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The Patient Gardner

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1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
6 Then 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. 7 So 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?' 8 He replied, "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.' "

Illustration

I came across a story about William Sloan Coffin, while he was senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, experienced a tragedy. His son Alex was killed in a car accident. It seems Alex was driving in a terrible storm; lost control of his car and plunged into the waters of Boston Harbor.
The following Sunday, Dr. Coffin preached about his son's death. He thanked all the people for their messages of condolence, for food brought to their home, for an arm around his shoulder when no words would do.
But he also expressed how upset he was about well-meaning folks who had hinted that Alex's death was God's will. It made him angry every time he heard someone say that…and he said so in a sermon.
In that sermon he asked, "Do you think it was God's will that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper...that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm. Do you think it was God's will that there are no street lights along that stretch of the road and no guard rail separating the road and Boston Harbor? The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, 'It is the will of God.' Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break."
In that sermon he asked, "Do you think it was God's will that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper...that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm. Do you think it was God's will that there are no street lights along that stretch of the road and no guard rail separating the road and Boston Harbor? The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, 'It is the will of God.' Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break."

Hard to let God be God

It's hard to let God be God. We have such a desire to make sense of senseless tragedies and search for reasons even when there are none. Jesus dealt with such things in today's gospel reading.
Two terrible tragedies had happened in Jerusalem. One in the temple, the other near the pool of Siloam.
In the first instance, Pilate, the Roman governor, had killed some Galileans who were worshiping at the temple and then he mixed their blood with the sacrifices. This was particularly heinous because animals were sacrificed in part with the idea that people were casting their sins into those animals. For Pilate to then mix the Galileans blood with the sacrificial animals’ blood was to pour that sin, and possibly God’s judgement, back in. This was likely a way to scare the locals that the Romans had power not only over the people’s daily lives but could have consequences far more long lasting than that.
In the other incident, a tower fell on people near the pool of Siloam killing 18 people who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. How can such things be explained?
This is the question Jesus raises. He asks the questions that must have been on people's minds. Were the Galileans worse sinners than other Galileans? Were the people killed by the tower worse than all others living in Jerusalem?

Jesus’ Answer

Then Jesus answers his own question, "No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." Jesus' words sound confusing. He seems to be contradicting himself.
First, he makes it clear that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies. It was not God’s will that such things should happen. The Galileans killed by Pilate were victims of the Roman governor’s desire for control. It could have happened to anyone who happened to be in the Temple that day. And the people killed by the tower? It could have been anyone who was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time; like the victims at the mosques in Christchurch of New Zealand or the passengers on the 737 Max 8 planes that went down or those who were in the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. And to all of these and more, we can ask: “Why?”
Were those who died worse sinners than those who lived? No, says Jesus, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So 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?"
Then he goes on to tell a parable which sheds some light on how God deals with sinners. A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So 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?"
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So 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?"
Ahhhh—just as we thought! It’s a parable about judgment. Judgment for those who fail to repent. We could have predicted it if we remembered John the Baptist's warning at the beginning of this gospel. When people came to the Jordan River to be baptized, John called them to repentance. His words were harsh and threatening: "Even now," he said, "the ax is lying at the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
It was shortly after that when Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized and began his public ministry; and that was three years before. Remember the parable? "For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree." For three years God has been waiting for people to turn their hearts toward Jesus, but there has not been much repentance. There isn't any fruit on the tree, so the owner of the vineyard says, "Cut it down!"
"Cut it down!" seems like the reasonable thing. But the gardener says, "Sir, let it alone for one more year until I dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good, but if not you can cut it down."
Jesus is the gardener, and he refuses to give up on us. The parable says something about his patience with us, about his mercy and grace. In the moment when we well deserve to be cut down, judged and condemned we are given some extra time, a new day. Now the question is, what are we going to do with it? This day, this year, this bonus time, is given for a reason. It’s intended to be used for our God given purpose. It’s not just time to be frittered away, but time to produce, time to be what God wants us to be and to do what God wants us to do.

One More Year

The gardener asks that the fig tree not be cut down, not yet. Give it another year, he says. I suppose that could be taken as a threat. You’ve got one more year to produce…or else. Yes, time is limited. It’s true that our time in this life will eventually come to an end.
But this parable of Jesus is more of a promise than a threat. Not only does he give us time to be what God wants us to be and to do what God intends us to do…but he gives the resources to do it.
The gardener says, "I'm going to do everything I can to help this tree live and bear fruit. I'm going to dig around it and put down fertilizer. I'm going to find every way possible to create new hearts and minds in these people.
Jesus, the gardener, wants us to live and he wants our lives to make a difference to others. He offers all that we need for that to happen. May we be receptive to Christ and all that he offers us.
During these days of Lent, let’s take a look at our lives and dare to ask ourselves the hard questions:
Are we making good use of the time and resources Christ has given us?
Are we sharing the love with which he has loved us?
Are we offering the forgiveness with which we have been forgiven or are we withholding it?
Do we believe that we can be forgiven, or do we needlessly carry a growing burden of guilt?
Are we focusing our time and energy on things that really matter or are we so busy with minor things that we forget what really matters?
Jesus digs at us with questions like these. Jesus digs at our hearts in the outstretched hand of every homeless beggar on the streets, of every child not fed, of every enemy and neighbor not loved, cared for, or stood up for.
"What have you done?" Jesus asks, and "What have you left undone?"
Such questions, like the parable of the fig tree, move us toward repentance, a word that means to turn around, to believe things can be different, to trust that the one who calls us to turn around will be there even when we fail.
We all fall short of being what God wants us to be and of doing all that he wants us to do. If we were God we’d probably be far more impatient with the likes of us. We’d be tempted to say, "You've had your chance." Still, the gardener comes. "One more year," he says, "I'll do everything I can to bring this tree back to life."
"Who knows?" asks the gardener. "Could this be the year for figs?"

Prayer

Let us pray. Gracious and merciful God, whose patience goes far beyond our erring, be with us this day that we might repent and turn around. Give us the power and the grace to return to you. Give us the courage to admit what we have done wrong and what we have failed to do right. In this year, come to us, dig around our hearts, open us to your wisdom, your forgiveness, and your grace. Amen.
:-)
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