Sermon - 3rd March 2013
There is someone greater
Scripture - Isaiah 55:6-9, Luke 13:1-9
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
This central section of St Luke’s Gospel contains very little narrative of Jesus’ actions and movements and focuses extensively on His teaching to various audiences which included the Pharisees, one of the groups of religious leaders of the time; however, here in Chapter 13, in today’s Gospel reading, those who are speaking with Jesus are not identified.
We can divide up today’s reading into three sections. Firstly, let us look at fate of the Galileans.
Galilee was an area to the North of Jerusalem in King Herod’s jurisdiction, and some Galileans had travelled to Jerusalem to make sacrifices. We know they were in Jerusalem, because only at the Temple in Jerusalem were Jews allowed to make sacrifices. They were killed by the Roman soldiers at Pilate’s order, and so their blood mixed with the blood of the animals they were sacrificing. This incident is not mentioned in any of the other Gospels, nor by any of the secular historians; however, the Roman historian Josephus wrote that the Galileans were noted for their uprisings against Roman rule. Maybe this is why Pilate ordered them killed.
What did the person telling Jesus about this hope to achieve? Maybe they knew Jesus himself was from Galilee and was hoping to provoke Jesus into some form of anti-Roman statement, either with the aim of supporting an uprising, or by getting Jesus into trouble with the occupying Roman forces. We will never know.
Jesus’ response is clear: the people who were killed by Pilate were no better and no worse than anyone else.
Terrible events caused at the hands of humans can happen. Be it an isolated, random act of violence, or something as terrible as a terrorist attack or even a war, for each and every one of us, our lives can be lost at any time. Jesus’ challenge is clear: have we restored our relationship with our Creator?
In the next two verses, Jesus cites another incident which would have been common knowledge at the time, but again for which there is no other record in the other Gospels or in the secular historical literature. Siloam is mentioned four times in the Bible, a place very near to Jerusalem, the site of a pool with running water. In St John’s Gospel, it is the place where Jesus healed the man who was born blind.
Some kind of disaster seems to have happened, causing the tower the fall, probably the result of an Earthquake which are common in the Eastern Mediterranean. Comparing this episode with the one concerning the Galileans, there is a hint of regional superiority, in that those who live in Jerusalem are in some way better or holier; nevertheless, Jesus’ point is clear: the people who were killed as a result of this disaster were no better and no worse than anyone else.
Natural disasters, diseases and accidents do happen. Be it a traffic accident, getting a terminal illness, or having our home destroyed by flood or fire, for each and every one of us, we can lose our lives at any time. Jesus’ challenge is again repeated to us: have we restored our relationship with our Creator?
The final four verses of our Gospel reading are a parable. Let us make some substitutions in the text.
The man who planted the fig-tree represents God. The fig-tree represents the Jewish people. The fruit, that is the figs, represent how the Jewish people have reconciled themselves to God. The three years represent the time from Moses to Jesus. The gardener represents Jesus who petitions the owner, that is God, for a final chance. The fertiliser represents Jesus’ teaching of the Good News.
Our re-written text might become: God established the Jewish people. God waited for the people to become reconciled to their Creator, but they did not. After many centuries, God sent Jesus who gave the people a final chance, giving them God’s son Himself to teach the people the Good News that God longs to be reconciled with His Creation. The warning is that there is limited time to respond.
In all three of these short Gospel narratives, Jesus’ teaching is constant:
- Irrespective of geographical origin, our gender, our age or our sexuality, everyone is the same. Our lives can be taken from us at any time, whether at the hands of humankind or as a result of disaster, illness or accident.
- Irrespective of who we are, Jesus’ challenge to us all is the same: have we become reconciled to our Creator?
Summing these up into two words: death and reconciliation.
Throughout human history, our knowledge and science have changed our lives completely from the simple hunter-gatherers humans were around 10,000 years ago. We live longer than ever before. We are richer and more comfortable than ever before. We can fight disease, keep out the cold, grow food in places which were once desert, communicate with others instantly, even with those on the other side of the planet, we can travel into space. Our societies are complex: we have laws to give us rules to live by, police and other agencies to protect us, democratic assemblies to represent all our views, support systems to help us when we are ill, poor or otherwise needy. Yet, there is one thing we cannot change: the fact that for each and every one of us, life will end one day, and that life may end, suddenly and unexpectedly.
Things happen in life, when we are left in pain, asking “Why?” But often, there is no answer to this question.
I introduced this sermon with the Two Ronnies’ sketch showing the stereotypical upper, middle and lower classes in the UK, followed by a discussion about showing respect and acknowledging superior authority. Given humankind’s mastery over the Earth and our achievements as an intelligent race which seem to be without limit, and our increasingly egalitarian democratic societies, it is easy to think we have evolved beyond a hierarchy.
What am I saying in all this? To me, it seems that through our achievements, humankind has lost sight of the fact that we are the Created, not the Creator. And because of our achievements which ease and prolong our lives, we have very much lost the fear of our own mortality.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us of our mortality and the need to be reconciled with our Creator. At the start of Lent, we were marked with ashes and these words were spoken over us: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return. Turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” To me, there is nothing more humbling than to be told than I am mere dust.
Having been reminded of and re-acknowledging before God, our Creator, our fragile mortality, Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading points clearly towards reconciliation. Jesus does not mince his words at all: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” And in the fig-tree parable, if the fig-tree remains fruitless, it will be cut down: that is, it will perish.
It would be all too easy at this point to divert this sermon into an analysis of what is meant by “perish”. We could talk about various doctrines of Heaven and Hell, the various views of different religions and even the different views within Christianity itself, but the fact is that we would not reach a definitive answer. It is something to which we will never have the answer.
Let us accept the warning for what it is: a call to be reconciled with our Creator.
In our first reading today, the prophet Isaiah really understood humanity’s place in the order of things. Here are Isaiah’s words once again:
Turn to the Lord and pray to him, now that he is near. Let the wicked leave their way of life and change their way of thinking. Let them turn to the Lord, our God; he is merciful and quick to forgive. ‘My thoughts,’ says the Lord, ‘are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thoughts above yours.
One final thought, before I finish. Does the story of the fig-tree have any other lesson for us? Yes, I think it does.
Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel reading is difficult, radical and uncompromising. The fruitless fig-tree may represent fruitless aspects of our lives – situations in which we find ourselves, friendships, relationships. Maybe we are at the stage where we need to give it one last chance, just like the fig-tree is given one last chance. Or maybe, we have gone past that. The one last chance has been given, and the fig-tree remains fruitless. And as hard and painful as it might be, now is the time to cut down that fig-tree, that is to loose ourselves from the unfruitful situation, friendship or relationship.
Let us pray:
Lord God, let us be humble. Let us accept that there are things which are beyond human understanding. Let us be grateful for what we have.
Let us not be arrogant that we know it all. Let us accept that we are the Created, not the Creator and that we are mortal. Let us recognise you, our God, the One who is greater than us.
Let us acknowledge our shortcomings before You. Let us acknowledge that there are situations and relationships in our lives which may require one last chance and those which must now be cut down. Give us the wisdom to discern.
As the gardener in the vineyard tended and fed the fig-tree, let us be fed, changed, strengthened and renewed by Jesus’ teaching.