First Presbyterian Church

of Hemet
                                                             Just You Wait: Patience Personified 
                                                                   Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9 
 
This passage is the conclusion of a chapter long section that talks about final things in the world. 
You’re encouraged to read Luke 13:1-9 in the Contemporary English Bible or another translation that does not use the word repent but “change your hearts and lives” because repent connotes groveling in my mind. 
When I was in high school my youth group went to a church some 40 miles away for what we called back then a rally. It was sponsored by Word of Life ministries, a camping and evangelistic ministry on Schroon Lake, New York. Our youth group participated in this rally with some tens of other youth groups.
 
I remember the movie they showed that night. I had raised my hand as a child when Mr. Jonas asked Who wants to receive Christ as their Savior? But the movie was a graphic description of hell, and the message was clear: if you don’t want to experience what you’ve seen in the movie, you better become a Christian—now! I didn’t ask to saved again. I only remember being scared—really scared! Although I don’t remember all the details the fear I felt has never left me

Jesus is told of two recent tragedies by “some present at that time.” The first tragedy is of Galileans who Pilate had killed on a visit to Jerusalem. Whose fault was that? is asked. The second scenario is about a natural disaster, a tower in Jerusalem had crushed 18 people to death. Whose fault was that? is asked again. Jesus responds with a parable.
 
Before going on to the parable it’s important to note that those present at the time assumed that someone had sinned for tragedy to strike. Those present are asking about the two kinds of evil we experience in the world then, and now, human evil and natural evil.
 
When the “to remain nameless” 28-year old went into the two mosques in Christchurch a week ago Friday he was perpetuating evil like Pilate’s, human evil. I believe there’s a demonic dimension to some taking of life, but whether demonic influenced or not, that man and Pilate is responsible and they should be held accountable in this life for that evil.
  
The other kind of evil is natural. When the tsunami hit the northern coast of Japan back in 2011 and killed 16,000 people that was natural evil. I remember when it happened. That tsunami hit my emotions like a ton of bricks, because I believe God created a good and wonderful world, and that was such a violation of the beauty of nature. But natural evil is part of life, whether that’s hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or drought. Maybe you’d like another word for it instead of evil, but I think Jesus saw anything that destroyed life as not being what God intended, and so evil.
 
Jesus repudiated the connection between bad things happening to all people in the Sermon on the Mount and at the pool of Siloam. Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and the unjust in the Sermon on the Mount. He answered the disciples question “who sinned this man, or his parents?” when introduced to a man born blind. Jesus’ response was neither the man or his parents sinned but “this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, get out of the blame game because it doesn’t serve anyone well. 
So Jesus tells a parable. First a story that relates to Jesus’
  
In my back yard we have a fig tree. It’s a volunteer. I don’t know how it got there—the wind!?—but it’s grown higher than the roof our ranch-style house. My wife tells me that last year some of the figs that fruited were above our ability to reach with a step ladder. The birds had a feast with those on the top branches. Fig trees are common in Israel/Palestine. I’m told what chocolate is to a western diet figs are to an eastern diet—sweets? So Jesus was using something that was common in his landscape.
 
But like the fig tree in our back yard some years Jesus’ fig tree did not fruit. In fact, for three years it didn’t. So the gardener had a choice, cut it down or dig around it and put manure on it. The gardener chose to be patient for one more year.
 
What do we make of this parable? When I first opened my Bible to it last Monday morning I was pretty bumbed by it. Because, the refrain from the two stories of evil is “I tell you, unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” And then a woman from Charlottesville, Virginia named Jill put something in my Monday afternoon email box. She says she was on business for the magazine she publishes. After her evening talk she was invited to a meeting the next day at a support center. She said it was set up like a Quaker meeting house, in the round. The meeting was informal. People would stand and tell what they were struggling with. And how someone’s support had helped them earn their GED, or had gotten them sober, or had encouraged them to interview for a job. And then Jill asked, how many times have we given up on someone, educationally, or vocationally, or emotionally, only to have them turn around and find their way to a new degree, or job or self-confidence? Isn’t this exactly what the gardener is doing here, giving a tree that had not proven itself for three years yet another chance to fruit? Patience personified.
 
Implicit in all this talk about a second chance is the sure and certain hope of a day of reckoning. If it doesn’t fruit it will be cut down. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone talk about, and I have never preached about the day things get cut down, commonly called judgment day. But we heard it in St. Patrick’s Prayer last week, “the day of doom”, and we confess in the Apostle’s Creed, that Jesus ascended into heaven, and then “from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” So let’s talk about judgment and judgement day for a little bit. 
In one of our confessions it says “we deserve God’s condemnation.” It follows Romans, chapter 5 or 8. One day a pastor who was on the 15-person task force that proposed that confession said “it should say, we deserve God’s judgment. Because judgment can go either way, for or against. But he was overruled. Another pastor from Texas was reported to say, Jim, you’ve been in California too long. Let’s stick with condemnation.” And the Texan prevailed. 

Judgment can be either good or bad.
 
Paul writing to the Corinthians talks about judgment, the final judgment. He writes “everyone’s work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.”
 
I have a confession to make. You may not want me to be your pastor after this because you can show me a half dozen Bible verses that disagree with me. The 16th and 17th century confessions which I’ve taken a vow to be guided by also disagree with me. I do believe in heaven and hell. That’s not the controversial part. Here’s what is controversial: I do not believe that those who do not choose to accept God’s love will face eternal torment. I believe they will experience eternal nothingness, a kind of annihilation. I’m also intrigued with the Roman Catholic idea of a kind of purgation, a cleansing that let people in the next life cross over from nothingness to eternal communion with God and others.
  
Jesus thought it was important that we know that the Gardener is patient. But that patience has an end point. Its end point is when we all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.
 
Now three things about the final judgment, and here I draw from a teacher at Princeton Seminary who I wish I studied with. First, will be all judged by God. [I Corinthians 3:13,15]. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I got the impression that if we trust Jesus God only sees Jesus and not our works at the end of time. No, but as the Revelation of John teaches, “blessed are those who die in the Lord, for their works do follow them.” 
The second, the very same Christ who was crucified and raised for us will also be our judge. I like the judge. He’s been “tempted in every way as we were.” Our judge knows who it’s like to be fully human. And he doesn’t forget just because he’s been in heaven for going on 2,000 years.
 
Now, like many of you I’ve been sequestered for jury duty. And maybe because I’m clergy I’ve never been impaneled for a trial. But it’s interesting to see how different judges run their court rooms. Some explain what’s happening. Others just let the attorneys do the talking. I’m betting that our Judge will treat women, and the sick of mind and body well, whatever our bodies are like in heaven. Because he knows what it’s like to be human, and he showed compassion and truthfulness when he walked with us for 33 years.  

The third point about the final judgement is the final criterion is nothing other than the self-giving, other-including love of God made known in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus the Judge will not be impressed with those of us who have said “Lord, Lord” or mouthed all of the right beliefs or know our Bibles better than others. He will ask did we “have mercy and show compassion to others, or did we only love ourselves.” The 25 chapter of Matthew’s Gospel give us a good clue here. Read it if you’re thinking about heaven.
 
This week I’ve had two people ask me quite naturally first“should I get cremated? My daughter’s concerned that I won’t have a body to be resurrected by God if I do.” And the second question was, in effect, “what’s heaven going to be like?” I find the pictures in the Bible of heaven are many and varied. Jesus says, don’t forget about the judgement that comes first. Yes, “absent in the body, present with the Lord [I Corinthians].” But there will be a time when we all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. And on my good days, I’m looking forward to it. 
Annie Dilliard is a writer and a sage of yesteryear. She reflects on what we do in church from a perhaps 1950’s perspective when as the pictures of one church I served shows women wore hats and gloves to church. She writes,
  
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
 
The writer to the Letter to the Hebrews concludes one breezy section with this: “our God is a consuming fire.” Can we hold on to a God who is patience personified, who sees years and years of deadness, of not bearing fruit, but says, “I’m not giving up, I’m finding water and manure to make something of this plant.” There will come a time when we all will be judged, and I’m looking forward to that—with fear, but curiosity. Won’t you, too? Trust in the one who is both judge and patient gardener.