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s154g04 Lockleys 7/3/2004 Lent 2

"For three years I have come looking for fruit .." Lk 13.7

Lent 2 in the new lectionary is a bit of an oddity. The feast of the Transfiguration was always celebrated on August the 6th, and it was wisely thought that such an important event in the life of Jesus ought to be remembered each year on a Sunday rather than every 6 or 7. So in AAPB Lent 2 became the annual remembering of the Transfiguration, before Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem for that final time.

The new APBA lectionary, probably wanting to emphasise the "penitential" character of Lent - brought this back to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. So in their place today we have three readings which are important in themselves, but it's a bit difficult to see how they go together. If you are trying to find a common theme, it is probably that they don't fit anywhere else, but are too important to be left out :-)

Mind you there is the three years that were the ages of the heifer, female goat and ram before they were sacrificed and the three years that the owner came to look of fruit, but that might be stretching the point :-)

I confess I do have problems with Abram. God reassures Abram that he would be blessed, but Abram doesn't believe God. Abram questions God how that could be - since he was childless. God continues to reassure Abram, being more specific that it would be his own child who would inherit. God tells Abram that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky. The words tell us that Abram believed God, but really he continued to question, wanting proof. And so the sacrifice and the fire pot and torch happened - providing the proof for which he was looking.

This tells us that God takes the initiative to bless humanity. It is when we want a blessing all to ourselves that we might need to wrestle one from God.

The gospel talks about disaster striking people, yet it is others who initiate this conversation. The essence of the reply Jesus gave is that God does not single out particular people for punishment.

In the second part of our gospel, there is clearly some chagrin that for all the owner had blessed the fig tree, it had still not born fruit. Yet God was able to bring forth fruit from the otherwise barren Abram.

But the owner's gardener persuades the owner to allow him to try for another year. There is the initial blessing of the planting, the blessing of someone who cares, and a further blessing of a delay to the "axe falling" quite literally. Blessing upon blessings upon blessings. God is looking for fruit, and that hardly means one fig!

God acts, not by threatening disaster on individuals, but by planting, providing someone who cares and by delaying punishment. For God wants us to be part of a crop. If someone was kind enough to give me a grape, I might be pleased, but I wouldn't be overwhelmed :-) If we land up in heaven, one little fig, all plump and ripe and proud of ourselves for getting there, I wonder if that's the meaning of the phrase - that we are being a bit precious.

However there is probably more to the "three years" than meets the eye. It is recognised that if one didn't have the gospel of John, we could well come to the conclusion that the public ministry of Jesus could have lasted less than a year. It is John who makes mention of three passovers, in John 2, 6 and 10, indicating a rather longer ministry of Jesus. This mention of three years may well indeed be a reference to the length of the ministry of Jesus, looking for fruit on the vine of the ancient people of God.

So repentance is not done under threat or duress, but in response to the planting, the provision of a carer and the patience of God. And if God does not single out particular people for punishment, God does not single particular people out for blessing. God continues to plant, God continues to provide a carer, God continues to be patient with all, for God wants a crop of people, not just one plump fig.

And this defines the ministry of Jesus as that part of God's care for all people, looking for the crop, rather than the single fig.

This looking for the crop parallels those great sayings about the lost sheep and the lost coin. "Repentance" for Jesus becomes the invitation "rejoice with me" - for I have found - someone else :-)

God looking for humanity - when humanity, like Adam and Eve, likes to hide away, lest God see us as we really are. God looking for all f humanity, when some think God has eyes only for them.

I shall have to do some more research, but the promised land, the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates is given to the descendants of Abraham, who would include not just Isaac born to him by Sarah, but also Ishmael born to him by Hagar, and 6 other sons born to him by Keturah (Gen 25). So even the descendants of Abraham had to share with one another. Isaac is of course the father of Jacob and Esau. It is Jacob who is renamed Israel and it is he who buys his brother Esau's inheritance cheaply from him. So even Jacob has difficulty sharing the promised inheritance with his brother. His descendants were to be as numerous as the stars in heaven, but some of them seem to want there to be less.

One cannot read that first lesson and pass over the threatening nature of the encounter with God. Even Abram needs to be in a deep sleep to survive the deep and terrifying darkness that descends. The "promise" could conceivably be as much a curse as a blessing. The narrowing down of what began as a simple blessing, to something more specific, may not have been entirely what God wanted. Sometimes humanity is far too smart for our own good, and I do not mean in the sense of the advances in technology, but in our continually trying to narrow down God's wide focus onto ourselves - whoever we conceive "ourselves" to be. Abraham was not adverse to bargaining with the Almighty, so perhaps he'd learned his lesson when he later intercedes on behalf of the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The owner comes looking for fruit. So God is not in heaven, marking down in the celestial ledger the good things individuals do on one side and the bad on the other, waiting , rather impatiently for when the scales will inevitably tip too far the wrong way - as they always will eventually - then ZAP! A bit like us and that pesky mosquito buzzing around us in bed. When we dispose of it, we can go off to sleep happily, knowing that we won't be eaten and disturbed during the night. No, God is out and about, here in this life, looking for the best in us, to see our successes, and the successes of all people. God is not looking for the times when we stuff up.

And the owner, in addition to planting the tree, provides a gardener and a stock of manure. The allusion is, of course, to Jesus, whose ministry is to help us all grow - to stand on our own two feet, fully mature and producing all that we are capable of - not cowering and self absorbed.

And it occurs to me that if we are looking to see how God acts in the world, probably these three aspects gives us a good clue. God plants us and all people, God provides someone to nurture us and all people and God is forbearant with all.

We might look for God's actions in healing, in stopping this or that conflict, or bringing this world to an end. It is in creation, nurture and forbearance that we primarily see God's grace for all.

We might indeed picture God as "Mr-Fix-it" but that might give us permission to not especially worry about how we deal with others. I do not think that this is what will make for peace in this world.

So far from God needing a heavenly bouncer at the pearly gates, keeping as many people as possible - you know - all those who don't measure up, all those who don't have the right faith, or enough of the right faith - away from this holy God. No God is out and about looking for us and for all people. God is always ready to include. It is those who wish to exclude who find themselves not wanting to be a part of the heavenly banquet.

God looks for fruit in us and all people. God looks for our successes. This is the sort of God worth following, this is the sort of God worth trusting, and this is the sort of God worth rejoicing when others realise this is really what God is like too. Nothing, absolutely nothing is more important than this.



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