Sermon - 24th March 2019
There is someone greater
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
At the start of Lent, we used ash as a symbol of the earth to mark our foreheads and remind ourselves of our frail mortality. The core message of Christianity is that death – whenever it comes - is not the end: Jesus’ death on the Cross was followed three days later by His glorious Resurrection, through which we have eternal life.
The central section of St Luke’s Gospel, spanning chapters 12 to 19, contains little narrative of Jesus’ actions and movements and focuses 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, Jesus’ audience is not identified.
We can divide the reading into three sections. Firstly, the fate of the Galileans. Galilee was an area North of Jerusalem in King Herod’s jurisdiction. 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 other Gospel, nor by any of the secular historians. 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. An ideological war, like the Holocaust in the 1930s-1940s, or a huge terrorist incident like on 11 September 2001 in the USA, or the still very raw events in New Zealand 10 days ago by a single extremist.
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’ chose uncomfortable words, but Jesus’ challenge is clear and urgent: how is our relationship with God?
In the next two verses, Jesus mentions another incident which would have been common knowledge at the time, but again for which there is no other record. Siloam is mentioned four times in the Bible, a place very near to Jerusalem, the site of a pool with running water. In 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 this: 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 is a traffic accident, getting a terminal illness, or losing our home in flood or fire, for each and every one of us, we can lose our lives at any time. Jesus’ repeats His challenge, again choosing uncomfortable words, emphasising the imminence and urgency: how is our relationship with God?
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, the figs, represent how the Jewish people have reconciled themselves to God (or not, as the case may be). 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.
Irrespective of who we are, Jesus’ challenge to us all is the same: have we become reconciled to our Creator? How is our relationship with God?
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 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.
Given humankind’s mastery over the Earth and our achievements as an intelligent race which seem to be without limit, many claim that we have outgrown God, dismissing the Bible as irrelevant, or seeking to explain away its mysteries as myth and allegory.
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.
But then, things happen in life, when we are left in pain, asking ourselves “Why?” But often, there is no answer to this question. Today’s set Old Testament reading from the Lectionary is from the prophet Isaiah and offers us an answer of sorts to this unanswerable question.
Isaiah really understood humanity’s place in the order of things. These words, written around 600 years before Jesus’ time on Earth, are a precursor to Jesus’ teaching from our Gospel reading.
In those 4 verses from Isaiah, the call to turn to God is found 4 times. In both readings, some translations use the words “repent”. In our modern times, that word has lost its meaning for most folk, seen as a religious word that people do not understand. Going back to the Hebrew and Greek words, “repentance” is a physical action, meaning to turn oneself around and go in a different direction.
One final thought: 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 also represent for us 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, accepting the things which are beyond human understanding. Let us be grateful for what we have.
Forgive our arrogance and pride that we know it all. Let us accept that we are the Created, not the Creator and that we are mortal. We recognise you, our God, the One who is greater than us.
We recognise 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, feed us, Lord. May we be changed, strengthened and renewed by the Good News of Jesus’ teaching in our lives.