March 20, 2022 – Third Sunday in Lent
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Call to worship
One: O come, let us sing to the Lord;
All: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
One: Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving;
All: let us make a joyful noise to the Lord with songs of praise.
One: For the Lord is a great God,
All: and a great Sovereign above all gods.
“God is love: come heaven, adoring” (Book of Praise 1997 Hymn 314). Words (1922) by English clergyman Timothy Rees (1874–1939). Music (1941; tune “Abbot’s Leigh”) by English clergyman Cyril Vincent Taylor (1907–1991). Words copyright © The Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1997. Music copyright © 1942, renewed 1970 Hope Publishing Co.
Lighting of the Christ Candle
This is the Christ Candle. We light the candle to help us remember that Jesus Christ, the light of the world, is with us in every time and every place.
Prayers of Approach and Confession, & Lord’s Prayer (sins)
We come before you, O God, grateful for your great love for us, and that you call us to gather together in worship, both as we gather in this sanctuary, and over the internet. As you came to us in Christ, seeking our love and devotion, we pray that you would be present among us now, that you would reveal yourself among us, that you would speak to us your word of life. Give us grace to bring our devotion to you, to listen for your word, and to give ourselves in your service. All praise be to you O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Holy God, we know you call us to holy living and to live in faith, but we confess that often in our daily lives, what we do is often anything but holy. The harshness of our words causes pain, our actions create barriers between us and others, we act selfishly and ignore the needs of others around us, and we doubt your ability to guide and use us… God of mercy, forgive us for Jesus’ sake. Perform in us your work of renewal and transformation so that our lives may reflect your holiness. Purify us so that all that we do and say may be a witness to your love at work in us, and to share the hope that is yours in you.
Hear us now as we join together in the prayer that Jesus taught us:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those
who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.
Declaration of Pardon
Friends in Christ, Paul writes, if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! Know that you are forgiven, and be at peace. Thanks be to God.
The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
The Life and Work of the Church (Announcements)
One of my toughest assignments as a minister came years ago when I got a call that a member of our church had died suddenly. This man was around 40, and it was his wife on the phone. Her husband was a line worker for hydro, and had been called out to work in the bitter cold — and who knows how or why — but the heart of this otherwise perfectly healthy man just stopped, and his buddies could not revive him.
His wife was beside herself of course, and she wanted me to come over, not so much for her, but for her kids, a daughter maybe 13, and a son 10, who would be home from school shortly.
She wanted some moral support when she told them what had happened, and maybe some help with the questions she knew would come.
You need to know that these were wonderful people — faithful at church, fun to be around, good to one another and those around them, the kind of people you couldn’t help but like.
Well, the kids arrived home, and through her own tears, the mother told her children that their dad had died that day.
I still remember their reactions. For a half hour after, the boy said nothing — I guess he had no vocabulary for his pain, no idea how to process such terrible news. But his big sister just wailed. She sobbed and sobbed, and kept asking, “Why? What did he ever do to anybody?”
And that’s the question, isn’t it? Why? Psalm 37 has it right, we think, in describing how things ought to work. “The wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the lord shall inherit the land… Yet a little while and the wicked will be no more, and the meek… shall delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”
Even poor old Job thinks he knows the score. The reason nobody, including Job, can understand why all these bad things are happening to him, is because he is such a good man, a righteous man. “I’ve done my part,” he yells at God, “paid my dues, wept with those in trouble, grieved for the poor. But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I looked for light, darkness came.” (Job 30: 26) What is going on here?
We try to make sense of senseless tragedies and search for reasons even where they are none.
Jesus wades in on the question of innocent suffering in our Gospel reading today. Two terrible tragedies have taken place in Jerusalem, the city which is his destination on his Lenten journey. In the first, some Galilean pilgrims on their way to the temple for worship, of all places, were slaughtered by soldiers of the governor, Pilate, and as a particular indignity and sacrilege, he mixes their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. In the second, a tower near the Pool of Siloam falls down, and 18 people who just happen to be standing nearby are killed. How do you explain such things?
Jesus asks, “Do you think they were worse sinners than everyone else, that they died in this way?” Was it God’s will that these people died, some at the violent hand of a tyrant, others just by chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Was it God’s will that the young woman in my church would lose her husband, and her kids their father?
Is it God’s will that thousands of Ukrainians are dying in the armed conflict being inflicted on them right now, and millions forced to flee for safety? Was it God’s will that a young student died of a gunshot just outside a Scarborough high school a few weeks ago? Was there something any of these people did that made God step in and deliver so cruelly what was coming to them?
And Jesus answers his own question. “No”, he says, “That’s not how it works.”
Maybe it’s beyond our ability to understand.
Maybe suffering sometimes is at the hands of others as they do their evil. Other times it just happens – almost a matter of chance. Jesus warns us not to search for cause-and-effect answers where there are no answers.
Would we really want it to work that any other way? — with God playing favourites, and the good always being rewarded and the bad punished? — because, to be honest, there would be times that wouldn’t work out so well for me.
It seems to me, and Paul certainly thought this, that if left to our own devices, we would all be in trouble. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul says in Romans, meaning, if it were based entirely on merit, we’d all be dead.
So, to our relief, we figure Jesus is moving into God’s realm of grace and forgiveness. But he then turns the question around to something in our domain that concern us very much.
He says, “That’s not now it works for those poor folk, but unless you repent, you’re all going to die just like they did.”
He’s telling them: Don’t speculate about others, but give some attention to your own life. What those sudden deaths should tell you is that life is fragile. Let that awaken you to how you need to get right with God, before your time comes.
Which now sounds a lot like we’re back in the world of judgment. It sounds a lot like, no, the Galileans who died weren’t worse sinners than anyone else, but you’re all sinners anyway, and if you don’t straighten up, that’s what it going to happen to you. Do you feel like Jesus is pulling us in two directions at once?
Well, to illustrate this, or maybe to confuse things more, Jesus tells them a parable. A man has a fig tree in his vineyard, and he comes to it looking for fruit — and finds none. He says, “For three years this tree has been here, and hasn’t produced any fruit for me. That’s it! It’s just a waste of good soil. Cut it down.”
That’s how it works in the vineyard. It seems to me that the farmer does what he can with what he is given. Land that may be fertile, or not; rain and sun that may come at the right time, or not; prices that will give them a decent living, or not. And if what they get is too much of the downside of those things, then he pegs his hopes on next year.
The farmer does his best, given there are so many things beyond his control.
But, if all his best efforts fail, and the tree is not bearing fruit, he takes it out.
Okay, so Jesus is continuing on the judgment and repentance theme. He reminds us of John the Baptist and how when people come to be baptized, he screams at them first to repent, and he even draws on the same image. “Even now,” he said, the axe is lying at the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
So Jesus, we think, is really sticking it to the people who resist repenting of their sins. There’s a day of reckoning, and you’d better be ready. Otherwise, “Cut it down.”
But wait, the parable isn’t over. That might be where we would have ended it, since it’s clear when we look around, there isn’t a lot of repentance going on.
“Cut it down.” — it seems like the right thing for God to say. These unrepentant sinners are a waste of space.
But that’s not what happens. The gardener steps in and says, “Wait — give me a year. I’m not ready to give up on this tree yet. I’ll give it a little TLC — dig around it, give it some fertilizer. If it produces fruit next year, fine — everybody’s happy, and if not, well, then you can cut it down.”
Wait a minute. So is this about judgment or mercy? We thought this was about cutting down the unrighteous and now Jesus wants to give them a little more time.
Just when we thought God was going to say. “There is a limit to all this sinning and some day you’ll have to answer for it.” But then we hear him saying, “But maybe not just yet.”
And we continue to be pulled in two directions at once. There is judgment, but there is a reprieve. There is time.
So, this is a God of second chances. This is a God of justice with great expectations of how we are called to holy living – but God’s justice is tempered with mercy. This is a God of grace, who reaches out with redeeming love to lift up the broken and make the last first, but God’s grace is tempered by a call for repentance.
In the end, did you notice we aren’t told what the landowner does. I thought we were. I had this picture that the extra year was given and even after reading it many times, had to go back and check. But we don’t even know that, let alone whether in a year there might be some fruit. And who knows? — it might be a good year for figs. We just don’t know.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? We don’t know.
Some time ago, our daughter sent us an email, telling us that a friend of hers had been killed in a fluke accident while motorcycling around the world to raise money and awareness for a charity. A tire on his bike blew, and he crashed. There’s not much good to say about that. Her closing line seems to say it all. “Sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair.” Don’t we know it!
When there seems to be no answer to our sorrow, maybe the best thing we can do is to go to God, who has promised to be with us, to hold us, and to weep with us in our pain. In times of crisis and despair, God’s word to us is not one of explanation, but of comfort: “My heart is breaking with yours. I’m grieving with you, and holding you close to my heart.”
Let God balance the impossible choices, of judgment and grace, of expectation and mercy. Maybe the ending of the parable is ours to write in the way we respond to God with our lives, lived in obedience to the call to repentance and in the hope that God might intervene to leave us a little more time when we need it.
We can follow as faithfully as we are able, knowing in the end that we are saved by grace. Thanks be to God.
We remind everyone that we must continue to pay our bills; in the absence of being present at Sunday worship, you may sign up for pre-authorized remittance (PAR), donate online, or drop off your offering envelope in the mailbox at the church. Do not leave a cash donation unattended in the mailbox; instead, please call the office (416.261.4037) to ensure someone will be there to receive it. The building will be checked daily for mail and phone messages. If you are not comfortable leaving an envelope, you are welcome to contact the office (once again, 416.261.4037) and someone will pick up your offering.
Dedication of our Gifts
Prayer of dedication
You have blessed us so richly, O God, that it is our desire in response to be a blessing to others. Receive these our offerings we pray, and use them to build up your church and to serve others in our community and beyond. We pray that through them your good news will continue to be announced to the world, and people will be encouraged to find their hope in you. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Prayers of Thanksgiving and Hope
We thank you, God of love, for how richly you have blessed us and filled our lives with good things. For how our daily needs are met; for opportunities and activities that enrich our lives; for the stability of our governments and peace in our land; for the blessing of family and friends; and for a church community where we can celebrate the life we have in you and the engage in the service to which you call us; for all of these we give you thanks.
And yet, as we look around us, O God, in our own neighbourhood and city we know of people whose daily experience is one of poverty, we see people who have no home or proper nourishment, we know of people who are looking for work, and trying to get by on very little, there are families in tension, and people who can’t even depend on their own home to be a safe place. For all these, guide and strengthen them, encourage them and supply their needs, we pray.
And as we look further afield, with the conflict in Ukraine, we see a people living with violence and loss, and world in tension as it tries to support them. We give thanks for their courage in the face of the danger, and pray that you would sustain them, and soon bring peace to their land. Show us how we can support them, and give us grace to reach out to help.
We pray for those who suffer, near to us and far away, and particularly good and faithful people who carry heavy burdens, face terrible disappointments, or deal with tragic circumstances. As we look for some meaning in this suffering, help us to remember that you are present with us when the way is hard, and perhaps closest when the way is the darkest. Help us always to look for a blessing that we can find from you, and to remain faithful in all circumstances.
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and follow in his steps, that we may become instruments of your saving love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
“We lay our broken world in sorrow at your feet” (Book of Praise 1997, hymn 202). Words (1985) by Anna Briggs (1947–). Music (tune: “Garelochside”) by Scottish music teacher Kenneth G. Finlay (1882–1974). Words copyright © 1985 Iona Community (Scotland). Used by permission of G.I.A Publications Inc. Music copyright © Broomhill Church of Scotland, Glasgow.
Commissioning and Benediction
Now may the God of hope fill you with all fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all, now and forever.
- “Go Now in Peace”. Words by American educator, lyricist and composer Don Besig (1936–) and American lyricist Nancy Price (1958–). Music by Don Besig. Words and music copyright © 1988 Harold Flammer Music, a division of Shawnee Press.
- Performed by Rachelle Risling (keyboard) and the GCPC Senior Choir. Audio and video production by Rachelle Risling.
- Audio and video recording copyright © 2021 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
Copyright © 2022 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church
Last updated 2022-04-01 – Removed One License permissions. No One License permissions needed this week as service was not recorded for re-use or live-streamed.