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Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on March 3, 2013.

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C (RCL): Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by that same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise, and ever enjoy its consolations, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

   Since the Old Testament and Gospel readings today include a burning bush which is not consumed and a barren fig tree which fails to produce fruit, I thought about dubbing this Third Sunday in Lent, ‘When Horticulture goes horribly wrong.’  Lest we get caught up in the strange condition of the bush and the tree, please remember it is what lies behind each of them that is important.

   In the Exodus account, when God calls from the burning bush, Moses is already where he will later receive the Law, The Ten Commandments.  God has a colossal commission for Moses: He is to be God’s messenger to Pharaoh, to lead his people to freedom, but this new missioner is most reluctant.

   Moses is called to leave the security and peace of Midian, to go back to share the hardships and hazards of his own people held captive.  It is no cushy assignment he is given, nothing less than the task of liberating his fellow citizens from bondage to lead them to the land of promise, the land of “milk and honey.”  Although Moses is assured he will not be alone, for God will be with him, much like Jeremiah in later days, Moses felt himself quite unfit for the task.

   You’ve probably heard the saying: ‘God does not call those who are fit; God makes fit those who are called.’  If you haven’t, check out the license tag frames on  the front and back of my Honda; the license tags themselves read ‘Fit Call.’  I’ve learned this lesson over time, because I have felt, like Moses, that I was overwhelmed by God’s call.

     This afternoon, some of us will explore how we are gifted for ministry.  The Spiritual Gifts workshop with Corry Weierbach will be our starting point.  You may not consider yourself ‘gifted,’ but you are, due to being part of God’s creation and through your baptism.  You have God-given gifts intended to help build God's kingdom in this world.  They are ‘spiritual gifts,’ such as prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, hospitality, and praying.  It will be fun to learn more about our own unique spiritual gifts, and to discover ways God may intend us to use them.

   In biblical imagery, fire is symbolic of the Presence of God, representing God’s glory, God’s righteous judgment and God’s zeal.  This story of the burning bush is the biblical means of describing Moses’ encounter with God, or it may be a tiny herald of the holy mountain itself.  Later in Exodus (19:18), the mountain is said to be “wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire.”

The burning bush expresses both God’s merciful accommodation, coming down from the mountain of God to meet Moses, and God’s incredible holiness, the unquenchable fire being both dangerous and attractive at the same time.  Moses had to turn aside to see this - the fire compelled him.

   So I wonder: What burns within you?  Where is your fire?  Does it point to God working in your life?

   In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus invokes the recent occasions of a clash between Galilean pilgrims and Roman authorities in the temple at Passover that ended in a massacre, and a collapsed building in Jerusalem that killed a number of people, to challenge a theory that has long dogged Old Testament theology: that suffering and death are punishment for sin.  People assumed those victims must have been particularly wicked.  Jesus says Not true.  He offers no explanation why things happen, but asserts that disasters of this kind should serve as a warning to us all to put ourselves right with God.  He knows the whole nation is ripe for judgment and will meet an equally horrible fate if a change of heart is not made.

   The Parable of the Fig Tree reinforce this lesson: in this parable, which may be the origin of the incident of the cursing and withering of the fig tree in Mark’s Gospel (11:12-14), Jesus illustrates the Patience of God with Jerusalem whose day of doom was fast approaching.  Do not presume your time to repent is infinite.

     It was an old Jewish belief that misfortunes were God’s response to our wrong-doings.  Eliphaz said long ago to Job, “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?” (Job 4:7)  This was a cruel and a heartbreaking doctrine, and Job knew that well.  Jesus puts to rest here once for all the notion that sin causes suffering.

   God never sends suffering.  Suffering comes as a result of living in a broken, fallen world.  Life is not fair.  Nobody ever said it was.  If you understand that, you don’t whine when hard things happen and you’re not smug if it’s all going your way.

   Ecclesiastes 9:11-12a: “ ... The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chances happen to them all.  For no one can anticipate the time of disaster.”

   We will all get our just deserts someday, but not in this place, at this time, in this life.  No, in this life, bad things can and do happen to good people.  Please remember in your prayers motorcycle officer Peter Laboy, his family, the doctors, nurses and technicians who tend to his care at the Washington Hospital Center, and the entire Alexandria Police Dept.

   Think of a time in your life when you suffered a misfortune, illness, or tragedy.  Did anyone add to your pain by implying that God was punishing you? How did you respond?

   If you feel you are suffering in some measure far beyond those around you, God is not the author of that suffering.  God loves you and will be with you in it and through it.

   The slaughtered Galileans and those crushed by the falling tower were no more sinful than anyone else.  Sometimes, life is what it is.  However, Jesus went on to say that if his hearers did not repent, they too would perish.  What did he mean?

   Most scholars agree Jesus foresaw and foretold the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  He understood that people involved in intrigue, rebellion, plots and political ambitions who effectively sought an earthly kingdom and rejected the kingdom of God would certainly perish.

   I think Jesus meant unless we repent, all we can hope for is to perish as well.

    That’s why we need Grace.  It’s why we need a Savior.  Bad things happen to good people.  The fig tree gets the fertilizer we call Grace.

   This parable reflects a gospel about the second chance.  Fig trees normally require several years of care and cultivation to reach maturity.  If it does not bear fruit in the third year, it is not likely to bear fruit at all.  But the gardener thought the manure would help.

   It was always Jesus’ way to give the other chance after chance.  Peter and Matthew and Paul would all happily have witnessed to that fact.  God is gracious and infinitely compassionate to those who have fallen, and yet rise again.  This is borne out throughout the salvation narrative of the Bible.

   BUT, with that said, this parable also speaks of the Final Chance.  If we continue to refuse chance after chance, if God’s appeal and challenge come repeatedly, yet in vain, the day will surely come when it is not God who has shut us out, but rather that we, by our deliberate choice, have shut ourselves off and away from God.  I pray that that day never comes, and that we have sense enough to know just how gracious, loving and forgiving God really is.  I pray we recognize our second, third, ... and seventieth chances and the fertilizer that comes with it.

   The penitential season of Lent seeks to remind us we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table.  Yet it is God’s primary attribute to have mercy upon us if we continually turn back to God and repent of our sins.  God constantly reaches for us and we can know God by the burning desires we have to act.

   The Good News is that God does not seek to blame; God wants to save us. And so God came to live among us as one of us to teach us about sin, repentance, and grace.

   Where is your fire?  Will you answer God’s call to share the gifts you have?

   What’s in your manure?  Will you seek to be fruitful in the light of Christ?