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March 15th, 1998 (Durham St. & St. George's URCs, Hartlepool)
Lent 3 (RCL - year C )
Revds. Lythan & Phil Nevard

Psalm 63:1-8
Isaiah 55:1-9  *
Luke 13:1-9  *
1Cor 10:1-13  *

Of Fig Trees and Starting Again....

The little boy stands in front of his mother, head down, contrite, fat tears running down his cheeks. He looks up at her, pleadingly. 'Please can I have one more chance? Please let me watch television. I'll be very good I promise. Just one more chance, one final, final, last chance. Please!'

The woman stands in the dock. 'Have you anything to say for yourself' asks the magistrate. 'Please, your honour, give me one more chance. I promise to do good from now on. I just need one more chance, honest.'

The man grabs hold of the woman's hand as she tries to make for the door. 'Don't leave me, don't leave me please. I promise it will never happen again. Just give me one more chance to prove how much I love you. Just one more chance. Stay and give me a chance.'

'Please God, I know I've let you down again. Life passes me by and I find I haven't prayed for days. I know I've done wrong. I'm sorry Lord, help me to start again. Give me one more chance. Please. '

I won't ask how many of those scenarios sound familiar to you - or where you would be standing in them. So many times in our lives when we feel that we have let those we love down. So many times when we crave just one more chance. And sometimes we get it and sometimes we don't.

If a certain small boy comes to me having being naughty again after several warnings and begs another chance, sometimes he is given another chance. Sometimes I decide that he has to be punished so that he can learn from his mistakes and know there is a line that he cannot cross. And sometimes, let me be honest, he gets no more chances because I am in a bad mood, in no mood to forgive.

It's not like that with God. God is not capricious or moody. God never puts himself before us. God never holds back his love. God is not mean with his love. God's love is given extravagantly. Isaiah describes it as being like a feast. Thirsty? Have some water! Hungry? Come and eat! No, put your money away, this one is on me! Come and sit at my table, come and share my food.

This meal is for everyone - the good, the bad and the ugly. The Jews and the Gentiles. Isaiah wrote this passage when the people were in exile in Babylon. Isaiah reminds them that God made an everlasting covenant them first through Abraham, then through Moses, then through David. God chose these individuals to lead, to cajole, to inspire, to show by example the way God wants his people to tread.

If they walk in God's way, then they will see God's promises being fulfilled, his blessings being poured out. Now God is focussing his mission, not in the hands of an individual inspiring a nation, but in a nation inspiring the world! They are not to look for another great Davidic King, they are to embody in themselves the values of the Kingdom of God.

Abraham and Moses and David and the people of Israel all had their parts to play in God's grand project - his invitation of all nations to his great banquet of life. But in the fulness of time, God came himself, in Jesus. His messengers had been ignored. "O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone God's Messengers."

We see these promises being fulfilled in Jesus, he calls us all to share in God's banquet. He says 'I am the bread of life.' Jesus says, 'If you drink the water I give you, you will never be thirsty again'. Jesus echoes the words of Isaiah 'Turn to the Lord and pray to him', 'turn to the Lord our God, he is merciful and quick to forgive'.

Please, please, just one more final last chance ever, please. There are so many ways in which we can let God down. Remember the Hebrews in the desert? They should have been glad that they had been led out of Egypt. They should have rejoiced because God was leading them day and night in cloud and in fire. They should have been overjoyed that he gave them enough to eat and drink every day. They should have loved and served God faithfully in all they did. And did they? No. They moaned. They groaned. They sulked and complained. They failed to trust God. They even melted down every scrap of carefully hoarded gold that they had and turned it into a golden calf that they worshipped instead of God. As soon as Moses was off up the mountain they were indulging in feasts, drunkenness and orgies. Not the sort of banquet of abundance that God has in mind.

And if any of the Corinthians was beginning to feel superior in reading this because they did not indulge in such behaviour, well at least they hadn't for a long time, Paul pulls them up sharply. 'If you think you are standing, watch that you do not fall!' It's at the time when you are feeling most complacent, most sure of yourself as a Christian, most happy with how you are living your life, that you are likely to fall prey to temptation. That is when you start complaining, putting God to the test, overindulging your appetites. Corinth was a difficult place for a Christian to live in. A cosmopolitan city, a decadent city, a wealthy city. A place dedicated to free love. It was all to easy to slip into old ways.

And aren't the temptations just as great for us. 'If you think you are standing, watch that you do not fall!' We need to be humble. We need to be aware of our faults and failings. We need to trust in God.

John Bunyan puts it the opposite way to Paul.

He that is down need fear no fall;
He that is low, no pride;
He that is humble ever shall Have God to be his guide.

Has anyone read Pilgrim's Progress? I wonder if you've noticed something. Pilgrim begins his pilgrimage with a large burden on his back and and with fear for the future. Quite early on his burden falls away through the power of the cross and he receives the mark of the cross on his forehead. Then he continues on his way, trying to walk along the straight and narrow path, all too often falling by the wayside.

Being forgiven, losing the burden of sin, does not stop you doing wrong and needing a second chance. Being a Christian does not stop you doing wrong and needing another chance. Being a Christian is only the start of it. "If you think you are standing," Paul tells the Corinthians, "watch that you do not fall!"

We often do fall, we forget to be humble, to trust in God, to remember that we are marked out as his. We need a second chance, a third chance, a fiftieth chance, a hundredth chance. One final last last chance, please, please, please.

And we get it through Jesus, through the power of his love, his cross, his resurrection. We receive forgiveness and another chance to start again. To keep walking that narrow way. It can be beautiful, it can be enjoyable. But it can be hard to keep our feet on the track. But we need to keep trying, to trust in God and walk in his way. Because we have a responsibility to God and ourselves. We know of his love, we are convinced of it. We know right from wrong. We have to bear fruit. The fig tree wasn't productive. It was on its final warning. The gardener promised to put some more work into it, to care for it, nurture it, feed and tend so that it would bear fruit. That is how we need to look after our relationship with God. So that it does not wither and die through lack of interest.

It makes uncomfortable reading, that passage from Luke. You get the uncompromising story of the fig tree - though I always like to think of a happy ending and a fine harvest of figs the following year. But there is an edge to it, the story does carry within it the idea that we are living on borrowed time.

Just this last week there have been some alarming stories about a asteroid destined to hit planet earth in 30 years time. It might be that some of you here are not desperately worried about what will happen in 30 years time! But I heard a couple of interviews with people who were asked what they thought they might do if the story was proved to be true.

The general consensus was that you should go hell for leather for as much fun and enjoyment that you could get. You should forget all responsibilities, jack in your job, forget about anyone else and grab what you can, while you can.

It's not unlike the question people were always asking in the 1970's and early 1980's - what would you do during the four minute warning before a nuclear attack. Most people chose getting blind drunk, driving cars very fast or having wild and abandonned sex with whoever was closest. I never once heard anyone say, "in the last four minutes I would comfort those in distress, tend the sick, set the captive free."

Yet that's exactly what Jesus seems to be saying here. Like that fig tree, you are living on borrowed time. You should take advantage of that borrowed time by bearing the fruit that God's Spirit can grow in your life - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control...

So what are we to do? Jesus offers himself as the bread of life; he gives us the wine and the water that is everlasting; he gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us on our way. Jesus invites us to God's banquet, to his abundant, extravagant love. Feast on Jesus. Humbly walk with him.

When you fall, seek another chance. God gives you another chance. A chance to do better. A chance to love him more. A chance to make your relationship bear fruit.

'I'm so sorry.' I cry to God. 'Please give me just one more second chance. Please.'

Jesus offers his hand. 'Here is another chance. Take it'.
God gives us all another chance when we need it. Take it.