Here’s a contribution to Climate Week – yesterday’s sermon. Apologies to those of you who don’t like sermons. At least with a blog sermon, you can argue with the preacher in public.
The readings are: Isaiah 55.1-13 and Luke 13.1-9
The readings today hinge on whether or not we can have hope.
For the Jewish exiles in Babylon in the 6th Century BC, hope was a live issue. Would they ever be able to return home? Not all were unhappy in exile, but for those that were, Isaiah’s prophecy of a glorious return may have been all very well, but was it just pie in the sky?
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish … so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but wil accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Is 55.10-11)
In our day it’s hard to hold on to an earlier sense of progress. As fast as we make breakthroughs in medicine & technology, we devastate more of the planet. Power & water usage increases. More of the forests are lost. Global warming in this cold weather sounds like quite a nice idea, but global weirding does not, as we experience more unusual weather – droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc, leading to more refugees, more hungry people, etc. While the rich world spends more money on things that you can’t eat – rare earths, palm oil for biofuel, – even things that don’t exist at all, like some of the financial tricks & gizmos that seem fundamental to today’s economy – while we spend money on what doesn’t actually satisfy or fulfill us or make us happy, millions go to bed hungry, and the trees and the animals die.
Jane Goodall – “The greatest danger to our future is apathy”.
The world isn’t going to get better while those who can make a difference choose to do nothing, or, with a shrug of the shoulders, pack their troubles into their old kit bag and smile, smile, smile all the way to oblivion.
Jesus uses that quaint religious word, “Repent”. It’s a dangerous word. It makes us think of old time preachers dangling the congregation over the pit of hell. The word gives the sense of feeling sorrow for sin. Biblically, though, sorrow is not enough. E.g. John the Baptist in Luke 3.8 – “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”. It’s not enough to say you’re sorry. What Jesus, or John the Baptist, or the prophets call for is a change of life to follow a change of heart. They call for a complete change of direction – from the thoughts and ways of a world broken apart by greed, fear and division, to the thoughts and ways of God.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found.”
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (Isaiah 55.1-2)
God provides what we need and he pays the cost.
“Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live” (Is 55.3a)
(By the way, ‘soul’ in Hebrew is just a way of emphasizing a person’s being – no Platonic division betw matter & spirit. The prophet is talking about life here & now, in a world of bread and wine, rain and trees).
It can be hard to believe it’s urgent. There’s still enough climate-change denial out there making the counter argument. Anyway, in a few years science will have sorted it all out, so that we can carry on as we are, more & more of us consuming more & more … just like science has sorted out cancer & no one dies from it any more, right?
Anyway, our economy is big enough to be resilient – I haven’t noticed big gaps on the shelves in the shops where the potatoes or flour used to be, even though last year’s harvests here & around the world were terrible.
Anyway, we might feel sorry for the people starving & being displaced in other parts of the world, but maybe it’s their fault anyway. Everyone knows that if you suffer, you must have done something wrong – right?
Jesus isn’t so sure about that. In the light of a massacre and a fatal accident, Jesus says that those who died weren’t any more sinful than anyone else – but unless you repent – unless you completely change & turn around towards God – you will perish. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near.”
Ah well, time for a nice story. It’s a story about a tree. It’s a fig tree. Fig trees take their time to mature to the point where they produce figs, but this one is taking much longer than most. For three years after it should have fruited, it’s failed to produce anything. Every year, the landlord calls by for his crops, and every year he’s disappointed. After three years, he’s had enough. “Cut it down!” he tells the gardener. “Why should it use up the soil?” What’s the point in a fig tree that doesn’t produce figs? It’s as useless as a rain forest in Indonesia – the land could be much better used for oil palm plantations that actually produce something you can sell.
The gardener has earth on his hands, dirt under his nails. He spends his life in the humus, and so he has some humanity about him. The gardener has nothing to gain from the fig tree, either way. It’s possible that, like many peasants in Galilee or Judea in Jesus’ time, he was working simply to pay off an unpayable debt to the landlord. Maybe once it had been his family’s vineyard. Now he just worked there for someone else.
But this humble man, living in connection with the living earth, but disconnected from the false world of markets and money-making, seems to have viewed the little fig tree, not as a wasted opportunity to make a profit but as a life worth caring for. He pleads with the landlord for another year. He’ll put in some extra effort and do all that he can to encourage the tree to fruit – if the landlord will let him have the time and the manure. But there’s a time-limit even in the gardener’s pleading. One more year. It’s not one more year to carry on as before, and then another year & another year – all fruitless. It’s one more year to change and become fruitful and give life. And if not, then cut it down.
The tree should be fruitful. The followers of Jesus should be fruitful.
In the coming of his kingdom, God is looking for fruitfulness. In the fulfillment of prophecy, God is looking for fruitfulness. He expects his word to achieve his purpose. God is looking for the fruit of lives transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus – he’s looking for people who will walk Jesus’ way.
There’s a world to be changed. There are lots of little metaphorical fig trees being deprived of their share of what they need to thrive. There are sick people to be made well. There are hungry people to be fed. There are refugees to be housed. There are divisions to be healed thru reconciliation and peace. There is waste and war and over-consumption and the devastation of the earth and its plants and animals and people – and it needs to stop.
But – one more year! God’s not going to cut you down & cast you onto the compost heap just because you’re not perfect yet. God is gracious and compassionate, patient and abounding in steadfast love. There is hope. There is always hope with God. God does not sentence us to death. God sentences us to life. It’s not an easy judgement, because it’s not a reprieve for us to carry on as before and forever stay fruitless as we live to please ourselves. Instead, God opens the door to life – a changed life, life in all its fullness, life in all its fruitfulness. God in Jesus provides all that we need to change and thrive and become fruitful – as we choose to be humble and plant our lives in the death and resurrection of Jesus, to walk the way of the cross and live for others, for the glory of God.
There is always hope with God. But Christian hope is never just sanctified optimism. It is hope with a long view and a long arm – stretching across a global church in table fellowship with some of the world’s poorest people, and stretching back in time to Eden and forward to the new Jerusalem at the end. Christian hope is not easy hope. It’s hope that’s forged in the fire of suffering and patient endurance, as we live in solidarity with the suffering earth and in solidarity with Christ on his cross and hold resolutely, always, to belief in the resurrection of the body.
Seek the Lord while he may be found. Don’t put off doing business with God. The time given to us is not endless. But while it is given, let us choose life – for all.
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; and the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands”. Is 55.12
Choose life, for Jesus’ sake.