God desires that you know and have abundant life, and urgently begs you to turn toward that life, while patiently giving you all you need to thrive in it.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Third Sunday in Lent, year C
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9 (adding 10-11); Luke 13:1-9
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Do you have whiplash from that Gospel?
First Jesus clearly says God doesn’t cause tragedy or violence to punish people for their sins. But then Jesus just as clearly says if you don’t repent you’ll perish as those victims did.
Next, still with ominous tone, Jesus begins a parable with a fruitless tree whose owner is ready to chop it down. Then the gardener steps in with patience and love, offering to nurture the tree and help it bear fruit.
This short reading swings widely between implying divine judgment and punishment, and saying God doesn’t operate that way but patiently works for a different outcome. What are you and I supposed to feel, or think, or respond?
This whole section of Luke’s Gospel feels this way.
After the Transfiguration in chapter 9, Luke contrasts severity with grace in his telling. Stories of healing are alongside stories of people rejecting Jesus. A parable about a rich fool who dies with full barns is followed by encouragement to trust God for all your needs. Parables about faithful servants are paired with parables about unfaithful ones.
Jesus tells parables of mustard seeds and yeast in these chapters, promising growth in God’s reign, while warning about taking the narrow door that many will not be able to enter. He breaks the Sabbath a couple times by healing surrounding last week’s Gospel, God the Mother Hen who wants to gather all her chicks but they won’t. Then warnings about taking good seats at a dinner lead to a parable about a great feast where all the highways and byways are searched to get everyone to come.
All of this leads up to next week’s Gospel in Luke 15, the great story of a father’s senseless prodigal love for his two sons who somehow don’t trust that love.
So, should we be frightened about not being faithful, about God throwing us out? Or should we trust the loving wings of God the Mother Hen, the loving arms of God the Welcoming Father?
The key to this whole section really is Jesus’ warning today, “repent or perish.”
Now, remember, here Jesus categorically rejects the idea that God causes people’s suffering as punishment. Whether accident (like the falling tower) or evil (like Pilate’s massacre), it wasn’t because the people sinned. “Repent or you will perish like they did” has to mean something different.
Jesus’ call to repentance is a turning into new life and bearing fruit, into a new way of being from an old way. The severity of the calls to repentant turning in this long section of Luke comes from the urgency of Jesus’ journey to his death that began at the Transfiguration. Jesus knows he has little time left to teach all his followers the new way, and they have little time to start turning around.
In “repent or perish,” Jesus isn’t threatening a punishment. He just said that’s not how God works. God embraces. God forgives. Jesus is describing the consequences of a life lived outside of God’s way. If you don’t turn around soon, he says, you’re going to be stuck in your path of destruction and ruin.
Repentance is life, Jesus says.
The way of Christ is challenging and hard – love of God and neighbor, vulnerable love, these aren’t easy things. The turn of repentance, letting go of selfishness and stubbornness, confessing failures to love, seeking to do better, these aren’t easy things, either.
But Jesus says this is the way where you find abundant, full, rich life. Life trusting God provides growth and grace, life under God’s loving wings, life where God breaks God’s own rules to give hope and healing.
Turn to that, Jesus says. Turn to God and find life. Abide in me. Live in me, and you will bear fruit and have abundant life.
But maybe calling our Christly love fruit is part of the problem for us.
Jesus and Paul and others loved to use the fruit metaphor for the gifts of the Spirit, the life in Christ that God works in you and me. But fruit-bearing plants bear fruit for others to find nourishment and joy, not for themselves. Their fruit’s seeds are also for others, starting new plants that bear fruit. Maybe that’s not much incentive for us, that our fruit from God mostly benefits others.
But if the Triune God truly desires you to know life abundantly, fruit’s a wonderful metaphor. A tree or bush or vine that bears fruit is healthy, whole, vigorous. Beautiful from bud to ripeness. Plants not bearing fruit are often sickly looking, even dead.
That’s the secret to the life in Christ. You and I are created to bear fruit of love in our words, actions, lives, for the sake of others, yes. But in that bearing, we’re alive. Healthy. Beautiful. From John the Baptist to Jesus to Paul to James, the New Testament says when you bear the fruits of repentance in your life it’s a sign to others that the Spirit is working in you, filling you, blessing you. And it’s how you know you’re alive, too.
There isn’t a conflict in Jesus’ message at all.
Yes, Christ urgently wants you and me to turn our lives toward God and find life and hope and love and healing, and to be that for others. And he’s certain that if we don’t turn, it will be ruinous for our lives.
But if you trust that Jesus is the face of the Triune God for you and the world, then this persistent truth Jesus wants you to know is the only truth: God’s love for you is never-ending, cannot be taken from you, and, Jesus says today, it is also patient.
God will take time, patiently nurturing you, fertilizing you with the Spirit’s grace, pruning away the problem bits, until you bear great fruit. Because Isaiah promises God’s Word will always do what God intends, bearing the fruit God wants in the world. Always.
Today, once again, all you’re hearing is our regular, simple Lenten invitation: turn to God, and live.
In the name of Jesus. Amen