Through Setbacks

Lent 3 – 20th March 2022

Walking with Christ Lenten Series 2022

Our Lenten journey for 2022 is “Walking with Christ”. The journey began in the wilderness where we were walking with Christ through temptations. Last week, we were walking with Christ through disappointments. Today, we continue the journey as we walk with Christ through setbacks.

Has anybody here experienced a setback or two in life? Has anybody recently experienced a setback? It’s a part of living on planet earth. Someone once described the Christian journey as “Three steps forward, two steps back.” How did Christ deal with unforeseen events that would normally set us back in life?

The answer is in the gospel reading: Luke 13:1-9. The passage has 2 parts, seemingly unrelated, yet coherent in its message.

In searching for an illustration on setbacks, I came across this account of a Chinese doctor who couldn’t find a job in a hospital after migrating to the USA. He decided to open a clinic for his medical practice. He put a sign outside that read, “Get treatment for $20—if not cured get back $100.”

An American lawyer was driving by and noticed the sign. He thought it was a great opportunity to earn an easy $100. So he entered the clinic and declared, “I have lost my sense of taste.”

The doctor immediately called out: “Nurse, bring medicine from box #22 and put 3 drops in patient’s mouth.” She immediately did so and the lawyer immediately exclaimed: “Ugh! This is kerosene.”

“Congrats!” Replied the doctor, “your sense of taste is restored. Give me $20.”

The lawyer made a second attempt. “I have lost my memory. I cannot remember anything.” The doctor called out: “Nurse, bring medicine from box #22 and put 3 drops in patient’s mouth.” She immediately did so and the lawyer was annoyed.

“This is kerosene. You gave this to me last time for restoring my taste.”

“Congrats. You got your memory back. Give me $20” responded the doctor.

The fuming lawyer paid the doctor. He then made a third attempt to earn $100. “My eyesight has become very weak. I can’t see at all!”

The doctor admitted, “Well, I don’t have any medicine for that, so take this $100.”

The lawyer, staring at the note, said: “But this is $20, not $100!”

“Contrats! Your eyesight is restored. That will be $20.”

Calamities

The first five verses of Luke 13 inspired the theme, “Walking with Christ through Setbacks.” In the text, there was a building disaster that took place and a response from Jesus Christ was sought.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

Disasters and calamities understandably set us back on our journey. The recent earthquake in Japan, the continuing invasion of Ukraine, the ongoing dealing with COVID-19; these are all calamities that detoured, stalled, or interrupted our course through life. How do we respond?

The text indicates firstly how we should NOT respond. We should not make judgments about victims of disasters. The paragraph title may confuse this point: “Repent or Perish”. Reading that first, many conclude that the victims of disaster were guilty of something.

This is the same accusation laid against Job by his friends. They assumed Job’s calamities were God’s judgment on sinful actions. They were not. And in the gospel text, adherents of Jesus assumed the Galileans were “worse sinners.”

Repentance is a biblical term that, unfortunately, is now commonly understood with negative connotations. People use the term to imply that we must abase or humiliate ourselves for our wrongdoing in order to appease an angry God. But remembering last week’s text within this same chapter as today’s text, God acts as a devoted mother who implores her precious child to put away dangerous things and run back to mummy’s loving embrace. Repentance implies a loving mother, not an angry father.

Jesus responded to the accusation by encouraging self-examination. Our Lord challenges us to focus on our sin and not to worry about the sins of others. Our own actions in need of repentance demonstrate our deepest need to stay in relationship with God.

Lent is that season where we focus on our selves. By that I mean we take stock of our sin and its consequences in our lives. Like the texts from Isaiah and Psalm heard earlier, such inventory taking leaves us feeling devoid of our deepest needs. Those needs we have at the soul’s level are satisfied only in a healthy relationship with our Lord.

That makes the case for Lent providing value for “sin-talk”. Not the bragging of committing sin but the reocgnition of the damage it has done in our lives. To repent of our sins, we must name them and turn from them (Romans 10:9-10; 1 John 1:9).

Sin-talk, when it points us to repentance, is life-giving, life-sustaining, fruit-bearing.

(Paul Scott Wilson)

Too many times people are quick to cut down others because they do not see sufficient fruit in their lives. And that brings us to the second part of today’s gospel:

Barreness

Luke 13:6-9 records Jesus giving the parable of the barren fig tree.

And he told this parable: “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 vinedresser, ‘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 around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:6-9 (ESV)

Barrenness brings setbacks in life. Abram’s story from last week reminds us of barrenness can cause us to go off track. When we don’t see the fruit of our good deeds, we become discouraged and tempted to quit. When we don’t see good fruit because of our evil deeds, we are tempted to surrender further to ungodly urges. That is why Jesus was quick to point out we should not judge others and just concentrate on improving our own lives. As the Great Gardener, he understands a little digging around the tree—repenting of our sins in regular fellowship with God—combined with fertiliser such as scripture, prayer and fasting can yield fruit.

Rebecca Solnit’s recently published book titled “Orwell’s Roses”. It starts off by saying, “In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.” It is as much about George Orwell’s life as it is a botanical tour of the history of roses. When Orwell knelt in the dirt outside a small, rented cottage in Wallington, England, he did so during what Solnit describes as a “life shot through with wars.” Born in British India in 1903, Orwell reached adolescence during the First World War. The Russian Revolution and the Irish War of Independence raged into the beginning of his adulthood. During the lead-up to the Second World War, Orwell joined the Spanish Civil War in 1937 to fight Fascism and defend democracy. Before his death in 1945, he saw the rise of the Cold War and the threat of growing nuclear arsenals. The roses Orwell planted in his English garden were, in his mind, gifts to posterity — plants that, if they took root, would outlive the visible effect of any of our actions, good or evil.

You probably have suffered setbacks in your life. And that is okay. It is normal. Concentrate on planting roses today so that your good works will outlive your barrenness. Repent before a loving God. His arms are opened wide to receive you with stedfast kindness.

Published by St Johns Papatoetoe

Presbyterian Church, Hunters Corner, Papatoetoe, Auckland, New Zealand belonging to Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ).

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