Give a Fig
To say, "I don't give a fig" means to care nothing at all (www.phrases.org.uk). Concerning our text about a fig tree I want you to give a fig.
Give a fig for the warnings. The pagan, Latin grammarian Porphyrio said, "The angry gods have their feet shod with wool" (Dictionary of Quotations (Classical), 652) meaning when the gods came in judgment you don't hear their approach. Not so the true God. St. Basil said, "This is peculiar to the clemency of God toward men, that He does not bring in punishments silently or secretly; but by his threatening first proclaims them to be at hand, thus inviting sinners to repentance'" (Trench, 356). For 120 years Noah warned of the coming judgment of the Flood. Egypt had 9 plagues before God's judgment fell. Jerusalem was warned 40 years before it was destroyed. And in our text it's been 3 years since John first warned that the ax was laid at the root of the trees ready to chop the unfruitful trees down.
Give a fig for the warnings of God that come in advance of His judgment. Pay attention to the shot across the bow, the warning shot He gives. There is a message in the 9/11 attacks, the Hurricanes that destroyed New Orleans in 2005 and the Northeast in 2012. There is a warning in the mass shootings in the past year. There are threats of God in the economic collapse of 2008 and the drought of the past couple of years. And what is the largest meteor to make contact with earth since 1908 but a shot across the bow of planet earth? The message, warning, threat is the same one those in our text were to hear from Pilate killing worshippers and a tower crushing 18 people: repent or you too will perish.
You can't hear that because our society wants to put wool on the true God's feet. Jerry Falwell made the 9/11 attacks about the sins of homosexuals and abortionists. Environmentalists make the hurricanes, blizzards, and droughts about climate change and the fat carbon footprints of others. The occupy movement make the economic collapse about other people's greed. The X-File crowd makes the meteor strike about a UFO. In short, tragedy can be about anything else other than the one thing Scripture says it is: our sins; my sins.
Give a fig for the warnings in our world to repent, and know that if you do not there is only one option. "You must be cut down." You will be cut down." You have been mistaking pretermission of sins for remission of sins. You've mistaken God passing over sins for God forgiving sins. You've mistaken God turning a blind eye to your sins for God forgetting them. Because God doesn't lop off the hands and pluck out the eyes of sexual sinners immediately, we think God has remitted those sins. Because God doesn't instantly punish those who despise His Word by not holding it sacred and gladly hearing and learning it, we think those sins have been forgiven. Because unbelievers, gossipers, fornications, and misers aren't struck by lightening immediately, we think God has forgotten their sins.
God has not forgotten our sins. He has passed over them for now. The tragedies and disasters that have befallen our country in recent years are proof that He remembers and He will judge every single sin and sinner soon. He makes no secret of this. He doesn't put on woolen shoes but wooden ones so you can clump, clump, clump hear Him coming and give a fig for the warning He is sounding. However, give a fig for His grace too.
The people were told the recent tragedies in their midst were to call them to repentance, and then they were told the parable of the fig tree. The fig tree is them; it's me; it's you. For 3 years Jesus had been preaching among them, and they were still fruitless trees. God's judgment is: it's time to chop them down. But what does Jesus do? The insert has the Jesus character in the parable say, "Leave it alone for one more year," but that's not what the Greek says. It says, "You must forgive it also this year."
Give a fig for the startling grace being expressed here. To God the Father's imperative judgment, "You must chop it down," God the Son responds with His own imperative. The word usually used for forgive. And note Jesus uses the word "also." This corresponds to the Father's earlier judgment also missed by the insert. He doesn't just say, "Why should it use up the soil?" He says, "Why should it also use up the soil?" In our unfruitfulness we don't just impact us, but all the fruit bearing things around us. We take water, nutrients, sun from them. Impenitence harms others.
The Father says, "You must cut it down! Why should it also use up the soil?" The Son responds, "You must forgive it also this year." How can He say this? Because the vinedresser takes complete responsibility for the unfruitful fig tree. Give a fig for such grace as this. He says He will dig around it and fertilize it as if He hasn't been doing those things all along. Your Lord Jesus is taking responsibility for your lack of fruit. He says that He's responsible for the fact you don't fear, love, and trust in God above all things. He says He's responsible for your greed, your gossip, and failure to hear and study God's Word. He says that your sexual sins are His. Your lusts, temptations, and failures all belong to Him.
You know that's what happened at Jesus' Baptism, right? The holy Jesus came out of the Jordan with the sins of the world hanging heavy on Him. You know that's what happened in Gethsemane, right? There's the cup of wrath full to the brim with all God's wrath against the sins of the world; be sure to see yours floating right there on top. Either you or Jesus was going to drink it. The Father gave the cup to the Son and He drank it. You know that's what happened on the cross, right? Jesus said your sins are really His; your guilt is really His; your fruitlessness is really His. Why else would the Father forsake the Son unless the Son was so covered with sins He couldn't see Him anymore?
Give a fig for such grace; give a fig for the warnings of God's judgment, and give a fig, that is, bear the fruit God is seeking. The fruit of a fig tree is figs. What's the fruit Jesus seeks from sinners? From the first day of His ministry He preached, "Repent and believe the Gospel." Jesus seeks your sins and faith in His carrying them away. The Latin name for the 3rd Sunday in Lent is Occuli which comes from the first Word of the Latin Introit "eyes." In English it's, "My eyes are ever on the Lord." You'll remember, historically, Lent was the season for bringing people into Communion with the Church. On this Sunday the catechumens publicly renounced the devil, all his works, and all his ways.
How do we get back to that repentance, to bearing fruit? The Arabs have ancient instructions for curing an unfruitful palm tree. Take a hatchet and go to the tree with a friend. Tell the friend you are going to cut down this palm tree because it is unfruitful. The friend is to answer, "'Do not so; this year it will certainly bear fruit!'" You reply that it must be cut down and then gives the tree 3 blows with the back of the hatchet. The friend restrains you saying that you should have patience. If it doesn't bear fruit this year, then you can cut it down (Trench, 359, fn. 1).
People think this is God's method too when they regard tragedies and disasters as God's means of making us fruitful. They treat the warnings as whacks of the back of the hatchet to scare us into fruitfulness. That's not the Lord's method at all. He uses Law and Gospel. The warnings are the Law; they spade up the hard, compact soil that won't let God's grace in. God's grace is the fertilizer: The holy tears He shed in Gethsemane and on the cross fill our baptismal font to wash us; His Spirit released on the cross breaths on us in Absolution. The Body and Blood He gave and shed for us on the cross fertilizes us through Communion with them.
Learn how big of a miracle your Lord performs today from the ancient Collect we prayed today. In the prayer we admit that God "knows that we of ourselves have no strength." No strength to break with any sin; no strength to produce the fruit of repentance. No strength to believe the Gospel. God must do the keeping of us. God must do the defending of us, and in the Person of Jesus Christ He does.
None of us have an excuse to stay in any sin. Jesus has come in His Word of Law and spaded up the ground around us. We can't say we don't know we're unfruitful. We can't say we didn't know this or that was a sin. We can't say I will do better because we admit that we of ourselves have no strength. We can do no more than what the fig tree in the parable did. Stand there mute ready for the axe to fall. We have no excuses; we can make no promises.
But Jesus can and does. He promises to do everything for us fruitless figs. There is no sin of ours He did not bear. There is no pain of ours He did not feel. The Latin original of our Collect is more poignant than our translation. It asks that we be "defended in body and cleansed in mind." Our Collect asks that we be "defended from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul." Do you see how much more powerful, how much more fertile it is to say our minds have been cleansed? Gone are your sins; cleansed are your guilts; wiped clean are your shames.
Here is where your focus is to be. You eyes are to be ever on the Lord not on your sins, your failings, your little faith, or your big fears. Your eyes are to be ever on the Lord who spared you, a fruitless fig tree, by willingly going to the tree of the cross. In the blood, sweat, and tears flowing from that Tree comes forgiveness, mercy, and peace to fertilize us fig trees so that we may naturally give a fig, the fig of repentance and faith. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Lent (20130303); Luke 13: 1-9