Legend has it that Sir Isaac Newton was sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head. This inspired him to formulate the law of gravity, and thus become one of the world’s most famous scientists. So admired was he that the poet Alexander Pope wrote the famous epitaph: “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said ‘Let Newton be’ and all was light.”
Newton, however, was more modest. In a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, he wrote the equally famous line: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
And when people suggested that scientific discoveries could replace any belief in God , he apparently replied: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion.”
Whether hit by an apple or not, Newton told his biographer that he had been sitting under the tree “in contemplative mood” while apples fell around him. In his gospel John tells us Jesus had seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. Had Nathanael been sitting under the fig tree in contemplative mood, before Philip hit him with the amazing news about the Messiah?
We wouldn’t have known anything about the fig tree if Jesus hadn’t mentioned this detail. Two very different suggestions have been made about its significance. The first is that Nathanael was completely at peace with the world, and with his own understanding of God, and probably enjoying a moment of rest and refreshment, away from the demands of life and work. The prophet Micah tells of God promising his people peace and security, illustrated by the words “They shall sit under their own fig trees.” Perhaps Nathanael was happy to sit under his fig tree with the feeling that ‘All’s right with the world.’
If that suggestion was right, when Philip came bustling up with this strange news of Jesus, as the one who had been written about by Moses and the prophets, it must have been an unwelcome intrusion. Nathanael didn't particularly want his comfortable world shaken, and his reluctance becomes scepticism when he hears where Jesus hails from. Not from Jerusalem, home of the Temple and the religious authorities – but from Nazareth, just another north-country backwater like his own home town of Cana or Philip’s fishing village of Bethsaida. He says to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We can almost hear the sarcasm in his tone.
Alternatively the other interpretation is quite the opposite: it suggests that Nathanael, far from being content with the way things were, resented the lack of peace and security under the brutal Roman occupation. Perhaps he was sitting beneath the fig tree, daydreaming about the promised Messiah who would put everything right for Israel. So imagine Nathanael’s excitement at Philip’s news: “We’ve found the Messiah, the one all the prophecies were about, but it’s Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth!”
This time instead of sarcasm, we can almost hear the disappointment in his tone, when he replies; “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Whether sarcasm or disappointment, Nathanael makes no attempt to hide his disbelief. Instead of being cross with him, Jesus praises his honesty, his lack of deceit. Nathanael simply can’t believe, or understand, that the promised Messiah could be an apparently ordinary person, from an apparently ordinary town. And he says so.
It is true, Jesus was an unlikely Messiah, with his background, as a carpenter’s son from a backwater, but that’s the whole point. Nathanael seemed an unlikely disciple, with his prejudice and his preconceptions. The wonderful truth is that God uses unlikely people in the service of the kingdom, now as he ever has, whether it’s a boy Samuel, a shepherd David, a reluctant Moses, a runaway Jonah or us. God knows us, with our weaknesses as well as our strengths, He sees our potential and He calls us, either directly or through friends like Philip who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
In becoming a disciple and following Jesus, Nathanael would learn not to discriminate against the humble and the ordinary. It is the lesson that we need to follow for I am sure we find it difficult sometimes to see Jesus in ‘ordinary’ people, let alone beggars, asylum seekers, drug addicts or the long-term unemployed. It is tempting to want Jesus to conform to our pattern, our expectations, and our sense of what is right and proper. If we are not careful we will find ourselves wanting Jesus to come from Jerusalem, not Nazareth.
But Jesus is not only the Son of God: he’s one of us, the Son of Man. Jesus is God with skin on; He knows how and what we think, and that is why he laid down his life for all of us, ransomed all of us , unworthy as we are, whatever our background.
The bible is full of trees and it is good to sit under a tree. It is important to take time out from a busy life and be alone with God, to remind ourselves who it is who set the planets in motion who cast the stars into space and to enjoy the beauties of His creation. It is when we sit under the tree we get to know the reality of God’s presence and feel the warmth of His love.
There is of course one tree that will change us forever, as we come to worship we gather beneath another tree: the cross of Christ, and this is the tree of life. Philip exhorted Nathaniel to ‘come and see’, and Jesus calls us now: ‘Come and see.’