March 20th, 2022
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.’