Monday, March 4, 2013

Tender Mercies: A Lenten Sermon

This is the text of a sermon I delivered yesterday morning at the Twinbrook Baptist Church, in Rockville, Maryland.

Tender Mercies

Isaiah 55: 1-6
Luke 13: 1-9

It is nice to be back among all of you this morning, and it is always an honor to have an opportunity to share a few thoughts with you during our Sunday morning worship services.  When I entered college I harbored some thoughts of going into the ministry.  It is funny how one’s life changes, how we follow new paths and opportunities as we mature and grow in directions we might not have ever considered.  So it has been with me.  I have never had a problem getting up in front of people and talking.  But when I do, I am always confident that I have a good grasp of the facts and figures, the methodology, the results.  I do not consider myself a Biblical scholar or a theologian.  But I am a Believer.  And really, how hard can it be to stand before others and say what you believe.  Well, sometimes it is harder than you might think. 

A couple weeks ago Sally Ann and I took a long drive down Interstate 95 from our home in Maryland to Gainesville, Florida.  A distance of 800 miles covered in twelve hours of constant driving.  The sun was rising as we approached the northern fringes of Richmond, and we watched the sun set as we arrived in Gainesville. It is a trip we have taken numerous times over the past four decades and one that I am quite certain I could complete in my sleep . . . while blindfolded.  Choosing, however, to keep my eyes open and alert as we sped along our way, I noticed that the farther south we drove, the greener were our surroundings.  The trees were beginning to leaf out and the dogwoods and redbuds were in full bloom as we passed through the Carolinas.  The azaleas were  just beginning to pop out in north central Florida.  Not only had we driven south in time and space, we had also driven into a new spring.

This is what we have all come to expect with the advent of spring.  A seasonal rebirth evidenced in the greening and flowering of plants and trees.  These are symbols of life, of renewal, a new beginning. 

The Lenten season is a time for us to look at our own spiritual rebirth.  In fact, the word “Lent” is derived from the Old English “lencten,” which means spring time.  A new time.  A time to look at things from a fresh perspective after emerging out of a lean and hungry season.  It is a time of following.  The narrative about Jesus’ suffering and death provides a way in which we are able, in an act of disciplined imagination, to situate (or resituate) our lives in a manner by which we honor what God and Jesus have in store for us.  We become aware that the story of Jesus - his life, death and resurrection -  requires and permits us to create a new version of our own story of life and faith.  How blessed can we be?  We are very blessed, indeed.

It has been said that the purpose of the first part of Lent is to bring us to “compunction,” a word  etymologically related to the verb "to puncture."  In reading Scripture we are told that if we seek penance, we are also recognizing that we need to deflate our inflated egos, a challenge to any self-deceit we might harbor concerning the real and honest quality of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.

If you really think about it, this penance sought in the Lenten season may actually be more effective, might actually teach us a better lesson, if we fail in our resolutions rather than if we succeed.  After all, isn’t the purpose of this penance more than just a confirmation of who we are, or who we think we are?  Of what we think we may know and believe?  Should it not make us stop and think long and hard about what we need to accomplish and understand in order to receive God’s salvation?  Do we truly like what we see when we look into a mirror?  Or do we see our flaws, those that are perhaps obvious to all, as well as those you have to look real . . . real close to see?  Is the reflection in the mirror what we truly want to see when we take a good, long look at ourselves?  Do we know who we are and where we are going? That is the meaning of repentance. At least this is what I believe.  We need to look at ourselves in the person of Jesus Christ and have a genuine heart's desire to have his spirit shape our lives.

I am reminded of a story told of an Anglican bishop traveling from London to a rural village to perform a confirmation service.  Somehow, during the course of the trip, he managed to misplace his ticket, and appearing somewhat flustered when he was unable to produce it when asked, the conductor smiled and said: "It's quite all right, my lord, of course I know who you are." Still the bishop looked perturbed and replied, "Yes, but don’t you see?  Without the ticket, I don't know where I am going."  It is not enough for us just to be here; we need to know our purpose; we need to know who we are.  We must be able to recognize that face in the mirror.  And more importantly, we must be satisfied by what we see.  Growth in our lives and in our faith is not so much advancing one’s self as it is becoming oneself.  Being who you really are when you take a good look at yourself in the mirror.

Think back on the two readings from Scripture this morning.  Reading and listening to the words of Isaiah 55 we see and hear a prophetic song in which God promises mercy, forgiveness, and abundant provisions to those who seek to repent and put their trust in God.

In the second of this morning’s Scripture readings - Luke 13 - we encounter Jesus as he traveled and taught his way from Galilee to Jerusalem.  He learned that Pontius Pilate had ordered the killing of a number of Galileans as they were offering sacrifices, their blood being mingled with that of the sacrificial animals.  We also learn that eighteen others had died when the Tower of Siloam in Jerusalem fell on them.  Jesus asked those gathered around him whether they thought these unfortunate victims were worse sinners or offenders than anyone else living in Galilee or Jerusalem?   Jesus told them no.  They just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  That said, however, Jesus reminded his followers that this fate awaits all, regardless of their lives, whether they be rich or poor, regardless of their circumstances . . . this fate awaits all who fail to repent and return to God.  All will perish.

Jesus then told his followers the story, or the parable, of the fig tree:  A vineyard owner has planted a fig tree in his vineyard because it is this land where there is sufficient water and nutrients to nourish the tree.  And he knew, if he waited long enough, if he was patient long enough, he would be able to go to his vineyard and gather the figs he expects to find there.  But the tree has been barren for three years.  There are leaves as the fig nourishes itself in the good ground of the vineyard, but it produces no fruit.  The owner asks himself why he should bother with the fig tree if it bears no fruit, if it is only taking up space in the vineyard?  He orders the trees cut down and cast away as useless.  The gardener who works for the owner . . .  obviously a more patient man than the owner . . . cautions against such rash action.  Perhaps if the tree was better fertilized, it might finally bear fruit the following year.  If not, then it could be cut down.

We need only look back to Psalm 80: 8-16 - here the people of Israel are equated with a grapevine brought out of Egypt.  They were allow to grow and to be properly nurtured in the land they returned to.  The ground was cleared of all foreign nations and the people of Israel were allowed to put down deep roots overspreading the land.  But this was possible only as long as the people were protected and nurtured.  When the walls set up to protect them were removed, their enemies returned to this land . . . the fruit was stolen and the vine chopped down and set on fire.  When people came to the Jordan River to be baptized, John called them to repentance. His words were harsh and unrelenting:  "Even now," he said, "the ax is lying at the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."  As we read in Mark 11:12–14, three years and more Jesus sought fruit of a fig tree and found none. Having produced all his credentials as Messiah, Jesus made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting “Hosanna” as if to glorify him.  Yet how soon was it before these same people called for him to be crucified.  The next day Jesus saw a fig tree and finding nothing but leaves, He cursed it.  The sin . . . the failure of the fig tree in not producing fruit . . . is not that it did something bad.   It did nothing at all.  It did not produce the desired fruit.  It only took up space in the vineyard and consumed water and nutrients which the other more productive plants and trees required.

The lesson here is very simple.  Genuine repentance and faith toward Jesus Christ is the only means of escape from perishing.  Nothing can be expected from those who fail to repent and turn away from their barren and hypocritical lives.  Just like the fig tree that is cut down and cast off, so too those who fail to recognize their shortcomings, failures and weaknesses, who fail to repent and seek God’s forgiveness.  The question for God is . . . how long does he wait until repentance comes to a nation, a church, or an individual?  Maybe the vineyard is the whole earth. Maybe it's the church. Maybe it's your life and mine. 

We can take comfort in God’s tender mercies.  God and Jesus are not going to give up on any of us . . . you, me, the  church, the whole earth.  Read the parable of the fig tree again.  There's hope in this parable . . . patience, don't cut the tree down. But there's also urgency . . . give it one more year.  Still, Jesus' parable moves in the direction of a promise more than a threat.  But don’t let that stop you from doing what you are doing.  Or what you know you need to do. 

Take a real long look at yourself in the mirror.  Look way down deep.  That torn place that perhaps fear or ignorance has opened up inside of you is a holy place.  Take a good look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there, and it may hurt you to see what you see, but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind of hurt that leads to the promise of a new life. 

"What have you done?" Jesus asks, "What have you left undone?"  Such questions, like the parable and the fate of the fig tree, move us toward repentance, a word that means to turn around, to believe things can be different, to trust that the one who calls us to turn around will be there even when we fail.

What a grace time can be for have space and time to grow, to mature spiritually, to reform our lives, to serve the Lord and remove the obstacles, big and small, between God and ourselves . . . between us and others.  Look at what we put Jesus through and still God has not given up on us.  We are graced with time, yet we must use it wisely.  This Lenten season is the offer of the gardener to the vineyard owner.  Patience . . . give it more time.

A merciful God made us with what we need to be better than we are now.  We are not seeking to turn to some new way.  We seek only to turn (or return) to God whom we have had with us all the way although we might sometimes forget this.  God is merciful enough to wait for us to discover that. Repentance is not about the past.  It is about the future!!

Jesus told his followers in Luke 21:29-31: "Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you, likewise, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near."  Similarly, in Matthew 24:32: "Now learn this parable from the fig tree:   When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near."  Jesus is simply using the budding of the fig tree to illustrate a point about his second coming. 

We have no idea how soon it will be. The best approach, perhaps, is contained in the apostle Paul's admonition to the Romans to repent and seek God’s salvation, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than perhaps we first believed.  If we live as if Christ will come tomorrow, we will always be striving to be prepared for it.

So what about the future?  Here it is the first days of March.  The spring Sally Ann and I drove into a couple weeks ago as we drove south is now moving this direction.  It will be here soon.  Already I am beginning to see buds on some of the trees.  The daffodils and the crocuses are popping out of the winter soil.  There is promise of new life, renewal, a new beginning.

God’s tender mercies will never fail us.  With these tender mercies he cares for us and all of his people.  Such is the comfort of the word of God to us.  Let us look to Jesus Christ as we ask him to help us be the people we truly want to be.  And let him help us to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated, to be shaped by what Paul, to the Galatians, calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” which includes love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, and a great deal more [Galatians 5:22-23].

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