2nd Sunday of Epiphany
Looking through a ‘green lens’, and with a reflection on trees in the Bible *
God gives good gifts. Many of you will have given and received good gifts this Christmas from family and friends; this year the gift of good health was probably uppermost and as we move on into the new year, the gift of the promise of a vaccine is also uppermost in our minds.
God gives good gifts. Thousands of years ago, God gave the gift of land to the Jewish people, the Promised Land of Israel.
It was not just any old piece of land… God says in Deuteronomy 8,
“The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land… a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey”. God gave then five fruits and two grains. There is so much richness in what God created and placed in this land for his people – not just in taste and nutrition, but in their meaning too. And the fig is a fruit that crops up again and again in the scriptures, from Genesis to Revelations, and often symbolises the health of the nation, both spiritually and physically. In many ways, trees are like Jesus. They give, and they keep giving. They give life and beauty. They give shade and rest. They clean the air. They hold back erosion. They offer shelter, food, and protection.
Hosea 9:10 says “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.” Later, the Bible tells us of the glorious time when “Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.” (1 Kings 4:25). Later still, following the minor prophets we can see warnings to the nation of how God would bring destruction and failure of crops as part of his judgement against them, specifying empty fig trees that were stripped bare and fruitless. (Joel, Habakkuk and Haggai).
In the New Testament we can also see the symbolic fig tree – firstly in the calling of Nathanael who was “sitting under a fig tree” like a “true Israelite” in John 1:48-50. Later he curses the fruitless fig tree, representing unfruitfulness (Mark 11:12-21), and then uses the fig as a metaphor of how we should recognise the signs of the times (Matthew 24:32). This end-times warning system with the fig analogy is picked up again in Revelation 6:13, where ‘the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale’. It’s almost as if the fig was something of a barometer of the health of the nation – taken away as punishment, and flourishing in times of restoration.
Sitting under a tree to think and reflect has links more widely too. The Buddha, Siddartha Goutama, sat under a magnificent peepul , a Bo, Ficus religiosa; whose blossom turns to figs. But that story of his enlightenment, his recognition of the intrinsic value of the earth for all our physical needs, is for another time. In this story, it is the fig tree which becomes a meeting place for Jesus and his disciples, as they join with the newest recruit Nathaniel. Jesus had a special gift of picking people just right for his purpose, to spread the good news of God’s kingdom through their actions and deeds, through their lives and stories, and this is a story which tells of the salvation of the whole of creation. Somehow, people with the same purpose do recognise each other. We all do, we recognise like-minded people. It might be the way they dress, the way they talk, what they write, or the things they do. Some people simply become ‘ one of us’.
In the biblical story of Jesus, this was a special time. Jesus has been recognised by John the Baptist as he walked by the river Jordan, and was baptised by him. Jesus was recognised at a wedding feast as the one who turned water into wine in a time of want and need. He was recognised as the Son of God, even as he himself recognised Peter, the first disciple, as the rock upon which he would build his church, that special place of meeting for the children of God. Nathaniel recognised him as the Son of God, the King of Israel. Jesus said earlier that he came, from God, for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Many of the ‘ house of Israel’, especially its men of law the Pharisees, and the Sadducees the men of the upper classes of Jewish society, rejected Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God, the Messiah prophesied in the Scriptures. Jesus knew however that Nathaniel was a ‘ true Israelite’, who understood that this prophecy was now coming true.* Nathaniel in his turn recognised Jesus as the Son of God, the King of Israel -the promised Messiah who will bring in a new kingdom of God’s reign, renewing worn out structures and moribund doctrines. Jesus had seen into the very depths of Nathaniel’s heart. Nathaniel said, here is a man who understands my dreams, who knows my prayers. This must be the one whom God has promised to send. Jesus confirmed all this with the vision from Jacob’s ladder, stretching from earth to heaven, and Nathaniel knew that here was someone who could draw him closer to God. He can still draw us too, if we trust and dwell in him.
If you want to see how trees today in our environmental crises can clean the air, cool the temperature, quieten the noise and lighten your mood, go to the website of The Northern Forest. More trees mean better health. Our land and our trees are a gift from God; let’s ensure we are grateful for these gifts, let’s continue to meet in the shade and shelter of their leaves and branches. Trees have an incredibly important role to play. From the tallest tree to the smallest organism, biodiversity encompasses the variety of plant and animal life on our planet. If we lose biodiversity, we lose food, water and fresh air. We need to conserve and enhance our natural environment, so it can deliver the essential ‘life support’ systems that we need in the ‘new creation’, both now and into the future.