Our gospel reading for today seems very harsh after the nurturing words from Isaiah and Psalm 63, and the apostle Paul who speaks of satisfying our thirst by drinking from a spiritual rock, who is Christ. The feeling is one of abundance and comfort, until we hear Jesus using rather horrible events as illustrations for his teaching. First are the innocent people who had been persecuted by Pilate, we are not told why, but he was a very cruel man who was so vicious he was eventually recalled to Rome. Apparently another 18 people died when a tower fell on them; perhaps they were workers who were in a construction accident or people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We don’t know the particulars, but the question arose if they were made to suffer because of their sins. Jesus assures us that suffering at the hands of a cruel person or from a random accident is not the result of sin.
However, he has a sense of urgency about the need for repentance. Everyone sins and everyone needs to repent. And so we need his story about the fig tree because it reassures us that there is restoration through grace. Christ himself is the gardener, digging, fertilizing, protecting and nurturing, and most importantly having patience. While the natural inclination is to cut down the tree that is not producing good fruit, Jesus says give it more time, care for it, because surely then it will bear fruit.
In our first lesson the prophet Isaiah asks us, ‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food.” The prophet is speaking to the people of Israel who are preparing to return from exile in Babylon. There is the promise of renewal as they come back to their land. Isaiah invites them to hear the nurturing and nourishing word of God, and even extends that welcome to people from other nations. The promise that God made to Israel has become universalized. The invitation is extended, who will accept?
In order to accept that invitation from God there must be renewal, repentance, a complete turning around of our lives so that we can all enjoy the feast of forgiveness. Emily C. Heath, who is senior pastor of the Congregational Church in Essex, New Hampshire, notes in her commentary on today’s texts in Christian Century magazine that “Lent calls us to turn from the things that can never love us back.” She always urges the young people that she comes into contact with to never give the best of themselves to someone or something that can never love them back. This advice resonates not only with young adults but with all of us. It can be a measure not just for how we judge romantic relationships but any bigger questions in life.
For example, how do we use our resources of time, talent and money? Even though we are cautioned against idolatry in both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament, we hardly ever talk about it. Yet we live in a culture where idolatry flourishes. Not in the form of golden calves and other pagan gods, but in the false values that surround us. The desire for money, success, popularity, power and security are dangerous and powerful gods. In worshiping these gods, we drive ourselves to the point where we are overwhelmed. This has affected our youth so much that the journalist Brigid Schulte shares some frightening insights in her book Overwhelmed – studies show that “The average high school kid today experiences the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950s” and stress in children “can alter not only their neurological and hormonal systems but also their very DNA.”
We have created a culture that is making our kids sick and ourselves overwhelmed and overtired. We have smartphones but we aren’t always making smart choices. Instead of spending our time, talent and money on things that can never love us back; we need to turn away from those things and towards those that nurture us. Heath wants to ask all the people she knows who are overwhelmed by their lives, “Why do we keep making choices that leave us overextended and exhausted?” We want to believe there is infinite time to start choosing the right things in life, but we continue to be overwhelmed and hesitate to answer that call to transform our lives. We can put that off until tomorrow, because right now we are too busy.
These are the words of Steve Jobs, who was a brilliant but ruthless business person during his life, but had a different outlook as he lay dying: “I have come to the pinnacle of success in business. In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success. However, apart from work, I have little joy. Finally, my wealth is simply a fact to which I am accustomed. At this time, lying on the hospital bed and remembering all my life, I realize that all the accolades and riches of which I was once so proud, have become insignificant with my imminent death. In the dark, when I look at the green lights of the equipment for artificial respiration and feel the buzz of their mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of my approaching death looming over me.
Only now do I understand that once you accumulate enough money for [your basic needs] you have to pursue objectives that are not related to wealth. It should be something more important…stop pursuing wealth, it can only make a person into a twisted being, just like me. God has made us one way, we can feel the love in the heart of each of us, and not illusions build by fame or money, like I made in my life, and I cannot take them with me. I can only take with me the memories that were strengthened by love. This is the true wealth that will follow you; accompany you; he (God) will give strength and light to go ahead. Love can travel thousands of miles and so life has no limits…
Material things lost can be found. But one thing you can never find when you lose it: life. Whatever stage of life where we are right now, at the end we will have to face the day when the curtain falls. Please treasure your family love, love for your spouse and love for your friends. Treat everyone well and stay friendly with your neighbors.” Steve Jobs had a sense of urgency at the end of his life to share that fundamental truth. He realized, too late, that he had spent most of his life in pursuit of idols that would never nourish and nurture him, that would never love him back.
God has a sense of urgency about turning our lives around, because God wants us to have new life in abundance. God knows we can do better than compromise or destroy our well-being with things that will never nurture us. We may feel as though we are not producing good fruit, or that we are a tired and withering tree. The world usually wants to blame the tree for its inability to be productive, but we live in God’s garden. Jesus reaches into our lives and reminds us of our roots, nourishes us with grace and allows us to bloom, to flourish and bear fruit so that we can freely share our gifts with the world. Intentionally living with God’s mercy will help us to make choices that will never abandon us and will always love us back. Amen.