“No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did.”
( Luke Chapter 13, verse 3)
I have to tell you that does not sound like good news to me. I could have stayed in bed with the National Post and read about the unlucky, unrighteous, and lazy, who deserve their fate and felt myself lucky, righteous and comfortably blessed. After all, I worked hard to get here. Don’t go telling me, Jesus, that I have to change, turn around, and repent or else my fate will be no better than those I long ago left behind. God no, don’t go telling me that – I’m too afraid to hear that. I’m afraid.
We like to tell ourselves that we left that vengeful old man in the sky behind. What’s the accepted party line ….that’s the God of the Old Testament – we’ve got sweet Jesus. Trouble is the speaker this morning is our sweet Lord Jesus Oh my, we have a problem here.
Do you remember back in high school in the fall when the student teachers started showing up? For some of us, it was the like the opening of deer hunting season. Bright eyed, eager, twenty-some things out to change the world. Long enough removed from adolescence to have just forgotten how cruel it all can be.
It so happened one warm late October day that Lucy was introduced by Mr. Imrie to his grade nine English class. In the back row along the windows sat Frank and a group of cronies. It had been awhile since they’d had a chance to express themselves – Mr. Imrie ran a tight ship. Well, Lucy launched into her lesson plan. And Frank and his cohorts launched into their disruption plan. It was a pretty even affair – till towards the end. Lucy just didn’t have it. And the boys got the upper hand. The joke was on Lucy.
In their youthful exuberance the boys missed one critical detail. Mr. Imrie had never left the room. The bell rang to end the school day and the righteousness and wrath of God – in this case Mr. Imrie, former professional football player, came crashing down. Springing from his desk in the back corner he pointed out the 5 offenders and ordered them to stay. He excused Lucy and the rest – and as the last of the lucky stepped into the hallway – the door was kicked shut – the blind fell and hit the floor. Mr. Imrie took two steps toward his big oak desk and kicked it hard enough to send it clear across the room, crashing into the wall. And then he turned on the boys: “Make me laugh. You’re so smart . Tell me another one. Make me laugh.” No one said a word.
The lecture went on for what seemed like an eternity. We got the point. Mr. Imrie opened the door and the assembled crowd outside it parted. As the last boy walked past Mr. Imrie, a gangly young man still shaken from the display, Mr. Imrie looked down at the child and winked. And in that moment it all became crystal clear. It had all been an act – the wrath of Mr. Imrie had in fact been a well-controlled lesson plan. The boys had been beat at their own game, hunting season had been reversed – and a valuable lesson had been learned. I don’t suppose a teacher could do that anymore. That might be a shame; I learned alot that day.
The wrath of God might just be similar. Instead of denial, maybe we might try and contend a bit with the notion of God’s need for justice. After all, try as we might, we can’t escape the notion that God in fact will judge us, that somehow people deserve their fate, and maybe heir lot in life; and don’t we fear that our place in the pecking order may in fact be God’s judgment.
But, then again, that just doesn’t sit right,does it? It’s no answer to my fears – in fact, it just makes matters worse. And it doesn’t fit with good old Mr. Imrie – or God for that matter.
Luke’s answer is the parable that finished off our gospel. The landowner and gardener out for the annual inspection. And the fig tree that hasn’t been up to much of anything for some time now. The owner’s solution is so often ours – toss it out, say goodbye to the whole lot of ‘em. The gardener pleads for more time. Maybe a little manure, and some air for the roots. Let it alone until next year. The mercy of God is to wait, to nurture, God’s infinite patience.
It’s like the little girl who fell down while trying to get something out of the cupboard she wasn’t supposed to have. Her elbows and knee skinned from a hard landing. Her mother hears the fall and comes running. Sure, the child has done wrong. But she’s in pain now. And with the oldest myth in the world the mother sets to make things better – ” come here, sit in my lap and I will kiss it better.” And for a time mother and daughter embrace – only soft words spoken – the offending elbow and knee wiped clean, kissed, and bandaged.
A look that enforces the truth that a rule was broken, and maybe a tear and tentative smile in response to say I know and I’m sorry. And all is well. Was there judgment there? You bet. Is there mercy in the lap of a mother? Without a doubt. And the one in no way cancels the other.
Judgment and mercy can and do exist in tension with one another. Gardeners know
it – mothers and teachers know it – it takes time to grow up. And the Good news for us who haven’t quite made it to maturity in the realm of our relationship with God is that God’s mercy is still in serious conversation with God’s judgment – we have time.
There is hope. And not as we first thought it. God’s mercy isn’t wrapped up in our middle class comforts – thank God – because which one of us doesn’t fear our comforts being taken away? God’s mercy is something stronger.
God’s mercy is wrapped up in the notion of forgiveness. But most of us aren’t always so sure we need or even want that forgiveness. We’re wrong in both of those assumptions. But thankfully, God in her mercy is wider than our poor conceptions.
The Good news for this morning is that sometimes God’s mercy is time, the opportunity to learn new lessons, to reflect on actions in the world, to contemplate our lives. Time to start again. We, of course, call that repentance. The turning of our lives in a new direction.
We knew all this once in the church. The absolution after confession by times went something like this: “The Almighty and merciful Lord grant you absolution and remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of the Holy Spirit.”
God’s greatest mercy may in fact just be the time we’ve been given for true repentance and the amendment of our lives. It may be God’s greatest gift to any of us. Will we take God up on the offer? Will we become who God dreamed we’d be? There is hope – we have, by the grace and mercy of God, time. And so do those around us.
What would the world look like if we allowed one another this simple grace of time? Would we not look at one another in new ways? Who could we give up on? Who would cease to be worth our time, effort and attention? In the mercy of God’s time, we have the opportunity to encounter one another as we really are: God’s fearful creatures, with hearts longing to be welcomed into the arms of Love, longing for a place to belong.
Long ago God called us to tend the garden – thank God we still have time to become the gracious gardener we encountered this morning in the gospel. Surely this is God’s dream for you and I. We need not be afraid – there is time yet to grow.