It is a great privilege being a Vicar, because I get to share at special moments in peoples’ lives. There are the joyful moments such conducting a wedding, celebrating the birth of a child, rejoicing with people when they have received some good news. But I also get to be with people in the difficult and sad times of life, being there for someone when the doctor has given them some bad news, supporting the dying and comforting the bereaved, being there for people when life is a struggle.
It is when bad things happen, when tragedy strikes, that we look for explanations and answers. We ask the why questions. “Why did I get cancer?” “Why did my mum die?” “Why when I try to live a good life, do bad things seem to happen to me or my family?” We need an answer, because an answer feels better than not knowing.
Behind these questions, there is often another, deeper, more challenging question, “Why did God allow this to happen?” and “Where is God in all of this?”
In the Jewish mind, there had to a reason for suffering, and they believed that suffering was a consequence of sin. So if personal tragedy befell someone, it was believed that in some way they were responsible for it, it had something to do with the person’s past.
For example Job in the Old Testament, in a series of terrible tragedies, loses his family, property and health all within a short period of time. His friends assume that Job must have done something wrong to deserve this suffering. One of Job’s friends, Eliphaz says “Think! Has a truly innocent person ever ended up on the scrap heap? Do genuinely upright people ever lose out in the end? It’s my observation that those who plow evil and sow trouble reap evil and trouble. (Job 4:7-8) In other words “you must have done something to deserve this!”
And in the New Testament when Jesus and his disciples saw a man who had been blind from his birth, the disciples asked “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) There had to be a reason why this man was blind. But Jesus replies that neither this man nor his parents sinned so as to cause the blindness.
In our reading today, Jesus mentions two tragedies, the first where Pilate had killed some Galileans in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the second, where the tower of Siloam in Jerusalem had collapsed killing 18 people. Jesus asks the question, were these people worse sinners or more guilt than anyone else? To which the answer is an emphatic no.
The reality is that we live in a world where tragic things happen all the time. Anyone happening to be at the wrong place at the wrong time can be a victim of an accident, like the 19 people who were killed in the ballooning accident in Egypt this week. Job worries, family tensions, health problems, and accidents can affect us all, and sometimes there isn’t always an explanation why.
But still to this day, there are those who believe that human suffering is due to divine punishment or sin. For example there were some who claimed that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December in Connecticut was God’s judgement on America. This of course is an absolutely outrageous and totally unjustifiable claim to make, but it is what some people believe.
And this type of thinking is more common than I think we’d like to admit. For example when people receive bad news and they say “What did I do to deserve this?” there is an assumption that they are somehow being punished. But Jesus never promised us that if we follow him, we would have an easy life, free from trials and difficulties. Instead he promised us that he would always be there for us, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20)
Jesus uses the stories of these two tragedies, the killing of the Galileans and the eighteen killed by the collapse of the tower, to turn attention on our own lives. He reminds us that we all fall short of God’s standards, we are all sinners, and that we need to repent, which means turn from our sin, and turn back to God. Jesus says "Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
Jesus goes onto to tell the parable of the fig tree, which carries an important challenge for us, but also words of grace and encouragement.
A landowner had planted a fig tree in his vineyard, and employed a gardener to look after it. But after three years this fig tree had failed to produce any fruit. The tree was failing to do what it was intended to do. So the owner of the vineyard tells the gardener to cut down the fig tree, because without fruit it is worthless, and is taking up space that could otherwise be productive in the vineyard. But the gardener was not willing to give up on this tree just yet, “Leave it alone one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”
In the Old Testament a fruitful tree was often used as a symbol of Godly living, and John the Baptist called people to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8) What is this fruit? It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and faithfulness (Galatians 5:22). As Christians, we are called to be fruitful, this happens when we open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It happens as we seek to live faithful and obedient lives. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It all starts with repentance, recognising that we have failed God, turning away from that sin, and surrendering ourselves to God.
The problem arises however, when we believe that we can add Christ to our lives, but not subtract sin. In other words have a change in belief without a change in behaviour. You cannot have one without the other.
In the parable of the fig tree, there is a sense of urgency, time in short. The vineyard owner is giving the tree only one more year to produce fruit, or it will be taken out. This tree is being given one last chance to prove itself. We need to recognise that time is short for us as well. Christ calls us to come to him today, to repent and turn from our sins, and to start bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Jesus warns us that “unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
None of us know what tomorrow will bring, none of us know how long we have on this earth, which is why there is a sense of urgency in needing to turn to Christ, and living faithfully today.
But whilst this parable warns of judgement, it speaks even more of God’s grace, patience and mercy. The gardener has not given up yet on the tree, he says “I'm going to do everything I can to help this tree live and bear fruit.” This is a reflection of God’s love and unending patience with us all. God does not give up on us, even when it may appear we will never bear fruit, or never change – God does not abandon hope that change is possible.
In this teaching Jesus is calling us to repentance, to turn our lives in a new direction. As individuals we are called to acts of generosity, compassion, love and service. These are the fruits of a life turned to God, of a mind and heart changed by the Spirit of God. As a community of faith, we are called to bear fruit as well, to engage in God’s mission in the world, to be build God’s kingdom of justice and peace for all.
This season of Lent is a time to take stock of our own hearts, souls and life in God. There are some steps that help us to do just that; here are some of them:
First, acknowledge your need for God
Second, confess your sins. Tell God about the things that you do regret and want to leave behind as you turn a new direction and embark on a new journey in your living.
Third, accept God's forgiveness and lay claim to God's love. The truth is, God is much more ready to forgive than we are to receive that forgiveness and much more ready to love than we are to own that love.
Fourth, take time to examine your life, your priorities, and your patterns of activity. Let God renew your mind with God's grace and love.
And finally, bear fruit.
"Repent. Change your mind. Bear fruit." There it is, a repentance recipe for this season, the ingredients for spiritual renewal during these 40 days of Lent, which can lead to a new future, and renewed hope in the love of God for each one of us.