My guess is that most of us remember Simba, the little lion cub who grows up to be the Lion King in the movie of the same name. He had found a pretty good life for himself after the murder of his father and the violent takeover of his homeland by evil forces. He very much enjoyed frolicking around in the jungle with his new found friends Timone and Pumbaa, and all seemed to be good. But something was missing. His homeland needed to be saved; his “people” needed to be set free. Unless he went back, his life would remain like that of the fig tree at the end of today’s Gospel; barren and fruitless.
I’m also pretty sure that we remember Jonah, who is one of my favorite biblical characters. Jonah found peace in a rather strange place- the belly of a whale. But before we chuckle, we should take a moment to reflect on the rather odd places where we have either found or have attempted to find peace, albeit a peace that was at best only temporary. You see Jonah had sinned against God. God called him to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah, but he hopped onto the first boat going in the opposite direction instead. But then a great storm erupted, as storms do erupt when we try to run from God, and Jonah had himself, thrown overboard so that his shipmates might be saved. That’s where the whale enters the scene and rescues him. Inside the whale, Jonah was basically able to go on retreat: he offered praise and thanksgiving to God and repented for his disobedience. He found a kind of peace, for a while. But what about the Ninevites? They were still there, and they still needed to be saved, they needed to be set free of their slavery to sin. If his story ended here we would not be talking about Jonah, he would have been just like another barren fruitless fig tree.
And so we come to Moses. Moses had found a kind of peace as well. He had gotten himself into trouble back in Egypt because he murdered an Egyptian who had struck one of his people, an enslaved Israelite. So he fled that land and found a home and solace tending the sheep of his father-in-law. Isn’t that just a little bit ironic- I mean, Moses was indeed supposed to be tending sheep, just not the sheep of his father-in-law. He was meant to tend to the Israelites, the sheep of his heavenly Father, who was indeed about to reveal Himself to him. The Israelites, his Father’s sheep, his people, needed to be set free. If Moses’ story ended here, not only would we not be talking about him today, we would not be here at all. He too would have remained as useless as a barren fruitless fig tree.
But we know that the stories of Simba, Jonah and Moses did not end where we have left them. In the case of the soon-to-be Lion King, the messenger from his kingdom found him and called him back to fulfill his role and the kingdom was saved because of his positive response. After Jonah repented, the whale immediately spewed him out onto dry land and God once again called him to go to Nineveh. This time he went and the Ninevites were saved. And as for Moses, well he ran into this rather strange bush. He noticed it not so much because it was on fire-as a shepherd he had seen many burning bushes before and probably had set many bushes on fire himself. Rows of bushes were often used as boundary lines to separate one flock of sheep from another, and were burned down at times when sheep needed to be moved to different pastures. But this bush was different. It was burning, but it was not being consumed. There probably was no smoke, no smell and no ashes. That’s what drew him to this bush. Little did he know as he approached it that his life would be changed forever. What did he find when he arrived at where the bush was? Well, he found that he was on holy ground, that God, his God who calls himself “I AM,” not “I was,” or “I will be,” was calling him back to the place from where he was fleeing, the very epicenter of his fear to set God’s people and his people free. Simba was called back to his kingdom, back to the place of his fear so that it could be set free. Jonah was sent back in the direction that he did not want to go so that the Ninevites could be set free. But Simba and Jonah are fictional characters. Moses is for real. And so are we. We can be sure that God calls us to do pretty much exactly what He calls Moses and the barren fig tree to do: To bear fruit.
He calls us to face our fears, to conquer them, and thereby to fulfill the purpose for which we were created: to set ourselves free and to become an agent of freedom for those around us. That is the fruit He wants us to bear. And how do we do that? For starters we can take a hint from the very name, “I am,” that He gives Himself. We are called not to live in the past-the place of regret, resentment, grievance, sadness, bitterness and all forms of non-forgiveness or to live in the future-the place of unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry and all forms of fear, but to live in the now, the present.
We are called to be here in the world now, to love now, to see things as they are now, to face our weaknesses now, to forgive now, to seek forgiveness now, to heal ourselves now, to help others to heal now, to carry our crosses now, to live with full awareness and consciousness now, to see the burning bushes that are all around us now. That’s how we free ourselves, from slavery to sin, from our slavery to fear and help others to do the same. We need to realize the presence of God in the present and respond to that presence- whether it comes to us in the form of a messenger from our past, the voice of God coming through our hearts and souls, the amazing form of a burning but unconsumed bush or the manure that was placed around a barren fig tree.
You see the difference between those who were either killed tragically by the falling tower in Siloam or the Galileans who were horribly and violently killed by Pontius Pilate and the fig tree and us at the end of the Gospel, is that, at least for the moment, we still live, we still stand. Those people were cut down and no longer have a chance to repent or to bear fruit. The fig tree still has a chance, and so do we.
In this Year of Mercy, we need to live in God’s healing presence now and bear fruit now. We do not have the luxury of knowing if we will be cut down in an untimely manner or how or when we will be called from this life like the fig tree, our story will either end as barren and fruitless; or perhaps it is just about to begin.