside you, so just pull up a chair and begin a conversation!
For further clarity, we also have the story of Jesus and Nathanael in the Gospel of John.
Philip is out and about on the town when he runs into Jesus and realizes he’s the one the prophets had talked about. Full of excitement he goes to find Nathanael.
But where is Nathanael?
Is he hanging with the guys? Is he smooching with a squeeze?
No. Nathanael is a under a fig tree.
When hearing the news about finding the One, Nathanael is non-plussed, basically stating: “Can anything good come out of such a hick town?”
When Nathanael sees Jesus and is greeted with a compliment, the only thing he can say is “You don’t know me.”
To which Jesus responds with a poetic line of knowledge and presence, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
...“I saw you under the fig tree...”
Let’s meditate on that thought for a moment.
When Philip met Jesus he was out with his friends. But Nathanael was under a fig tree, presumably alone.
What’s up with Nathanael? Why wasn’t he out with friends? Or with family? Or working? Or with a significant other?
Perhaps Nathanael was a busy man taking a much needed break, but I don’t sense that. His words have an air of cynicism that seems to reflect someone who is feeling lonely and disappointed.
His words strike me as someone guarded and wounded who thinks it easier to be in his own company then to be in the company of others.
Or perhaps, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, he was someone who was never invited to play in other peoples’ games.
“How did you get to know me?” he asks Jesus.
Jesus states (in what I’d like to imagine a loving voice) “I saw you under the fig tree.”
Think about that statement, think about that image.
It sounds like one of profound sadness and loneliness, where one feels left out or forgotten.
Have you ever had a fig tree moment? A time in your life when you felt abandoned or forsaken?
I certainly have. Mine was June of 1982.
I was graduating from 6th grade. People were having and going to parties. I had only been invited to one.
One day I was playing ball with Scott and Matt. After a while, Scott abruptly said, “Well, I gotta go: I’m having a party this afternoon, and it’s going to be a great one. We’re having ice cream and watermelon and everyone’s coming.”
That was the first time I had heard of the party. Matt was invited. So was our neighbor Dawn. But I wasn’t.
That afternoon I spent alone, while everyone else was in Scott’s backyard, having a great time.
And as if that wasn’t enough, I added insult to the injury by walking past his house. I could smell BBQ, the pool was full of kids, jumping in and climbing out, laughing.
I was alone, under my own fig tree, standing on the street.
That moment will always stay with me, and has shaped me in more ways then I can imagine.
Because of that moment I get a thrill when invited somewhere because it means I’m worthy enough to be invited. And I feel hurt when someone has a party and I didn’t make the list.
When was your fig tree moment?
When did you feel all alone in the world? When did you feel that no one cared if you were alive? Was there a time in which you felt like you’d be better off dead?
We all have. Those feelings are natural, and they are real. The Bible is full of stories of people who have their own fig tree moment.
Hagar runs away into the wilderness. Jacob has only a rock to rest his head. Gideon is left by himself to clean out a wine press. Mary Magdalene comes to the garden alone.
But they were not alone, where they?
Hagar is met by God who promises to care for her and her offspring. Jacob has a dream of angels and God pledges to be with him wherever he goes. The Lord calls Gideon to be a mighty warrior. Mary hears the voice of Christ.
Nathanael sits under the fig tree wondering what for. And Nathanael meets the Messiah, who lets him know just who he is.
And not longer after, the disciples are at a wedding in Cana in which Jesus performs his first miracle.
Nathanael goes from being all alone under a fig tree to witnessing first hand the abundance of God’s heavenly kingdom!
In these two scriptures we discover that no matter what, no matter who, no matter where, God is present with us.
God speaks to us saying, “People will disappoint you, economics will go belly up, and at times you’ll have to fight to stay alive. But you are not alone. I am with you.”
“I know your hurts, I know you pains. I have seen every single fig tree you have ever had to sit under, and I was with you.”
“I saw you the day you went to the doctor and the prognosis was not good.”
“I saw you the day you became widowed, divorced or single and you felt like your complete identity had changed..”
“I saw you all those days when you could not get out of bed because the pain was so great.”
“BUT, I saw you on the day you were born, and when it is your time to die, I will be there to greet you into my kingdom, into my heavenly home.”
All those moments of sitting under the fig tree, feeling alone, wondering “what for” and “how so”?
God was there, present, even when you did not realize it. And God has been working on ways to get you up and out from under that tree.
In conclusion, there will be times in our lives in which we will be, and we will feel alone.
Psalm 139 serves to remind us that there ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no river wide enough, ain’t no valley low enough to keep us away from God.
We can also recall Jesus’ words to Nathanael and know that when we have a fig tree moment, Jesus is right there, seeing us through, knowing us so well.
In Jesus, we are completely known.
Jesus invites everyone to the party.
And through Jesus we get to rejoin the human world, taking part in fellowship, sharing both the good times and the bad with those around him.
All thanks and praise be to God who has searched us and known us, to the Spirit that will never leave us and for Jesus who lights our way and knows us by name.