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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


Missing is Not Final

Luke 13:1-9

Third Sunday in Lent

March 14, 2004

Remember those times you have half-studied for an exam and the joy you felt at hearing the teacher say that you've got another day to study because the test has been postponed. Or when you're about to give up on a purchase or trying to locate someone you need and someone says, "Wait a minute. There just might be another chance." The joy anytime in life when a deadline is extended?the joy of knowing that it's not final.

Of course, there are the more dramatic times in life-a family that seems to be falling apart getting reconciled, the patient that seems to have a terminal illness recovers, the life that seems headed for nowhere finds a goal, finds God.

Our parable today is a challenge, a challenge to remember that failure doesn't keep us from trying again. It reminds us that being present is not enough. The challenge is to do what we can to bear fruit. It is a warning to those times in life when we think we have it made. When we're dealing with tragedy, we protest, "But I'm a member of the church! I am baptized. I am a Christian." And instead of doing something with our faith, we just sit. Instead of marching forward, we remain at parade rest.

Garrison Keillor warns us, "You can become a Christian by going to church just as about easily as you can become an automobile by sleeping in a garage." What we're speaking of is the danger of presumed spiritual security. Our parable says that we're not called just to be here. It is a clear warning against a fruitless existence in the light of God's grace given to us.

The first part of our Gospel lesson for the day-the preciousness of time-to repent does not mean we will not perish, but we will live with meaning, not an insurance against what is evil or natural. Today's Gospel is a challenge to deal with the one thing that cannot be put off-living. The importance of the now. We, too, must seek to use our opportunity.

Hear the prophet Isaiah as he challenges us: "Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near." These days are our time, and instead of mourning over the wasted, we realize we can't change yesterday, but we can seize the moment.

Today's parable is about God's grace to deal with the frustrations of not reaching one's goal, not arriving at where we were headed, with the joy of knowing there is another chance. Just as the purpose of the fig tree was to bear fruit, so we're challenged to find where we are to bear fruit in God's kingdom. The tree had been planted for this purpose. It was not in the garden by accident. It was not a volunteer. It had been planted with high hopes. They had been the investment of the gardener's time, the cost of nurturing such as water and fertilizer and the use of the land.

One might think of all the investment God has placed in the nation of Israel and its failure to bear fruit or in the church in the barren times when it has been self-serving instead of bearing fruit. Or one's self-created in the image of God. Have you borne fruit in that manner? It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is my life to live as I want to instead of seeing it as a precious gift from God.

Once, while playing golf, I had driven into the woods and when I went to find my ball, I found four brand-new balls. I looked around and saw no one but my partner. Just as I was about to step into the golf cart, over the hill came two carts with four of my church members. They inquired if I had seen their balls. I confessed that I had put them in my cart, but that I didn't know it was theirs. One of them told me a story of a time when a farmer found a young lad cutting down a Christmas tree on the farmer's farm. The young lad said, "I didn't know it was your tree." "Well," said the farmer, "you knew it wasn't yours."

We belong to God. We are his people. Sheep of his flock. Therefore, he is concerned about us and has the right to expect something of us. In the summer, I am part of the faculty of the Course of Studies School for the Candler School of Theology at Emory. This is for local pastors in the United Methodist Church who often feel overlooked and under appreciated. I like to remind them to remember that in the church where they are serving as pastor, you're God's person in this place at this time.

Let us remember in all our lives, in our faith journeys, I am God's person in this place at this time. It has been said so many times, "Life is not a dress rehearsal." Someone has observed the purpose of one's life is not always clear. In fact, it's been said, "Fifty percent of people do not pay attention to where they're going. Forty percent will go in any direction; ten percent know where and go for it."

The parable of the fig tree is a warning that we cannot just take up space. We need a sense of purpose. The psalmist in Psalm 63 writes, "Our soul thirsts for this as in the dry and weary land where there is no water." We are not who we should be until we find God's purpose. In the parable of the fig tree, many of the first listeners would have known that there was a three-year period of preparation before one looked for fruit. This allowed time for the tree to mature. Now, for an additional three years, the owner had become frustrated, looking for fruit. He wanted something for his investment. The tree was planted to produce figs; it was not there to be beautiful or to cast shade or to provide lumber. Up to this point, it was zero in production. It was not fulfilling its purpose.

There is a story told of a bishop in England who was traveling by train to perform a confirmation service. He misplaced his ticket and was unable to produce it when requested by the conductor. "It's quite all right, my lord, we know who you are." But the bishop replied, "You don't see. Without the ticket, I don't know where I'm going." It is not enough for us just to be here; we need to know our purpose. And how we move towards our purpose has much to do with the value of who we are.

Hank Stram, decades ago when he led the Kansas City Chiefs to victory in the Superbowl, spoke of finding the greater purpose. He pointed out that a plain barb iron was worth $5, made into horseshoes, $10.50, but if made into balance wheels for watches, it became worth $250,000. Your value is determined by what you make of yourself.

The great hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote,

There are a number of us who creep into the world to eat and sleep, and, know, not the reason we are born but only to consume the corn, devour the cattle, flesh, and fish, and leave behind an empty dish. If our tombstones when we die were not taught to flatter or lie, there?s nothing better to be said than this: ?He?s eaten all his bread, drunk up his drink and gone to bed.?

Each of us will be judged by our own opportunities. The fig tree had enjoyed the richness of the earth and the sky for six years, three to become ceremoniously clean and three to bear fruit. It should have produced. Our responsibility is not a matter of comparison with others, but what we do with the resources and opportunities that we have been blessed with.

Centuries ago Brother Lawrence wrote, "We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God. It regards not the greatness the work, but the love in which it is performed."

Ask yourself, "Am I seeking to be faithful to God's purpose for my life? Am I missing opportunities for fruitful Christian service? Is my concern for self greater than my dedication to God?"

One of the strangest verses in the Bible is Romans 16:22. It reads "I, Tertius the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord." You think, I thought Paul wrote Romans. Well, he did. Tertius is the secretary, the one who put the pen to the paper. He was doing what he does well and to the glory of God. He was taking his moment. He was serving his purpose.

God has a right to expect fruit from us-our faith, our freedoms, our opportunities. What have we done with them?

Our parable of the fig tree speaks of purpose, but it also speaks of patience. The owner had been patient for six years. Now, in his opinion, time was running out. How patient God has been with us. Truly, as Isaiah says, "His ways are not our ways."

The challenge is to learn to model our lives in this same manner. We need to be patient with ourselves, giving ourselves a chance to try again. We must stumble if we're to learn to walk. Also, we need to be patient with others. They, too, need the opportunity to try again.

This notice appeared in the window of a coal store in Nottingham, England:

We have been established for over a hundred years and have been pleasing and displeasing customers ever since. We have made money and lost money, suffered the effects of coal nationalization, coal rationing, government control, and bad payers. We have been cussed and discussed, lied to, held up, robbed, and swindled. The only reason we stay in business is to see what happens next.

The plea of the gardener for another year reminds us of Jesus as he said on the cross, "Father, forgive them." So he seeks to give us the gift of another opportunity. For the fig trees, opportunity meant another year. Today, for us, it means another opportunity, not to dwell on what we have missed, but to do what we can. In the parable, there was not only more time but more investment in extra manure to be added to bring forth a crop of figs. So, in our lives, God is working with us to bring forth the results of faithful living. The second chance is not in nature but in God's grace.

God's mercy is still talking to God's judgment, and on that conversation, hangs our salvation. Most of us have dreams that we have not realized, goals we have not reached. The good news is that God is in the business of opening doors, not closing them. The good news is that the past is not final. But there is also a message in the one more year being given. It is there comes a time when we will be accountable. The tree had another year. Then if it failed to produce, it would be cut down. It could only take up space for so long. There are times when the day of testing does come. Ready or not, there are no more chances.

Pastor Martin Niemoeller, imprisoned at Dachau for seven years, wrote: "In Germany, the Nazis first came for the communists. I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. They came for the Catholics; I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak for me."

But to you and me the final day has not come. We still have time to be faithful, to be fruitful. We can still do as Isaiah challenges, "Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call upon him while he is near." Let us rejoice in God's grace for this day. Let each of us use our opportunity to be faithful to God.

O God, we thank thee for this day. We thank thee for another opportunity to be faithful to thee, to take what you have so blessed our lives with and to reach out in love to others. Amen.


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