A season of deciding

Passage: Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
Date: March 11, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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I love scripture! It is ever-new. Our worship opened with parts of the lectionary reading from Isaiah 55: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters...why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?...Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live." Who among us does not thirst? All of us are on a pilgrimage. We seek spiritually for that which does satisfy, which touches our deepest longings. Our insecure technological era is permeated with quests for authentic spirituality, for holy connections. God's invitation through Isaiah is to us, so that we may live.

Luke gives us two stories and a parable. Like Isaiah, they contain both invitation and consequence. Listen. Listen with your hearts and your minds. (Read)

The gossip lines must have been full of it, and the terrible news reached Jesus: Some Galileans had been offering sacrifices in worship, and the Roman ruler, Pilate, had slaughtered them right there. Their blood mingled with that of the sacrificed animals. This political and religious news cried out for response from Jesus. This was as dastardly a deed as Archbishop Oscar Romero falling under a hail bullets as he served communion on that Sunday morning, years ago in Guatemala. Imagine blood mingled with the sacrament, and the bodies of us up here. Because the event is all in one short line, we tend to run past the grizzly, incendiary scene. And, I suspect, we miss the trap for Jesus in it. We do not know who told him the news. We do know that even among Jesus' followers were those hungering for military rebellion against Rome. How would Jesus respond to this atrocity? Would he damn the Romans and call for revenge, and thereby place himself squarely with the patriots, those who dreamed of an independent Israel? Or, would he hunch his shoulders, cry out in sympathetic response, and wonder aloud, "How long, O Lord, how long must we suffer?" The nation had been victimized by Rome for decades, and he could have echoed that sentiment.

Jesus did neither. Instead, he denied that the Galileans had died because of their sins, and called his listeners to repentance. What a strange thing to say.

There was strong belief in Jesus' day that people got what they deserved in life. That is, if things began going badly, you were probably being punished by God. The reverse was also true. It was a tidy way to think about life and about how God works. Jesus hit that understanding of God head on. He contradicted the belief that the Galileans must have done something to deserve their fate. By the way, that belief, blaming the victim, is alive and well in our culture. We who are not poor often blame poor people for their plight, even though many work two or three jobs. Rape victims are sometimes viewed suspiciously, like perhaps they led the accused rapist on, or even enjoyed the process. We are also good at blaming ourselves, some of us. When things do not go our way, we lift our eyes heavenward and ask, "What did I do to deserve this?" Jesus tells them, "Don't go there. Instead, change your life, so that you can avoid a more serious disaster."

Ken Bailey says that when his Middle Eastern students study these verses, they are amazed that no one physically attacked Jesus on the spot. People in a victim-culture become self-righteous and intolerant of any criticism. By calling for repentance, Jesus seemed unsympathetic to his own people's plight, and insensitive to Roman atrocities. (Through Peasant Eyes, p. 78-79) Instead, he criticized them, he pointed out their sin.

Not leaving well enough alone, Jesus added a natural disaster, the tornado that ripped through the high school recently. He asked rhetorically, "Did God target those students and their families because of their sins?" Actually, Jesus referred to part of the wall of Jerusalem that had fallen and killed 18 people, but it was a very similar thing. He said that even what we call "acts of God" in insurance policies are not acts of God at all. "Don't go there. Even though it has happened to other people, do not presume that because nothing terrible has happened to you, you are in God's grace. Do not presume God's favor because you live a charmed life, because you are blessed with "stuff." Likewise, do not assume God's punishment or absence because things go badly. Instead, remember, life is short. We never know how short. So, turn your life to the only thing that is sure. Decide to reorient your life to God." Sounds pretty Lenten to me.

The fig tree parable follows immediately, and may or may not be addressed to the same audience. Some scholars believe the previous verses were meant for general consumption, while these pointed to Israel's leaders. The context is clear: an absentee landlord, probably a city dweller, hired others to do his farming. In that culture, grape vines, vegetables, and fruit trees were mingled together. Figs were an essential part of diet, and also served medicinal and trade purposes. Because of farming regulations in Leviticus, it was a number of years before any tree's crop could be harvested. It seems the owner had come looking for fruit for at least three years, and there had been none. He wanted it uprooted and disposed of. Not only was it useless, but it also consumed valuable nutrients and moisture that could be going to other plants.

I can almost hear an argument inside his head: "But, it is a nicely shaped tree, and it looks so healthy." "But, look what it is doing to the other crops, and it gives me nothing." "But, maybe if I take care of it more than usual, it will produce in the near future." "But that might be such a waste of resources and space. I have only so much and can't afford to let something grow that does not produce." "So, how about if I let it go, if I forgive its unproductivity up to this point, if I give it just a little more time?" "But, if I got rid of it, I could start another tree that might do much better." "But it will take years before I can harvest a crop from a new one, and this one might come through after all."

Then there is that suggestion of organic fertilizer, manure. It is the only place in the New Testament the word appears. Ken Bailey notes that if the fig tree represents the religious hierarchy, and the parable suggests a need to spread some manure around them, then Jesus is also publicly insulting them. His peasant audience no doubt laughed at the imagery and the slam. (Through Peasant Eyes, p. 84) In that honor-shame society, the comment only earned Jesus powerful enemies.

Notice. Notice that the tug-of-war between uprooting and reprieve with manure encouragement is not resolved. What did the landlord decide? Will the tree have another chance to be productive? If it does, will it bear fruit?

In Philip Yancy's book, Disappointment with God, his friend "Richard" wants God to show evidence of God's existence, to prove it once and for all.
Richard had asked, "Where is God? Show me. I want to see him." Surely at least part of the answer to his question is this [responds Yancy]: If you want to see God, then look at the people who belong to [God]-they are his "bodies." They are the body of Christ.

Yancy quotes Frederick Nietzsche:
"His disciples will have to look more saved if I am to believe in their Savior." But maybe if Richard could find a saint, someone like Mother Teresa, to embody the qualities of love and grace, maybe then he would believe. There-see her? That is what God is like. She is doing the work of God.

Richard does not know Mother Teresa, but he does know me....Richard probably will never hear a voice form a whirlwind that drowns out all [his] questions. He will likely never get a personal glimpse of God in this life. He will only see me. (P. 142-143)

It is about bearing God's fruit, finally. It is about deciding the orientation of our lives, whether we are merely admirers of Jesus or seek to be his followers. Admiring costs little. It is safe, pleasant, respectable. We can be spiritual, too. We do not have to repent, to change, to respond to his presence in our lives. We can still like him. We will look beautiful, healthy in the garden. But, there will be no fruit, no grace. Others may like us, but not see Christ in us. Jesus asks us to decide, and we do not know how much time we have.

Chocolat is a film whose plot centers on Vianne Rocher and her daughter, who live among Christians. The Christians take their religious practices with deadly seriousness. The story happens during Lent, with Vianne opening her tempting chocolaterie just as the Lenten fast begins. As events unfold, Vianne becomes a Christ figure. She delivers people from hardheartedness, misguided piety, and self-deception. She delivers them into joy and abundance.

In the end, the town priest supports her. On Easter, he proclaims: "I think we can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do-by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include." (The Shelter of God, Sojourners Magazine, March, 2007)

Fruit. Lent is a season of deciding, again or for the first time. It is a season of repentance, reorienting, of opening ourselves our crucified and risen Lord.
Everyone who thirsts, come, come to the waters....
Why do you spend for that which does not satisfy?
Incline your ear and come to me;
Listen, so that you may live.