Year C Lent 3 Luke 13
God Doesn't Ask a Fig Tree to Produce Bananas
Those three letters could be writ large on the margins of ours souls: "I ought to know how to take better care of myself, but how?" "I know I ought to spend more time in scripture reading and prayer, but how?" "I know I ought to be more sensitive to others, more loving of my spouse, more understanding of the weaknesses of others, but how?" These are all good qualities and we know that, but how can we acquire them? As Christian people we know the kind of life we ought to live, and most of us have the best of intentions to do so, but how? We are afraid because we know where the road paved with only good intentions leads!
This morning we hear Jesus' parable of the fig tree, telling us to repent and bear good fruit. We know what the Christian life requires of us and yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we also know how far short we fall. So the question that confronts us this morning is: "Yes, but how?"
It's a dilemma that has confronted God's people throughout the ages. Even Saint Paul found himself trapped. In Romans 7 Paul writes: It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love to do God's will so far as my new (redeemed Christian) nature is concerned; but there is something else deep within me, in my lower nature, that is at war with my mind and wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. In my mind, I want to be God's willing servant, but instead I find myself enslaved to sin. So you see how it is; my new life (the redeemed life in Christ) tells me to do right, but the old nature that is still inside me (my sinful human self) loves to sin. Oh, what a terrible predicament I'm in! Who will free me from this slavery to sin? Thank God! It has already been done by Jesus Christ our Lord. He has set me free!
"Repent," Jesus says. "Acknowledge your sinfulness." That's the first step in beginning to live the Christian life. None of us is without fault. And yet how difficult it is for us to admit that. We know better than to openly admit our wrongs. If we want to get ahead in this world and be accepted by others, it's generally better to conceal our shortcomings and put on a good front for others.
Who goes into a job interview and declares, "I have to tell you. I have a habit of missing work, of criticizing my supervisors and others, and I enjoy listening to office gossip?" Who goes on a date and confesses to the other person, "Listen. I have to tell you I tend to be difficult to live with and I can be a real bore at times"?
However imperfect we may be, we've learned from life around us that it's better not to parade our imperfections out in public. As the little girl said to her classmate who had to sit in the corner, "To err is human, but to admit it is just plain stupid!"
How ironic it is then, that Jesus would tell us to repent. Instead of offering a word of support and understanding for our all-too-human tendency to cover up our wrongdoings, Jesus tells us to disclose the evil within us, to admit that we have failed. The apostle John tells us the same thing very clearly when he writes, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us."
Whoever we are, whatever we do, we all share one thing in common and that is that we are sinful. Saint Augustine once wrote, "Whatever we are, we are not what we ought to be." Mark Twain, with his characteristic sense of humor, tells us how he understands that when he wrote, "Man was made at the end of the week, when God was....
Live and Learn
When Moses appeared before Pharaoh, demanding that the Egyptian god-king "let my people go," he threw down his staff in Pharaoh's face and it was miraculously transformed into a roiling, writhing serpent. Pretty impressive, right?
Well, some of the servants and royal attendants surely gasped in amazement. But one group of onlookers was completely bored. Who were they? The royal magicians. They snickered and summarily dismissed such a basic parlor trick.
Trained magicians — whether in the court of Ramses or onstage at some Las Vegas venue — are the last people to actually "believe" in magic, in miracles, or in any kind of paranormal mystery. Magicians know too much. They know "magic" is tricks and techniques, smoke and mirrors.
As each new plague swept over the land, it was explained away by Pharaoh's all-knowing magician-advisors. After all, they knew everything there was to know about magic. Unfortunately for all of Egypt's first-borns, they knew nothing about God.
In the first "Men In Black" movie, Will Smith ("J") at first refuses to believe Tommy Lee Jones ("K") that the earth is playing host to thousands of creatures from other planets. K dismisses J's "knowledge":
Fifteen hundred years ago everyone KNEW the world was the center of the universe, five hundred years ago everyone KNEW the earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago you KNEW we were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll KNOW tomorrow!
What do you really know?
If you've ever been involved in teaching, whether it is teaching history to a room full of bored eighth graders, or teaching dog obedience to a bunch of frisky pups and their masters, or teaching a Lenten Bible study, you quickly come to one conclusion: the more you endeavor to become learned, the more you define yourself a learner.
The more we "know," the more embarrassingly obvious it becomes how much we have to learn...