Sunday, March 03, 2013

Fig trees, burning bushes, and God's search for us (J. Barry Vaughn, March 3, 2013)

Years ago I had the opportunity to visit a park in Israel - Ne'ot Kedumim - that claims to have one of every plant mentioned in the Bible. I have to admit to being a little skeptical about that claim - I doubt that they have a burning bush!


Nevertheless, the Bible abounds in plant life. It begins, of course, with the Garden of Eden, which, according to Genesis, contained "every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food", including the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


And the Bible ends with the vision of the New Jerusalem that contains the tree whose "leaves are for the healing of the nations."


Trees figure prominently in today's Old Testament and gospel reading.


First, in Exodus we have the bush that burned but was not consumed. And then in Luke, there is the strange and ominous story of the fig tree that did not bear fruit.


Let's look first at the story of the fig tree. At first glance the story seems straightforward: bear fruit or be destroyed.


Isn't that the message of the Bible, the message of the Christian faith? God has put us here for a reason - to refrain from evil and do good. And God is watching, measuring, weighing everything we do. If we do the wrong thing or fail to do the right thing, then - BANG! - God will let us have it. Right?


I'm not so sure about that. Consider the context of the story of the fig tree. Someone asked Jesus about two catastrophes that had recently happened. First, Pilate, the Roman governor, had killed some pilgrims from Galilee who had come to offer sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, and second, a tower had fallen and killed 18 people. Surely, people reasoned, the victims of these catastrophes must have done something to merit their terrible fates, because that's how God works. Bad things happen to bad people; good things happen to good pideople.


But Jesus said, "Wait just a minute. Do you believe that God let Pilate kill those pilgrims because they were bad people or that that tower fell on those folks because they had led wicked lives?" Jesus rejected that kind of thinking. "No," he says. "No."


We so desperately want to believe in a world that is fair, a world in which people receive exactly what they deserve - no more, no less. A world in which good and decent people flourish and the evil are punished.


Many years ago, when his son died of a terrible disease, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It's a good title, because we all know that bad things DO happen to good people. But I've often wondered if there would be a market for a book entitled When Good Things Happen to Bad People. We don't seem to be as bothered by that, and that also happens a lot. We are troubled when we think that we haven't gotten what we deserve; when things happen to us that seem unfair. But we are not bothered at all when we receive far more than we deserve.


We may be angry, even bitter, when a raise or a promotion that we believe that we deserve goes instead to Bob or Mary who don't have a tenth as much ability as us and who take frequent "mental health" days. But do we ever stop to ask what we have ever done to deserve the clear blue sky? Or the sun glinting off the snow atop Mt. Charleston? or the love of our husband, wife, partner, or children?


God is always showering us with gifts we do not deserve and instead of receiving them with gratitude, we focus on the disappointment and sorrow that come our way.


Jesus invites us to give up trying to figure out what we and others deserve or do not deserve. But then, no sooner than Jesus has told his listeners that Pilate did not kill the Galileans because they were bad and the tower did not fall down to punish those who were killed, he says "unless you repent, you will perish just as they did."


Abraham Lincoln liked to tell the story of the man who owned a parrot who could say only one thing, "The end of the world is at hand as foretold in scripture." And the parrot said this constantly. One day the parrot's owner couldn't stand it any more and shot the parrot, thus fulfilling, for the parrot at least, the truth of his statement!


Listen again to what Jesus says: "Unless YOU repent, YOU will perish, just as they did." Jesus invites us to turn our attention from others to ourselves, to stop trying to figure out whether or not God is playing fair with someone else's life and instead to get our own house in order.


And that's when he tells the story of the fig tree. A farmer had a fig tree that had not borne fruit in three years. He was frustrated and decided that the tree would be more useful as fire wood. But the man in charge of his orchard said, "Let the tree have one more year."


The point of the story of the fig tree is not that God has an itchy trigger finger, that God is just waiting for us to slip up so that he can hurl thunderbolts at us. The point of the story is that God is patient, that God wants to give us a second chance and a third chance, another whole year in which to bear fruit.


Now, the story of the burning bush in Exodus is quite different. Here we have to do not with a conventional tree but with a miraculous one. The story in Exodus takes place in a desert, in other words, it is a place much like Las Vegas! And Moses is not yet the great leader who leads his people out of bondage. In fact, Moses is a defeated man. He has lost everything.


Exodus tells us that Moses had been brought up in the very household of Pharaoh, the god-king who ruled Egypt with absolute power. But Moses was a Hebrew, an Israelite, and one day he saw an Egyptian strike one of his countrymen. In anger, Moses struck and killed the Egyptian, so Moses had to leave. He fled to a place of desolation where he could hide and not be found. And it is in this place of hiding, of desolation, of defeat that Moses encountered God in the bush that burned but was not consumed.


We often think of religion as a quest, a search for God. But is that really the case? The great Jewish thinker Abraham Heschel wrote a book entitled, God in Search of Man. The Bible tells us at least as much about God's quest for us as about our quest for God. In fact, I would say that the Bible has more to say about our desperate attempts to flee from God and hide from the divine gaze.


Moses wasn't looking for God when he saw the burning bush. Moses was running away. He did not want to be found by anyone. But God found him.


The Bible is full of stories like that. David was tending his family's sheep when the prophet Samuel found him and anointed him king of Israel. Mary was minding her own business when the angel Gabriel told her that she would be the mother of Jesus. Paul was on his way to Damascus when the Risen Christ appeared to him.


The Bible is the story of God's quest for us. It is the story of God's infinite patience. God calls us, summons us, pursues us. And we turn away, refuse to listen, sometimes we even run and hide. But God will not let us alone.


The story of human life occupies not even a fraction of a second in the history of the universe. Scientists tell us that the universe is 14 billion years old, give or take 60 million years. What's 60 million years, right?


Scientists also say that homo sapiens, that is, the human race, is about 5 million years old.


What do you suppose God was doing in the 13.95 billion years between the creation of the universe and the emergence of the human race? Could it be that God spent all that time building this beautiful universe for us? Putting every star in just the right place? Heating the oceans to the perfect temperature? Testing different shades of blue for the sky? Could it be that God was lonely, that God longed for the day when you and I would exist? How long do you suppose God was waiting in that burning bush before Moses came along?


Is it possible that God longed to talk to us and listen to what we had to say? And what a disappointment we must be to God so much of the time? Instead of listening to God, we turn up the radio or television, instead of talking to God, we update our Facebook pages, instead of loving one another we kill our brothers and sisters, instead of caring for the garden in which God has set us, we dump our garbage in the land, sea, and air.


And the miracle is that God still listens, still pursues, still loves.


God will wait for us and search for us with infinite patience because God loves us with an infinite love.


But sometimes, maybe most of the time, we have to be at the end of the rope before we can see and hear God. Like Moses, we have to be in the wilderness before we can see the bush that burns with the fire of God's presence.


All of us know about the wilderness. We've all been there or will be there one day. We have been through the wilderness of unemployment or grief or a broken heart. I believe that this church knows something about going through the wilderness. But I absolutely assure you of this: God is in the wilderness with us.


And this is where the stories of the burning bush and the fig tree come together. While we are running away and hiding from God, God is like a patient farmer tilling the soil of our hearts, preparing us to bear fruit - the fruit of love and kindness and patience and faith.


Because there is one other Biblical tree to consider: the cross. The cross is the eternal sign of God's presence in the wilderness, in the midst of suffering. And the fruit of the cross is life abundant and eternal.