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Sunday, 28 February 2016

Second Chance

There had been an atrocity. Some people from Galilee had been making their 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 power station collapsed at Didcot were any better or worse than anybody else in the area.”

Well, actually, he didn't say “When that power station collapsed at Didcot”; he said “When that tower collapsed at Siloam”. But it's the same principle, isn't it? Buildings collapse. Terrorists attack. Kids get stabbed. We hear of so many atrocities week by week, and of course there are the minor tragedies nobody knows about except those directly involved – someone dying of a heart attack in their 30s, for instance, or killed in a road accident.

“No,” says Jesus, “they were no better or worse than anybody else.”

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. 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.

It's not about God's will. It appears to be random – it looks to me as though Jesus himself didn't really know why such things happen, and perhaps it's never going to be something we really understand this side of Heaven. Those people who tell us we must praise God for disasters which, I am sure, break God's heart, are talking through the back of their heads. We can praise God in tragedies, and during them, sure, but not and never for them.

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 had a huge fig-tree in the front yard of their old house, just by the garage,
and in the height of summer it grew so big and shady that it made 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.
Fresh figs are delicious, although you mustn't eat too many at once, and often they are quite expensive in the supermarkets. I did once manage to get a punnet of them fairly cheaply in a Turkish supermarket, but that was only once. They can cost up to 50p each in Tesco's, and I don't buy them often!

So 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?

Do you have a supermarket loyalty card? I do, and I've learnt over the years to save the main vouchers I get to use to pay for channel crossings and things like that. And every so often, I get an e-mail from Tesco's reminding me to use them up before they expire. If my vouchers expire, they are no good to me, but if I use them while they are still in date, I can get some great bargains. And the fig tree was given an expiry date, if you like. One more year....

Some people, I know, see it as a threat. “Shape up, or else!” But I'm not sure that it is. I think it is more of a promise: “How can we best help you become the person – or the tree – that you were meant to be”. The gardener is going to do some serious work on the tree, give it lots of manure and so on, to try to help it to bear fruit. The tree isn't just left to get on with it – that, we know, hasn't worked.

Jesus reminds us, too, that we need to repent. All of us need to repent. What do you suppose he means by this?

We tend to think of repentance in terms of being sorry, of thinking that we must be dreadful people, even if we aren't. But while being sorry can come into it, it's more about changing direction, about going God's way.

Sometimes, when Robert and I are driving around in our mobile home, we have the satnav on to tell us what way to go, and if we miss our turning, or take the wrong road out of a roundabout, or something, the machine is apt to say, in its computer-generated voice, “Turn around when possible”. But we aren't turning round just to retrace our steps; we are turning round so that we can go in the right direction.

We're apt to think of judgement in terms of prison sentences or fines, aren't we? We think of judges as though they were all magistrates or county court judges. But actually, there are many different sorts of judges. When I was skating competitively, we sometimes took tests to see whether we had reached the required standard, and if we had not, as was usually the case, we were told we needed to try again another time. We weren't being condemned or anything – we just hadn't reached the required standard this time. If we competed, we would be ranked against others who had entered, and the judges would put us in order – but no condemnation on us for coming last, which we usually did.

At a flower show, the judges decide whose flowers, or vegetables, or cakes or jam or whatever, is the best in that particular class; again, no condemnation for those who don't win, although no point in entering if you don't want to win.

And some competitions are referred to as “trials”, but they have nothing to do with justice and judgement, but to see who is best – often dogs, in this case, working with sheep or working as gundogs. Which dog can do it best? Which needs a bit more practice?

And those who don't succeed this time go away and practice and work really hard and they hope that next time they will succeed. They are free to try again as many times as they like!

Repentance isn't about looking at the past and saying “Oh dear, oh dear, how dreadful!”, it's about looking to the future and seeing what God is doing. It's about going God's way. 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,
and to face the future with a sense of the hope, love and companionship that God offers to us in our lives.

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!”

“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!

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