LENT 2C – 24th February, 2013 – St Matthew’s, Guildford
A few weeks ago, as many of you know, I was rather badly unwell during the first service of the morning and had to go home leaving others to do an impromptu service of Morning Prayer. The next day, I went to my doctor, who diagnosed a chest infection and severe dehydration. When I was talking with my doctor about all this, I made the mistake of saying that the episode was a “wake-up call”, to which he replied, “How many wake-up calls do you need, Stephen?”
When Jesus is speaking in the Gospel reading from Luke this morning, he is talking to the Jewish people who have had quite a few wake-up calls over the centuries. God has chosen them from time almost immemorial to be God’s people. This morning we had God talking with Abraham, the very first of the “Chosen People”, promising him “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” And God literally cuts a covenant with Abraham, guaranteeing him what we might call “most favoured nation” status.
The story of the Old Testament is the roller-coaster ride of the people of Israel. Abraham and Sarah settle in Canaan and have Isaac in their old age; Isaac and Sarah have twins, Esau and Jacob; Jacob, the younger of the twins, is chosen by God and renamed Israel and produces twelve sons who become the “patriarchs” of the twelve tribes.
Jacob’s second-youngest son, Joseph, is sold by his brothers into slavery, ending up Prime Minister and Treasurer of the nation. A famine brings Jacob and his now large family to Egypt where that are given a goodly plot of land and they flourish.
Four hundred years later, Israel is a substantial nation, but they are in servitude to the people of Israel. God appoints Moses, a Hebrew who has been brought up in Pharaoh’s palace, to lead the people of Israel out of slavery and into the “land flowing with milk and honey”. The “wake-up call” here is a reminder to this people of who they are and whose they are – they are God’s chosen people, destined, not for slavery but for glorious freedom under God.
So they escape Egypt and travel into through the Red Sea and into the Sinai Peninsula. Over and over, we are told that they “forgot God” and alternately pined for the familiarity of Egypt and sought to do away with Moses. While Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law which would govern their relationship with God and with one another, the people are busy making a “golden calf” to worship. God is, unsurprisingly, angry and seeks to destroy them; but Moses pleads with God to give them another chance.
And God – always merciful – relents, sort of! Many of the people die and the rest are “under caution”, so to speak. Eventually – forty years later – the people of Israel enter the Promised Land and settle into their various tribal areas. They live under a number of “judges” who often help them to fight off the invading armies of the original inhabitants of the land, whom God allows to trouble Israel whenever they forget him.
Eventually, the people demand a king of their own, which the great judge Samuel perceives as a wish to dethrone God. Be that as it may, God permits them to have a king, and appoints Saul. Sadly, Saul lets God down –as do all of us human beings from time to time.
When Saul is killed in battle with the Philistines, David, whom God has chosen many years earlier, assumes the throne, but battles continue with the neighbours. One spring, David sins against God by taking Bathsheba, the wife of one of his senior army officers, and compounds the sin by having the man killed. God sends Nathan the prophet top give David a “wake-up call”, in the form of a story, ending with “You are the man!” David, to his credit, repents and seeks God’s forgiveness. The “wake-up call” is effective!
After David, comes his son, Solomon, who enjoys a long and peaceful reign, and who builds the first Temple in the city of Jerusalem. Solomon serves God well, until late in his reign, when he strays to worship the gods of his many wives and mistresses. When he dies, the nation is split into two kingdoms – Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
For the next three of four hundred years, both nations seem to ride the same roller-coaster as their forefathers. Time after time, they turn away from God, God sends prophets to challenge them, and they suffer for their unfaithfulness.
Eventually, they have ignored enough “wake-up calls”, and first Israel and then Judah are taken into captivity in Persia and Babylon. Prophets again are sent to speak God’s message of judgement and hope, and eventually the people are able to return to their land.
Now, some four hundred years later, the people are subject to the Roman Empire, and God has sent the wake-up call to end all wake-up calls – Jesus, the Messiah.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son”. Jesus is God’s final “wake-up call”. As Peter, James and John heard on the mount of Transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”
In Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, he tells of the owner’s sending messengers to collect the harvest. The messengers are variously rejected, beaten up and even killed. The owner then sends his son, assuming the tenants will treat him better. But, of course, they kill him too, as we know will happen to Jesus.
And so we come back to today’s Gospel.
‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
I imagine many of you listen to Sabrina Hahn who appears on ABC 720 Afternoons and on the Saturday Breakfast show. She has almost always has solutions to people’s many gardening problems. But occasionally she has no other suggestion than to dig up or cut down a plant or tree which is unproductive. A few times I’ve even heard her tell people to lean an axe against an offending tree, and if the threat doesn’t work then there is no other option.
Jesus is speaking about and to the nation of Israel when he tells this story. He, of course is the gardener, and God the owner. For three years, Jesus has been preaching the good news of the kingdom, with its accompanying message of repentance or judgement. And the leaders of Israel have not listened. Now the point of no return is approaching. And Israel must decide.
We know, of course, what the leaders decided, as we’ll see again in Holy Week. The end result was the destruction of Jerusalem, and all the leaders held dear, in 70 AD.
Meanwhile, we are in the Church’s season of Lent. It is a time when we are called to review our lives and to renew our commitment to follow Jesus. This is a time when we are given our own “wake up call”. Will you and I follow Jesus, or will we go our own stubborn way. Will we seek to follow him in “bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, in letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour”?.
There are a few more weeks before we come to the font at Easter, renewing our baptismal promises. Let’s take time to read the Scriptures, to meditate on them and to pray. Let the words of Jesus speak into our hearts, causing us to be fruitful, both in piety and good deeds, that there be no need for the axe to be leaned against us, let alone for it to be used! 🙂
The Lord be with you!