Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

In the early days, before the word Christian was used, the followers of Jesus Christ talked of being followers of The Way. This idea of God’s people being on a journey has been there right from the beginning, and continued into Christian times. Words such as pilgrim and pilgrimage are common in Christian literature and practice. Some years ago Christine and I led a pilgrimage to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau and then on to Greece to trace the footsteps of St Paul. Some of you have made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, or have tramped part of the Camino de Santiago (also known as the pilgrimage of St James). In these and other instances people generally set off to visit an established holy site – a well, a mountain, a cathedral. Such a trip requires careful planning, budgeting and seeking advice from both people who have gone before and locals who know the area well.

But what happens when someone sets out for an entirely new place? Living in Australia the awareness of those early settlers is not that far away. Some of you can trace your families back to the first settlers, or know well the story of your parents’ and grandparents’ arrival. For some here that journey is much more recent and the memory of agonising decisions and partings are still fresh and raw. The reasons for leaving a place are often complex and not straight-forward. Sometimes the reason is one of war – such as we are witnessing daily as the civil, and increasingly international, war in Syria rages on. Sometimes it is because of drought or flood bringing famine and the need to seek opportunities elsewhere. Sometimes it is the indirect result of things beyond one’s control. My own ancestors left England in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution – and the impact on rural society. A small fleet of sailing ships made the perilous crossing of the Atlantic to arrive at Algoa Bay in a very different land. In the case of my family, the second child was left behind with her grandparents – just in case the rest of the family perished on the journey.

We find this idea of pilgrimage and journey deeply embedded in the story of God’s People as recorded in the Bible. Abram (he later came to be called Abraham) was one such intrepid person who set out on a journey. Convinced that God had called him to leave his own homeland of Ur, he set off into the unknown guided only by the clear stars in the desert. That leaving must have taken incredible courage and determination. In later years people would look back to Abraham as a role model, one who had heard the call of God, trusted God and begun the journey. Years later Abraham’s descendants would again find themselves in Ur and the land of the Chaldeans, now called Babylonians. Their journey back to Babylon was an enforced one, captives of the great warrior king Nebuchadnezzar. In making that journey they abandoned everything that defined their identity as God’s People – king, temple, city, even land. It was a time of great devastation as the promise made to Abram, which we heard this morning, fell into pieces. No longer a great nation more numerous than the stars, they were a crushed and defeated people.

But another call would come, this time through the prophet Isaiah and another journey begin. Immortalised by Handel’s Messiah, the people travelled on a straight road back to Jerusalem – hills made low and valleys lifted up. The city and temple were rebuilt and, much later, Jesus would be one of the preaching teaching rabbis there. It is in that context that we read today’s Gospel from Luke 13. New challenges arise with each situation, each journey, each new road travelled. At the time of Jesus there was a fantastic network of roads – Roman roads, built straight and strong; allowing for easy travel, of merchants, itinerant preachers and healers, and the mighty Roman army. One of the cruel practices of the Romans was to crucify people who crossed them along the roadways. It may be some such scene that is referred to in the opening words of Luke 13. There are records of thousands of crosses, each with its mangled corpse, lining the main road out of Jerusalem.

Jesus seems to be responding to a question as to why these people died. “Do you think, he asks, that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” There’s a terrible irony in that it appears these particular people were killed because they were offering sacrifices to God, and not Caesar. How do we make sense of that? They were doing what they thought was the right thing by God. It caused confusion. The common thinking was that their suffering must have been the result of sin. Five years ago, when the devastating earthquake struck Christchurch, killing 185 people, some said it was because of their sin, or the sin of the city, or the country. You may remember the unfeeling and cruel comment of a former dean of a certain Australian city following the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, which left tens of thousands of people dead. In today’s Gospel Jesus uses the death of the Galileans to urge people to repent, to change their ways. And then moves rapidly into telling a story about a fig tree. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Let’s go first to St Paul and Philippians. He too is talking about a journey – a journey of faith, of transformation and re-formation. Just as people looked back to Abraham as a model of faithfulness to God, so, invites St Paul, people can look to him as a model, and imitator of Christ-like behaviour. The language of journey, of change and transformation is suffused through Paul’s writings. The call to repentance is for more than merely tokenism – it is for transformed lives; lives which reflect the nature of Christ, the love of God. This journey of transformation is as bold and daring and dangerous as the physical journey of an Abraham, or Moses, or Mary and Joseph, or Thomas Nelson. It will take one to new places, new situations, new opportunities.

So what about the fruitless fig tree? In Jesus’s story the owner of the tree wishes to cut it down. The gardener pleads for its life, to be given time to work on it – dig, compost, water – in order that it bear fruit. And that surely is the point of the parable. The journey of transformation, whether of a barren fig tree, an elderly couple who have no children and whose former address was Ur, or Bruce and Sheila in Australia during Lent 2016 – the journey is to end in fruit. That elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, became the ancestors of the People of God. Bruce and Sheila are to bear the fruit of the Spirit. One list of such fruit is found in Galatians 5: 22 – it is the fruit of lives transformed by repentance, and by the Spirit of God working in one’s life. The fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Not bad fruits to grow during Lent!

I’ve not yet mentioned today’s psalm (27) and I’d like to briefly before finishing. As I read the psalm I think of someone absolutely terrified – surrounded by enemies and alone, not a friendly face to be seen. It’s easy to feel like that when setting of into strange territory, whether actual or figurative. And then the psalmist remembers her Sunday School lessons, the long ago Confirmation classes, those Lent course he attended at the Cathedral, and turns to God. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” (Ps 27: 1) Throughout the psalm there is a quiet sense of positiveness, while clinging desperately to faith in God. Paul McCartney’s hit song “Let it be” comes to mind – “when I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me…” In the psalm it is God Himself who is there – in the light and salvation.

It is surely this knowledge of God, this deep faith in God, awareness of God’s love and goodness and constant presence, that allows us to set off on the journey, to bear the fruit of the Spirit, to love my neighbour and do good to my enemy. Abram, St Paul, Jesus – all set out on a journey of transformation. This Lent, this Sunday, as every Lent, every Sunday, you and I are called to set out on our journey – a journey that will bear fruit, fruit that will make a difference to the world, and so give glory and honour to God.

Last week I suggested a number of key words from each of the readings for us to think and pray about during the week. Today my suggestion is you take the Collect for this Sunday – on page 3 of the service booklet. Use a pencil to underline the words that really speak to you – and pray through them during the journey of this week.

God of our ancestors, whose chosen servant Abraham was given faith to obey your call and go out into the unknown: endow your Church with such faith that we may follow you with courage; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.                                                                         APBA Lent 2