March 24, 2019 – Third Sunday in Lent
Human beings want to find meaning in life. We want to understand what happens. We want to know what causes what. We want to know the answer to the question “why?” That’s generally a very good thing. This question is the foundation of science, philosophy, psychology, and theology, and of learning how to negotiate everyday reality with other people, non-human creatures, and the material world. When we know cause and effect, we gain a measure of control in life and a measure of intellectual peace. Sometimes we want that peace of mind so much, though, that we make false connections of cause and effect. This can be very dangerous, especially when we blame the victims of misfortune for their afflictions. Think, for example, of the harm done by people who believe that AIDS is a divine punishment for sexual sin and therefore the people with this disease should be denounced, certainly not helped, let alone loved.
This is the kind of thinking that Jesus addresses in the beginning of today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus refers to two tragic events that we know about only from this biblical record. The first was a case of moral evil: a bloody, vengeful act by Pontius Pilate against Galilean Jews worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem. The second was a case of natural evil: the collapse of a tower near the pool of Siloam that killed 18 people. Jesus asks his hearers: do you think these victims were worse sinners than other people? We might bring this to contemporary terms by asking if the people killed in the September 11thattacks on the World Trade Center were worse sinners than everyone else living and working in New York. Of course not! Or do we think that the people recently killed in the tornadoes in Alabama did anything to deserve their fate? Of course not!
Though there are passages in the Bible that say that the righteous always prosper and the wicked are always doomed – for example, Psalm 1 – Jesus consistently challenges this idea. God’s action in human life is not so simple. The good are not always protected and the wicked often prosper. Jesus teaches us to take special care of people who are sick or poor or outcasts of society, and this is incompatible with the idea that these people are being justly punished by God for their wrongdoings.
Then Jesus moves into the heart of his message – repentance. He sounds much like John the Baptist did. Nothing soft or mild. “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Imagine him telling us, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as the people did on 9/11 or in the Alabama tornadoes!” He grabbed his hearers’ attention. He should grab our attention, too.
Jesus follows this warning with a parable. A man had a fig tree in his vineyard that bore no fruit for three years. He ordered his gardener to cut it down because it was wasting the soil. But the gardener begged the owner to give the tree one more year to bear fruit. If it did, fine. If not, the owner could cut down the tree then.
This is a parable about judgment and mercy. These must be held together in tension. We must resist the temptation to focus on one and ignore the other. If we focus on God’s judgment and ignore God’s mercy, we may fear that God will punish us forever for our wrongdoing, that God will destroy us. That leads to fear and despair, and it damages our trust in God. On the other hand, if we focus on God’s mercy and ignore God’s judgment, we may not examine ourselves and our lives, recognize how we have turned away from God, and choose to turn back. If we trust that God will forgive us no matter what we do, no matter if we turn to God or not, we may waste the gifts God has given us instead of using them in God’s service. We may miss our opportunities to grow in love and bear the fruits of love.
Last week I spoke about faith and trusting God. Faith is a profound personal trust in God and God’s promises. It is being able to declare that God is good, that God is love, that God is life, no matter what happens in our lives and in the world. It is trusting God our heavenly Father with our lives and with our hearts because God is good, because God is love, because God is life.
The call to repentance in the Gospel often sounds harsh, as it does in this morning’s reading from Luke. Repent or else! Bear fruit or be cut down! I think we need to take the call to repentance seriously, and it is especially appropriate to do that during the season of Lent. This is a time to examine ourselves, to turn away from what is unholy and to turn back to God. But we need to hear the call to repentance in the context of God’s offer of forgiveness and mercy for those who turn back to God.
God is good. God is love. God is life. God desires what is good for us. God desires what is good for all creation, including the human family. We need the wake-up call of repentance that we hear in the Gospel so that we don’t waste our time foolishly. Now is the time to grow in love! Now is the time to bear good fruit! For the sake of God’s world, for the sake of our neighbors, and for our own sakes. In the words of the Ash Wednesday service, “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” God wants us to turn from death to life. Because God is good. Because God is love. Because God is life.
The psalmist expresses trust in God so beautifully in this prayer: “For your loving-kindness is better than life itself; my lips shall give you praise. So will I bless you as long as I live and lift up my hands in your Name. My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the night watches. For you have been my helper, and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice. My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast” (Psalm 63:3-8).
May our trust in God and our gratitude to God grow in this holy season of Lent and throughout our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Blessing: Look mercifully on this your family, Almighty God, that by your great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore; through Christ our Lord. Amen.