Lent 3: Comfort & Discomfort in the Asking

March 20th, 2022

Isaiah 55:1-9

Luke 13:1-9

Luke 13:1-9

As it is Lent, I need to start with a confession this morning. Sermon writing this week was a challenge! I have never preached on this passage on Luke, I didn’t really understand what it was about and my great temptation was to go lightly on it and emphasise Isaiah because it is so lovely and comforting. However much I delayed and tried to do it this way, my thoughts were directed elsewhere.

What is happening here? Jesus has been given some shocking news. Pontius Pilate had ordered the slaughter of a group of Jews from Galilee. He had then had their blood taken and mixed with the blood of the sacrificial lambs.
Lives have been lost and sacred religious practice has been desecrated.
The next bit of news is that a tower has collapsed and killed 18 people. The bearers of this bad news want to know why. Why did these things happen? Why is there so much pain in the world? Why does God let suffering happen?
These are the same questions that many people are asking now in light of the situation in Ukraine. We feel small, helpless and even hopeless in the face of so much suffering. We may take our questions and prayers to God and seek an answer to our whys.

Jesus, however, does not give a direct answer. Instead, there is a short parable about cutting down a dying tree. Why this?

What does this have to do with people being senselessly killed?! Jesus is looking for a different question. A direct, clean answer will not help the situation. We do live in a world where suffering exists, is unavoidable and likely will be until Jesus comes again. We want a theory to explain why bad things happen. We can’t stop asking the question every time something happens. So often we are left wanting.

Any answers that we get, hold us apart from those who are suffering, take us away from communal humanity, keeping our distance to shield ourselves.
Jesus challenges the assumptions of those who came to him that day as he continues to challenge ours. He tells the listeners to ‘repent’ before it is too late.

Debie Thomas, ‘When Jesus challenges his listeners’ assumptions and tells them to “repent” before it’s too late, I think part of what he’s saying is this: any question that allows us to keep a sanitised distance from the mystery and reality of another person’s pain is a question we need to un-ask.’

Jesus then tells the parable of the man and his fig tree. There are three characters in this story who need to be considered. First is the man who planted the fig tree and then stood back from it. He only came to look for the fruit, he had no part in the care of that tree. It didn’t give him what he wanted, so he demanded that it be cut down. How often do I stand apart from a situation, giving only my judgement that I am in no position to make? Do I call it quits too early in situations?

Second is the fig tree. It has been planted but seems unable to produce any fruit. Is it undernourished? Am I helpless or hopeless, ignored or dismissed? How can I come back to life?

Third there is the gardener. He defends the tree, pleads for another year of life for it. He is willing to go the distance, put in the work even when a positive outcome is not guaranteed? Will I give up love, time and effort for someone else? Why is not a life-giving question and Jesus knows this.

This is where Isaiah is helpful. Chapter 55 is the end of the second major section in the book of Isaiah, which up to this point has been the prophecy for the people of Israel before, during and after their exile to Babylon.
This section of Isaiah (ch 40-55) is dominated by the theme of salvation through suffering, known as the Servant Songs. Christians have long identified the suffering servant with Jesus as there are many NT references connected to this portion of Isaiah. In Ch. 55, an invitation to the whole world into the new world is extended. ‘All you/(everyone) who are thirsty’ brings before us the worldwide consequences of the Servant’s work.
What is on offer?

First on offer is free provision for every need (v1-2) through three invitations.
Come to the waters – water is essential for life, we die without it. There is a life-threatening need and an abundant supply. This first provision is for survival both physical and spiritual.

The second invitation, come, buy and eat is extended to the one who has no money and highlights inability and helplessness. We know that we can’t buy anything without money; and nothing can be had without payment – someone, somewhere along the line has paid. The implication here is that the suffering servant has paid the price.

The third invitation, come, but wine and milk, without money, stresses the richness of the provision: not just the water of bare necessity but the wine and milk of luxurious satisfaction. God is the god of luxury, of lavishness. We are to seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him when he is near. We have come to the fundamental issues in the next few verses of Isaiah. So far it has been come, come, come, listen, listen and now the full meaning of come and listen is found in the call to seek, call, forsake, turn. There is an urgency to the message of Gospel.

Seek here doesn’t mean to look for something that is lost, it means to come to the place where the Lord is to be found. Jesus is calling us to repentance now.
Forsake and turn speak of true repentance, turning from and turning to. In turning to the Lord, he will have mercy, he will abundantly (theme of luxury) pardon.

Debie Thomas, ‘Why hasn’t the fig tree produced fruit yet? Um, here’s the manure, and here’s a spade — get to work. Why do terrible, painful, completely unfair things happen in this world? Um, go weep with someone who’s weeping. Go fight for the justice you long to see. Go confront evil where it needs confronting. Go learn the art of patient, hope-filled tending. Go cultivate beautiful things. Go look your own sin in the eye and repent of it while you can.’

Church & State: Buckinghamshire Council Civic Service

It was a great privilege to host the annual Buckinghamshire Council Civic Service this morning in St Mary’s, Hambleden.

The Visitation, Holy Family Catholic Church

Buckinghamshire County Council Address
Luke 1:39-56
Surah 19 – Maryam
The Visitation by Malcolm Guite


Again it is a privilege to welcome everyone to the Hambleden Valley this morning.

Civic Services such as this are somewhat niche as Church and State come together to share time and space, to give thanks both collectively and as individuals, and to celebrate all that we hold in common.

Civic life and the council services provided offer a stable foundation for communities (both large and small) to grow and flourish. This life often involves the things that we take for granted and do not give much thought to. We simply expect them to be there when we need them to be. The same is largely true of the Church. It is usually when we do not meet expectations (real or imagined) that we get attention!

A life of service, whether that is national, civic or religious, is not an easy one. The work is hard and the tangible rewards can be few. Why and how do we do this? I will suggest that to live a service-orientated life, we need to take a view that is both short and long term.

I have recently returned from my hometown of Cochrane, just outside of Calgary, Canada. Growing up both my parents were involved in local politics and at different times served on the town council and its various committees. Civic duty and responsibility were ingrained at a young age. I was reflecting on this service while I was there and thought about who would be here today.

I looked around Cochrane and recalled the projects that my parents had been involved with. Planning permission, building applications, sewage treatment, dog bylaws, pothole repair, working with the local RCMP, fire & ambulance services, rubbish collection and the myriad of things you have to do to get things done. Around the dinner table, these things at times, seemed insurmountable and also rather dull. At least to a child!

However, a few decades on, there is now evidence of what was worked so hard at then. Housing developments that started as a few houses in a field are now established communities, the new library is not so new, the sports complex is booming and expanding. The industrial site in the middle of town has been cleaned up. A second bridge across the Bow River finally got built – if ever there was to be a miracle in Cochrane, this is it! None of this happened quickly but with the dedication, perseverance and vision of people who wanted something better. Please be encouraged in what you are doing, play the long game.

The recent events in the Ukraine also played into my thoughts about today. Cities, towns, villages and infrastructure being destroyed needlessly; the work and legacy of people like you, coming down in a heap of rubble. It is heartbreaking. Not only the physical structures but the work of people to put them up in the first place, the planning and vision that was required. How ever do you start again? Where? When?

The question that materialised was: If it all comes down tomorrow – what is left?


That is what is left. Everything you do in your civic life, job, the work of the government, council, the police, the RAF is for people. I read a quote from President Zelensky’s inaugural address in 2019 where he told lawmakers: ‘I do not want my picture in your offices: the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photo instead, and look at them each time you make a decision.’

The chosen readings for this morning have a similar thread running through them. They are about love and relationships between people and family. We have the same characters portrayed from different angles; younger and older, different generations with similar issues (unplanned pregnancies) all coming together to love and support each other.

Mary is 14-ish and pregnant. Elizabeth is well – old and pregnant. Both in impossible situations; socially and medically this is a nightmare. The men of the story are absent: Zechariah is mute at this point, the result of his earlier disbelief at the news that his wife Elizabeth would have a baby in her advanced age. Joseph was at home, likely considering whether to jump ship (or not) on Mary. There are also the babies and at least one of them, John (who would become John the Baptist) is leaping in his mother’s womb. It was at the voice of Mary’s greeting and being in the presence of Jesus that made unborn baby John leap in this well-known story of Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting.

Mary has gone in haste to see Elizabeth after Gabriel has appeared to her with some shocking news. I think that haste is a good word – it means ‘excessive speed, urgency of movement or action; hurry’. We often say ‘don’t be hasty’ when cautioning others (generally not ourselves) about making decisions too quickly. Haste is probably not a word bandied about in the County Council offices or Westminster! TVP and the RAF likely have a better idea about haste.

Mary has good reason to go in haste to see her cousin Elizabeth. She was probably terrified, anxious, unsure. When she arrives at her cousins’ home and goes into the house, Mary receives the most wonderful response to her greeting. Elizabeth too is overwhelmed in that moment, not in fear but in humility and kindness.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had played the long game in life, they are noted for their right living before God by following blamelessly his commandments. Zechariah was a faithful priest, who was carrying out his duties, getting on with it. Then one day his prayer was answered, a child would be coming. They had to wait their whole lives for this. We are so impatient, attention spans are getting shorter, fuses are faster to blow. Yet in Zechariah and Elizabeth we see them receive the reward, the blessing of faithfulness and integrity.

Young Mary set off from home in haste and found refuge, love and kindness in the home of her caring cousins. This is more short-term. Mary, unsure of what to do, went to the people that she could count on to help her. Elizabeth was able to confirm what Mary had been told by the angel Gabriel (come back at Christmas for the rest of that story!) Mary’s response is the beautiful song The Magnificat in which she proclaims the greatness, faithfulness and goodness of God. God is our ever present help in times of trouble. Sometimes we need some reminding that God looks on us with favour; even when circumstances don’t look like it or we don’t feel it. Like Elizabeth and Mary we need humility and faith that God will act.

So friends, as you go from here today, God bless you in the work that you do. Play the long game in all things, your work matters even if you can’t yet see the results. Show love and kindness in the short-term. Do all things in humility and kindness for the imperfect human beings that you serve. Remember God’s favour and his great love for you.