ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 28, 2016
Isaiah 55:1 – 9; Luke 15: 1 – 9
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
This past week one of our members had an aunt die. When I gave her my condolences she said, “Well we’ve been expecting it.” Often those words refer to a prolonged illness, in this case her aunt was in her 101st year. I think they’d been expecting it for some time. Life comes with a guarantee – we’re guaranteed that one day it will come to an end. A skier, a ship’s captain and a safety inspector were sentenced to death by firing squad. The skier was taken from his cell and as the soldiers took aim he shouted “Avalanche!” The soldiers panicked and in the confusion the skier escaped. The ship’s captain was led out next. As the soldiers took aim he shouted “Flood!” and he too escaped. The safety inspector was then lead out. The squad took aim and remembering how the other two had escaped, the safety inspector shouted “Fire!” We all hope to escape death and yet it comes to us all. Sometimes it comes in tragic ways.
As Jesus was busy teaching, people came rushing up with the latest horrendous news. The Roman Governor Pilate had put to death a number of Galileans who’d come as pilgrims to Jerusalem. Then he and mingled their blood with the blood of the animals they’d brought to sacrifice in the Temple. Why had this happened? Why did God allow such a vile act? Some concluded the Galileans must have been terrible sinners for such evil to befall them. Like many people today, these people lived in a cut and dry, right/wrong, reward and punishment world. Jesus reminded them that life is a fragile gift and tragedy can be arbitrary. He recalled another recent event “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam [accidentally] fell on them—do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4) He answered his own question, “No, I tell you” (vs. 5) these people were no better or worse than anyone else. Jesus didn’t get angry at the State, or defend God or blame the victims. He knew, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes would later put it, that “Life is nasty, brutish and short”. Because life is frail Jesus got to the heart of the matter, “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (vs. 3 & 5) In other words, while such events are dreadful, instead of worrying about the vices of the dead, you need to reflect on your own sins. What is the condition of your soul? Knowing judgement is near, how will you live this life you’ve been given? And because tragedy hasn’t befallen you, doesn’t mean you’re God’s favourite. No one should be too self-assured. Repentance is a need shared by perpetrators, victims and survivors. Calamities serve to remind us to grab God’s gift of new opportunities before we have no opportunity. Because anyone can die at any time, the unremorseful, stubborn soul is in peril. If you wait too long to seek God’s grace, you will lose your life forever. There’s an urgency to seizing God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation.
We all know what urgency is about. Urgency is having a project due on Monday and its 11:30 Sunday night and you haven’t started. Urgency is receiving a call that your spouse has been brought into Emerg and you’re stuck in traffic. Urgency is waiting for a very slow elevator with a very full bladder. Urgency is a rush of adrenalin when you’re in danger. Urgency is running for a bus because you’re running late. Urgency is responding to a 911 call in time to prevent tragedy. Urgency is hustling to the delivery room ‘cause this baby’s coming now! Urgency is pressure driven. It creates panic or fear. But the fear it induces is better than apathy because fear compels us to act before it’s too late.
To our demise when pressure and fear are removed or ignored, we lose our sense of urgency. Unless death is fast approaching, we take the blessings of life for granted. We live in a pacified state of unwarranted confidence believing we’ve got all the time in the world. We rationalize our sin with pride and self-pity. We remain spiritually asleep. We deny the reality that the judgement of God awaits us so Jesus went on to tell a parable about a fig tree that is much like us. Like many trees, a young fig tree can take a few years to get established and produce figs. In this parable, the owner of a vineyard planted a fig tree. Three years later the tree has not offered up one fig. The vineyard owner figures it’s a dud. Not only is it worthless in its lack of fruit, but its wasting space where another more productive tree could grow. The owner decides it’s a bad investment and makes the judgement, “Cut it down!” (vs. 7) The gardener knows the tree is not yet dead – there’s still hope. He’s willing to be patient. He plans to tend the tree by turning over the soil at its base and fertilizing it. So the owner is persuaded to give it one last chance. If the tree bears fruit within the year it can live; if not, it’s done. This act of benevolence is a sign of God’s grace – God is willing to give us another chance. But, Jesus warned, the next chance could be the last chance. Judgement will come. Repent while you are able.
Repentance is often defined in grave terms. A repentant person flogs themselves emotionally if not physically. Repentance means examining our souls with regret and remorse. It’s working on changing ourselves and striving to be a better, morally righteous person. The great sign of repentance is to go around with a morose expression of piety; to sit forever in sackcloth and ashes. In the parable though repentance is positive. Two monks were saying prayers of confession by the edge of the sea when Jesus appeared on the other side. He called to them, “Brothers, take wings of fire and come to me.” The one monk refused; crying bitterly he said, “Lord, I have not yet finished my confession.” The other took wings and flew. Repentance is more than feeling guilt; it’s flying – it’s bearing fruit. A repentant person fulfills their purpose by living a lush and juicy life that nurtures and blesses others. Repentance is seeing ourselves and life in fresh ways. We make amends. We see possibilities and opportunities which move us to bring hope and salvation to others. Repentance shows us our lost potential so we begin to fulfill God’s calling and dreams for our lives. We grow to be the person God created us to be. We change; instead of being self-righteous and proud, we learn compassion for ourselves and others. In these ways repentance leads to new and bountiful life. A person who bears fruit is, “loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled” (Galatians 5: 22 & 23). When we repent of our spiritual poverty and dryness to bear the fruit of the Spirit, we become aware that every day, every breath, is a gift to be used for God’s glory. Living like this we’re ready to meet our Maker with hope and peace.
Because God’s deepest wish is for us to bear fruit – to fly – God is patient with us. He continues to give us chances to live differently. He also helps us to do so – by tending and nurturing us. God loosens up the dry, depleted soil we’re rooted in. He shakes up our apathy and refocuses our attention away from the deficits of others and away philosophical questions and causes us to breathe in his Spirit. He also feeds us. Notice though that in the parable the gardener doesn’t fertilize with “Miracle Grow”, he fertilizes with manure. More often than not God improves our souls not with lovely words or quick cures – he nurtures us by dumping a load of crap at our feet. As we absorb and process the dung that life throws at us – the tragedies, the oppressions, the heartaches and the losses – that crap can be transformed to give us strength and health, just as Jesus suffering and death gives way to resurrection. Out of the dirt we find new life and bear fruit.
Most of us live in a way that presumes there will always be other opportunities. Others realize that death is not far off. That is a hard and even frightening thought to bear. We can put it out of your head and go on like always or we can repent and live as fully as possible. The truth is that our next chance could be our last chance. How would your life be different if you really believed that? Would you express your love more often? Would there be someone you would seek out to forgive? Would you change the focus of your energy – spend more time at home instead of work? Watch less TV to enjoy God’ creation? Let your housework go a bit and enjoy the grandkids more? Would you look at the person you’ve become and decide you don’t really want to be that person anymore? Would you admit you haven’t felt joy for many years and do something to change that? Would you allow God to heal you? Would you seek God’s grace and forgiveness with a passion you’ve never had before? Would you spend more time getting to know Jesus by immersing yourself in prayer and scripture reading? If so, don’t wait. Today offers that opportunity; tomorrow may not. Heed the words of Isaiah who wrote, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55: 6 & &)