March 3, 2013 –– Third Sunday in Lent
Suffering, Reality & Spiritual Fruit
Whether it’s a tragedy on headline news or an occasion of suffering in our personal lives, we instinctively ask why. We want a reason for the hard things because it seems a way for us to be in control. A common belief held by people in the Old Testament –– by the Jews in the days of Jesus –– was the idea that calamity was a punishment sent from God for sins. Jesus identifies that attitude here. A number of Galileans had been killed by Pilate's soldiers. In another incident, eighteen men had been killed in an accident when a tower fell on them. The popular opinion would have been that those people were guilty of some particular sin which God was punishing.
Maybe you know someone who has experienced an awful tragedy and then struggled with guilt, thinking that if they had done "this" or not done "that" the awful thing would not have happened. That is a terrible load to live under, and it's not a Christian view of life.
We can try so hard to find a way to “fix” the world. We would like to have control over the hard things –– so that we can avoid them! Is it a sign of God's judgment on a person if a bad accident or horrible illness comes our way? Can we live “good enough” to avoid tragedy? Jesus says no. Why, then, do horrible things happen in this world? That is one of the oldest questions of humanity. We need to see our world and its many issues through the eyes of Christian Faith.
Why are we here? What does God want from us? What do we expect from God? Is life just a search for what is easy and most comfortable? That seems to be the attitude of our culture. Is our highest priority to look around and see where the threats and pains are and try at all costs to avoid them? It is too, too easy for people in our decadent society who call themselves Christians –– people like us –– to be spiritually anesthetized. We can get comfortable as long as suffering doesn’t come too close, and then we just “go with the flow.” This doesn’t usually last very long or work very well. Life in the “real world” intrudes.
How do we understand the bad things that happen in our world? Do we realize that the world is not the way it was meant to be? Do we have the faith to believe that some temporal delights may not be so good after all, and that what the world-spirit despises may be the very thing we need? Our perceptions are skewed. Popular media does not tell the truth. Christian Faith takes the “Fall” –– human rebellion against God and the brokenness of our world –– seriously. The truth of mankind's rebellion against God is foundational to everything else we believe about salvation and who we are called to be. Whenever bad things happen, we should remember that the world is not as it was meant to be, nor is it the way it shall one day be.
Suffering can be understood as a God-given reality check. Jesus says the real issue of suffering is universal sinfulness, and so he gives this warning, Unless you repent, you too will all perish. Suffering should remind all of us, more than anything else, of our temporal existence. No one is spared pain; we live in a painful world. No one is without sin, because the evil that has been unleashed in our world affects all of us. None of us is going to escape judgment. The writer to the Hebrews says, ....man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment (9:27). There is no escaping the pain of living in this world, but there is a way to escape the eternal separation in God's judgment against sin: we need to have the right kind of fruit in our lives.
That is where the analogy of the fig tree comes in. Unless the fig tree bears fruit it is worthless and will be cut down, and unless we bear the fruit of God’s Spirit, we will suffer the destruction of God's judgment. We need to know there is something in this world worse than being the subject of violence or a bad accident. There is something worse than living with this world's pain and disappointments. The worse thing is a life of worthlessness as far as God is concerned. The fig tree was using resources without giving any fruit –– why should it use up the soil? (v7).
Some people live the same way. The real question is whether we are bearing fruit in our lives for God. After “preaching the Scriptures” for thirty years I found myself asking what would bear lasting fruit. There were “holes” in my own soul that were not healing –– in spite of my outwardly effective ministry. While I took the Bible extremely seriously (and I still do), I knew of others who did, too, and my interpretation of Scripture did not always match theirs. Who is “right?” Is it just personal opinion? What was the core foundation on which I could entrust my own heart?
I began to do what the man did in Jesus’ story of the fig tree –– look for fruit. Almost fifteen years ago, as I began to face my deepest desires in new ways, I found that I needed to get closer to the Lord in my personal, inner life (and not be content with my outward, pastoral persona). I discovered the age-old practice of praying the Psalms, taking prayer beyond my own small world and desires and into the heart-cries rooted in Scripture. Praying the Psalms took me to The Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer book of the Catholic Church –– the breviary, and then The Liturgy of the Hours introduced me to the early Church Fathers. As I read the Fathers, I was pointed to the Eucharist, and I thought, “These guys sound Catholic!” After another five years or so of progressive reflection, I realized that the mystery of Holy Communion had been the pinnacle of the Church’s worship from the beginning.
When the priest stands before us and says Behold the Lamb of God... we are seeing a touch of hand from the priest to the bishop to a line of bishops that goes all the way back to Peter, to whom the Lord said on this rock I will built my church (Mtt 16:18). That did it for me. I wanted the continuity of Faith that has been handed down from the beginning. I wanted the fullness of the Church. I want to be as “Christian” as God’s grace can make me in this world. In a time when change is happening beyond our ability to keep up, and when popular expressions of so-called Christianity call “good” the very things that the Church through the years has always called “evil,” it is time to find something that cannot be shaken. The more our world seeks its own comfort and security, the more it crumbles so that the social order is cut loose from all that is stable. I want –– and we all need –– something fixed and sure. It is present in the Church Jesus founded.
It is so easy to think that as long as we are comfortable, things are okay. In the Gospel today, Jesus wants us to know there is a Day of Reckoning coming. We all need the grace of God, and we need to take that seriously. We need a true perspective on life in this world. We need the Church. If we do nothing –– if we produce no fruit, like the barren fig tree –– we invite horrors worse than the human tragedies Jesus spoke of.... or the hard things we ourselves may be going through right now.
Here is the good news: God gives us the time to do something. About eight years ago, when I surrendered everything to the Lord –– my career, my financial security, my identity, the way others looked at me –– I found a freedom and an intimacy and a joy that I’d never had before when I was trying to serve the Lord outside the fullness of the Church. At the time, I could not have imagined being here like this today.
But we need to use what God offers us... The fig tree was given another year to see if fruit might yet come. As long as we have time and life, God is giving us mercy. It is not a mercy instead of judgment; it is a time of mercy to consider judgment, and to change life accordingly. As long as we have Now Jesus can turn our barrenness into fruitfulness toward God. It does not mean we will not experience tragedy in life. But whenever we see or even experience bad things, we will only be reminded that such is life in a world where brokenness is everywhere. So we are always aware of our need for mercy –– the mercy of our Lord that is there for all people who will receive it. May we all hunger for the fruit of righteousness, and may we seek the Lord and follow him into his death and resurrection so that the fruit of his Spirit can ever grow in our lives.