Who knows what this is? Yes, it's a fig. Perhaps you might be more familiar with them in that classic English tea time treat – the fig roll. Has anyone here ever grown these things? I was going to say that I thought you had to grow them under glass in the UK, but a friend of mine assured me that her parents' tree fruits just about every year in the garden. Anyway, we will come back to these later, remember the fig.
First though, to the Bible. Both of the readings that we have heard this morning are to do with sin, judgement, mercy, and timely decisions.
Let's start with Isaiah. Now, I find most of the book of Isaiah pretty heavy going. When we read from Isaiah, we often concentrate on the encouraging and hopeful bits, like the one that we read this morning. This is great but if we don't see the background despair then we can miss out on the exceptional nature of the hope. Most of the book of Isaiah is about God's distress over the unfaithfulness of God's people.
It is like the journal of a husband who has discovered that the love of his life, his beloved wife, whom he married as a young man, has been having an affair. It is like the diary of a just and noble King whose people have been taking advantage of his good nature and have been arranging a coup. It is mostly heart breaking judgements outlining the dreadful consequences of the sin of the people of God.
It is only when we have a full appreciation of the depth of the surrounding darkness that we can fully appreciate the brightness of the light in what we heard today. Because in this passage we hear God calling out to God's people with the promise of restoration, of mercy, of blessing, and of fruitfulness. The riches of God are available to the people of God, but they have to make a decision. They have to decide to go to God and accept these good things, and they have to make that decision soon, whilst God is near to them.
God's people have sinned, there has been judgement, there is the possibility of restoration but the people have to take that opportunity whilst it is available, whilst God is near.
Then we fast forward several hundred years to Jesus ministry, where we overhear the end of one of his conversations with some folk that have gathered around him. In the rest of the conversation, which we can read in the previous couple of chapters of Luke's witness to Jesus' life, Jesus has been talking about sin and judgement, and about the fact that it is time for the people of God to make a decision. Some very similar themes to the one that Isaiah was talking about in his ministry.
Having talked about judgement, Jesus is now being asked to pass judgement on a local news story. We don't know the exact details, but it sounds like a group of Galileans had come to Jerusalem to visit the temple for worship and had been executed by Pilate, the Roman governor. Jesus is expected to comment on this, just like the “religious affairs correspondent” on the news. The crowd are probably expecting him to make a statement condemning either Pilate's cruelty or the Galilean's for whatever they did to provoke Pilate. The people are expecting Jesus to take sides.
He refuses to do that. Instead, he turns the question back on them, and brings in another local news story to illustrate his point. He does deliver a judgement, but he doesn't take sides. He says that everyone has sinned and needs to repent. There is no difference between the Galileans, Pilate, the people killed in the building accident, the people sat with him talking. All of them have fallen short of God's standards, and need to change their ways and their minds.
He then tells the story of the unfruitful tree. Here again we get the themes of something not doing what it's meant to do, of judgement, of mercy, and of limited time.
What did I ask you to remember earlier. The fig. I asked you to remember it, because I thought that it might give us a way of examining, judging if you like, our own lives and helping us to understand the decisions we are being asked to make, in good time. The questions that the fig might prompt us to ask are: Is it Fruitful? Is it Inviting? Is it Growing? And it seems to me that we need to ask these questions at different levels, of our wider community, of our church, and of ourselves.
Is our community fruitful with the fruit that God is looking for? Are the widow and the orphan well looked after? Is our community inviting, are foreigners and strangers made welcome? Is our community growing, is it becoming more mature?
Is our local church fruitful with the fruit that God is looking for? Are people worshipping in spirit and in truth? Are people being helped to follow Jesus more closely and more faithfully? Is our church inviting, do we reach out to ask people to come along, and when they do, how do we draw them in to our friendships? Is our church growing, in numbers and in spiritual depth?
Are our own lives fruitful with the fruit that God is looking for? Are we known for our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Are we inviting people, do others like being around us, spending time in our company? Are we growing: our bodies kind of take care of themselves, but what about our minds and our souls? Are we growing in faith?
I suspect that the answer to all these questions is, “not enough”. It is unlikely that the tree is completely bare, but I am fairly sure that we can all see places in our lives where there could be more fruit.
These are tough questions to ask ourselves, because the answers might mean that we need to change. This is why I am grateful that we have Lent, because in a way it forces to face these questions, to grapple with them, and in doing so gives us an opportunity to become more fruitful, more inviting, and to grow more.
The first step in doing this is to do what Jesus said. To repent. As I was preparing for this morning I came across what I thought was a really good description of repentance:
“Repentance is both a once for all thing that shapes the whole subsequent course of life and a day-by-day affair that keeps putting sin away”
Following on from Lent we will have Easter, the celebration of forgiveness and hope. Because of Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension we can know that we are forgiven and that we are children of God. Then comes Pentecost the season of being equipped and empowered by the Holy Spirit to go and to put into practice the changes that we have been convicted about.
Then there will be more fruit all round.