The God of the Fourth Year Fig Tree
Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke13:1-9
Well, here we are. We made it through May 22, 2011, October 21, 2011, and December 21, 2012. And now Sequestration has touched down and it still wasn’t the end of the world. – it might seem to be the end of the intelligent world, yes, but the end of the real world? Not yet. Seems like everyone’s worried about when the other shoe is going to drop, on whom. It seems that people spend a lot of time on our great, inevitable end. In the last 20 years, this has translated into Tim LaHaye’s NY Times best selling book series, Left Behind, and movies like Armageddon and Independence Day and 2012. Televangelists have been pounding the pulpit with repent now or pay for decades. Radio celebrity Harold Camping started another craze before he died with his misappropriation of the Revelation text. The media jumped in with a misrepresentation of the last date on the Mayan calendar. But sequestration? Only Washington can conjure up a fatalistic frenzy that is tantamount to the end of the world. And for many, it will be.
From fundamentalists to pundits, we get it coming at us from all angles, capitalizing on one of humanity’s most basic motivations: fear. What will happen to us if we don’t talk a certain way, work with a certain level of intensity, dress to a certain style, repent in a particular way? Gehenna? Does the fiery furnace and bottomless pit await the 97% of us who don’t have our Christian life in order? We’ll be senselessly murdered at a most unsuspecting hour. A tower will fall on our heads like it fell on the 18 from Siloam. And we don’t want that tower to fall on us now, do we? So we continually fall prey to those who’d like us to believe that we need to look over our shoulders. If it happened to the Galileans, it could happen to us. In our minds, if tragedy befell such a good man as (Jake), what tragedy is awaiting me? It’s right there in the bible. Read 2 Chronicles, 2 Kings, Joshua 15, and Jeremiah 19, then move to Matthew, Mark and from today, even Luke. It’s there in in black and white and sometimes red. What do we do with this stuff that suggests that we’re living one big crap shoot?
I pulled Stephen Hawking’s The Theory of Everything out of a box the other morning to notice the subtitle, “The Origin and Fate of the Universe.” Maybe you’ve read the book. It’s fascinating and very accessible compilation of lectures, especially for non-physicist types like myself. Hawking says that the universe began with a bang that effected all of the particles of the universe to eventually come together “just as skaters spinning on ice spin faster as they draw in their arms.”1 Over the millennia, rotating galaxies were born and here we are today. But in the midst of his absolutely awesome scientific insight, Hawking begins to interject language such as “what happens next is not completely clear.”2 As he draws intricate scientific conclusions, he redresses his theory with important questions, all beginning with “Why.” Eventually, he lands on this. “It would still be up to the mind of God…We should not try to understand why or question his reasons …the whole history of the universe can said to be the work of God.”3 “(W)e have come to realize that events cannot be predicted with complete accuracy but that there is always a degree of uncertainty.”4 He argues against any notion that would infringe upon God’s freedom to change God’s mind and to intervene in the world. Hawking concludes his theory as the finest physicist he is, recognizing the incomprehensibility of it all, scoffing at humankind’s quest to fully understand the beginning or the end. For then, he says, “we would know the mind of God.” 5
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. (Is 55: 8)” So how can you and I know what it will take for God to call us to our “eternal home” (if you will) no matter how close we get to the fiscal cliff. And just when it seems like we’re pushing it to the edge, God just might decide to give us one more year.
The story we read this morning from Luke’s gospel reinforces for us the truth that ours is the God of second and third and even fourth chances for each one of us. Some of us who hole-up in the cyber-stacks of relatively obscure, ancient literature know that this story Jesus told is based on the Syriac version of the ancient Legend of Ahikar. As the story goes, Ahikar was a wise man who adopted a son, Nadan with the hope that Nadan would grow to become one whose wisdom was highly sought. All young Nadan’s life, Ahikar told him proverbs that would guide him the way of generosity and love. Instead, Nadan turned from his righteous ways and betrayed his father, paving the way for his father to be killed by the king. Fortunately, a kindly guard hid Wise Ahikar and took care of him until that time when his wisdom was required by the king. Alas, an alive Ahikar was returned to his prominent, proverbial palace, and soon given the chance to reproach his wayward son. Ahikar told him this: “My son, you have been to me like a palm tree that stood by a river, and when its lord came to cut it down, it said to him, ‘Let me alone this year, and I will bring thee forth carobs.’” Ahikar followed the parable with several other admonishments, ending with “Thereat Nadan swelled up like a bag and died.” With the moral of the story going, “And to him that doeth good, what is good shall be recompensed: and to him that doeth evil, what is evil shall be rewarded.”6
But then Jesus shook up the story to tell us that ours is the God of the fourth year fig tree, encouraging us to stay focused on the mercy and grace of the Lord. It’s through God’s mercy and grace that we have hope for most unpredictable moment. Because the Good News is grounded in another of our most elemental motivations: love. The Good News of Jesus Christ to which scripture attests is that ours is a God whose perfect love casts out the other elemental motivation of fear. This empowers us to create the great heaven on earth the world is really waiting for so that God may be glorified.
So the more compelling question for me than when the world might end, or when some merciless or even seemingly just tragedy might befall us, becomes this: “What would you do to the glory of God if you knew that you could not fail?”
- I think about opening a whole little village for foster kids, complete with housemothers and housefathers, full refrigerators, clean clothes, tutors for after school and single beds for each child.
- I think about organizing a legion of companions to stand before large tanks, defying their drivers to pile over olive trees and lemon trees, small businesses and homes.
- I think about planning a summer retreat with, say, fifty people who grow closer as a church family and deeper in our love for God.
- I think about organizing health-screening teams who’d set up shop in downtown parking lots on Saturday afternoons.
- I think about helping to motivate the District to build 540 new homes in each of five years, thus putting an end to chronic homelessness in Washington DC.
What would you do to the glory of God if you knew you could not fail? Would you write a book, or re-launch your volunteer life, would you become a docent or a big brother or a big sister for a kid without a stable family? What would you do to the glory of God if you knew you could not fail?
One of the most influential theologians in my faith development has been Jürgen Moltmann. In his 1996 book, The Coming of God, he provokes us to act with the glory of God as our primary motivation or bringing the kingdom of God near. He stresses the importance of using each experience of the present not as a bridge toward our death. Instead, he stresses the importance of creating experiences in life that exhibit a unique unfolding of God’s presence in our lives.
Christopher Morse, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City tells us that our focus on the end to come affords dis-engagement with life here and now. A focus on the inevitability and unpredictability of the end of our time on earth renders much of the world hopeless and helpless. A life engaged in the here and now is a life that focuses on the presence of Christ with us today. One whose life is engaged in the life of Christ in the world today is one whose focus is to increase the world’s exposure to the presence of Christ at hand through our tangible expressions of glory to the Lord that become a perpetual unfolding of hope in the world that expands the horizons of heaven for all who are eager for even a taste of grace.
The way we die reveals a lot about how much meaning our lives held. When our end time comes, and it will eventually come, will we have lived our lives in fear, focused on some unpredictable, only-imaginable possibility? Or will we have been able to say that we’ve lived into Christ’s love-based reality at hand, all to God’s glory, the multiplier effect from which will surely be felt through all eternity?
What would you do to the glory of God if you knew you could not fail? Let’s celebrate all of our time on this earth as a gift from God, and expand the boundaries of heaven on earth with our acts intended to glorify God forever, never knowing the mind of God but always hoping to please God. May we leave this space with the knowledge that our Lord wants us to live lives that bear great fruit. And this time next year, if we just haven’t lived into the vision we have for ourselves – let alone the vision God may have in mind – may we remember that ours is a God of the fourth year fig tree and be motivated while at peace. Amen.
1 Hawking, Stephen W., The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. (Beverly Hills: New Millenium Press, 2002.) p. 101.
2 Hawking 102
3 Hawking, Stephen W The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. (Beverly Hills: New Millenium Press, 2002.) p. 137.
4 Hawking, Stephen W The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. (Beverly Hills: New Millenium Press, 2002.) p. 161.
5 Hawking, Stephen W The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. (Beverly Hills: New Millenium Press, 2002.) p. 160.
6 Conybeare, F.C., Rendel Harris and Agnes Smith Lewis, The Story of Ahikar. (London: C.J.Clay and Sons, 1898). P 84