Trinity 2: The Fruitful Battle

Trinity 2/Proper 8

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

I have repeated myself over the last few weeks that we are now in a season of teaching. We celebrated Pentecost (the sending of the Holy Spirit) along with the Queen’s Jubilee at the beginning of June. This morning, in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians we see what it is to be led and to live in the Spirit.

The first thing to say is that it is really difficult! We are constantly in a battle between good and evil, right and wrong, moving forward and looking back.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians (in modern day Turkey) he is addressing many of the questions of the early church and like many of his other letters, he includes lists of things to be avoided. He is telling the Galatians basically to work against their natural desires, to not gratify themselves with the fleshy things of this world. The list in Galatians 5 is rather extensive: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness and carousing.

Without making too much eye contact, it can be assumed that many of us here today have done some/many of the things on this list. Some of these things are against our own physical body and some are against the bodies and wills of other other people. None of these are ideals that we should be striving for. Paul is calling the Galatians and us to a different standard of living.

Paul is also clear that it is an ongoing battle for which we need help. There is a better way and that is the way of the Spirit. This is not about following more rules or just behaving ourselves. Jesus came to bring freedom and not slavery.

To have freedom in Christ, means that we are not bound to old ways, however comfortable they might be. Paul’s list is negative and depressing; none of those things bring life and love. The fix is always temporary. A life lived in the Spirit is enriching, nourishing. It does not have time for the petty and temporary gratification that the world offers. Part of our problem is that we try to balance the Spirit and the flesh; we try to make them work together. It is impossible because they are opposites.

To live by the flesh it to satisfy the self first, be inward looking. Living by Spirit means that we look outward first, to the needs of those around us. It is a continual battle to put the needs of another first, especially if they are not in our family or tribe.

It is slow work. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is the supernatural outcome of being filled with the Holy Spirit and the living proof that the Spirit of God dwells in us. It is one fruit with nine different qualities. Think for a moment about your favourite kinds of fruit.

Imagine one, incredibly perfect fruit that combines all the best characteristics of your favourite kinds of fruit. Maybe a seedless fruit like a banana, nice and crisp like an apple, bursting with the flavours of strawberry and nectarine, the tang of pineapple and raspberry. You get the idea. God is developing a fruit in all his children. The fruit that has characteristics of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.

Who does not need any more of these in their lives right now?! Could you be more loving, joyful, patient, kind, faithful. These are lifelong work friends. The more we grow and develop, the freer we become. Freedom always comes with a cost though. It means we cannot go backwards.

The reading from Luke’s Gospel is harsh and uncomfortable; it sets out the call to look ahead. This is not a friendly version of Jesus. He is hard, unyielding, his face is set to go to Jerusalem, to his death. He is impatient, inconvenient, intense, confusing.

First, Jesus is offering rejection and forbearance. The Samaritan villagers did not receive Jesus, he was ready to heal, teach, spend time with them but they refused. This rejection angered John and James and their reaction was to burn the place to the ground! Jesus took his would-be fire-starters to task over their offer. The lesson here is: how in danger are we of leading with anger rather than love the people we disagree with?

A friend of mine posted a meme on Facebook that said: Survival Tip: If you get lost in the woods, start talking about politics and someone will show up to argue with you. Arguing our opinions is a way of life. Everyone is sharing opinions. Why do we get worked up over perfect strangers and their opinions?! Does it matter? Really??

People get so worked up over the opinions of others over things that don’t really matter! Let’s get worked up over things that matter. Humans that are dying in the world! Injustice and hate and racism! Famine in Africa. War in Ukraine. Cost of living. Strikes. It happened then and it happens now.
Are we letting resentment over-take kindness when our feelings get hurt or egos bruised? The call here is to bring life and not death even to those who reject and insult us.

Second, Jesus is selling inconvenience and hardship. I don’t think that person who offered to follow Jesus wherever he was going really had any idea what was meant! Jesus’ reply about foxes having holes and birds having nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. What is he saying?

One reading is that Jesus was homeless. Inconvenient. He travelled around, no mention of a home address. This is more an advertisement for inconvenience, there is no promise of the fat bank account, easy life, nice things. Jesus instead offered a reprioritization of possessions, finance and geography, a dependence on the kindness and generosity of others.

In the final encounter, Jesus again seems rather harsh towards a chap who wants to say goodbye to his family. As someone who has to say goodbye to her family frequently – I don’t like this! This, I think, is about hesitation. We can always find an excuse not to do something.

There is an urgency to the Gospel message that we sometimes forget. I think that we like to think we have more time and control than we actually do! The time is now, not later.

Where does this leave us this morning?! This is a hard Gospel reading that doesn’t leave us much room for compromise. Jesus is asking us to give up everything for him, even those things that we hold most dear. To follow him despite the inconvenience that it brings and those things we will have to miss out on.

Jesus is hard on us because he knows that our hearts cry out for transformation. For renewal. For resurrection. Nothing else we buy will suffice. Nothing else the world sells can compare. So Jesus bids us to come and die so that his fruit of love, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control can take root and then and only then will we truly live in freedom.

Trinity Sunday: My (valiant) attempt…

Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Today we are remembering Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost and we are meant to celebrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity – God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three-person Godhead. Celebrating foundational Christian doctrine might not sound all that exciting, but it is!
It is good, I think, to remind ourselves about the essence of our Christian faith after the events and activities of Lent, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. The church year now opens up and rolls along until Advent as the big festivals are now complete.

Most Priests shiver at the thought of a Trinity Sunday sermon. We try to take holidays, pass the preaching on to a visitor or a Curate. Clergy Facebook groups are filled with angsty posts about the Trinity sermons. I was at the Oxford Diocese Clergy Conference this past week and even Bishop Steven hinted at outsourcing his Trinity Sunday sermon to his chaplain.
So where does that leave me?!

The Church has marked Trinity Sunday since the mid 800’s. So it is not new. It was instituted to speak against the heresies of the early church as they worked out how to understand the concept of one God in three elements. Three does in fact equal one!

Reference to the Trinity is woven through our services, every time I or we say ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; the entire Christian story is retold in the Eucharist prayer before Communion, we repeat it each week in the Creeds. Central to the Christian faith that God is Father, Son and Spirit. It is difficult to understand and at some point needs to be believed as part of the mystery of God. But don’t simply jump to that conclusion as tempting as it is!

I picked up a new book at the clergy conference, ‘Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea and other counter cultural notions’ by Graham Tomlin (the current Bishop of Kensington). He starts with a rather punchy history of the Christian faith…
Many people are still struggling today; even the most honest of Christians will admit to doubts and questions.

In our Gospel reading this week, Jesus tells his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. Read and understand this sentence with the utmost kindness and patience from Jesus. He knows what we do and do not understand. The Spirit was sent to guide us slowly, in forbearance to come to understand the deeper truth of all that Jesus said. This is a safe place to start. God never burdens us with more than we can understand nor does He push us into belief or faith. The Spirit was sent to guide us as long as we are wanting to be led in seeking the truth.

Pope Francis, “The Holy Spirit will never tell you that on your journey everything is going just fine. He will never tell you this, because it isn’t true. No, he corrects you; he makes you weep for your sins; he pushes you to change, to fight against your lies and deceptions, even when that calls for hard work, interior struggle and sacrifice… The Holy Spirit, correcting you along the way, never leaves you lying on the ground: He takes you by the hand, comforts you and constantly encourages you.”

In the work of the Trinity, we see that God is fluid, dynamic, never sitting still. Many people, young and old, believe and live like God is some distant and dusty old Man sitting on a cloud or living in a box or in a church building. There is something comforting in the idea that God is sitting still, containable but yet desperating boring. God is on the move, always surprising and wanting us to join in with what he is doing. Unity is at the heart of the Trinity, but unity does not mean rigidity. Many Christians get it so wrong with holding on to ideas that God is mean or distant or it is just about the rules or even worse – irrelevant to life in this time and season.

God is diverse and thankfully not limited to our imaginations. We are all created in the image of God yet express ourselves differently. It follows then that God’s nature is diverse too. Jesus is the beloved Son, born of Mary and sent to us in human form. He consistently points to the Father who sent him to be with us. We see that the Holy Spirit was sent to journey with us, move with us every day and in every way.

Finally, we see that God is communal. We were made for relationships, for community. We were not hatched from eggs, like separate entities. We were born into families (for better or for worse), hopefully we have made friends along the way, got married or not, had children or not and have found community along the way and built relationships.

I read many sets of banns this morning for the upcoming weddings. Now imagine for a moment that after your marriage service, you went off on your separate ways. (find some examples). You would still be married but you would never know the fullness of your marriage relationship while apart. If you want a full relationship with your spouse, then you need to be together, live in community with each other. The same goes for God, if you want a full relationship then you need to live together with him, He needs to be invited in. God also comes with roommates, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It is a full and glorious house.

How lovely was it last weekend to attend Jubilee parties or lunches? For those that did, did you feel any different by being surrounded by community again? My prayer is that the coming together of last weekend will have a lasting and positive effect on communities large and small and that connections made new or reestablished will be maintained.

St Paul wrote his letter to the Romans before he ever visited so he laid out the basic elements of Christian teaching. Paul had a dramatic encounter with Jesus after the resurrection and was blinded for a time. Through his blindness he came to see the Risen Jesus and was forever changed. He is writing to the Christians in Rome to tell them they have everything they need in the grace and love of God through the Holy Spirit. Endure, Paul says, go the distance, it is worth it. Often endurance means we need to forgo the right of convenience, the right to give up when it gets too much.

At the centre of this endurance is love. God is love. At the heart of the Trinity is love; deep, unflinching, unfaltering, life-long and life-giving love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is extended to us. Do not worry about what you cannot bear right now. Work at understanding that you are simply loved by God as you are. The Trinity tells us that there is more love and life to come, we are part of a bigger story. We are children of the Trinity, always invited and deeply loved. The power of the Trinity will change our lives, lead and guide us to become the people we were created to be, guide us to unity and community. May our lives reflect the beauty and truth of the Trinity.

Easter 2: Time for Renewal

My response to the Bishop of Oxford’s call for theological & spiritual renewal in word and sacrament. No better place to start than the resurrection accounts

Raphael Cartoon, Christ’s Charge to Peter (Matthew 16: 18 – 19 & John 21: 15 – 17), cartoon for a tapestry, by Raphael, about 1515 – 16, Italy. 


Easter 2 (3rd Sunday)

Acts 9:1-6
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

In the Easter season, of which we are still in, despite the lack of chocolates, we are encouraged to contemplate the events of that first Easter again. In these weeks the Lectionary guides us through the Book of Acts and the various Gospel stories of those people who met the resurrected Christ. Those who met Jesus in the days and weeks following the resurrection were forever changed. We too are forever changed when we meet the resurrected Christ.

Bishop Steven of Oxford visited the Wycombe Deanery this past Thursday to meet with the clergy, primarily to get a sense of how everyone is doing. He visited various projects being led by churches in the Wycombe area; the day ended with a celebration for the work of the rural review. The Bishop’s message to us and to the wider Diocese is that there is a need for spiritual and theological renewal in the church. He believes that this started before Covid. This renewal comes through word and sacrament. We have been doing this – each week as we come together to worship when we hear the word of God read and we break bread together. But this needs to go deeper. People are coming to the end of themselves and their resources. We need a different place to look to be sustained.

During the morning clergy-only session when the Bishop asked us how we are, one clergy colleague observed that no one had brought up the war in Ukraine or the real threat of World War 3 and nuclear warfare being far more possible than any of us want to admit or even think about.

We have distracted and busied ourselves with many other things – all good and noble – but we are still looking away from the real and present evil in the world. I want to call on us this morning, as a Church community, to look at our own need for spiritual and theological renewal. If our faith does not have anything to say into the current situation then we are well and truly lost.

There is no better place to start than with the resurrection. It is the defining moment of Christianity, of our faith. You cannot call yourself a Christian and deny the resurrection. It is not an add-on. We are reliably told it was put into the tomb and sealed. It wasn’t there the next morning; Jesus’ physical body had moved, changed, disappeared overnight. He then begins to appear to people in small and large groups. Fortunately, in the church we have a few weeks to contemplate the events of Easter, meet the people who were there that first Easter day and see the effects that Jesus’ resurrection had on them and the rest of the world for the last 2000 years.

It started last week with the story of St Thomas, the dogged disciple often accused of being slow on the uptake, the doubter. Poor Thomas. Many a sermon has been preached as a warning to not be like Thomas. Thomas the 50% believer; the one who needed everything proved before he could believe.
Don’t doubt, just believe. So easy! Sure, if you don’t want to think too hard about anything! I believe that Thomas is the 110% believer. The one who wants to give everything; the one who has so much riding on his commitment to Jesus that he just has to know that he is right. If Thomas is going to give it all, he needs to know he is not making a fool of himself. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails…‘ insists Thomas.

This is not a man of weakness but rather one we can learn from, even if uncomfortably. The things that make Thomas seem weak or doubtful are what makes him strong, his willingness to press on and ask the questions that others won’t. Thomas shares his doubts willingly and Jesus responds and meets him where he is at. Thomas gets a mention in the gospel reading this morning, he’s in the boat with Peter, Nathanael, James, John and two other unnamed disciples. Thomas is no longer missing out in case Jesus pops up again.

After his resurrection, Jesus appears to those who needed to see him, needed to encounter him. Jesus goes to them which says a lot about how much Jesus knew and loved those who had persecuted him (Paul) and denied him (Peter). We don’t get any indication that either of them wanted to see Jesus.

Paul’s ‘Road to Damascus’ is the defining moment of his entire life. It is dramatic, light from heaven flashed and Paul was knocked off his donkey and fell to the ground and struck blind. Paul had been so sure he was right in his persecution of disciples. He was a man of high intelligence and deep conviction; but he was convicted of the wrong things. We see in Paul that a person can be sincere in their beliefs yet sincerely wrong.

Yet Jesus still pursued Paul. What does this say about his love? No one is beyond the reach of it. This is good news! This should give us hope for those people in our friendship groups and families, world leaders who have not yet seen the light so to speak.

Peter. He too needed an encounter with the risen Jesus. Peter had denied Jesus three times on the night of the crucifixion as it was predicted he would. Is there much worse than being told what you are going to do (before you do it), then you deny you are going to and then do it anyway? The crowing of the cockerel must have been deafening for Peter! Peter was at the tomb that first Easter morning but didn’t see Jesus there, only the emptiness. Peter was there at Jesus’ first appearances to the disciples. He probably witnessed the conversation between Jesus and Thomas and maybe he longed for a similar experience. Peter had some making up to do.

At this point in time, the disciples didn’t really know what to do with themselves. They had been told to wait for the Holy Spirit with no idea of how long they had to wait for. They have left Jerusalem and gone back to Galilee which was home for some of them. Peter, James and John have seemingly gone back to their fishing boats, back to what they know as they probably tried to work out what has gone on and what to do next. I’m sure we’ve all had those times in life when we have no idea what the next move is.

It is in that moment that Jesus appears to them, standing on the beach, knowing that they have caught nothing. The faithful carpenter tells the fishermen how to do their job. Peter’s reaction is a bit odd; he was naked in the boat, so puts some clothes on and immediately jumps in the water, leaving the others to bring the boat in. Peter must have been beside himself! Breakfast is cooked and Jesus eats with them. There are many people who have come to faith based on Jesus’ eating of bread and fish with the disciples. It occurred to them that ghosts do not eat solid food!

After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and it is time to do some business. Jesus asks Peter three times ‘do you love me?” This is significant because Peter denied Jesus three times, and this was part of Peter’s restoration. Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter ‘why did you deny me?’ or ‘will you do that again?’. Jesus asked Peter ‘do you love me?’ because no other motivation will last. Only love does.

If we are going to follow Jesus in the power of the crucified life, it is only love that will last, carry us through to the end. Peter doesn’t need to have his faults and failures held over him and neither do we. These will not motivate us in the long term, they are not what Jesus is about. Jesus wants to know that Peter loves him because it is love that will drive Peter on to ‘feed the sheep’, spread the good news and build the church. The other reason that Peter’s love was so critical is that Jesus tells Peter what kind of death he would suffer. Peter too would be crucified. It is only love for Jesus that would compel Peter to follow through with us. Peter is then invited to ‘follow me’ by Jesus.

Where does that leave us this morning? Not every encounter with Jesus is dramatic like Paul’s although I know many people who have had dramatic ‘Damascus’ like encounters. Equally I know many people who have not but still know that they have encountered the risen Jesus. Maybe like Peter, Jesus came alongside them in a moment of quiet. It wasn’t an easy quiet though.

That encounter on the beach that morning changed the course of Peter’s life and the lives of the disciples with him even if they didn’t know it at the time. No more fishing nets for them.

The good news for us in the weeks after Easter is that Jesus still meets us where we are at too. He is not afraid of our Thomas-like doubts, our sincerely held but sincerely wrong beliefs like Paul or our Peter-esque denials. If we want to work on our theological and spiritual renewal, then we need to set some time aside to think and reflect, contemplate, read or study, whatever you want to call it, our understanding of the resurrection and where Jesus might want to be meeting us. All we need to do is ask.

Easter 1: Thomas


St Thomas

Acts 5:27-32
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred
open the doors of our hearts today.
Help us when we are slow to believe, bring us to a place where we can say, ‘My Lord and my God’,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen.

The tomb is empty, Christ is risen, death has been defeated, love wins, we are a resurrection people, nothing on earth will ever be the same again.
That was last week! Right?

But this week…the Easter lilies are wilting, the chocolate has been eaten, the eggs have been found, it feels wrong to eat hot cross buns and the rest of the world has moved on. Welcome to the Week After.
Now what? Where do we go from here?

Fortunately, in the church we have a few weeks to contemplate the events of Easter, meet the people who were there and see the effects that Jesus’ resurrection had on them and the rest of the world for the last 2000 years.
The Gospel for the first Sunday after Easter traditionally features the story of Thomas. I find Thomas to be a rather interesting character. There is very little mention of him in the gospels; he first appears as a name on the list of the chosen disciples. There is no information about what he did for a job, where he came from or his family, only that he was a twin. Thomas is usually portrayed as the dogged disciple, often accused of being slow on the uptake, the doubter. Poor Thomas. Many a sermon has been preached as a warning to not be like Thomas. Thomas the 50% believer; the one who needed everything proved and crystal clear before he could believe.

Don’t doubt just believe! So easy! Sure if you don’t want to think too hard about anything. We live in an age where doubt has become the predominant form of belief. Fake news, fake images, filters to make photos look better, everything needing to be verified due to a lack of trust. There is so much more government legislation now than at any other time in history due to a breakdown in trust.

Daily we put ourselves in a high number of situations that we should doubt more than do. We doubt both what we see and what we don’t see.
I think there is another side to Thomas; he needs another look in. Maybe Thomas was the disciple who was asking the questions that everybody had but didn’t want to ask out loud. Before his comments that made him the poster-boy of doubt for all eternity, Thomas is quoted on two other occasions.

The first is found in John 11 as the news of Lazarus’ illness reached Jesus and the disciples. The authorities are looking for Jesus and it was dangerous for him to be travelling around. The disciples are trying to dissuade Jesus from going to be with Lazarus, Mary & Martha; Jesus is not concerned with the threats to his life. In the middle of this Thomas declares, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’. The other disciples were ready to run the other way but not Thomas, he was prepared to go to the wire with Jesus. This doesn’t sound like a man who doubts. Maybe Thomas was the disciple who didn’t say much but when he did everyone else listened? Know anyone like that?

The second account is in John 14. Jesus is explaining to the disciples that he is going to leave them. The chapter starts with the reassuring words ‘do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house…’ Jesus is explaining where is going and what he is going to do there; he also tells the disciples that they know the way. It is Thomas who says, ‘we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?!’

Jesus responds to Thomas with some of the most beautiful words ever to fall from his mouth. Jesus tells Thomas ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ Thomas has been told; he has seen the Father in the Son.

So where was he on the evening of that first day of that week when Jesus appeared? The news of the resurrection was fresh and raw, the disciples were living in fear of the Jews and had locked themselves away. As we know the end of the story, their confusion and grief can often escape us. Maybe it was all a bit too much for Thomas? Some people stay away and hide when life gets tough. The disciples were together but Thomas was not with them.

That following week must have been torture for Thomas. The disciples had received the Holy Spirit (a whole sermon on its own for another day!) and were in much better moods! I am sure we have all had to miss events due to circumstances. Then those who did attend the event talk incessantly about it, down to every last detail, the play by play of every moment. And no matter the minutia of detail – you still weren’t there!

It would be reasonable to believe that Thomas became more entrenched in his declaration to see the nail marks and the side wound. Jesus returns again. This time just for Thomas. Thomas, the one who doesn’t get much mention, says a couple of brilliant things that we know about, was there through it all and then disappeared in grief and confusion. In a moment in the presence of Jesus, Thomas’ excuses and defences are dropped. Jesus invites Thomas to put his fingers in his hands and on his side.

The text doesn’t say if he did or not. All it gives us is Thomas’ verbal reply of ‘My Lord and my God.’ In this moment, Jesus firmly but gently reminds Thomas that he believes because he has seen (at least twice). Thomas is responsible for the blessing that the whole rest of the world gets for not seeing and yet believing.

I want to finish off with a final observation:
Thomas was part of a community where he openly voices his doubt. Like I said, Thomas has been portrayed negatively as the doubter, one of weak faith, the cynic, the holdout. These are often seen as spiritual flaws. I don’t see Thomas as weak, I see him as a man who wanted a living encounter with Jesus. Thomas wasn’t going to settle for someone else’s experience of the resurrection but wanted his own. Thomas was willing to admit his uncertainty in the midst of those who were certain. This is bravery.

How does this community respond to doubt? Is this a place where they can be shared openly without fear of judgement or silencing?

When Jesus’ wounds met Thomas’ doubts, new life erupted. In Acts 5 the apostles are performing miraculous signs and wonders among the people of Jerusalem, people were believing in Jesus and being healed. I wonder how many times Thomas told people ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed?’

What happened to Thomas? Tradition holds that when the apostles were dispersed after Pentecost, Thomas was sent to evangelise the Parthians, Medes and Persians before he ultimately reached the Malabar coast of southwest India. There is a large native population there calling themselves ‘Christians of St Thomas.’ Unlike most of the other disciples/apostles who were killed for their faith in quite gory ways, it is thought that Thomas was killed in a tragic peacock hunting accident when the hunter missed the bird and hit Thomas instead.
This is not a man of weakness but rather one we can learn from, even if uncomfortably. The things that make Thomas seem weak or doubtful are what makes him strong, his willingness to press on and ask the questions that others won’t. Thomas shares his doubts willingly and Jesus responds and meets him where he is at.

The good news for us the week after Easter is that Jesus still meets us where we are at too. He is not afraid of our doubts, our wavering or our slowness. We, like Thomas, can hope for more. So let’s.

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.’