Luke 13: 6-9
There is common wisdom associated with nature that sometimes gets shared as facts. For example, when we were going on vacations when I was growing up, my mother would look out the window and say, “Look! The cows are lying down. That means it’s about to rain.” I have since been told there’s really no connection between cows lying down and rain. But I still look to the sky when cows are lying down! There is an old saying “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” I am told there is some truth to that one. We can read what Jesus said about it in Matthew 16: 2-3. He says to the Pharisees, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’And in the morning, ’It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’” Jesus had numerous sayings and many parables. Many of them had to do with agriculture or the sky or the stars. But today’s text, and the one just read about the sky, both concern a theme that Jesus was always proclaiming: “Be ready; for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” We in Florida, for example, can have a hard time discerning what season it is just by looking around. In the winter our days might be in the80s only dropping to the 50s at night. Up north when the leaves start to turn, people comment that fall is upon them; when the corn is ripe in the Midwest, it is summer; and when the cherry blossoms are in bloom in Washington D.C., it is spring. In Florida, how can we tell? Halloween items are on store shelves in August and Christmas items by the end of September! No wonder we’re all confused! But when it comes to our connection with God and our end of life issues, there should be clarity. Yes, gray hair or no hair might seem to indicate that life’s finish line is upon us, but plenty of persons, especially in our congregation, live well into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s. By contrast, we learned this month that a baby just minutes old, and young people their 20s, and some only in their fifties have died. Commercials on television tell young people what AARP aged people have already been learning: start saving early for retirement! But even though many young people do not do that, most young people are not thinking that one day sooner rather than later might be their last. Why am I talking like this? It is to be a voice in the wilderness saying, “It is never too early to put your spiritual house in order. No one on earth knows the day that will be their last.” This parable today is about observing fig trees and, like a farmer or a good garden center person might advise, deciding when to cut it down. I once told a church member that I thought we needed to cut down a tree on the church property because I thought it looked dead. He went out to look at it with me and showed me new life: little leaves, starting to grow. “This tree’s not done for,” he said. Give it a little time and it should come back.” And it did. We have to learn how to carefully read the signs about the Kingdom of God in our lives.
Israel, as we are learning in Disciple 1 class, was an unfaithful nation to God. Israel put other gods first and often; they forgot about the social care for others that the statutes commanded them to observe; and they often thought of themselves as blessed instead of in need. Jesus joins his Heavenly Father in his concern for Israel’s faithfulness; might our Lord have concerns about our nation as well? Jesus often taught in parables: an effective tool that invited people to come to their own good conclusions rather than have Jesus just say them plainly. Today it is about a fig tree, but it is really about the people of God: then and now. If you have been to Israel, you know that figs are everywhere. When we were in Jericho I was given a free sample of a fig. I didn’t think I would like it. Having been proved wrong, I bought a bag of them! Figs in Israel are generally grown in vineyards along with grapes. The vineyard is tended by a farmer or vinedresser. Often Israel is compared to a vineyard: if plants are healthy, they get watered, tended, and cared for so they can produce more. If the vineyard has plants that start dying, for whatever reason, the vinedresser or farmer, perhaps with careful observance and abundant grace, might give them a season to rest and then see if they produce fruit. According our text, the man looks for fruit on his fig tree for three years. He had then concludes that it should be cut it down. But upon advice from his vinedresser, he offers abundant grace and patience instead. “Let it alone sir for one more year; let me give it extra water and care, then let’s see if it bears fruit. If not, then you can cut it down.” Can you hear that message? It’s really not a garden center message. It’s a God message. Looking at Israel, or perhaps looking at our nation, or at you, or at me, some spouses, some parents, some voters, or some employers say to themselves: “Why should I continue in this relationship! I am so exasperated! I am just going to end it.” But before you do, perhaps you’ll go home, kneel by your bed, and consult the vinedresser. Later that night perhaps you’ll hear this answer: “Let it alone my child, for a period of time. Let my Spirit tend to the person or the issue that troubles you. Let me water the dry places. Then let’s see if there is change. Give it some time. If there is no change, and you and I have tried everything, then, sadly, we can let the relationship lapse.”
Israel was trying the last nerve of their prophets, but also the last nerve of their God and our God! But because God is omnipotent and God is eternal, God has a reserve of amazing grace that is beyond human reserves. So God, although not infinitely patient, is a God of second chances. When one hears God and has a change of heart, the vinedresser looks at our heart, like a man looks at the branches of a tree and sees new life there, and like the man I described who saw new leaves on a dead looking tree. So the wise vinedresser does what anyone might do trying to cultivate a sick plant: he gives it a little extra attention. And then he’ll see if it comes back.
Don’t be lulled into complacency by God’s apparent grace. God also believes in, and has demonstrated resurrection. That is, when necessary, God will allow something or someone to die, knowing that something or someone new and vibrant can come along. It is not heartless; it is purposeful. God will work his purpose out through us, or—if we are lazy or disengaged—in spite of us. God’s business is to redeem the world, and it sadly needs redeeming! God want us, in the name of Jesus, to help transform the kingdoms of this world to become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, who will eventually reign forever and ever! But for now, the great gardener, is giving us the parable of the fig tree for today. There are some people and some places in our world that look dead for Christ. No one can tell by their actions whether or not they are followers of Jesus or not. As one person once asked pointedly: “If you were ever put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Our gardener has a hoe, a trowel, and a rake. Our gardener has a barn where the crop may be safely stored or cured. But out gardener also has fire that will burn up the chaff: that which is no longer productive or worthwhile. Listen to the teachings of Jesus. Learn from the lesson of the fig tree. It is so much more than a lesson about figs.
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 28, 2016