Sermon preached by Katharine Salmon
Isaiah 55 1-9
Luke 13 1-9
1 Corinthians 10 1-13
Today’s Gospel reading provides one of the great challenges in Lent- change your hearts and change your thinking. The reason I wanted to include the Isaiah reading is partly because it softens the harshness of today’s Gospel, yet also because I think we can only go with the challenges of the Gospel and the Corinthians reading if we have the security of the knowledge of our salvation that is promised in Isaiah. I often think that Isaiah was such an amazing prophet (or prophets because we think there may have been two or even possibly three of them!) because the writing in Isaiah has such a positive and certain take on the assurance of our salvation- that free gift of God that is for us because of God’s love. We are in a position to hear that in Lent as we journey along with Jesus on a path that is to say the least rocky, and where we are journeying into the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that today’s Gospel takes place- and I expect many of us feel a certain sympathy with the fig tree- why is it cursed? Surely a poor tree cannot be to blame for its refusal to bear fruit?
As usual in the Gospel of Luke there is rich symbolism, and this is very important for our understanding of this passage.
Jesus told the Parable of the Fig Tree—Luke 13:6-9—immediately after reminding His listeners of a tower over the pool of Siloam (John 9:7) which unexpectedly fell and killed eighteen people. The moral of that story is found in Luke 13:3: “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” To reiterate this moral, Jesus tells the story of the fig tree, the vineyard owner, and the gardener who took care of the vineyard. The three entities in the story all have clear symbolic significance. The vineyard owner represents God, the one who rightly expects to see fruit on His tree and who justly decides to destroy it when He finds none. The gardener, or vineyard keeper who cares for the trees, watering and fertilizing them to bring them to their peak of fruitfulness, represents Jesus, who feeds His people and gives them living water. The tree itself has two symbolic meanings: the nation of Israel and the individual. As the story unfolds, we see the vineyard owner expressing his disappointment at the fruitless tree. He has looked for fruit for three years from this tree, but has found none. The three-year period is significant because for three years John the Baptist and Jesus had been preaching the message of repentance throughout Israel. But the fruits of repentance were not forthcoming. John the Baptist warned the people about the Messiah coming and told them to bring forth fruits fit for repentance because the axe was already laid at the root of the tree (Luke 3:8-9). But the Jews were offended by the idea they needed to repent, and they rejected their Messiah because He demanded repentance from them. After all, they had the revelation of God, the prophets, the Scriptures, the covenants, and the adoption (Romans 9:4-5). They had it all, but many did not want to see in Jesus the new covenant, the new revelation of the kingdom of God. They had departed from the true faith and the true and living God and created a system of works-righteousness that was something that got God really man- a return to the salvation by works, not by grace. He, as the vineyard owner, was perfectly justified in tearing down the tree that had no fruit. The Lord’s axe was already poised over the root of the tree, and it was ready to fall. However, we see the gardener pleading here for a little more time. There were a few months before the crucifixion, and more miracles to come, especially the incredible miracle of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, which would astound many and perhaps cause the Jews to repent. As it turned out, Israel as a nation still did not believe in Jesus but individuals certainly did (John 12:10-11). The compassionate gardener intercedes for more time to water and fertilize the fruitless tree, and the gracious Lord of the vineyard responds in patience.
Although this is the image that most of the commentators share, there is something for me that is uncomfortable in Jesus pleading with a righteous angry Old Testament God, because that is not how many of us see God or want to. Yes because of the culture from which these images come, it may have been very helpful for the early Christians to be able to lay aside the image of a harsh, vindictive angry God and find their faith renewed in the person of Christ who gives many chances and who is not vindictive. The lesson for the individual here may be in a reminder that time is not permanent. God’s patience and mercies have no limit, but human life sadly does. In the parable, the vineyard owner grants another year of life to the tree. In the same way, God in mercy grants us another day, another hour, another breath. We can begin again, anew, each day, each hour if we need to, and we can also always ask God each time we pray or receive communion or are particularly aware of the presence of God, for God to wipe the slate clean and hear our cry of repentance.
Christ stands at the door of each person’s heart knocking and seeking to gain entrance and requiring repentance from sin, not because he is harsh and vindictive but because he knows how much sin hurts and damages us. His steadfast love and patience are endless. We are reminded to “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:6)
Yet I think the fig tree’s message to us is also about not hiding our light away- not putting it where it cannot flourish, I think it is Christ saying how mad and fed up he gets seeing Christians who do not reach their potential because they do not believe in themselves or have the faith that God will see them through.
I think part of the taking stock in Lent is to think where we are at- we might feel strong and confident in some areas of our lives, yet in others there may be places where we feel like the fig tree- all shrivelled up and not bearing much, or any fruit- sometimes it is so hard for us to see what God has in store for us- we may be plagued with feelings of self-doubt- we may be frustrated by the ways in which people in particular areas of our lives see our gifts as second-rate, or do not acknowledge them. Those of us in groups which have at times felt marginalised by church and other institutions may be particularly well placed to identify with the fig tree- we may have tried to use our gifts, and been frustrated. At times I remind myself that Jesus had to wait a long time and have a lot of patience before he saw the fruits of his ministry. Sr Joan Chittister, a gifted writer in the States, talks in one of her books about how just at the point when she was about to do a degree in writing, she was sent back to the convent as a teacher, with a heavy heart, as that was not at all what she felt called to do. Yet as she accepted this and did the best she could with her frustrations, she laid the groundwork for the wonderful writing and preaching that blesses so many people through her books and online.
It can feel that we are pushed so much by life or circumstances that we just want to throw in the towel about something- yet that is often the very point we can lay it all down to God and say here I am, I can’t do it in my own strength. We may think we can, and I think the fig tree is representative of this, yet what we need to do in order to bloom is to have our roots deeply rooted in the love of God and in God’s strength. Part of that will hopefully be how we remain rooted in our community here, and how we go forward together, yet there are also times in the wilderness when we have to totally rely on God and not worry how we move on, but just that we will.
We may well have times when it feels like all we can do is tread water yet even in that time we can be watching, waiting, hoping for the next time, for us to be able to bear that fruit. Sometimes when we feel at our most barren, we can actually be at our most fruitful. I was reflecting on this in my own life as the last few months have felt like a major roller coaster- to the extent that my GP said I reminded him of the woman who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survived. That was a helpful metaphor for me as I had been to Niagara and had been on a little boat by the falls- we were tossed about, but we never went under. A few days later I was on another boat, preparing for the ordination of 9 RC women priests at Gananoque in Canada- one religious sister said to me before the boat set out- we are putting out into the deep and we don’t know how depe it is going to get. She was one of the sisters under risk of silencing form the Pope and the metaphor of us being in deep water was reassuring for this sister- in the water I can drink and I can swim, and I can put down roots- maybe like the fig tree, putting down roots for the future- wherever that may lead. We are in uncertain times as we look to the future of our building, yet the ministry and the gifts we inherit are the ones that are built on the foundations that others have laid. I am reminded of this by what I inherit from my family- I was recently visiting friends in Bedford and on the Sunday morning had the chance to visit the church my great-aunt had been at for most of her life- though she died 13 years ago I was privileged to meet people who remembered her- known as she was for her wonderful cooking and flower arranging. She was someone in many ways who lived her faith quietly and unnoticed, yet she was remembered for food-something that can profoundly help to build up community.
In 1 Corinthians 10 we are reminded of Israel’s history, the history of faith that travelled down through the prophets. It is the salvation history of a people a people that wandered far and for many years had nowhere to call home- yet they were sustained in the desert. Perhaps this Lent might be a time for reflecting on where God has sustained us on our journeys so far- even those parts which might sometimes seem rather barren. We are reminded in Isaiah of God’s provision for us, so let us come to the living water that is Christ, and, when we have drunk deeply, let us share that living water with others.