a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year C]
Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9
There is a door frame in our kitchen where we keep measurements of our kids’ growth. You might have one, too, or had one when you were growing up. At each kid’s birthday we get out a pencil and have the kids stand with their backs against the molding (no cheating!) and we strike off how tall they are. Today is our son’s third birthday and he’ll finally be old enough to stand still and have his growth measured. On earlier birthdays he was either too squirmy or he couldn’t stand yet, so it’s going to be a big day. Our girls have been partaking in this little tradition for a while, of course, and I think it might have become the favorite part of their birthday’s events, outranking even cake and presents. I think it’s become so beloved because they can see visual proof that they’re growing. It’s hard to feel that you’re making any progress in that department day by day, but when you do something that makes it clear it becomes exciting.
And, of course, a bit competitive. They like to take note on things like who grew the most in the past year, or who was taller at a certain age. It’s such a big deal that a few years ago when we had the kitchen redone we knew we would be painting over all the hashmarks, which had become kind of smudged over time, so Melinda and I painstakingly measured off each of the hashmarks—four for every year since 2009, because we also measure on half-birthdays too—so we could transcribe them onto the new paint.
Growth is exciting, isn’t it? We want our children to grow, we want our gardens to grow we want our bank accounts to grow, we want our congregations to grow, we want our chances of winning a March Madness bracket pool to grow. And when they do, we get a sense that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. We get a sense that whatever effort we’ve put in (which, admittedly, sometimes is minimal) and the time we’ve waited (which, admittedly, sometimes feels like eternity) has been worth it.
God wants us to grow, and it’s exciting to him when we do. God wants us to grow because God intends his kingdom to grow and flourish in our lives and on the earth. God has created and redeemed his people for growth, for abundant life, and this growth is not the kind that is really measurable by pencil on a door frame. It is growth in righteousness, love, mercifulness, compassion, and wisdom—all things that his Son, Jesus, embodies. And we all have the opportunity throughout our life to keep growing in these ways when we turn to the Lord and receive his mercy, when we, as the prophet Isaiah says, “seek the Lord where he may be found and call upon him while he is near.”
That’s what’s at the heart of Jesus’ conversation with some of his listeners this morning. They come to him with some questions about a recent tragedy in the news wanting to know if those people had died as some kind of punishment for some sins they had committed. We aren’t given the whole backstory, but it involves Pontius Pilate and his decision to murder some Galilean Jews and then mingle their blood with some of the pagan sacrifices. To an observant Jewish person of the day, it was an awful, exceptionally offensive way to die, and people probably would have been talking about it. One of the common assumptions back then would have been that those people must have done something to deserve it.
Jesus brings up another sad event they probably would have heard about—the collapse of a nearby tower that killed eighteen people—because no doubt people would have wondered if they had had it coming to them too. There’s this sense among these people that the universe and even God works on some system of you get what you give, that you are eventually repaid for whatever you put in—like divine Social Security—that there’s this cosmic accounting system of right and wrong and if you wind up empty-handed with tragic suffering or untimely death, then somewhere along the way you must have gotten your columns of good and bad out of balance. Jesus makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he does not believe in karma, and he doesn’t want us to either. Life in God’s kingdom is not about making sure you make all the right decisions, or ticking all the right boxes, and doing enough good works so that people will label you a certain way or, even more, that God will give you a gold star and save you from hardship.
This way of thinking to tough get out of our systems because we are pattern-seeking organisms. We are good at finding meaning and connections in a lot of things. It’s one of our gifts as human beings. It was just posted on March 14, a week and a half ago, that Emma Iwao, a woman who works at Google in Seattle, set a new world record for calculating pi to a trillion digits. So it stands we naturally want to find a deeper meaning or underlying pattern behind life’s tragedies and triumphs, especially when they seem so unfair and random. This week at one of our men’s lunch groups one gentleman expressed thanksgiving but also sheer bewilderment at how wonderful his life had been how he had always been in such good health, while others younger than he were struggling with life-threatening illnesses.
Jesus doesn’t offer a hidden pattern for life’s ups and downs He doesn’t calculate life’s intricacies and beauties out to a trillion digits for us or give us a particularly satisfying answer to these questions, and that can be frustrating. As we deal with that frustration and bewilderment, we must also remember that God’s Son himself is going to live a life that seems unbelievably unfair and tragic, a life shortened by false friendships even though he is always kind, a life shortened by violence even though he always peaceful, a life that ends on a cross even though every time he touches someone he heals them. God learns up close what it’s like to deal with these tragedies and feel things aren’t right. His followers are going to figure that out later when Jesus has his own blood-mingling incident with Pilate.
For now Jesus tells his listeners who question him about these events that God is not really like a big accountant or computer (and no offense to any accountants or computer programmers. Jesus also never says God is like a pastor). Jesus says God is more like a landowner who just wants his fig tree to produce one little fig. God is more like a gracious gardener who is willing to give a dormant fig tree one more year to do its thing. Because that’s what fig trees are for, whether it’s one year old or three years old or eighty years old. The fruit will all be the same, and it will all be good. So, just a little more digging around the roots here, and a little more fertilizer there. And wait for another year with the yardstick and see what happens.
As harsh as it may seem to our ears, Jesus says reflecting on these tragedies that are brought up is a chance to think about our own limited lifespans—regardless of their specific length—and how none of us has forever for growing and enjoying the bounty of God’s kingdom. That particular thinking, that personal reflection, is one way to think of repentance, which is a concept central to Jesus’ preaching from day one.
A lot of us struggle with that word “repentance” because it sounds like making a correct decision. It sounds like choosing, about not doing bad things, and in some sense that’s part of it, but the parable helps us see that it is more about realizing our potential for growth and how God is always graciously providing us good soil. Repentance, unpacked, is understanding how God, as the prophet Isaiah says, “is always providing wine and milk without price.” God is always working to renew us with his constant forgiveness and unconditional love and therefore we always have the potential to grow and be renewed. Interestingly enough, when the landowner wants to cut down the fig tree the gardener convinces the landowner to “let it alone” for another year. The Greek word for “let it alone” comes from the same root word for “forgive.” God forgives us and renews us each and every day. His favor toward us is rooted in his mercy. The wine and milk of his grace is there for the taking. “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come and get it!”—again, the words of Isaiah. Like Martin Luther says in the first of 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
A year or so ago a gentleman, a member of our congregation, made an appointment to update me on some medical news. After he was finished explaining what the latest tests had shown and what the next round of treatments would entail, we got to chatting. That’s when he shared with me that every night before he goes to bed he clears his desk in his office at home to make a fresh start the next day. However, he always leaves one thing on it so it greets him first thing in the morning. I asked him what it was and he said it was a little piece of one of our worship bulletins he had torn out one day. As it turns out it was from one Sunday we’d had a baptism. The three questions that we ask parents before a child is baptized about renouncing the devil and all his empty promises just hit him as direct and intriguing. The one that apparently really caught his attention was the one where the couple is asked, “Do you renounce the powers of his world that rebel against God?” He says it made him stop and think: “What do I really do each day to stand up to the powers of this world that rebel against God? That sounds like a big task, but clearly it’s being asked of us at our baptism.” And so he took it home and thought about it, ripped it out and threw the rest of the bulletin away because he still was thinking about that call, and realized he wanted to start each day with that task on his mind.
Now, that’s what I call a recipe for growth in the grace of Jesus. Take that approach and, well, I suspect you’ll need to hunt for a door frame that’s pretty tall.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.