Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
February 28, 2016
As a young adult Candy’s Mother wandered from the faith and church of her parents. She described those years as wild and wayward. The she contracted tuberculosis and had a long recovery in a sanitarium. She credited her bout with tuberculosis with bringing her back to a close relationship with God. Now, I don’t think God specifically steered some TB bacteria her way. Her less wayward sisters also contracted tuberculosis. Rather, I would suggest that God had been graciously calling to her all along, and during her recovery in the sanitarium she was ready and quiet enough to listen.
Whether you are grimacing or smiling, you have certainly had occasion to ask why something particularly bad has happened to you or to someone you know. We’ve all said, “They didn’t deserve that,” or asked, “What did I do to deserve that?” When my friend Wes Kennedy was going through all the procedures following a cancer diagnosis, intending sympathy, his doctor asked, “Do you ever wonder, why me?” To which Wes responded, “Why not me? I don’t expect to be exempt from the realities of life.”
In the spaces that bad things open up in our lives, be ready to listen attentively for God’s call to renewal.
As I’ve already said, during Lent we are journeying with Jesus to the cross. In Luke 11-12, Jesus’ teaching to the people on his path had become increasingly confrontational. In Luke 13:1-9 he was not yet in Jerusalem, but it was on his mind as he headed there and was brought gossip from Jerusalem.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
The first thing to notice is that Jesus asserted that the tragedies were not punishment or even natural consequences for the behavior of their victims. We can’t be sure of the specific events Jesus was speaking about, but some things did happen that could have connected.
Galileans were not too welcome in Jerusalem. Many rebel movements started in Galilee, so the Romans were suspicious that Galileans in Jerusalem were fomenting insurrection. Their fellow Jews considered them to be uncouth and impious, not really worthy of bringing a pure sacrifice to the Temple. On more than one occasion Pilate was known to send soldiers into the Temple to assassinate any he thought might be using piety as a cover for conspiracy. The Jerusalem Jews might suggest that because the Galileans were ritually impure, God allowed the Romans to kill them before they got to the altar. Maybe these deserved it.
Pilate wanted to build a Roman style water works in Jerusalem, and he confiscated some of the Temple offerings to pay for it. The Jews he hired to build it were considered wicked traitors. We don’t know if the tower that fell was part of that project or if those killed were working on it, but the Pool of Siloam was a water source for Pilate’s project. Gossip may have been that God purposely pushed the tower on them.
While Jesus specified that neither Pilate’s human cruelty nor the accidental collapse of the tower were God’s punishment, he said in them God’s urgent invitation to repent could be heard. Recognize that life is uncertain, and God is calling. Don’t miss your opportunity to reply.
That is the point of the parable of the fig tree. Like the gardener, God is giving you an opportunity to be fruitful, but it is limited. The time will come for the ax and saw, and the opportunity may be missed. I doubt Jesus had this in mind, but the gardener’s cultivating and spreading of manure can also be a parable for us about life’s difficult times. These spaces stir up our lives and dump stink on us, but those may be the triggers for our spiritual vigor.
Scholars debate exactly how, who and when the book of Isaiah came to be what we know. Exploring that could be a fun Bible study, but they all agree that Isaiah 55 comes from the section written for Judah when they were in Exile in Babylon. It is God’s word of hope in the darkest space of their history.
In vv. 2-3, God calls, “Listen to me, and I will lead you to joyful, vivacious bounty. The dark space is temporary.”
In vv. 6-7, God calls, “This is the time of opportunity. I am near right now. Turn to me and receive my mercy.”
In vv. 1-2, 4-5, God calls, “I want you to flourish, to be so conspicuously inviting that you attract all people to me.”
The ancient examples of Israel’s history match Jesus’ commentary on tragedies of his time. Tragic events in our time teach us to listen for God’s voice, turn to God, be nourished by God. In the spaces that bad things open up in our lives, we may be ready to listen attentively for God’s call to renewal.
I hope you do not think of my time with you as your interim pastor as God’s punishment. I know that the interim between pastors is a time of uncertainty. It is often a time of anxiety in which seeing God’s bounty can be difficult. As an act of faith, I encourage you to pray and step up your giving and involvement, building hope and expectation for the ministry bounty God has waiting. Holding back with a “wait and see” attitude, is to spend for that which does not satisfy. Instead, use God’s resources to buy into God’s bounty.
Lent reminds us that our journey with Jesus is not always a level, smooth path. Ignatius of Loyola imagined it as a rhythm of consolations and desolations. (Spiritual Exercises, 313-327) Of the 150 Psalms, ⅔ are laments or complaints. Passing through the dark spaces does not mean we have lost our way. When we know we are vulnerable, we are more inclined to listen for the voice of God and depend on the mercy of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whether the challenge is health, career, family, financial or relational, listen for the voice of God.
The recent political posturing of the presidential campaign reminds us that many things over which we have no personal control can plunge us into uncertain spaces. Though not nearly as extreme as Judah’s Exile in Babylon, the prescription is the same. Informed by Scripture and attuned to the Holy Spirit, listen for the voice of God – not about how to vote but about how to respond to God’s invitation to spiritual renewal for you and your church. How to become a flourishing community of hope so attractive, people trapped in their dark spaces with flock to Jesus because you embody God’s bounty.