Lent III: It's Never Too Late
It’s hard to believe that we are already into our third week of Lent! Hopefully you’ve found some time this season to self-reflect, to look inwardly, to consider not only ways to better your lives, but also the lives of those in your community and your church. We are continuing with our series this week, trying not to just imagine what Jesus would do, but really looking at what Jesus did in his life and ministry. I hope this experience is helpful in some way because I think so often we might open up this Bible, read some passages, and think to ourselves, “this book was written such a long ago, surely there can’t be anything applicable for me today?”
And perhaps the fact that you’re here means you’re not thinking that, but if so, I first want you to know that that’s ok. And I hope you will continue journeying with me as we look at the actions and model of Jesus. Because doing so, helps us realize that, even though thousands of years separate us from these stories, humans in general haven’t changed all that much.
I’d like to think in many ways that we are in better shape as a society. More now than ever, people of all genders, races, and sexual orientations, are beginning to have a voice. But we still have a long way to go. Much like we see in our scriptures—humans are still so often selfish, they’re still hateful at times, they’re still often only interested in their self-preservation and so it is paramount that we continue to challenge ourselves, our preconceptions, and always look to Christ as our guide.
It’s actually a bit humorous to me, the way in which we often try to separate ourselves from our figures in the bible. I remember in seminary, we had students from all over the theological spectrum, some more progressive—wanting to tear down the foundations of classical Christian thought—and others, more conservative—wanting to build the foundations even higher than before. Although nothing ever got out of hand, we would often have discussions and little quarrels here and there about the nature of God and God’s action in the world. But nothing quite prepared me more for the real-world than my experience in my hospital placement one summer.
I was working full time as a chaplain, doing visiting rounds and responding to traumas in a relatively metropolitan hospital. Going in I told my supervisor that I wanted the worst of the worst, hoping that some experience in the high trauma wings would help me learn the most during my time there. Let’s just say I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. I won’t go into too much detail here but that summer was one of the hardest of my life—everyday filled with hurting and broken people. But what I remember most, was being able to talk to individuals and families from all walks of life and I did my best to help them cope with the difficult loss of a loved one or often devastating news.
The reason I am telling you this is because our basis for our scripture reading today is a theologically complicated one. The concept is not at all difficult to understand, but the legacy of the implications here and the misunderstanding that many have had related to these verses still reverberates in our societies today.
There was a common assumption in ancient Israel, that is still held by some in modern society, that what happens to you, what you do, how you act, what you say, is directly linked to how God treats you, rewards you, or punishes you. We see this line of thinking in the Old Testament and the New. Some of you might think of Job’s friends who think surely Job must have done something to be receiving such punishment. Likewise, in John chapter nine, we hear Jesus’ disciples ask him outright, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”.
Even now in our scripture, we have a group of people asking Jesus about two separate events, both involving the death of several Galileans. The first incident, although difficult to verify, testifies to the outright murder of several people by Pilate, a tricky event to begin placing responsibility to God. The second instance is when eighteen people were killed in Siloam, in what seemed to be an accident of poor construction. But surely, they say, they must have done something to deserve such a punishment, surely sin was in their lives. Two cases—one of intentional evil and one of natural evil.
Jesus’ response to these questions is…interesting, to say the least. Instead of reassuring the crowd that God’s ways are mysterious indeed, or instead of pointing to the example that God is love and therefore does not enact divine, wrathful punishment on us all, he unexpectedly takes the bar of humanity and places it about as low as it can go. He says that those lives that were lost were not more deserving in some way, because when we look at our own lives, we all must begin at the place of redemption.
This was not quite the response we expect, and I don’t think it’s quite the response that the Galileans were looking for. I can imagine many of them wanted Christ, as the suspected return of the Messiah, to in some way endorse revenge, reign down his holy anger on Pilate and those responsible for the deaths of their fellow countrymen. I am fairly certain that these individuals may have been looking for an excuse to enact some sort of Holy retribution in the name of their God bringing forth justice.
But Christ, as usual, knows better. He knows that to give them kindling for their fiery anger will only drive them to their own demise. And likewise, he knows that to justify the deaths of those killed in the Siloam accident would only drive them to more anger. Christ responds then with a parable. A fairly straight-forward one of a fig-tree and an owner who wishes to cut down such a plant that would dare not bear any fruit. But what does the gardener’s solution in this parable? Let it alone for one more year, let me nurture it, give food to its soil, and then, lets see what happens.
One of the very first things I preached on when I started here was anger. Anger is so often the first response to things that don’t go our way. We see an excellent example here in our text of how Christ responds to that anger. We are invited to, instead of taking the moral high ground and insisting that we know what’s best for people, or better yet what’s best for God, that we perhaps should look at our own lives. Perhaps we should ask ourselves how we can change for the better. Perhaps we should offer a little more grace to those who need it most, instead of casting them aside and uprooting them from our lives because we don’t see them bearing any fruit.
I mentioned before a story about my experience in the hospital setting as a chaplain. The reason that story is relevant is because the two most common things I heard from people during my time there were 1) Why did God do this to me and 2) I’m not deserving enough to have God in my life. A question and a statement that mean well, that are coming out of hurt and pain and are understandably broken, but two things I tried my best to sensibly help them understand were not attributes of the God I know.
God does not punish us for the things that we do or the things we leave undone and we know this in Christ’s words, that none of us are truly worthy, but it is through God’s grace that we have been forgiven and can strive to be better people. In this fact, Jesus also let’s us know that even when things are difficult, even when we think we are not worthy, even when we seem to bear no fruit, we have advocates in our lives, gardeners who are willing to give us those second chances and we are called to be advocates for others. It does not negate our responsibility to do our best to become better people, but Christ stands in for that chance for redemption.
It is why we are so persistent in spreading the message that all are welcome, no matter where you are or where you come from in life, it is never too late. Nothing you’ve done or will ever do can stop God from loving you and I am thankful for that grace today. So I want to challenge us this morning, instead of asking ourselves why God is punishing us, to move to the understanding that God is with us during our times of trial and difficulty, and mourns along with us in our moments of despair. God wants nothing more than to see us whole. And if you think for a second that you are undeserving of this love in any way, STOP IT! Forget it. You are loved. We are with you and God is with you, forever and always.