This past Sunday I preached at my home church. The gospel reading came from Luke 13:1-9. This passage starts by recounting two tragedies where innocent people die – the first group of people are slaughtered for no apparent reason by Pontius Pilate and the second group die when a tower collapses on them. The people are wondering why. Some conclude that both these incidents were acts of judgment by God. In response to all of this Jesus tells a story about a fig tree that wasn’t producing figs. There have been times during the past number of months when I have wondered if God was judging our family. What did we do to deserve this? As I have told our story of questioning God something unexpected happened. Other people have begun to share their stories of suffering. The common thread holding these stories together? Wondering where God is, what God is doing, and why God is doing it.
I want to propose that suffering is the great challenge of the Christian faith. Bad stuff happens, even to good people. Where is God in all of this?
This brings me back to the fig tree. The owner of the fig tree is frustrated, so frustrated that he orders the tree to be dug out and thrown away. If you are the fig tree, this would count as a disastrous moment! Death is looming. In a most unexpected way the gardener shows up and advocates for this tree. “Just give me one more year, I am sure I can turn this situation around.”
It is possible to read this passage assuming that God is the landowner, relenting and giving us one more chance. In this season of my wife’s cancer I have begun to see this passage through a new set of lenses. You see God is not the landowner, God is the gardener.
A gardener who is always there, always believing, always hopeful, even in the middle of difficulties. Seeing this passage through a new set of lenses has helped to restore my faith. Bad stuff has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. People will die unexpectedly and unjustly. Sickness and disease will be present and unfair realities. Bad stuff comes from all kinds of sources – bad luck, bad people, and sometimes it is an inevitable consequence of being both human and mortal.
My faith is being restored by knowing that God is present – in sickness and in health.