The proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom of God by Jesus and by His cousin, John the Baptist is straightforward. The message is simple, and it is the same for people everywhere: ‘Repent and believe the Good News’. Belief concerns where and in whom we put our trust; whilst repentance is a matter of turning away from sin, turning back to God, and living a life characterised by faith, hope, and love. Repentance means to change one’s mind, and to make a conscious act of the will to try and live as God wants us to live.
Baptism and repentance are closely tied together. Before someone is baptised they, or their parents and Godparents, are asked if they reject sin, the world, and the devil. They are asked if they turn to Christ, and believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These questions and answers are a public display and enactment of both faith and repentance. Historically, the season of Lent is one of preparation for Baptism. Candidates would be taught the Christian Faith, and share in the journey, first of Christ in the Desert for forty days, and then of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Through the waters of Baptism they would pass over from death, to new life in Christ. This Paschal Mystery is one which the Church re-enacts on a yearly basis. It reminds us of who and what we are, and why we are here. We gather together on a Sunday, the day Christ rose from the dead, to follow His Command, and tocelebrate the Eucharist, the memorial of His Passion and Death. Christians have done this for two thousand years, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, in obedience to Christ’s command to ‘do this in memory of me’.
St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a warning to keep vigilant: the church can never be complacent. For us, too, Lent is to be a time when we learn to be watchful of our own desires, and to turn away from all that separates us from God. Paul draws a parallel between the Christian community of Corinth and the Israelites on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Egypt represents the world, and the Promised Land, Heaven. The Exodus story is understood by Paul as a metaphor for the Christian Spiritual Life. We are all on a journey, a journey back to God, to be united with Him, and to share His joy forever.
As the Israelites were fed with spiritual food — manna — so Christians are fed with the Living Bread — Jesus Christ. As the Israelites were refreshed with spiritual drink, Christians drink the Blood of Christ, and are washed in the waters of Baptism. As Moses strikes the rock at Massah and Meribah, the Rock is Christ, upon whom we can build with sure foundations, against the storms of this world. Nourished by the Eucharist, we are fed by God, with God, so that He may transform us, so that we can share His Eternal Life. The Corinthians are taking this for granted, hence Paul’s warnings in the Epistle. Like the Corinthians, we need to avoid sin, and turn back to God, and be nourished by Him, so that we can grow in faith.
This morning’s Gospel is full of warnings. Jesus begins with two tragic stories. In the first people from Galilee have been killed by the Roman Governor while offering sacrifice to God. In the second, eighteen people were crushed to death by a falling tower. [We cannot help but think of the people of Ukraine being killed by falling buildings at this very moment]. The message of the Gospel is that time is short, we do not know how or when our end will come. So what can we do? The answer is simple, we must repent, turn away from sin, and believe in God. We need to take advantage of the Grace which is offered us in Christ, to turn back to God, and to live lives of faith which bear fruit in good works. The Good News is that, despite deserving to be condemned, we are given another chance. God is merciful, God loves us, God forgives our sins, and longs to see humanity united with Him in Heaven.
To demonstrate this Jesus uses the parable of the Fig Tree:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vine dresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig round it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Lk 13:6-9)
The man makes three visits to the fig tree. These visits stand for the Patriarchs, the Prophets and the Gospel — the warnings given in Scripture to repent — and the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Despite the guidance, the fig does not bear fruit, therefore it should be cut down.
And yet, the gardener gives a fig tree another chance. This is grace: the free gift of God, granted not earned. Only through God’s grace can we hope to bear fruit. The gardener, who created humanity in Paradise, will offer himself as both Priest and Victim upon the Tree of Life, to bleed and die for love of us. This gardener will meet Mary Magdalene by the empty tomb on Easter Day, so that we and all humanity may share Christ’s risen life. The fact that we are here today is proof that for two thousand years the tree has borne fruit.
Despite this, we are also like people in the desert, not just in this period of forty days of Lent, but throughout our lives. The modern world is deeply consumerist: shopping centres replace churches, and yet we still thirst for something more, something to satisfy our deepest needs. We all realise that commercialism cannot save us. What we purchase doesn’t really nourish or satisfy us. There can be no commercial exchange with God. We cannot buy our way into Heaven, or earn our place through good deeds. We simply have to receive God’s gifts, that’s what grace is. We are not worthy of God’s generosity, but that’s the point. Our Heavenly Father satisfies our deepest needs and desires out of love for us, so that enfolded in His love we might become more lovely, filled with God’s infinite love and grace. Only when we are watered by God can we truly bear fruit. Only if we are born again, by water and the Spirit in Baptism, can we have true hope. This is what the season of Lent is for: it is a time to prepare for Baptism — to share in our Lord’s death and His new life. We undertake this as individuals and as a community, so that both we ourselves, and the Church, may be born again, renewed with living water, poured out over all the world to satisfy the thirst which commercialism cannot quench.
God wants us to love Him. He wants us to flourish, to have a lively faith, to be filled with His love, and to share it with others. It really is that simple. We are called as Christians to repent, and to keep on repenting, to keep turning away from sin, and turning back to God. We are forgiven, and we are loved. That’s what the Cross demonstrates: God’s love and forgiveness. It stands for all time, and fundamentally changes our relationship with God and each other. Ours is a faith rooted in love, freely given for the life of the world.
So let us turn away from the ways of the world, its emptiness, its false promises, its immorality, all of which lead to emptiness and death. Instead, let us be nourished by the living water, which satisfies our deepest thirst, which enables us to live our best lives. Let us live in Him, who loves us, who heals us, and who restores us. The world may not understand this, and may laugh at us, just as it mocked our Lord on the way to Calvary and upon the Cross. Let us share in His sufferings, knowing that we are loved by Him who died for love of us. Let us live as a witness, to share in His work of gathering all humanity to Him: so that all people may come to experience the living water and find new life in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.