Luke 13:6-9; Isaiah 55:1-9
“I just don’t see how we can make that work.” How many times you spoken those words. We examine the situation, we look at the roadblocks, we might even attempt an option one or two, but in the end we conclude sometimes you cannot put round cylinder in square hole. We cut our losses and move on.
We have all been in the sandals of the owner of the non-productive fig tree. For a farmer, if a tree refuses to bear fruit, what good is it? There were other trees, productive trees, fruit bearing trees that rewarded the farmer’s time and effort. But then there was the one in the garden which yielded little more than shade. The owner had given it three years now and his patience had worn thin. He ordered it cut down. But the gardener still had hope and a vision beyond the reality of the moment. The gardener bargained for a reprieve to resurrect that which was thought to be lost.
One of the most comforting verses in the Bible is Isaiah 55:9, “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts, and my ways are higher than your ways.” It appears Isaiah is just stating the obvious. Of course God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours. But how often do we remember this. How often, when life has thrown us a deadly curve, or we think we have run out of options, does this verse come to mind. Maybe we should have it tattooed to the back of our hand. The God who found the where with all to create the universe out of chaos can certainly turn around our disasters. God’s capacity for restoration, God’s desire for life, God’s ability to do a new thing, is often beyond our imagination. But even so, often life just seems impossible.
One thing I admire about school teachers is their ability to discover a spark in the soul of a student everyone else has labeled a lost cause. Teaching the students who are eager to learn is gratifying. There is pride when those students receive academic honors. I suspect teaching those students is also relatively easy. But I suspect every teacher’s proudest moment is when they can point to a particular young man or woman who walks the stage, diploma in hand, and emerges full of possibilities no one would have imagined a year or two before.
God gives teachers the vision to imagine what no one else thought possible. It is not some sort of special vision where they can peer into another’s soul. They have come to realize that sometimes, when everyone else has given up, and perhaps even the child has given up on themselves, there are still possibilities. Teachers instill hope where none previously existed. Teachers are good at doing that. But this does not mean that the rest of us are precluded. I believe first step to a miracle is accepting that God’s reality and our reality aren’t always the same. Our mistake is listening to the voice of human reason rather than embracing the endless possibility of God’s grace.
Many years ago, I was trying my best to develop a youth group at a church that had not had a program for the past five years. I decided to concentrate on the Middle School. I began by trying to convince the kids that if we could find a common denominator the group would learn to trust and eventually depend on each other. We talked about God, we participated in mission projects, and we even went skiing in the
Rockies. After a couple years of hard work they became
a group that evolved beyond Sunday Evenings.
This “God thing” we talked about was transforming their approach to
life. And then Doug arrived. Doug’s parents had recently divorced. The mother stayed in Florida
while Doug, his father, younger brother and grandmother moved to . Eventually the father took the younger son
and Doug stayed with his grandmother.
Since she was Presbyterian, she and Doug began to attend our church. Texas
To call Doug a “bull in a china closet” would have been a compliment. Everything about Doug spelled trouble. He essentially had no parents. He had no social graces. He was too loud, too big and too unlovable. His presence disrupted much of the hard work that had gone into creating what was becoming a very solid youth group. No one, including myself, wanted Doug around. But a couple of Sunday School teachers saw something in Doug I could never imagine. While Doug was tearing everything around him down, they began to build him up.
Somehow, the youth group survived. And so did Doug. Eventually he channeled all that pent up energy into football and biology. By his senior year in High School he had received an academic scholarship to a local university. But that is not what I remember most about Doug. I remember, the day our congregation elected Doug to be an elder at the ripe old age of 20. Now Doug lives in Dallas, teaches high school biology, and is involved in his church’s youth program. Doug’s story serves to remind me that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts higher than our thoughts.
In the eyes of God, Doug is the rule, not the exception. To put it another way, in the eyes of God each one of us is Doug, a work in progress, and an opportunity for the gardener to create life. We limit the biblical text by only asking, “What did that gardener see in the plant?” We especially limit the text when we wonder what God sees in the Doug’s of this world. What we might consider is, “What does God see in us?”
Isn’t this a primal question of the season of Lent? I know we are good folks. I know we could find a list of reference that would swear we are trustworthy, brave and loyal. But there has to be something more than that. We are a month from Holy Week, the celebration of that bizarre moment in history when many claim God allowed the death of his son in order that we might be given another chance at life. What sense does that make?
With that horrific thought in our minds, let us return to the parable. In the context in which it is told, the hearers knew Jesus was offering a new twist on an old story. In the fifth chapter of Isaiah there is a magnificent poem about a vineyard. The gardener went to great lengths to prepare the land. The vineyard was properly watered and fertilized. He constructed a wall to protect the vineyard it from predators. And then he waited. At the end of the year the vines produced grapes, but they were worthless. All of the effort of the gardener was wasted. In anger, the gardener tore down the walls, threw away his tools and declared the vineyard could care for itself. Wild animals fed on the grapes. A fire erupted burning the vines to the ground. All seemed lost, until the gardener returned and declared, “From the stump that remains, I will begin once again. For such is my love for my children.”
Jesus revives the story having the fig tree represents all of humanity. The story portrays both God’s judgment as owner and God’s grace as gardener. Can you imagine being God and watch the way we turn on each other, operating out of fear and greed, and power and lack of human decency? The God of judgment must think, “What else am I to do?” Yet the God of grace continues to search for our smoldering twigs in the midst of ruin.
This parable makes such little sense to our logical and product driven world. Even those of us who cling/wrestle with the significance of the cross, struggle with what really happened during Holy Week. Perhaps the love of God is more than we can understand. Sometimes, perhaps all we I can do is simply cling to this irrational God whose thoughts and ways are not ours.