Readings: Isaiah 55. 1-9; Psalm 63. 1-8; 1 Corinthians 10. 1-13; Luke 13. 1-9 (view all)
My wife, Amy, and I are terrible at gardening. We are not green fingered at all! In fact we were once given a house plant as a gift and neglected it so much, that when when had visitors over they had to rescue it from us and take it back to theirs to resuscitate it.
Aside from beginning with some disturbing comments about blood mingling with sacrifices and falling towers — which we will also at least touch on — this morning’s gospel presents us with a parable about a fig tree which simply refuses to bear fruit, no matter what the owner attempts.
So what might this picture, and Jesus’ comments, have to say to us today as we continue our Lenten journey, and prepare for our Annual Church Meeting after the service?
First, lets those strange references at the beginning of the gospel reading.
To understand them, we need to recognise that the Jewish people believe they are called by God to inhabit the land and make it flourish, and yet cannot even manage to keep political control of their own nation. And, to borrow from a more contemporary politician, they are desperate to ‘make Judah great again’, by any means necessary.
With this in mind, it is very probable that the Galileans so brutally slaughtered by the roman governor Pilate in the temple were killed because Pilate was deeply scared of the unrest they might cause, or the rebellion they might bring.
We don’t know about the collapsing tower at Siloam, whether this was simply a tragic accident or an intentional demolition by the Romans. However, we do know that later, in AD 70 when the Jews rebelled in Jerusalem that the Emperor Nero ordered the whole city brought down around them.
Faced with these incidents, the question on the minds of those around Jesus is why these tragic deaths occurred — was this more than political, was there something spiritual going on? Was God punishing them?
But Jesus’ answer is unequivocal — they were no worse sinners than anyone else, their death was political not spiritual. Still, though, he challenges that unless they repent, they will face the same fate.
This takes us on to the fig tree. There is no point to a barren tree which doesn’t bear fruit. And Jesus’ assessment is that the people have not just been politically barren, but far worse than this they have been spiritually barren.
The Jewish people have been searching in the wrong place — they are searching for political renewal, when they first should be looking for spiritual renewal.
As the prophet Isaiah warns in our Old Testament reading:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
So Jesus calls them to repentance, not because God is punishing them because of their sin, but because the only way they will ever bear fruit is by turning back to God. By remembering their original calling to relationship with their creator.
This is the literal meaning, of the greek word for ‘repent’ — to ‘turn around’.
So what does all this mean for us in the Church today?
Well, we too long for financial and organisational renewal, to put it simply for church growth. In fact I’ve been really encouraged over the last year to hear many people express their real desire to see just that — a growing, thriving, financially stable church.
However, for Jesus there is no path to organisational renewal — to church growth — which does not first require spiritual renewal.
If we want to see a flourishing Church, we first need to develop flourishing spiritual lives — not to become preoccupied with how awful we are or to beat ourselves up about our sinfulness, but to realise our deepest need is the need for God, to recognise our spiritual thirst.
As Paul points out, in the Exodus — the very founding story of the people of Israel — they were sustained by drinking from the spiritual rock. A rock which he now takes to symbolise Jesus himself. And as the prophet tells the Jewish people: Why toil and labour to quench their thirst, when there is rich wine and nourishing milk offered freely for all who come to the waters?
This Lent, will we hear Jesus’ call to repentance, turning to God and acknowledging the spiritual thirst within us?
While issues around organisation and finances are important, will we ensure that our main focus is on nurturing our own faith and the faith of those around us? Will we grow in our thirst for God, and doing so, enable our churches to become springs of living water to bring refreshment to all those who draw near?
One of my favourite spiritual writers, Henri Nouwen, writes this in one of his books:
The unfathomable mystery of God is that God is a Lover who wants to be loved. The one who created us is waiting for our response to the love that gave us our being. God not only says: “You are my Beloved.” God also asks: “Do you love me? And offers us countless chances to say “Yes”.Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p. 106
As we celebrate the Eucharist this morning, may we say ‘yes’ to the God who gave us our being. May we acknowledge our thirst for the living God, coming to the Lord’s table to be nourished, sustained and renewed. And as our own thirst is quenched, may we become springs of life and love for our friends and neighbours. Amen.