SERMON: Inhabiting the Desert: A Parable of Grace Text: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9
Date: March 15t, 1998 - 3rd Sunday in Lent Where: Springfield Heights Mennonite Church (English Service)
Worship Leader: Henry Kliewer Invocation: Marilyn Albrecht Words:
All around us in society and in our church community we see signs of people who are in the desert. Maybe you are going through a depression. Maybe you find yourself in that eerie place that the Psalmist calls the valley of the shadows of death. Maybe you feel stuck in your present situation and see no hope for ever getting out of that place.
In the comments of people in our church I hear signals that our church is on a journey from depression toward new hope. Its that uncertain period of being in a no-man's land, not quite trusting enough to stretch out our limbs and produce a wealth of fruit. And yet hopeful that new life is just around the next sand dune.
There have been times in my life, as I'm sure also in your life, when I've been forced into the desert. From personal experience I know that a time of spiritual and emotional desert-wandering is usually not a very fruit-producing time. Grief and depression have a way of enjoying darkness and isolation. In those times we operate on a survival mode, and we can't seem to concentrate on the next step.
I remember when I was a child. I often visited my grandparents in the Chaco. At midday the sun was beating down on the ground so hard that you were in danger of a heat-stroke, leave alone the blisters under your bare feet from walking in the steaming sand. I still remember how we would often stand on one thistle plant (we called them "Lüstje-stüd"), and then we scouted out the terrain for another one not too far away before running like mad to get on it. These heat waves were often associated with a sand storm that went on for days. We had sand in our hair, between the teeth and even had to dig out the powder-like sand from our ears.
(I see some of you remember the days of the "desert" - the good old days, right… before electricity… and fresh running water. Some of you have inhabited the dry and thirsty land, praying for rain for months on end to cover the dust and heat. The survival of the crop and the live-stock were of utmost concern.
In our spiritual life also we are sometimes forced into the desert… a dry and thirsty place where we would rather not be. These are often the times when we, as Christians, produce very little fruit. But, it is by dwelling in our personal desert experiences that we become open to receiving the living water of Him who calls us to bear fruit.
The Psalmist cries out, 1 O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 5 My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. This very fitting psalm for the season of Lent, invites us to inhabit the desert - that dry and weary place where we become more fully aware of our deepest longing and total dependence on God.
It is in experiencing the thirst of our soul that we can also fully appreciate the refreshing effect of God's living water. God’s rich and bountiful feast of love and grace can only then be fully accepted when we inhabit that desolate place. That is, when we experience the agony and loneliness of our desert in full.
Often when we are lonely or upset, when we grieve our losses, when we feel the pain of a relationship gone sour, or when we are faced with the fact of our sinfulness, we shift into a denial mode. "I gotta get over this feeling," we say to ourselves. "Surely, God wouldn't want a good Christian like yours truly to feel bad feelings, such as anger, fear, bitterness, and grief." We carry these scripts with us from childhood on, when our parents told us that, "Big boys don't cry!" and "Real Christians are always full of Joy."
By listening only to these voices we deny the gift of sadness and serenity which are a natural part of God's created order. The Season of Lent is God's gift to us. Its the season that gives us permission to inhabit our deserts. Its the time when God's grace reminds us that its OK to get down on our knees in Getsemane and cry out, "Father, if its not to much to ask, please take this cup away from me."
It is by experiencing the full blown fury of the darkness of human sin and suffering, that we can also experience the full blown joy of God's salvation in Jesus Christ. We hear God's invitation to us through the prophet Isaiah (55:1) "Come, all you who are thirsty, Come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat."
These are words of invitation, and not of judgment. It is an invitation to those who, with fear and trembling, dare to inhabit the desert. It is an invitation to jump into the refreshing pool of God's abounding love. Here, for the taking, is more than just earthly food and drink for a tired and thirsty traveler. These are words of promise, that the desert days are soon to be over, and a new day is about to begin. It is the promise of resurrection unto new life.
In times of desert experiences we often have a distorted image of God. We feel that God is out to get us for something that we did or didn't do. That's the feeling that some of Jesus' followers were also struggling with:
In Luke 13:1-9 we read, "1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
Here, Jesus tells us that natural disaster or personal tragedy has nothing to do with God's punishment. God does not pick on people who are bad to give them a good spanking to teach everybody else a lesson.
6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, `For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' 8 "`Sir,' the man replied, `leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'"
In this segment Jesus teaches us about divine justice and mercy with a parable which appears only in Luke's Gospel. A man is disappointed and frustrated because he found no fruit for three consecutive years. His fig tree is wasting the soil; it takes up space without fulfilling its purpose. "The tree should be cut down and removed", he insists. But, the gardener in charge intercedes on behalf of the fruitless tree. He proposes that it be given an opportunity for another year, including additional attention and nourishment with fertilizer! I find this parable fascinating. Like so many of Jesus' parables, this one does not really have an ending. We are the ending of this parable. In our lives, you and I write the conclusion of this parable in this time of grace between the first advent and the next
Fig trees bear fruit every year, but this story tells us that for three years there has been no fruit. The tree is hopelessly infertile. "Cut it down!" says the owner. That's familiar language from the Old Testament, isn't it: Isaiah 5:7: "For the vineyard of the Lord...is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting..." Israel is God's vineyard, and things do not always go well in God's garden. The prophet Joel (1:12) lamented that "The vine withers, the fig tree droops."
Later, when Jesus told another story about a man who had a vineyard, leased it out, came to collect his share of the fruit, only to be treated shamefully by the tenants, "The scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them" (Luke 20:19ff.). God's people - Israel, the church is the vineyard. The owner of the vineyard, God, has come to collect. But there is no fruit. Now, we have some explaining to do. Why has there been so little fruit?
The owner's anger at his fruitless fig trees is justified. This parable asks critical questions of a congregational system that lacks a vision for bearing fruit. The Lord of the vineyard has been patient for a long time. Now, after waiting three years longer than he should have, he says, "Cut it down!" In Isaiah 5:5-6, the owner gets so upset with his unfruitful vines that he says, "I'll tell you what I'm going to do with my vineyard. Remove its hedge, break down its wall, trample it down, make it waste, refuse to prune or hoe it until it is overgrown with briers and thorns. I'll command the clouds not to rain on it, that's what I'll do."
Jesus gives us a glimpse at the heart of God. The servant pleaded, "Master, let it be. I'll dig around it, and throw some dung on it. Give it more time, then you can cut it down. Dung ought to help. Fertilize it with dung - manure."
The Greek word for dung, koprion, is a crude, impolite word to apply to a church. This word occurs only here in the whole New Testament. William Willimon says in his commentary, "I would not, of course, have used this word in front of a dignified group like you, had not Jesus used it first. If I, rather than Jesus, had been telling this story, I would have said, "Master, allow me to spread around a little fresh soil, perhaps a tad more water, prune it back." "No," Jesus said, "spread manure on it, that may help." Dung. Manure. Cow-poop. These are not polite church words. But it's been three years. It is time for drastic measures.
This tree ought to be cut down. The master is perfectly justified in his negative judgments about this tree. Yet due to the pleading of the servant, there is still time for the fig tree. Spread a little manure on it and give it a little more time. There's mercy here. Grace. This is not the dignified "O Lord, have mercy on us", that we would expect in church. But, rather the "spread a little dung on it" cow-stable-variety.
Maybe you can help me out a bit here. What do you do for a church that's struggling to be faithful and bear fruit? What do you do for a church system that is naturally inclined to housekeeping, that is, to keeping the machinery oiled. What do you do for a hurting church community that has been operating in survival mode. Jesus would say, "Don't cut it down. Spread a little manure around and give it some more time."
Here we listen in on an intensely personal debate of the Divine. God's heart is torn between justified judgment (Cut it down!) and amazing grace (Put some dung around it. Give it more time.) It is an intense debate within God's heart between what we deserve (Cut it down!) and what we do not deserve (Give it more time!).
God is with us in the desert. He understands our thirst and our hunger for righteousness. God also knows how hard it is for us to bear fruit when we're just trying hard to survive.
But, God invites us to take hold of the grace that allows us to break free. There is no doubt that we deserve God's punishment. But the Maker of the Universe, our God, righteous and Holy, listened to the words of His servant from the cross: "Father, forgive them." And his blood dripped down and became fertilizer for us, digging deep into our roots, so that we might bear fruit."
Jesus, in this season of Lent we follow you through the desert of human sins and suffering toward the cross. When we consider the magnitude of your sacrifice for us, the depth of your love, the radical quality of your grace toward us, our offerings to you seem superficial, puny, and insignificant.
You have loved us with a deep, pervasive, and relentless love. You do not let us go; even from the cross, you reached out and embraced us. In our moments of despair fill us with the conviction that you desire our repentance and not our destruction. Help us to see that in you our soul shall find fulfillment and new hope.
We praise your Name, Oh God. AMEN