11 March 2007
- 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 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
- 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
- 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
- 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;
them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
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
- 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!
The Skating Test (Children's
- 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
- 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
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon."
- God always gives us another chance.... and
another.... and another.....
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