On 28 February, the Third Sunday of Lent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 63:1-9, Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9.
Why do bad things happen to good people? That’s a question many people wrestle with.
We see a loving young mum fighting a vicious form of cancer and it seems unfair. A popular local figure is killed in a car accident that was not his fault and we wonder why the driver of the other car got away with only scratches. Why couldn’t the kind man have lived to continue his great work in the community? Incidents like this are enough to leave some people completely turned off God and faith.
We still have a sense that life should be fair. If someone suffers due to their own wrong actions, we can be quick to say that it serves them right. (Or as Charlie is fond of saying, quoting his mum, they got their just desserts.) This is very much what the Jews of Jesus’ day thought. Tragedy or illness or disability came to those who sinned. The greater the sin, the greater the horrible consequences.
Having had two tragedies brought to his notice, presumably to gauge his reaction, Jesus’ rhetorical questions highlighted this view: “Do you think … they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” In each case he answered his own question in the negative. Just because something bad happens to someone, it does not mean that they are bad. Bad things happen to good and bad people; good things happen to good and bad people. The world is not inherently fair. It is badly broken and doesn’t work in the way that our sense of fair play suggests it should.
The lesson that Jesus drew out of these incidents was probably not what most of his audience were expecting. There was nothing extraordinarily sinful about those involved in the two tragedies. Everyone is sinful to some extent. This suggests similar incidents could happen to anyone. No one had a right to assume they were immune from them. No one could be sure that they would get to the end of the day alive. Therefore, Jesus urged his audience to consider their own personal predicament: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
The parable of the fig tree reinforced the message. It was supposed to bear fruit and failed to do so. It was not fulfilling its purpose. It was taking up room in the vineyard and was not earning the right to be there by generating something good. If it were taken out, another tree could be put in its place with the hope that that would produce fruit.
Fruit trees often stood as symbols for the nation of Israel. God intended his chosen people to bless others as a result of their being blessed. Unfortunately, they were not generating the blessing he intended them to do. They were barren of fruit just like the fig tree.
In the parable, the tree is given one last chance. It’s not expected to make all the effort by itself. The gardener gives it a helping hand. By digging round it, the soil would be looser and better able to absorb water. Putting manure round the tree would give it extra nutrients. It would have everything it needed to grow and flourish. It had just one year to prove that it could produce fruit.
Jesus’ parable emphasises what our passage from Isaiah says, that time is limited:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near.”
It’s only a healthy tree that bears fruit. Likewise, it is only spiritually healthy people who demonstrate godly living. Isaiah urged the people to turn from their wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts. Like Jesus, he emphasises the need for repentance and he gives an assurance that God will indeed “abundantly pardon”.
It’s very easy to say sorry for something without meaning it. How many of us as children have been urged to say sorry and have muttered a sulky “Sor-ree” without being at all sorry for what we have done or having any intention of changing. Jesus linked repentance to bearing fruit. The bearing of fruit proves the quality of the inner life, a life restored by forgiveness and a change of direction. John the Baptist preached the same message. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptised, supposedly showing that they had repented, he told them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” I suppose that was something like, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
What applied to the nation of Israel, applies equally to us. Life is still unfair. We cannot know what each day will bring. However, we can take to heart Jesus’ and Isaiah’s message to repent while there is still time, assured of forgiveness.
Lent gives us a chance to think about what we need to repent of. If we dare, we can ask God to point out to us our failings, our wicked ways, unrighteous thoughts and lack of fruitfulness. We can take advantage of the free water of life and food for the journey which Jesus provides, just as Isaiah anticipated. In this way we will fulfil Jesus’ purpose for us, his disciples:
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.” (John 15:16).
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor