2022-03-20 Lent 3
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
The parable of the fig tree. I remember as a kid watching American TV channels and seeing ads for Fig Newtons. This was in the days before you could get those in Canada. I wondered what Fig Newtons really tasted like. It wasn’t until much later in life that I was able to taste them and I realized that they’re actually gross! Why would anyone put such a disgusting fruit into a cakey-cookie? It defies all reason! It’s, it’s, it’s … a betrayal! If you sit down to eat a cookie, it better be chock-full of chocolate and billowing with butter! That’s the point. It’s a tasty treat, not some weird, unnatural hybrid of health and junk food! Not to get “political” here, but the same thing goes for fruitcake!! It’s a literal Benedict Arnold of a dessert! … Just kidding! It’s all well and fine. But it does seem that throughout the scriptures, Jesus and fig trees just don’t get along.
We have our parable from Luke’s Gospel today about the barren fig tree. And, there’s another passage from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus outright curses a barren fig tree and it withers up and dies. On the outset, we could say that God really doesn’t like figs! But of course, there is far more to this than that. The fig tree is highly symbolic. Like an onion, it has layers. There is meaning here, just don’t miss the forest for the fig trees. And that meaning is? Repentance! It’s Lent after all. It’s no mere coincidence that this sacred text is before us today. It is chosen for us on purpose to make us think, ponder and consider what God is speaking to us today from His Word.
A man had a vineyard. And in the vineyard a fig tree was planted. It looked just like all the others, but with a catch. It had no fruit. And more importantly, it had a fairly long track record of non-production too. Three years worth. The man comes looking for fruit for 3 long years and there is none to be had. Disappointing. It’s a no good, waste of dirt. The man’s response? Cut that piece of schtuff down! It’s hogging valuable real estate, taking up land that could be producing good fruit. We hear this and it makes perfect sense to us. It appeals to our ingrained sense of justice. If you have a stock in the stock market that has been losing money consistently, year after year, it doesn’t take too long to realize it’s a loser! Sell it off, cut your losses and invest in something better! Or on the farm, if you have a bull that just can’t get the job done, is always leaving cows open, well it’s off to the meat locker with him! Have a feast of rib eyes! It’s all dollars and cents. It’s good business.
But then, we are confronted by this “do gooder” in the vineyard, the vinedresser, the guy who looks after and tends the garden. He comes and really upsets the fig cart. ‘Can we have one more year with it, sir? I’ll do my very best to tend it, aerate it and fertilize it. If after all this, if it still doesn’t produce fruit next year, cut it down then.’ The owner sees nothing but a loser of a fig tree that by rights should be cut down and burned as fire wood for its lack of production. The vinedresser, on the other hand, sees an opportunity for growth with just a little bit of TLC. Do you see here the difference between justice and forgiveness? Law and Gospel? Sin and grace? Judgement and mercy? It’s as plain as day isn’t it?
The number 1, world’s largest restaurant chain in the world used to be McDonald’s, did you know that? It’s by far my favourite Scottish Restaurant! But recently it was de-throned and lost it’s lochness top spot. Now there’s a new top dog in the restaurant chain world. And that new king is Subway, with almost 6000 more locations than Ronnie McDonnie! Why is that? Well it’s the ‘fruit’ of course. Fruit? you say. What do you mean? It’s a sammich place. But think of the toppings. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Olives. Peppers. Avocados. It’s all fruit! Yes there is the occasional leafy green but overwhelmingly it’s all about the fruit.
And this parable from our Gospel reading is really all about fruit too. Fruit that is always expected to grow, no matter what. And that fruit refers to the good thoughts, good words and good deeds that should be growing in our Christian lives. The best fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). We should be striving to grow all of these and more in the orchards of our minds and hearts, lips and our hands. But alas, they all too often aren’t. Instead, we resemble the barren fig tree if we are honest with ourselves. We have nasty thoughts, say mean things and do mean and nasty things. So, do we want justice or do we want mercy?
What we find, with careful analysis of our spiritual condition, is that when its about other people, we want justice. We want those people to get their comeuppance. They need to get what they deserve. Child molesters, rapists, murderers, arsonists, terrorists. Vladimir Putin. Colonel Sanders. You name the detestable thing or the heinous sin and we hope they see the punishment coming their way. It’s easy to feel that way about others. But Lent is more of a mirror to look at ourselves than it is a telescope to look at others. Instead, we ought to be gazing deeply at the mirror. For it is there we see our own sins of thought, word and deed. But then we try to justify ourselves. My sins, well they’re not as bad as those really bad ones that other people do, so we’re not that bad. But what about all the Lutherans on our membership roster that never come to church, never help out on boards, give any financial support or service of any kind? What about them? Justice for them, right? Kick them off the membership list. Write them off all together. They’re nothing but dead wood that we have to pay for at Synod convention assessment time.
By nature we like justice because we think we never do anything wrong. It’s everyone else who needs to be chastised for their iniquities. But then, along comes Lent. The mirror of God’s Word and Law shining the truth back at us. It reminds us that we too, like the “blatantly obvious sinners”, are sinners. We’ve fallen far short of God’s perfection. We deserve the utmost of justice for each and every one of our malicious thoughts, harsh words and cruel deeds - done or left undone. It’s very humbling to look into the mirror of repentance. For it is there we see that we deserve to be cut down and uprooted for our lack of spiritual fruit and good things. That’s what justice gives us. The full crushing effects of God’s holy and perfect Law, and the realization that we have broken it.
But then, along comes the vinedresser. He really throws a monkey wrench into the best laid plans of justice. Why? Because He is merciful. He is patient and long suffering. He is more ready to give the tree some time, one more chance, to work on it and encourage it, to forgive the tree, rather than immediately reach for the chainsaw. The vinedresser is Jesus. He shows mercy to His people and gives them abundant time to repent and come to their senses. We wonder at God’s patience and say with the martyrs “how long before You will judge?” (Rev 6:10). But God continues to put up with us, being patient and kind to us, showing us His mercy and grace because He truly does love and care about us and wants to be part of our lives.
It is precisely God’s love for us, Jesus’ holy cross and passion, that show us that we should pursue patience and mercy over and above justice. When your kids are driving you crazy, just about to push you over the edge, the response is patience and mercy. When you get frustrated beyond belief at the health care system, the response is patience and mercy. When loud mouthed secular atheists continue to try and erode our Christian values the response is patience and mercy. It definitely isn’t the way of the world, but it is the way of the cross and the way of the kingdom of God. The fig tree represents us all. Fallen, broken, corrupt, sinful, and dying people in desperate need of repentance, forgiveness and salvation. Jesus, the faithful vinedresser, intercedes for us and comes to our aid. When all around us is nothing but justice and law, from Jesus we receive mercy and Gospel. It is this amazing grace that encourages us and changes us to repent of our sins and strive to produce the good fruit that God wants from each of us. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Amen!