1 Corinthians 10: 9-13 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
Luke 13: 1-9 February 28, 2016
He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”
Prayer: As we hear these words of scripture, O God, may we turn to you for our renewal and strength. Amen.
I have a wall hanging downstairs in our basement which says, “I wonder sometimes if we ever give God a headache.” Do you ever wonder that? I received that wall hanging from someone at Chapel Hill UCC upon my departure as their pastor—Hmmm… I don’t know what that means… !
With all the messes in life, with all the places where God’s ways seem to be lost, with all the tragedies that occur…. messes like the political race and all its put downs of candidates, efforts at one-up-man-ship, and ideas that tear people apart and build up division instead of community… places like the violence which occurs in our streets and in our homes… places where there is economic disparity, and lack of equal pay for equal work, places where racism continues to exist and lives don’t seem to matter… tragedies like when on Friday, a gunman in Mason County of Washington state killed four members of his family and then himself… you gotta wonder if God ever gets not just a headache, but a heartache, too, exasperated with the human race. Right?
While it may be true that God might ache for us, let us thank God that in Jesus Christ, God has a message that goes beyond the ache. God is not locked into total exasperation with us, in part, because Jesus has advocated and acted for the whole human race. It has been put unimpaired before God.
The parable Jesus tells is about his advocacy. It’s about God planting Israel, a nation that is supposed to follow God’s ways and bear good fruit, but they don’t. Israel has everything it needs, good soil, good fertilizer, a good gardener in Jesus and other prophets, abundant resources of water, sunlight, air. But, the Jewish establishment is slow to live by God’s ways. The gardener, Jesus, advocates for Israel, negotiating for more time, more resources, more effort to bring it to fruitfulness.
Metaphorically speaking, the parable is about the whole human race. We have everything we need to live faithful and productive lives. But do we?
At times, we do succumb to temptation. We easily choose to live with unproductive ways. Ways that destroy instead of build up. Ways that branch out but don’t produce goodness. We focus on what doesn’t matter first, and we get around to what matters more than anything else only if we have the time. We spend our money on that which is not bread, and our labor on what does not satisfy, as Isaiah says (see Isaiah 55: 2).
Jesus’ parable says that year after year the fig tree (humanity) is fruitless. Maybe we’re too caught up in unfruitful practices and lifestyles that we love but don’t provide meaning for us… and we try and try to get them to do that, but to no avail.
The owner (God) knows the fig tree (people) has all the necessary ingredients to thrive and produce good fruit, but something’s not right. Our focus is off. Tired of this tree wasting good soil, the landowner tells the gardener (Christ) to cut it down.
But the Christ, the gardener, ever our advocate, refuses to give up on the tree of the human race and negotiates for a one-year reprieve. The gardener pledges to take care of the tree, to shore it up with good soil, and to put fertilizer all around it. All those efforts are symbolic of Christ following the pathway to the cross. And, if, even after all that, the tree doesn’t bear good fruit, Christ, the gardener, says to God, “then, you can cut it down.”
But, Christ, our Advocate, does the good work. His efforts pay off. And, the human race is forever placed in a redeemed, restored, rehabilitated relationship with God. Praise God!
See, God knows the goodness of the human race. And the human race is planted in this wonderful vineyard called planet earth. We are meant to survive here… and thrive here. We are meant to produce good fruit here… good faith practices, good social skills, good ways of God that will produce more good ways of God. In God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of our human frailties, God provides the grace and strength we need to live here in the garden. And, life is good.
However, we are warned in our readings today about over confidence and about complacency. Just because we have Christ and Christ’s Holy Spirit as our Advocate does not mean that we have no work to do in our spiritual lives. It doesn’t mean that we should test the Lord by saying smugly, “Well, I’ve got Christ in my life now—I’m all set…” Or, “I’m not worried about my eternal destination,” or, “So what if I don’t bear good fruit. I’ve accepted Christ!”
Early on in my ministry a friend of mine heard me express the gospel’s good news when I preached that because of Christ’s advocacy on behalf of the human race, every person can enter into a joyful relationship with God, today and in the day when our bodies die. But she said to me flatly, “I don’t believe that.” She said, “If that is the case, then I can do anything I want, good or bad, and I still will go to heaven? Where’s my incentive to live right?”
And I said, “Because by accepting Christ’s gift, we’re changed on the inside. Efforts to live right and to align ourselves with God’s ways start to occur naturally. Besides, I wouldn’t want to put God to the test about it, would you?”
Paul says the same thing… don’t put Christ to the test about it. He refers to examples from Israel’s history when the Israelites had God’s cloud by day and God’s pillar fire by night, and they made it through the sea, but still many of them died along the way by many causes, including an run-in with poisonous serpents (see Numbers 21 for the full story) and when a plague hit those who complained (see Numbers 16 for that story).
The truth is, times of testing and temptation will come in each of our lives. And, even though God is faithful, no matter what, watch out for over-confidence and complacency, especially when things are going well in our lives. We still are encouraged to turn to God for our help and strength each and every day.
Likewise, when Jesus hears about Pilate killing the Galileans while they worshiped, Jesus tells his followers that it was not because they were worse sinners than anyone else that they died. Even in their faithfulness, they weren’t immune to suffering that comes from tyrants. Just so, even in our faithfulness, we still are encouraged to turn to God for our help and strength each and every day.
When Jesus cites that tragic moment when 18 people were killed when a tower fell on them. Bad theology suggests that they were killed because they did something wrong in their lives, and this is God’s judgment. Jesus, our advocate, says “No, that’s not true either.” Tragedies occur. Stuff happens. No one is immune. It happens to the faithful and the faithless. We who are of faith, continue to God for our help and strength each and every day, no matter what.
Now then, strengthened by God’s power and strength, we are in the position to be used by God. And, as we have seen in the past discussions of angelic occurrences, often we are the ones who act like angels on behalf of someone else. We sometimes will be blessed by someone, and we say, “Oh, you’re an angel.” I want to suggest to us today that knowing Christ advocated on our behalf to God, we ought to advocate to God on behalf of others, like the way angel may do on our behalf. I think one way to do this is by intercessory prayer.
On a basic level, intercessory prayer means praying for others, but it’s not simply mentioning someone’s name or their need in the course of our prayer. There’s more to it. Intercessory prayer first is us connecting with God and being faithfully sure that God’s presence and power are our lives and in the lives of the people for whom we’re praying. Then, in our prayers, we move away from our natural sympathies and focus on God’s will and God’s interests in that person or their situation. Our prayer is “Thy will be done, Lord, not mine.”
This is not all that easy. We want someone to be healed. We desire relief from the difficult situation. And, I believe God does, too. But, God’s ways are not our ways, and God may need to get to those places of new life and relief in different ways that we can see or understand. It may not look right to us. Or, lack of a response from God may not suit us as well.
But, this is where our trust and faith in God take center stage. This is where we identify with God and have a vital connection with God so that we may advocate on behalf of the person or persons in need of prayer.
I think that our prayers of intercession makes us angelic advocates for others. Just as we’ve been awakening to the idea that angels are among us and are guiding us and are acting on our behalf, both to God and to us, so are we able to participate in angelic advocacy for others
around us through intercessory prayer.
This brings to mind a story about a little fellow—one who had been sent to his room because he was misbehaving. A short time later he came out and said to his mom, “I've been thinking about what I did and I said a prayer.” “That’s fine,” she said, “if you ask God to make you good, God will help you.” “Oh, I didn’t ask God to help me be good,” replied the boy, “I asked God to help you put up with me!” (http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/prayer.htm, retrieved February 27, 2016). Thoughtful little angel, huh? But, that’s a lovely form of angelic advocacy through intercessory prayer.
Let us remember that Jesus advocated for and righted the human race before God. We are a grace-filled people because of it. And we may be advocates for others because of it, too.
There are angel advocates among us. Perhaps we are they. Amen