Third Weekend of Lent (C/RCL)
“11th Hour Rescue Part II: God of Second Chances”
Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, Luke 13:1-9
February 27-28, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Remember Scoutmaster Chris Petronino who showed up in last week’s sermon? I quoted a Daily Record story that said a black bear pulled him inside a cave and cornered him for an hour. Pastor Mark was skeptical and pointed out that it’s really unusual for a black bear to be so aggressive. Since the article stated the event got national news coverage, Mark Googled it and found a CNN article that told a different story: the hiker wasn’t pulled into the cave, he lowered himself into it and surprised the bear, who was hibernating lightly enough that the unexpected intruder awoke and startled him! So the Scoutmaster got himself into that pickle, which thankfully the 3 boys and first responders helped him get out of! I’ve gotta believe he’s deeply grateful for his “second chance” at life, thanks to others’ intervention.
When have you longed for a second chance? When have you known you missed the boat, missed a deadline, missed your cue, screwed up in some small or monumental way? At some point we’ve all pleaded, “Please just give me another chance!” I say that to my houseplants on a fairly regular basis. I notice I’ve under-watered the peace lily, since its stems are becoming limp and the edges of the leaves are getting crispy, so I give it a drink and hope it will be as forgiving and resilient as all the other times I neglected it. It has forgiven me many times over the ten years since Pastor Mark brought it to the parsonage. I also have a checkered history with orchids. Sometimes they arrive, thrive, even re-bloom, and other times their leaves become puckered and dry (never a good sign!). There’s one that looked so bedraggled I was tempted to “recycle” it, but I didn’t have a heart to uproot it. Imagine my surprise and delight when a new tiny leaf began to appear in the middle of the large dying leaves! Time will tell, but I have renewed hope I haven’t killed yet another one.
Which leads us to today’s Gospel. Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who is scoping out his land and notices a fig tree that isn’t bearing any fruit for the third year running. He tells the gardener to dig it out and clear the space for a tree that’ll produce something. The gardener goes to bat for the tree – suggesting a compromise, offering to aerate the soil and fertilize it -- and promising if that doesn’t work in a year’s time, he’ll go ahead and cut it down. Basically he’s saying, “Give it a second chance!”
Originally the non-fruit-bearing fig tree probably represented the religious leaders of the day who were rejecting Jesus, throwing roadblocks in His way, working to undermine Him. (One commentary says Jesus’ listeners would have been “howling” at the image of manure piled high around the religious bigwigs!) But the lead-in to the parable of the fig tree makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t talking just about the leaders – because twice he says, “…unless you repent, you will all perish.” (Luke 13:3, 5) The metaphor of bearing fruit is interesting and intentional; earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel John the Baptist challenges his listeners: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” (Luke 3:8) (Remember, he tells anyone with two coats to give one away? He tells tax collectors to be honest and forbids soldiers from performing shakedowns or grumbling about their pay.)
People who repent realize they’ve done something wrong. They admit they’ve “missed the mark” of holy living. You’ve heard this before: the Greek word that we translate as sin is hamartia – i the same word used for missing the bull’s eye, pulling back on the arrow in the bow, letting it fly, and nailing the guy standing next to the target, or losing the arrow as it flies into the treetops or ploughs into the ground far from the target. Sometimes we know darn well before we act that we’re about to color outside the lines, that we’re on the brink of ignoring and breaking the Lord’s explicit command to honor the truth and not lie, honor others’ property and not steal, honor our parents and not defy them, honor our spouse and friends and not betray them, honor life and not threaten our own or anybody with physical violence or by using or dealing drugs or by underage drinking.
Sometimes we realize not before the act but only after the fact that something we did (or didn’t do) was hurtful and selfish and stupid. That’s right about when we plead, “Please just give me another chance!” That’s a hinge moment. That’s the moment of repentance, if “Forgive me!” isn’t just a ploy to turn back the clock on consequences but is also the honest promise, “I’ll never do it again!” God reads our hearts. God knows where we’re coming from. Good news/bad news: we’re never going to succeed in pulling the wool over God’s eyes.
In the first lesson from Isaiah we hear a Spirit-ed invitation to feast free at an incredible table of plenty. The only requirements?
· #1: Come hungry and thirsty! Hungry for God. Thirsty for the living water of forgiveness. Echo Psalm 63: “… my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land there there is no water.” (Ps. 63:1b)
· #2: Be willing to accept charity – God’s charity – God’s free gift of love and forgiveness.
Don’t dawdle on the way, though!
Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. Isaiah 55: 6-7
That bear exited the cave before the scoutmaster did. Maybe you remember how the pit bull/lab Adobo faithfully “occupied” the bear while the boys sped away. Adobo was adopted from the 11th Hour Rescue Shelter. He was saved at the 11th hour and he saved others at the 11th hour. Regardless of our age, we never know what the 11th hour is for us. William Barclay has pointed out that just as our Lord is God of the Second Chance, there will also come a day when we face our Final Chance.1 “If today you hear His voice, harden not your heart.” (Hebrews 3:7-8, Psalm 95:7-8) Keep in mind: the voice may be someone else asking you for a second chance. Amen
1William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (rev. ed., The Daily Study Bible Series, Philadelphia: Westminster. 1975), p. 176.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham