"In these forty days you lead us into the desert of repentance
So runs our Eucharistic prayer during Lent. And this theme of learning to be God's people once again is at the heart of Lent each year, but it is also at the heart of our vocations project which occupies the first half of our liturgical year from Advent to Easter. When we talk about our vocation, we mean what God is calling us to be and do. At its heart is the question who am I? What is my purpose in life?
And we usually think of this in rather individualistic terms - "me and God". Even from this pulpit and by this preacher you have been encouraged to discern your vocation by learning to hear God speak to you personally, by examining your own God-given gifts and skills and being attentive to the passions of your own hearts.
Now, all of that is entirely right, so don't cast it into your mental dustbin. Indeed our Lent course is very helpfully drawing out those themes. But our vocation is not just "me and God". It is about being God's people. It is something we do together. Our vocation is at the same time completely unique to us (your vocation will be deeply personal and different from everyone else's) and completely shared. Any God-given vocation is always one to work with others as part of his people. To discover our vocation is to learn to be God's people once again.
Now this concept of being God's people goes right back to the very foundations of our faith. The idea first emerges on Mount Sinai as God gives Moses the 10 commandments. Appropriately, Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, so this episode was a microcosm of the 40 years they were spending in the desert en route to the promised land. It's like saying "this is what your 40-year desert journey is all about - being God's people". And of course our 40 days and 40 nights of Lent is also microcosm of that same 40-year desert journey, so this is at the heart of Lent.
God explains to Moses that the whole purpose of the law is to ratify a covenant - an exchange of promises. We promise to follow God as king and in return God promises that that will make them his chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. So at the heart of our relationship with God is a promise to make us God's people. And at the heart of our vocation there lies but one task - following God together; loving him with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.
Now this covenant on Mount Sinai which first turns those freshly released slaves out of Egypt into God's people merely opens out an earlier covenant made right at the start of our faith story. Our faith story, remember, begins not with Adam & Eve (they were faith-less) but with Abraham - and specifically with the covenant God makes with Abraham, which has two strands: (1) a land of his own and (2) descendants - as many as there are stars in the sky.
And the Sinai covenant with Moses and the people simply opens out that promise to the whole community of Abraham's descendants. It reminds them that they are those little stars, that Abraham was promised. And that the promise of a place to be, and a community to be, are theirs.
And at the heart of Abraham's promise of descendants is the idea of fruitfulness. The first command given to human beings after their creation is "Be fruitful and multiply". The first command God gives Noah as he leaves the Ark - when God presses "control/alt/delete" and reboots the system - is "Be fruitful and multiply". And in our Gospel reading today, Jesus, on the verge of the new creation to be brought about by his death and resurrection, tells a story about being fruitful - a story about a fig tree in a vineyard that won't bear fruit.
The vineyard was a metaphor the people of Israel had adopted to remind themselves of their central vocation as God's people - to be fruitful. And vineyards commonly contained vines and fig trees. The two plants complemented each other, helping each other to bear fruit. But they were also plants which had a tendency to grow leggy and become fruitless - bearing small, inedible fruits. We had a fig tree in our garden in London and an overgrown vine in our greenhouse in Wheathampstead and I can testify that they need constant attention in order to bear fruit.
So the fig tree in Jesus' story is God's chosen people. And the parable is a warning that they have ceased to be fruitful and that God, the vineyard owner, is about to cut it down and make room for something that will bear fruit. But a lifeline is offered - Jesus, the gardener, offers to make it fruitful and give it time to turn around.
So, in one sense this story is a call to repentance - to turn away from lives that forget whose people we are, who the owner of the vineyard is and what he wants from us; to turn away from lives that are self-indulgent and fruitless. But in another sense it is also encouraging. There is nothing more fulfilling than living a fruitful life and seeing our life's work grow and prosper. And this parable contains a promise from Jesus that he himself will make us fruitful - and that he will do it for us as part of the whole plant. The parable reminds us that we're just leaves and branches. We can only bear fruit by being joined to each other and to Jesus. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. There is no such thing as a Christian not joined to Christ or to God's people.
But if we are joined to Christ and his people, we are spiritual descendants of Abraham and therefore inheritors of God's promises. And he wants us to "Be fruitful and multiply".
Being fruitful, in the sense that Jesus means, is something we can only do if we let him be our gardener. Otherwise, like a fig tree, we just grow leggy - heading off in whatever way suits us and bearing only small, hard fruit. We all need Jesus to prune us, to nourish us, to be the rich, life-giving sap coursing within us. Only then can we discover the answer the meaning of life - who I am, what I'm for, why I was created and what my vocation is in life.
And multiplying reminds us that being fruitful is not for our benefit alone. The fig exists to feed other creatures, to bear the seed new life and it can only do that if it's part of the tree. To be fruitful and multiply is to be part of God's people and together to draw others into the ever-widening circle of God's deep love. We can't do this unless we do it together.
Now, I know this idea of bringing others into the faith has a bad press, largely because some people have done it very badly. But at its heart it is simply about sharing God's transforming love with a world that is desperate to be loved. It's about inviting people who are lonely and lost to be part of a loving family.
And our vocation is to be that loving family. A family that is constantly looking inwards at ourselves to prune out anything that is not born of love and constantly looking outwards to draw others into our circle of love, looking to those who are desperate for love, or those who have so abused love that they are consumed with hate, or those who have despaired of love and grown indifferent.
So this Lent, as we are led "into the desert of repentance" let's hold before our eyes this call to be fruitful and multiply. Let's examine our lives for anything that is not born of love: any bitterness towards others, any anger or fear, any lack of forgiveness, any indifference or lack of compassion, any tendency to retreat into private lives and self-indulgence, any lack of commitment to community and invite Jesus to weed it out of lives. Let's allow Jesus metaphorically to dig around us, nourish us to make us fertile again and open our hearts and veins to allow his life to course through us. A good practical way to do that is to revisit the Sermon on the Mount. Read one teaching a day and let it search your heart. Then ask Jesus to help you live by it.
And then let us come together in a new and closer way. Let us be God's people once again. Let us leave behind once and for all any dull, empty, formulaic religion; any obsession with keeping the institution of the church going; and any selfish ambition which pits us against one another. Let us remember that our vocation is to belong to one another in Christ.
And through this pilgrimage of prayer and discipline may we grow in grace and learn to be God's people once again. Amen.
Preached: - Cliburn, Crosby Ravensworth, Morland (Evensong), 28 February