A Fruitful Life / Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:1-9

‘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.’”

How many of you would say you’re a pretty good gardener? I imagine your schedule is getting busy since we have entered spring planting season.

I read a funny story about a potato farmer who was fuming because his son was arrested on a minor offense, and he would be spending the first few weeks of planting season in the local jail. The father wrote him a letter saying, “Son, what were you thinking? You made a stupid mistake, and now I have no one to help me dig up the garden for the planting potatoes.”

The son wrote back, “FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE! Don’t dig in the garden this year. That’s where I hid all my guns.”

The next morning, the father awoke to find the local police force digging up the ground around his house. After hours of work, the officers left empty-handed.

Confused, the father wrote back and told his son what had happened.

The son wrote back one line: “NOW plant the potatoes.”

I have always thought I had a green thumb, but I have no idea when the best time is to plant potatoes. A friend of mine once said “I have a rock garden. Last week three of them died.”

I admire the gardeners’ skill. More than that, I admire their passion and their patience because it takes both those qualities to plant and tend a garden, never knowing if it will yield a harvest or not.

There’s a man in India who is a good example of the passion and patience of a master gardener. He’s a professional horticulturist. He’s 80 years old, and his family owns a mango orchard. When he was seventeen, he saw a crossbred rose bush in a friend’s garden. This was a bush that bore multiple varieties and colors of roses. He was so inspired by this rose bush that he began grafting different varieties of mangoes onto one tree in his orchard.

Today, more than six decades later, he has created a mango tree that bears 300 different varieties of mangoes. The tree is massive, its branches weighed down with pink and purple and orange and yellow and green mangoes. He named this super tree “The Resolute.” He doesn’t say how he chose that name for his tree. The mangoes from the “miracle tree” are free for any visitors to his orchard.

This man names some of the varieties after distinguished people who have made a contribution to Indian society. He has named mangoes in honor of scientists and doctors and police officers and politicians. But he had a funny comment about his mango trees in an interview last year. He said, I am surprised that for the first time in my experience of 65 years, the trees of mango varieties named after politicians have not seen a single fruit this year. I don’t know what has happened this year. All other varieties named after other personalities have witnessed a lot of mangoes. But I am hopeful that mangoes will grow on trees that are not bearing fruit yet.

So, the mangoes named after politicians weren’t producing any fruit . . . Instead, the branches are just hanging their heads in shame. [Just kidding.] That gives us something to ponder, though, as we look at our scripture for today.

In these verses from Luke 13, Jesus tells a story about a landowner who was checking on the progress of a fig tree. The landowner tells his gardener, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”

Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down. Just a little more patience, the gardener is advising, before you give up on that tree.

Life is short. Any good we would do in this world needs to begin now!

These verses from Luke’s Gospel may sound like a clip from HGTV, but they’re a glimpse into God’s will for our lives. We are the fig tree. And like a master gardener, God is both passionate to see us live out His purposes, and He’s patiently waiting to see evidence of our growth. But just as the fig tree is living on borrowed time, so are we. Life is short. Any good we would do in this world needs to begin now!

Sharon Carr was studying at Emory University with a double major in English and religion when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Sharon’s attitude of faith and hope in facing her diagnosis inspired her classmates and professors. In the year after Sharon’s diagnosis, she wrote poems and short meditations about her struggle to find hope in dying. One of her professors compiled her writing into a book that was published just before her death. He titled the book Yet Life Was a Triumph after one of her poems. This poem was read at Sharon’s funeral. I’m just going to read a few quotes from the poem:

I had to love today, because you couldn’t promise me tomorrow. . .

I had to hold tightly to purpose, because you might not give me time for carelessness, and lifeblood is too precious to spill on selfish whim;

I had to cherish hope, because you couldn’t guarantee light amid despair,

and I was tired of hurting . . .

Because I was forced to live life boldly, thankfully, lovingly and joyfully,

death is tender, and life was a triumph.”

What a painful and beautiful truth to live by! “I had to love today because you couldn’t promise me tomorrow. . .” And she ends this poem by saying that this realization forced her to live so abundantly that her life became a triumph. That’s what God wants for us. It’s too easy to waste our life in selfish, apathetic, unfruitful behavior because we don’t realize how short life is.

Fruitfulness is the measure of how much our life reflects God’s character and love. Here’s a question we all confront at some point: do you measure your life by the length of your years, or by the positive impact you’ve made? I think we would all agree that it’s the second condition, the positive impact, that’s the true measure of a life. Throughout His short ministry, Jesus made it clear that any positive impact He had in life came from His relationship with God. Jesus’ power and purpose and courage came from aligning His heart and mind and will with God’s purposes for Him.

Verse 7 gives us some insight into what a fruitless life looks like. In verse 7, the landowner accuses the fig tree of “using up” the soil. In the original Greek, the word used here refers to something that is deprived of “force, influence or power.” It also refers to something that has been “severed from” or “separated from” its source of power.

Back in the 12th century, Japanese gardeners created dwarf trees, or “bonsai” trees, by cutting the tree’s tap root. The tap root anchors the tree deep into the ground so that it can grow taller and wider. With the tap root severed, the tree relies on smaller, surface roots for growth. The result is a tiny tree that can be grown in a pot on your kitchen counter.

What our Japanese friends have learned to do intentionally with trees many of us in our country have done by neglect with our spiritual lives. How many of us have cut the tap root of faith in Jesus Christ and have tried to live and grow on an occasional trip to church, occasionally open the Bible to read, only pray in moments of great distress, and give to the church only the leftovers of our financial resources?

What would it look like if your life truly reflected the spirit and the image of God? If your life overflowed with the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. How would it affect the people around you? How would it affect your work? How would it affect your priorities? Fruit can’t be hidden. It’s an outward and visible expression of the inner life of a tree. What is our outward life, our character and actions revealing about our inner life? Fruitfulness is a measure of how much our life reflects God’s character and love.

A fruitful life will leave a powerful, positive legacy. Few of us think of our lives in terms of leaving a legacy. We try to be good people. We try to do good and positive things in our work and our relationships and our volunteering. But legacy building is an intentional commitment to acting in ways that will leave a powerful, positive impact on the people we encounter each day. Considering our legacy helps us to focus on the long term and it “gives us values that we can judge our actions by.”

Don’t you want to have such a powerful, positive impact on others? God placed that yearning in us, to live with a sense of mission and purpose. To live lovingly and boldly and joyfully for the sake others. To live lives that reflect God’s character and love. We were made for this. Anything less leads to a fruitless, ineffective life, severed from the power and purposes of God.

Once a young man named Ben was struggling with an important decision. He had been struggling with the desire to be a missionary. He was concerned about how hard the missionary life is. What if he failed. He asked his dad, what if God calls me to do something I can’t do?

Ben’s dad was quiet for a moment. Then he spotted his son’s baseball glove on the floor and picked it up. What’s this? he asked. Ben laughed. Don’t be silly, Dad! It’s my glove. Dad propped the glove up against the wall and tossed a baseball into it. The ball rolled out of the glove and across the floor. Ben’s dad picked up the glove and remarked, your glove is a total failure. Ben smiled. It can’t catch by itself, he said. The glove doesn’t work too well unless my hand is in it.

Dad nodded. You’re just like this glove. God has a purpose for your life, Ben. You put your hand inside the glove to give it guidance and strength, you give it the power to catch the ball. In the same way, God will give you the power to do whatever He calls you to do. It’s His mighty hand that does the work when you are willing to be used.

A fruitful life begins when we place it in God’s hands. It’s our desire to reflect God’s character and love, a desire to live intentionally and leave behind a powerful, positive impact that results in bearing much fruit. That’s what God made us for. Let’s not waste our lives on anything less.

Jesus had only a short time on this earth to pour His love and His strength and His purpose into others. He had only a short time to heal and teach and empower those around Him. And He used every moment He had to share the reality of God and God’s love for us. And two thousand years later, His life and legacy are still speaking to people all over the world. That’s the final proof of a fruitful life. Life is short. Your fruitfulness will be determined by how much your life reflects the character and love of God. God will use you to empower you and leave a legacy of love which flows from His love for you.