Rev’d Sarah Park
Isaiah 55: 1 – 9
An Invitation to Abundant Life
55 Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
1 Corinthians 10: 1 – 13
Warnings from Israel’s History
10 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,* that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
6Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ 8We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9We must not put Christ* to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
Luke 13: 1 – 9
Repent or Perish
13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
Some years ago (before the phrase “Auckland housing crisis” existed) my husband John and I were lucky enough to buy a house. Some friends gave us a lemon tree to celebrate.
A perfect housewarming gift. A lovely symbol of new life, of fruitfulness. And so practical! John makes a mean Lemon Meringue Pie and I’m partial to a G&T with a slice of lemon. What could be better?
So we duly planted our lemon tree in the back yard and waited for its bounty. And waited.
Not only did it not spontaneously provide us with an abundant supply of juicy lemons, it went bald. It lost every leaf it had to its name. This humiliating spectacle of a lemon tree sat, forlornly in the ground; two naked sticks in the shape of a V. As if taunting us with a rude gesture.
It stayed that way for some 18 months.
We coaxed it. We fed it, we watered it. But no matter what we tried, it simple refused to cover its nakedness with any leaves. Confusingly, its immediate neighbour, the lime tree (another gift), had no such problem. It was most perplexing.
So after 18 months we dug it up and put it into a pot. While extracting it from the lawn I made a speech to this wilful lemon tree, explaining in no uncertain terms that this pot was surely only a temporary home, and that if it failed to wake up its ideas it wouldn’t be long before it was conveyed to its final destination: the garden bag. Where all garden waste goes to be destroyed.
I didn’t hold out much hope in this re-potting exercise.
And then, the most amazing thing. Within days of being relocated, to a slightly less windy spot, in some potting mix with lots of lemony goodness, it began to sprout the first leaves it had had the courage to grow in a year and a half. In the context of the failure we had come to expect, this small indication of growth brought enormous delight!
Fruit trees are excellent housewarming gifts. A great symbol of new life and abundance. They are also excellent subjects for parables, for all the same reasons.
The original hearers of Jesus’ parable couldn’t have avoided the resonance between the fig tree and Israel. The prophets Isaiah and Joel had compared the people of God to a garden planted and tended by the Lord. So those first hearers will have heard this parable as directed at them.
But lest we fall into the trap of hearing it as directed at them, David Deffenbaugh suggests that “the fig tree is representative of the apathy and indecision that is widespread among those who hear Jesus’ message.” Not just Israel after all.
So the owner of the vineyard – upon discovering his fig tree’s lack of fruit – determines that it is wasting space and should be cut out. This is, quite frankly, a not unreasonable assessment of the situation. The vinedresser however, is willing to do the work required to give the tree the special attention that it will need in order to flourish.
Writes Sharon Ringe, “Far from offering cheap grace, or forgiveness with no reckoning, the gardener advocates that every chance be given before a final decision is made.”
But here’s a key thing. A tree cannot simply decide to produce fruit. Fruit is not an act of the will. Rather, fruit comes as the result of good conditions feeding the tree. In this parable it is “the gardener who not only allows for the possibility of fruitfulness” but is willing to provide the conditions that will be most conducive to producing that.
That means “constant care: digging around the roots and applying manure.”
Augustine was clear that manure – while also very useful in the real world – has key significance in this parable. He asserted that “it is a sign of humility.”
Humility is a prerequisite for repentance. And in the exchange that has preceded this parable, Jesus has made it very clear that repentance is what this parable is about.
So often misunderstood as the identification of guilt and saying sorry, repentance is so much more than that, it is the reorientation our lives to face towards God.
Deffenbaugh suggests that “the essence of repentance [is] the faithful [and humble] affirmation that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The manure around our roots is the very blood of the one who pleads for our justification before God, the one through whom we may offer up the fruits of the kingdom to our Creator.”
Humility and repentance are very appropriate themes for Lent.
This is a season in which we are asked to focus on our faith, to pay attention to the conditions within which we are either flourishing or languishing. To invite the gardener to do the work to dig around the roots and apply manure.
The parable doesn’t tell us what happened to the fig tree. It simply tells us that the last word had not yet been spoken.
As for our lemon tree? It would be tidy to say that as soon as it was potted it became prolific. It didn’t. For many years it produced only leaves. Occasionally we would remember to feed it. But then we realised it probably wasn’t getting enough sun, so we moved it. And then, later three lemons. Hardly a bumper crop, but fruit nevertheless.
And then it stalled again. We eventually figured out that it probably needed a bigger pot. As the lemon grew the conditions it needed changed: more sun, more water, more space. It was becoming more expansive.
And here’s the thing. An intention of humility, a life that is turned around to face God does not happen once. Not just at the moment when we claim our faith in God. Humility and repentance are not one time events which lead inevitably to a pattern of incremental growth.
Our journey to fruitfulness contains all the spikes, plateaux and troughs that come as a result of all that life delivers. Humility and repentance are ongoing processes. As we grow, the conditions we need will change. More sun, more water, more space, more food.
The invitation then, is to use this Lent to examine our life of faith. To look closely at the conditions which either encourage or discourage growth. To invite the gardener to help us discern what we might need more of. Less of?
How might humility lead us closer to true repentance, where rather than simply identifying our guilt and saying sorry, we actually turn our being towards God, like a tree leaning towards the light?
As I was writing this sermon I paid a visit to my lemon tree (to formally acknowledge it as source material). It stands all of about 3 feet tall. I counted 15 lemons on it.
Much like I imagine the heavenly banquet, there will be lemon meringue pie. Most likely accompanied by a G&T with a slice of lemon.