This week’s scripture comes from Luke 13:1-9, and causes us to ask, who are we really? Is there a difference between our public persona and our private life? Does who we think we are match up with what we actually do?
Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”
In this passage, Jesus preaches the hard call to repentance and obedience, and then tells a parable that says it isn’t too late. This is the Christian experience lived in the beautiful tension of both/and. We are simultaneously sinner and saint. We need the law that tells us the truth about our sinfulness and the gospel that tells us we are a new creation in Christ, freed and forgiven by God’s grace.
Since its beginning, Christian worship has been structured by this tension of and. Each time we meet as a church to worship, we confess our failings, we hear the Good News, and we rejoice in the saving grace of Christ. In a larger scale, this is what the liturgical seasons of Lent and Easter are all about. During Lent we search our hearts and examine our personal failings, and “fast” from the world’s empty promises in order to “feast” on the trustworthy promises of our faithful, loving, and merciful God. Only after forty days of this spiritual focus do we experience the season of Easter and the celebration of the risen Christ.
For a healthy faith, living in this tension of and is essential: each side of the coin proves the other. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:
“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”
This concept is at the heart of the song “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine” by Switchfoot. Shadows are spots of darkness, but they are also proof of the existence of the sun, since we know they cannot exist without light. The very fact that we can see the shadow, we can even feel the temperature difference, is evidence of the sun’s presence.
When we are in a period of shadow in our personal or spiritual lives, whether it’s doubt, despair, feelings of betrayal, uncertainty, or as in this time of Lent when we direct our thoughts toward repentance and humility, it can feel like someone has blocked out the sun. Where we before basked in God’s love as we would in the warmth of the sun’s rays on our skin, times of shadow can be chilly, dark, and lonely. But that’s just it: without knowing the warmth of God’s love, the absence of it wouldn’t be a shadow. It’s only when we see that shadow with the knowledge of what we’re missing that it’s even a shadow at all.
And this is how we can understand the progression of the seasons of Lent and Easter. Without the experience of Lent, we would be unable to realize the true depth of the joy of the risen Christ. Likewise, the impending joy of Easter gives hope to our Lenten “fast.” Each informs the other, and each is essential to the other.
So this week, how can we live more fully into the devotional and reflective nature of Lent? How might this change our experience of Easter?