Saturday, 20 March 2010

Sermon for Sunday 7th March 2010

Third Sunday of Lent, Year C

Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm, 63.1-8; Luke 13.1-9

Do you remember when we all had black and white televisions? And when there were only two channels? I remember our neighbours got BBC2 before we did, and going over the road to watch the Six Wives of Henry VIII.

And football teams had to coordinate their strips, to make sure they looked different in the black and white. But it was good, and we watched it and enjoyed it. Even snooker!

I’ll come back to that.

Let’s consider these readings.

We have a wonderfully lyrical passage from Isaiah, and a beautiful Psalm, and then the Gospel reading, which today sounds a warning note.

In all the readings, though, ‘life’ is something other than just the physical, but not less than the physical, either.

If we take the Psalm first, which is attributed to David the King, the intimate relationship between God and his faithful ones is expressed so beautifully:

that God refreshes those who seek him and contentment and rejoicing are the response from those who love God and give him his rightful place in their lives. But… and there is a ‘but’.

The lovely Psalm, in the extract on the pew sheets, stops at verse 8. This is not the end of the Psalm. It continues:

They who seek my life will be destroyed;

they will go down to the depths of the earth.

They will be given over to the sword

and become food for jackals.

But the King will rejoice in God;

all who swear by God’s name will praise him,

while the mouths of liars will be silenced.

(vv.9-11, NIV)

A different tone altogether.

The serene and gentle picture of the poet’s relationship with God, with his thirst quenched and comfort and reassurance under the shadow of the wings of God - all this is overshadowed by the thought of those who want the poet’s death. And he calls down curses upon them.

The colour has gone, and the picture has changed into harsh black and white.

Through his prophet Isaiah, God issues an open invitation to everyone: ‘Come’. Just come.

That is the only requirement. The forgiveness and cleansing and feeding are there for the taking. Come!

Isaiah is the longest of the prophetic books in the Bible, and many of his writings are well-known. The famous ‘Suffering Servant’ chapters which foretell the passion and crucifixion of the coming Messiah, our Lord Jesus, (ch 53 v 4: He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows…; v 7: he was led like a lamb to the slaughter… and so on), come just before this passage, which tells of the time AFTER the sorrow and the suffering, when salvation has been won for us.

This is what all the suffering was for: so that we might come freely to the feast laid on for us by our Father God who loves us so much. “ ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord.”

And so Jesus teaches us, that we may try and grasp what God is saying to us, even though our thoughts and our ways are so limited compared to all that God wants us to understand.

Jesus often used parables to try and explain an aspect of God to his listeners, and therefore to us. This one, about the unfruitful fig-tree, sounds a warning.

There are some interesting facts to notice about the cultivation of figs, which Jesus’ original listeners would have known. In Palestine, vineyards and vegetable gardens are generally planted with fruit trees, including figs, and the first three years of a fig tree’s growth were allowed to elapse before its fruit was deemed to be clean. So six years had already passed since it was planted - so it was hopelessly fruitless. A fig-tree absorbs a particularly large amount of nourishment from the soil, and so deprives the surrounding vines. Also, manuring a vineyard or a fig tree is not mentioned anywhere in the OT, and in any case, the fig tree would not normally need such extra care.

So what the gardener is suggesting is going above and beyond the usual care for a fig tree.

There was a old folk tale in the Bible lands, which would have been familiar to Jesus and everyone else, and in this story are the words:

“My son, you are like a tree which yielded no fruit, although it stood by the water, and its owner was forced to cut it down. And it said to him, ‘Transplant me, and if even then I bear no fruit, cut me down.’ But its owner said to it, ‘When you stood by the water you bore no fruit, how then will you bear fruit if you stand in another place?’ ” Jesus makes use of this folk tale, but gives it another ending: the request is not refused, but granted.

The gardener is a figure added to the original story, the intercessor for the tree. This could be understood to represent Jesus himself, pleading for the unfruitful one to be given another chance.

But the point Jesus is making in the comments leading into the parable of the unproductive fig tree challenges our notions of pride and spiritual privilege.

That ‘being good’ can earn us privileges with God.

The people who told Jesus about a strange incident involving blood and polluted sacrifices at the hands of Pilate might have been trying to provoke Jesus into some kind of violent reaction. (This isn’t written about in any of the other Gospels.)

The people being killed, whether deliberately or accidentally, were not necessarily deserving or undeserving. Bad things do happen to good people, and the reverse happens too. We know this. We’ve all seen it.

Whatever reaction they had been expecting, Jesus tells them to repent or perish. The decision facing them is as stark as that.

“Don’t put off life-changing decisions,” Jesus urges them, “because you may never have the chance again.”

Even with the fig tree and the extra manure and extra time given, its time of judgement would come, if not sooner, then later. And so will ours.

Everyone who comes across Jesus and recognises that he has something that can’t be found anywhere else, comes to a crisis point, a point at which they have to take decisions.

Are we in a great rush, or can we take our time?

But what is on offer is the generous mercy of God. Why wait? Why procrastinate over such an offer?

Well, turning to God does mean a lifetime’s discipline, learning his nature and his will, patiently and humbly, over and over again. That might be a reason! But turning to him makes life so much richer in so many ways. It is like the difference between watching snooker in black and white and watching it in colour!

Repent or perish. That’s the choice.

Turn to Jesus, learn his ways, which are so much higher than our ways.

Turn to God; seek him eagerly; cling to him with all your heart and soul.

And may each one of US bear good fruit.



Joachim Jeremias: The Parables of Jesus

Martin Warner CT 5th March 2010

Jane Williams: Lectionary Reflections Year C

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary

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