11 March 2007

Second Chance

I wonder how many times we pick up the paper, or switch on the television news, or even click on the news headlines on the Internet, if we’re that sort of person, and read about a dreadful tragedy that has happened. This week there was a plane crash in Indonesia, and an earthquake there, at least one suicide bomber in Baghdad, and so on. Recently there were those dreadful shootings of young lads, one in the ice rink where we train, and there was a bad train crash that has blocked the West Coast Main Line. Every single week there is some disaster or other, all reported more or less gleefully by the media. Or a minor disaster that isn’t reported, but that changes the lives of those affected by it. A road accident, or cancer, for instance. Or the birth of a child with a life-shortening genetic condition. Just as I was writing this sermon, on Friday, news came through that one of Robert’s colleagues died of a heart-attack. Perhaps you have been affected by that sort of tragedy, and if you haven’t, you almost definitely know someone who has.

And it was the same in Jesus’ day. In our reading, some Jews from Galilee had been going about their business, making sacrifices in the Temple, when they had been murdered by Pilate’s officials and their blood had been mingled with that of the sacrifices, something that, to them, would have been really badly upsetting. So some people who had heard about this went to Jesus and told him about it, and said, “But were these people worse sinners than most Galileans?”

Jesus said, “No, of course not, any more than the people who were killed when that tower collapsed at Siloam were any better or worse than anybody else in the area.”

But then he seems to contradict himself, because he adds, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did!”

Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did!” First, he makes it clear that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies. He doesn’t say, “It was God’s will.” The Galileans killed by Pilate were victims of the Roman government’s whims and his desire for control. It could have been anybody offering sacrifices that day. And the people killed by the tower? It could have been anyone who happened to be standing there. We’ve all read stories of people who were killed when scaffolding collapsed, or so on. Jesus is saying that it’s not about cause and effect. Were those who died worse sinners? No, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Jesus is telling them to look at their own lives – don’t speculate about others. What about your life? What about mine? We can spend so much time trying to explain things – so much time worrying about other people’s lives that we forget to pay attention to our own lives with God. Maybe these deaths should be an alarm call, Jesus said.

Then, then in response to those unanswerable questions, in response to the warning, “Unless you repent, you will perish”, then Jesus told them a parable about a fig tree. A parable about destruction? A story of punishment for those who failed to repent?

There have been fig-tree stories like that, haven’t there? Jesus himself, according to St Matthew’s gospel, once cursed a fig-tree that bore no fruit. And in that passage in John 15, Jesus reminds us that branches that bear no fruit are pruned and disposed of. John the Baptist says something very similar. It’s a very common metaphor in the New Testament.

But this story is a little different. It starts off the same way – the barren fig-tree that hasn’t produced a single fig for three years or more. It’s taking up valuable space in the garden and, what’s worse, it’s leaching the soil of valuable nutrients but not giving anything back.

I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten fresh figs – my parents have a huge fig-tree in their front yard, just by the garage, and in the height of summer it grows so big and shady that it makes it quite difficult for my mother to get her car out. The funny thing is, I don’t remember it having any figs when I was a child, but in recent years it’s had a lovely crop. You have to be a bit careful with figs – if you eat too many, it can be a bit disastrous! I made jam out of them one year, which was rather nice but a bit sweet nothing, like marrow jam can be. And, of course, you can buy dried figs, especially near Christmas, which are delicious in quite a different way, and I saw the other day that Tesco’s are now selling frozen ones. Not quite sure how I’d serve those, though.

But fresh figs are delicious, and I can quite see that the owner was really disappointed and frustrated that the tree simply wasn’t producing any. “Let’s cut it down and get a new one!” he said.

But the gardener, who loved his garden and loved his trees, said, “No, hang on, let’s give it a last chance. If I dig around it, loosening the soil, and put in lots of manure, it just might produce some figs this year. If it doesn’t, I agree, it’s finished.”

And there the story ends. The implication is that the tree will be given another chance, another year to bear fruit. But only another year. What we need to know is, is this a threat or a promise?

Once, not just so long ago, we were given some theatre vouchers, which had a two-year expiry date. Oh, plenty of time, we thought. We’ll find out how to use them one of these days, and then we’ll choose a show.... but somehow it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and, before we new it, the vouchers had expired! Oops.... And that’s what’s so easy to do. I’m forever doing it with Tesco vouchers, which often expire in only a month or so, too. We need to use them up before the expiry date, or they are no good. And the fig tree had an ultimatum: just one more year.

But, it wasn’t just that the tree had one more year to shape up, and after that, curtains. The point was that the gardener was going to do everything possible to help the tree – dig round the roots, put in lots of manure, all that. And if that didn’t work, then there would be nothing more he could do, and the tree would have to go.

And Jesus reminds us that we need to repent. The word used, is metanoia, which, if you translate it literally, is a compound word meaning after thinking, or after having thought. The Greeks used it to mean “changing your mind”, “turning round”, and it’s that which we mean by repentance. One recent definition I heard was “When we think about stuff with our souls, things change!” Another was:

To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, "I'm sorry," than to the future and saying, "Wow!"

We look to the future, at what God is doing, both in our lives, in our church, and in our community, and we often can say “Wow!”

Of course, we do need to take stock of our lives, make amends when necessary, and ask for God's forgiveness. But we mustn’t get stuck there. That is not real repentance. To repent is to come to our senses, to change our mind, to think about stuff with our souls, and to face the future with a sense of the hope, love and companionship that God offers to us in our lives.

"Wow!" God has something in store for us in our future. God will give us gifts for our future. God will be there with us and for us in our future. To repent is to change our minds and recognize these things. It is to turn towards the future with faith, hope, and love.

The fig tree was to be given another chance – but so much more than that! It was to be given special love and care and attention to help it grow figs again. Not just: “Shape up, or else,” but “Let’s see what we can do to help you bear fruit again!”

Rather like, as I said to the kids, when you have to retry a skating test, as we did – the judge tells you exactly what you need to work on to be able to pass it next time. I expect that’s the same if you fail any other type of sports test, too.

I do so love that passage in Isaiah that was our first reading, don’t you:

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.”

Let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon!”

We have to return to the Lord, but God is going to do everything possible to enable that to happen! To enable us to turn towards the future with faith, hope and love! Amen.

The Skating Test (Children's talk)

Have you ever learnt to swim? I wonder how far you can swim now? Who can swim 100 metres?

Did you pass your 100 metres test the first time you tried, or did you have to try several times? It didn’t matter, did it, if you didn’t pass first time. You could always try again.

A few weeks ago, Robert and I both took skating tests. We had to go out on to the ice in front of the judges and perform certain moves. Robert was testing at level 4, and I was testing at level 3.

Unfortunately, neither of us skated very well, and, when we had finished, the judge had to say "I'm awfully sorry, but I can't pass you this time." And they gave us papers that were marked "Retry", not "Pass".

The point was, we hadn't reached the required standard, but it didn't matter - we couldn't pass the test that day, but if we went away and worked hard on the things the judge told us needed work, we could come back in a month or so and try again.

In fact, for those particular tests, we couldn't, as they were changing the system, so we'll have to do different sorts of moves if we test them again. But the idea is that you always get another chance.

You see, a judge isn't always someone who condemns you! Sometimes we think of judges as always being there to send you to prison, or give you an ASBO, or something like that. But the word doesn't necessarily imply that.

When we think of God as our judge, let's remember the words from Isaiah: "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."

God always gives us another chance.... and another.... and another.....

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