How long? Not long

How long? Not long

"Martin Luther King was faced with the question which was posed again and again by civil rights activists – how long? How long before justice prevails over prejudice and discrimination.

His answer was simple – ‘not long’.

We need to hear God say that to us."

Isaiah 55:1-9

Luke 13:1-9

People who write plays talk about Chekhov’s gun. The Russian playwright set the rule that if you show a gun in Act One then someone must use it in Act Three.

For example, in Act One of the Opera Madam Butterfly, Butterfly refers to the knife her father used to commit suicide and sure enough in Act Three she uses it on herself.

Luke in his Gospel has shown us Chekhov’s gun.

Jesus is told about a violent incident in Jerusalem when the Roman Governor Pilate had killed some Galileans, (we are not told why) and then mixes their blood with the sacrifices made at the Temple.

He also mentions eighteen people who were killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed.  The Tower of Siloam would have been on the southward facing wall of the city of Jerusalem.

That is Chekhov’s gun.

For we know that later in the story Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem where he too is killed.  And we also know that it is Pilate who gives way to the demand of the mob and sentences Jesus to death.

The lesson which Jesus draws from two tragic violent incidents, one accidental and the other deliberate, is that those who died were no worse than anyone else.  The two incidents could have been avoided.  But they weren’t and if things don’t change they will be repeated.

So Jesus says – repent while there is time.

Jesus is not yet in Jerusalem but he is on his way.  And we know what happens there.

But there was still time.

Jesus then tells us a parable of a man who plants a fig tree in his vineyard.

It was a hopeful act – the prophet Micah had written:

‘They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees and no one shall make them afraid’.[1]

So when we hear the parable, we know that the fruit Jesus is talking about is peace and harmonious relationships.  The beloved community.

But the fruit is not there.  The gardener tends the tree with care and lots of manure.  For three years there is no fruit – the tree is a dud. Chop it down.

No – says the owner – give it one more year.  There is still time for the fruit to appear – for the gardener’s efforts to be rewarded.

That seems to be the message of Jesus to humanity. We may be locked in the inevitability of violence.  The prophet may yet be silenced. But repentance, change is always possible.

I want to hold up this teaching this morning as probably the most hopeful thing you will hear in a long while.

It is not too late.

I guess when we come to church on a Sunday morning, we all have varied reasons for being here. I don’t think anyone comes out of habit or social convention.  Maybe that was true in days gone by but I doubt it is now.

Some may come because the regular routine of setting aside time for God is helpful in keeping a sense of equilibrium in life.

Some will come because they are anxious about what is going on in the world and want to place these concerns before God.

Others will come because they are grateful for their relationships, and the opportunities which life is giving them and just want to thank the creator.

Yet others will feel the need to seek forgiveness, to accept failure and express remorse.

And some will be grieving, in pain, and praying for healing and reconciliation.

That makes us a beloved community.

No doubt there a myriad of other reasons.

And of course, none are exclusive. 

Of course we are not alone – the whole of humanity has a jumble of concerns.

The war in Ukraine, with all the consequences for residents, families, neighbouring countries is seriously problematic.

The shifting of geopolitical tectonic plates is deeply disturbing.

The implications for safety from nuclear plants and weaponry takes us back decades.

The fierce urgency of climate change and degradation of the ecology upon which life depends continues without humanity taking the action needed to avert disaster.  Indeed, some undermine the goodwill and determined efforts of many, both scientists and activists to prevent total collapse.

And the fall out of the pandemic, Brexit and the war in Ukraine fall heavily on the weekly budgets of the most vulnerable.

Dr Martin Luther King Jnr talked of three evils – racism, poverty and militarism. 

Nothing has changed.

So our community meets with a plethora of needs and concerns.  Some personal. Some global. All valid.

And whenever we meet, there is always an invitation to something new.

Isn’t that Bible passage from the Prophet Isaiah incredibly beautiful?

God is speaking and God simply says, ‘come!’.

We are told that God invites us to an abundant life.

The invitation goes out to those who are thirsty and those who are broke.  Those who need water and those who have no money.

The wine and the milk on offer are priceless.

Then comes the encouraging and challenging question.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labour for that which does not satisfy?

Working here I have a good knowledge now of the local cafes where we can have lunch. You can see the difference in quality between the local cafes and the big chains.  The local ones win hands down. But the chains look more inviting and are often more expensive.

We are palmed off day in day out, not only in cafes but supermarkets as well, with inferior goods, which do harm to the environment, and are overpriced but have nicer packaging.

Our food is creating a health crisis as well as an ecological one.

Why do we spend money on bread which does not nourish?

In Isaiah, God asks why we work for things that do not satisfy.  Too many people have work which does not fulfil and does not reward sufficiently to live a decent life.

So many people are working long hours and still cannot afford decent accommodation or support their dependents.

The Isaiah passage could be written for us.

For there could not be a more loving invitation to people living in the anxieties of our time. The invitation is to be part of a covenant of steadfast, sure love.

We are invited to come and to seek.

To seek the Lord while he may be found.

To call upon him while he is near.

I know that our brains can work overtime. How can we know God?  How do we know God is near?  How can God be speaking in this mess?

God’s answer is simple.

 ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are not your ways.’

If we are looking to the political pundits or hard line activists to sort it all out then we are looking in the wrong place.

God’s ways are as far distant from our chaos as the heavens are higher than the earth.

How do we put our trust in the ways of God?

I believe it is to live between two times as the theologian Karl Barth put it.

The time of now and the time of not yet.

The time of now is our reality and we cannot avoid it.  We cannot pretend that the personal and global concerns are not real. Nor can we say that God does not know them.

When Jesus spoke, about the tragedies which had taken place in Jerusalem under Pilate, he was immersed in the mess of his time. He knew that the suffering of the few would be the suffering of the many.

But when he told the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard, he was telling us that we must hold on.  We must keep nurturing goodness.  We must continue to work for the peace that we need just as a gardener will nurture a seedling until it becomes a flower.

Whether your struggle this morning is with a deeply personal problem or a deep concern for the challenges of our day – or both – then the message is the same.

Hold on.

Martin Luther King would quote the great freedom song –

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around

Turn me around

Turn me around

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around

Keep on a walking

Keep on a talking

Marching up to freedom’s land.

The time of our struggles are not over. 

As individuals we have responsibilities, for our health, for our environment, for those who need our care.

As a community we have a commitment to raising the quality of life for those who need clean air so they can breathe properly, for those who need healthy food so they can live healthily, for those who need to escape the traps of poverty and those who need to be free of discrimination, violence and abuse.

As a world, we need an end to powerful elites, and power-hungry leaders running tanks and missiles over people’s homes, countries, and human rights.

Jesus tells us to keep watering the tree of righteousness and goodness. 

God does not invite us to be miserable.

God invites us into the possibility of abundance, generosity, and steadfast, enduring love.

Come and buy – you don’t need money.

Come and drink – you don’t need wealth just say ‘yes’.

Yes – to a prayerful, calmer, more trusting way of being yourself.

Yes – to a healthier, equitable, society.

Yes – to a peaceful, just world.

Yes – to God.

Martin Luther King was faced with the question which was posed again and again by civil rights activists – how long? How long before justice prevails over prejudice and discrimination.

His answer was simple – ‘not long’.

We need to hear God say that to us.

Caught as we are between our present reality and God’s glorious future, we may well ask – but how long?

The Bible gives us our answer this morning – not long - just water the garden.


[1] Micah 4.4

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