Sermon St Mary’s Church Marlborough 24th March 2019
Third Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 55.1-9 & Luke 13.1-9
In the second part of our Gospel reading this morning we hear a gardener asking for just one more year for his fig tree to grow, after three years of no fruits at all. Given the news the recent weeks, I couldn’t help myself thinking of that gardener as our prime minister. Almost three years now without a result, so should we also be understanding and give her some more time?
Don’t worry, I won’t mention our current political situation any further, but it does illustrate rather well the point that it is not always easy to discern when patience is required, or when it is important to be ready for a decision to be made. And that, in a way, is what today’s readings very much address: the tension between patience and urgency, as well as the other tension, more problematic one maybe, the tension between love and judgement.
In our Gospel reading, it becomes clear that there is a real tension in our understanding of God, and of our relationship with Him. On the one hand, we believe in a loving God, who is patient, forgiving and always ready to give us another chance. Yet, there is also a sense of urgency, a need to repent, to be ready for a time when judgement comes.
If you’re anything like me, it is hard not to worry when hearing those words. What if I am like that fig tree, not giving much fruit? What if I even after yet another year am wasting the soil? What is I am still not good enough? Will I be punished? Cut down, like that tree? Although there is a need for urgency, and repentance – and in a way that is what the season of Lent is very much about – there is no need for fear. Why not? Because we are judged by God, by His standards, not by our own standards, nor by someone else’s for that matter.
In our reading from the Prophet Isaiah we hear God saying: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”. We cannot second-guess God’s judgement, not for ourselves, nor for others. The fact that we cannot and should not second-guess God’s judgement is a real relief, I think. And the reason we do not need to fear. Because, although we don’t know God’s judgement, there are some aspects we know about it.
Firstly, we know that God knows the thoughts of our hearts, our intentions and our struggles. This means that God knows when we try and fail. He knows that we are not perfect, and that there will be times when we say or do something we regret. That is precisely the reason why we start every Sunday with a time of confession: to bring before God those things we know we regret. The mistakes we made, both knowingly and unknowingly.
We also know that God is forgiving and loving, not only in His final judgement, but also throughout our lives. As we all know from experience, that does not mean that life is perfect, nor that we always get what we deserve. But, for a moment going back to the image of the fig tree, it does mean that God will make sure our soil is dug and properly manured. We are not left on our own as we journey through life.
That we are not on our own is maybe a point worth emphasising further. Especially in times of difficulty, when life seems, or indeed is, unfair, our comfort is not so much in the hope that God will make it better for us, but in the knowledge that Jesus walked the way of the cross before we did. And He did not walk it once to show us the way, but walks it over and over again, as he helps to carry our burden.
There will be moments on that journey, moments in life, when we want to give up, when we see an easier, but not necessarily better way. It is at those times that we can imagine Jesus walking beside us, not just helping us carry our burden, but also challenging our decision, our resolution to take another road. We can imagine him asking, in the words of the Isaiah “Why do you spend your labour for that which does not satisfy?” The way of the cross is by no means the easy way, but it is the way that leads to life and peace.
That brings us back to the original tensions, with which we started. The tension between patience and urgency, and the tension between God’s love and judgement. Both we can only begin to understand if we acknowledge our human weakness, but God’s power to save. That sounds like a negative conclusion, but it is actually a statement of hope, the very reason why we do not need to fear.
In the image of the fig tree, not all of us will be able to be fruitful in barren ground. But we must trust that God will come, and provide what we need to flourish. God’s judgement comes with that promise. In the image of our journey, all of us will take a wrong turn or two. However, there is always a way to get back to where we are meant to go, more often than not by turning around.
So, as we continue on our Lenten journey, it is important to keep our destination in mind. Yes, we will encounter Good Friday, but that is not the final moment, as we know that beyond this lies the Resurrection. And it is not just the promise of that destination that keeps us going, but also the knowledge that God is there throughout the journey. We will not always succeed, but we must keep trying. Or trying to try, in some cases.
I’d like to finish by a sonnet written by Malcolm Guite which looks at our journey from Baptism throughout life. I came across it on a blog called ‘Project 55’, a collection of poems inspired by Isaiah 55, which is well worth looking at. The sonnet is called ‘Upstream’:
Come, dip a scallop shell into the font
For birth and blessings as a child of God.
The living water rises from that fount
Whence all things come, that you may bathe and wade
And find the flow, and learn at last to follow
The course of Love upstream towards your home.
The day is done and all the fields lie fallow
One thing is needful, one voice calls your name.
Take the true compass now, be compassed round
By clouds of witness, chords of love unbound.
Turn to the Son, begin your pilgrimage,
Take time with Him to find your true direction.
He travels with you through this darkened age
And wakes you everyday to resurrection.