READ: Luke 13:1-9
How merciful is God?
Is there an extent to God’s mercy?
You know, the modern church is a very comfortable church.
Even in this season of Lent, when it’s supposed to be uncomfortable,
we, the Church, still not only seek comfort, but we generally refuse to give up our comfort.
That’s partially because we’ve become too familiar with God’s mercy;
and we’re too familiar with Jesus’s teachings and lessons.
Now, don’t get me wrong, God is God, and God can do anything God wants to do.
God can be as merciful or unmerciful as God wants.
And who we are and what we’ve done — no matter how awesome or horrible — has absolutely no bearing on our salvation.
God is, after all, God, and the decision is God’s alone to make.
So when we read this parable in Luke’s Gospel about the fig tree, well, are we so familiar with it that it fails to teach us anything new?
Does it fail to even move the needles of our faith?
Does it tell us anything at all about our salvation, or is just a way to understand that the Father’s justice is satisfied through the Son’s mediation?
And does that mean that God is all merciful, or does it mean that God still judges?
Can it be both?
And if it is, then where do we stand today, on this Third Sunday in Lent,
supposedly emptying ourselves and walking that dark road to the cross — the entire payment for our salvation?
Today, I’d like us to delve into this parable and try to understand a little deeply what God’s love, mercy and grace means for us, especially in this season.
In our reading in Luke, we get a few verses about how a group of Galileans were killed by Pontius Pilate.
We barely know anything about this portion of the Gospel except that this group of people were making sacrifices, and Pilate decided to sacrifice them.
We don’t know who they were, what exactly they were doing, or how many of them there were.
We just know this fit into the general evil character of Pilate.
And as for a tower falling over in Siloam and killing 18 people, we don’t know anything historically about that either.
The only reason we believe that they are mentioned is because back in those days, folks believed that if something awful happened to you, it was probably because you did something horrible, and this was just God’s justice upon you.
Like the story of Jobe.
Jesus says, no; that way of thinking is wrong.
Then he gets into this very troubling parable about the fig tree beginning in Verse 6.
We would be right to understand the characters of the parable as being God, Jesus and the Church (or us).
* God is the man who wants the fig tree he planted uprooted because it won’t produce fruit;
* The gardener who intercedes for the fig tree requests one more year for him to nurture it to fruition;
And the fig tree itself is us, the Church.
Of course the fruit represents the good things the Church is supposed to produce.
So, in a more theological sense, then, we can see that God creates the Church and demands that it is fruitful rather than just selfishly hoarding the nutrients from the rest of the Body.
God, in God’s omnipotence and omniscience, decides that unfruitfulness is not worth his time.
But, curiously, he also has “hired” a gardener to tend to his garden,
and this gardener believes in second chances.
“Lord, give it one more year,” the gardener asks, “and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.”
In other words, Jesus intercedes for the fruitlessness of the tree.
Why would the gardener care about such things?
Well, gardeners are gardeners because the LOVE to garden.
They love to see life blooming abundantly.
They love to see the produce of the garden.
That’s the goal.
And so the gardener naturally intervenes.
Just as Jesus does for his Church.
In hard times, in times of selfishness, in times of fruitlessness…
In times in which the Church simply wants to shut down and not do anything…
Christ intervenes and gives it another chance.
And not simply on its own.
He doesn’t say, “Well, you have just one more year, so you better have it figured out by then — or else!”
No, instead, he pleads for our life, then comes alongside and helps us…
…cultivating us, feeding us, tending to our needs.
In between God’s plan for us and our own worthlessness is Mercy.
This is the very intersection of where the two planks come together,
which we understand as the cross.
What is our role in bearing fruit, then?
It’s not having to take on the mantle of responsibility all on our own;
it’s going to the gardener and first giving thanks;
then it’s giving our trust;
then it’s listening in full obedience.
The reason to bear fruit isn’t the threat of being cut down;
no, the reason to bear fruit is out of the thankfulness of Jesus’s mercy as well as the fact that he will help us become fruitful.
He puts his own life on the line out of love so that we understand what love is and learn how to act in love.
That’s the fruit.
When we do things out of love, it’s always fruitful.
This is the job of the Church.
But here’s what troubles me, my brothers and sisters;
Here’s the very thing that keeps me up at night:
Does the owner of the garden agree to the gardener’s request for another year?
We don’t know; Jesus doesn’t tell us.
Does the tree ever bear fruit after one year?
We don’t know; Jesus doesn’t tell us.
Does the owner of the garden actually cut the tree down after another year?
We don’t know; Jesus doesn’t tell us.
And while we’re at it, does the gardener KNOW for a fact that if he tends to the tree for a solid year, that it will definitely bear fruit the next season?
In fact, Verse 8 and 9 say the following:
‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. 9 Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”
Time is running out?
The parable — Jesus’s fourth and last that he preaches in the synagogue as he works his way to the cross — is troubling.
We’re just a few short weeks from Good Friday in the long and dark days of Lent,
and we’re confronted with such an open-ended teaching, when what we really need to know is what does this all mean for our lives:
Are we supposed to live in fear of eternal damnation if we do not produce fruit;
or are we supposed to bask in the mercy of God’s endless chances through the good and constant intervention of Jesus, our gardener and mediator?
Remember, Jesus begins by talking about the people who were killed and the fact that it wasn’t God’s judgment that killed them.
That suggests something else. God isn’t punishing them.
Or at the very least, their deaths weren’t for sins that were any worse than ours.
Yet in the next breath, in Verse 5, he warns us: “…unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
In the middle
At the beginning of Lent in our Lenten worship and study on Wednesdays, we’ve been talking about binaries and that — as we’ve said at the beginning of this sermon — Mercy meets us in the middle every single time.
Among so many questions in this open-ended parable, the takeaways are these:
* We are blessed to have an intermediary — a gardener who loves us enough to give us another chance to be fruitful as a church and as individuals, which is God’s plan all along.
This is Mercy.
* Also, we don’t have to walk this road alone.
If we don’t know how to be fruitful, then we’re not simply threatened that we better learn and learn quickly on our own; but Jesus is there to help us every step of the way.
This is Grace.
But in the end, the decision comes down to us.
That’s why Jesus says maybe we will produce fruit next year. (Verse 9)
We have to want to produce fruit — and not just learn about it; not just talk about it, but actually do it.
This is Obedience.
* And finally, we might be able to bank on God’s mercy for a second chance, but a third, fourth or 500th?
Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure.
At some point, God’s justice will be enforced.
In the end, we shouldn’t live our lives out of fear of punishment:
No one can experience true love by pointing a gun at you and demanding that you love them.
Love can only be experienced as when it’s selfless and uncoerced.
In this season of Lent, we get to see both sides of this firsthand.
We get to see Jesus’s perfect obedience in trade for our perfect disobedience.
But in the very same picture in the cross, we also see that those two absolutes come together right at the center of the cross.
The place of Mercy.
Because of God’s Grace.
And his endless love for us.
We are reminded of this today — and we can truly understand God’s love in a deeper way — when we understand the plan is for us to be reflections of Jesus’s love, and not reactions to God’s judgment.
Jesus takes God’s judgment with him onto the cross.
That’s the place we’re going on this walk to Good Friday.
And it’s that Mercy, Love and Grace that should strengthen and sustain us in these forty days.
And one more thing?
These forty days of Lent?
Let’s think of them as the year of being tended to in the garden.
If we put something tangible into our hands and hearts with this parable, let it be this:
That this is our one year to learn how to be fruitful;
to feel Jesus coming up alongside of you and allowing himself to be leaned into;
to experience the true love that he gave for us all on the cross;
and to not read this parable with so much familiarity, that it simply becomes distant and watered-down religion and tradition;
but that it’s alive and teaching us here today.
Jesus, the loving gardener, is here to help.