The minute we turned to this text in our class, the comments were unanimous: “We’re glad God is patient with us.” And that’s the bottom line of what Jesus is saying.
But let’s start at the beginning. Rather than repeating the stories from the gospel reading, let’s consider a contemporary story. What sin did the man from Sefner commit that the sinkhole opened up in his house and swallowed him? … We know that that’s a preposterous idea. God does not use nature to punish people. At least, not since Noah and the ark.
But it was a common thought in Jesus’ time. If you were obedient, if you believed you were right in God’s eyes, then God blessed you with wealth and children and health. But, if bad things happened to you, then you or some ancestor must have sinned, and God was depriving you of blessings and punishing you.
Jesus challenges that belief. In John’s gospel, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his family, so that he was born blind?” Jesus’ response is that his blindness is not because of sin. Yet, God’s glory will be revealed because of the man’s blindness – and then he heals the man.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus makes it clear that sin did not cause the tower of Siloam to fall; neither did the worshipers’ sin cause the soldiers to murder them. The tower probably fell because of a flaw in construction. The worshipers died because of sin in the hearts of Pilate and the soldiers.
The belief that God punishes sinners with natural disasters is an ancient explanation for suffering. A theological word for it is theodicy. (It’s on the back of your bulletin.) In seminary, we talked about the “theodicy question.” This means, since God is good, why is there sin and evil and suffering in the world? The simple answer is there is sin and evil because we are human, imperfect, and not God. There is suffering because of natural processes in the world.
For example: earthquakes happen because of shifts in the earth’s structure – plate tectonics. Hurricanes and tornadoes happen because of warm and cold fronts and moisture. Global warming is causing more hurricanes to happen. Changing weather patterns are the consequence of us not taking good care of God’s creation, but not direct punishment from God.
Sink holes happen in Florida because of the natural consequences of Florida’s geological foundation. Underground water erodes limestone. When it happens in large scale, the ground caves in, causing a sink hole. Unfortunately, sometimes people are living where the earth gives way.
Our own behaviors may cause unwanted consequences. Smoking, drinking too much alcohol, eating a typical American diet, type-A stress, reckless driving, and so forth, all have unwanted consequences, and bad stuff happens. God does not make us smoke, drink, eat, drive, etc. the way we do. And God does not cause the disease, accidents, etc. to happen in order to punish us, but God does allow the consequences of our behavior to happen.
So, since bad stuff happens, and it’s not God punishing us, what are we to think about human sin and our relationship with God? Jesus answers this question with a parable.
There was a landowner who had a few acres of fig trees – in America we could say apple trees or orange trees. It takes several years for a tree to be mature enough to grow fruit. The landowner says, “All the other trees planted at the same time are producing fruit. What’s with this one? Let’s cut it down and plant a new one in its place.”
The gardener objected. Let me give this tree some extra TLC. I’ll loosen the soil, give it some fertilizer, make sure it gets plenty of water. Next year it should produce fruit. If not, then I’ll cut it down, as you suggest.
Most of us would be glad for a second chance. But, it’s not just another year of doing just what we’ve been doing. It’s a year of changing our lives, a year of allowing God to loosen our soil, give us some fertilizer, and give us plenty of water.
Exactly what kind of TLC we need is different for each of us. For some of us, it may mean a time of doing less, to reduce our stress level. It may mean increasing biblical knowledge by attending study groups. It may mean getting involved in helping those who have less. It may mean working to forgive someone – even God – for something that happened that we can’t let go of. It may mean making more time for God in our lives. It may mean looking at what we have, things, money, relationships differently.
When we allow God to muck around in our lives, we become different. Trees begin to bear fruit; so do we. Some people say that bearing fruit is about bringing people to Christ. Of course we should do that; we should remember that there are many ways to do bring people to Jesus.
Some people may benefit from the shocking threat of that sign on Norvell Bryant – ‘eternity in hell is a long time.’ But more people will be drawn to the love and forgiveness Jesus offers. Just as we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, I believe we catch more believers with love than with fear.
Another way of thinking about bearing fruit is found in several of Paul’s letters. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we use these gifts with those we encounter, we give God the chance to muck around in the soil of their lives, so they, too, may have a better relationship with God, and also bear fruit.
The good news for us is that even if we are not much changed after a year of God mucking around in our lives, God is patient with us. God does not say, if Joe and Jane are not bearing fruit next year, they are done. God gives us another year, and another year, and another year. God gives us another chance, and another chance, and another chance.
I used to have a poster which said, “Please be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet.” A handy thing to remember, isn’t it?
Please pray with me. Loving God of mercy and patience, we thank you that you never give up on us. Amen