First Reading Isaiah 55:1-9
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Gospel Reading Luke 13:1-9
Sermon: “Bearing Fruit in Evil Days”
What do we think when we hear of bad things happening around us? We wonder why such things happen, Sometimes we wonder what that person or group was doing that got them in trouble. Perhaps they were in a bad place, or doing something they shouldn’t have been doing. Other times, it seems that evil just randomly shows up – or is it really random. Where is God in such times? We would like to think that the righteous always prosper and that evil is always punished. We say that God is Sovereign, that is to say that God is almighty and will bring all things to union and renewal under his righteous reign. Sometimes we go further and claim that nothing happens outside his will. Here we are flirting with things beyond our knowing and are in danger of error. It is indeed part of our confession as Christians that we live in a fallen and broken world. Sin is by definition those acts and attitudes that separate us from the will of God. And by the way, we are all sinners whether we like to admit it or not.
So no, not everything that happens is the will of God. Far, far from it. To say so is to misunderstand the nature of this broken world and the nature of God. God is good, all the time. We say this as a matter of faith, for in God we find true love, hope and redemption. When we are at peace and in prosperity, it is easy to believe this is so. When disease ranges over the planet taking millions of lives and world war threatens, it is more difficult. Yet we trust in God to journey with us through it all and to renew creation in God’s own perfect time.
Still, there are so many terrible things happening in the world around us. We want Jesus to explain the problem of evil to us and he seems to have the perfect opportunity in today’s Gospel reading when he is asked about an apparently recent event where Pontus Pilate had some Galilean worshippers killed at the temple. This particular vicious incident is reported only in Luke and not in secular history, though it certainly is in keeping with Pilate’s reputation for cruelty. We want to hear Jesus tell us what it all means, why such things happen… and he doesn’t do it. He does make it clear that the world does not function on some sort of transactional system where if you are good, you prosper and if you sinful you are punished, if that were so, none of us would survive – Paul puts it well went he says in (Romans 3:23-24 NLT) “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.”
We serve a good and gracious God who wills that all should come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Not that these horrible things don’t matter, rather that we as individuals should not focus on a past event and what cannot be controlled, Jesus encourages them (and us) to change what they can—their minds and attitudes, he calls them to repent. This is the process of changing our basic outlook from self centered “what’s in it for me” to “what best conforms to the will of God” – and it is what Jesus says we must do and continue to do until it is our transformed nature. Then our lives will bear the sweet fruit of grace filled living in the will our God.
This is where that strangely ominous parable about the fig tree comes in. I think we are invited to think about this little parable in at least two ways. The first would be in the original circumstances of Jesus’ day. The whole history of Israel as the special people of God contains example after example of what happens when they persisted in resisting the will of God. Paul gave us quite the list in today’s epistle reading as he recounts their rebellions and bitter complaining in the wilderness – despite the visible and obvious provisions of God through water from the rock and mana from heaven.
Now, in the person of Jesus, God had come to his people in human form so that they might know him more fully. Would they repent and bear fruit as true servants of the most high? Or would they fail to bear fruit? As always, God is amazingly patient and so in the role of the Gardner of the parable, we hear him say give them more time and special care to see if they can be turned to productive living. Yet there is an appointed response time and consequences. Indeed, in about 40 years from the time Jesus spoke that parable, Jerusalem was utterly destroyed by the Romans.
For us, at this time and place, I would like to emphasize the grace and patience of the parable rather than the judgement and removal aspect. As it turns out, I have my own battle with a fig tree in my garden, so this parable speaks to me. I am extremely frustrated with it and yet I continue to water, prune and fertilize it. Would you forgive a little digression into the nature of figs? They are native to the Mediterranean climate not to Oklahoma’s and that is a major part of my frustration. They ideally bear two crops of figs each year. The first one from the old wood. These come on shortly after the leaves come out and slowly ripen over a couple of months. The problem is that the old wood can only survive temperatures down into the teens, which means that usually the plant has to come back up from the roots each year, so no first crop. The second crop begins after the new wood matures in August or so. Here again, the Oklahoma climate is a problem, in that few of those late figs range to ripen before frost. I’ve got only one year of full production in the last ten, but boy was it wonderful! Figs are these little tender, but juicy bags of sweet goodness which can be dried and keep for a long time. They so well represent good fruit! But the bugs and beetles know that too of course.
It is easy to bear fruit when all the factors are favorable – the right climate, abundant sun and water. When the environment is not so good and predators show up, things are a bit more challenging. How then do we bear good fruit? Adverse conditions are different for us than plants, but so are we – we have been given the gift of will and agency by God. Our choices and attitudes matter – God has designed us that way. We are not merely plants, we are created in the image of God to be in relationship with God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. When that relationship is strong, then the fruit of our lives is sweet and precious indeed.
To push the analogy a bit further, think about what a plant needs to bear fruit and what we need. The parable mentions digging and fertilizing. Digging to loosen the soil so that water and nutrients can reach the roots. Digging so that weeds are removed and the wayward spreading of the plant is controlled. It sounds a lot like spiritual discipline to us does it not? Time to study and pray, discipline to ignore distractions and time wasting practices.
As far as the climate goes, I think there is no better analog for cold than fear and worry. These things can not only prevent growth and it’s fruits but can cause us to shrink back and withdraw from the tasks that God calls us to do. When we feel threatened, it is harder to reach out in love. We have lived with that one for two years now. When we fear scarcity, it is harder to be generous. When war threatens it is difficult to concentrate on making peace, hearts turn to baser instincts.
Still, we are not mere plants and we do not face the world alone. The very Spirit of Almighty God is available to all who seek it through faith in Jesus Christ. Ours is not a blind, Poly Anna ish faith that ignores troubles, but one that is deeply rooted near living waters. We know that God has always been faithful in the past and that God is with us still. Our eternal future is secure in the arms of God and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can hurt or threaten that. Therefore we can stand confidently in the face of fears and trials, we can reach out in love and grace, knowing that we are loved and forgiven as children of God. These are the rich blessings of God, why settle for lesser things?
This is the call we heard from Isaiah when He urged his people to come to the waters, he addressed a primal need for people living in a dry and arid land. But it is much more than physical water he is really talking about and more than bread and wine and milk. He is using the essential needs of food and water to represent our central, basic, visceral need of the love of God: Isaiah 55:1-2 NIV  “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.  Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Did you hear? The free gift of water, and good things! – available without price – no money needed.
Then as now, water and the basics of food could be expensive in times of shortage, but not in Isaiah’s proclamation. Why is it necessary to urge people to desire something so essential, so good, so freely given? It would seem to be a simple thing, right? Well, this brings us back to the illness that affects all of our fallen race – sin. We are by nature, rebellious and prone to think that we know best for our own lives.
It becomes clear that this call from Isaiah is really the same as from Jesus – about the need for repentance when he says: Isaiah 55:6-9  Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.  Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
God is the one who can truly fill our needs. It is God who really understands us and knows what is best. God – the Gardner of souls. Patient and loving. Isaiah and Jesus both issue the same call: A call to change our way of thinking and rediscover life as it is meant to be lived. Today’s scriptures also call us to look honestly at our own lives. Are the things that we “eat and drink”—the things that we take into our lives—truly nourishing us? Or is it spiritual junk food? Isaiah tells of those who buy “bread” that is not bread. It reminds us of the prodigal son in Jesus parable and of our own poor, Ignorant or just plain rebellious choices that we need to repent of as well. According to Jesus and Isaiah, even the unrighteous and those who have born no fruit have hope, if they repent. God freely forgives any who will come and receive grace, then grow and flourish and bear much fruit!