Sunday, March 7, 2010
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent (March 7, 2010)
“Faultfinding and Fruitless Fig Trees” (Luke 13:1-9)
Faultfinding is our natural tendency when we see something bad happen to someone. “They must have done something to deserve that,” we think to ourselves.
This is not new. That was the tendency for the people in Jesus’ day. Perhaps that’s why some people mentioned this incident where Pilate evidently put some Galileans to death. St. Luke writes that the people told Jesus about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Pilate apparently had ordered them to be killed right in the middle of their worship service. Why were they slaughtered in such a way? The Bible doesn’t tell us. History tells us that Galilee was a region that was in the forefront of the fight against Roman rule. So, perhaps Pilate had this group put to death to make an example of them. The response of those who heard about this may have asked, “What did they do to deserve this? They were good, god-fearing people! They must have done something to deserve such treatment!”
Jesus then brings up another incident. The tower of Siloam was a stone tower built near the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem. For some reason, the tower had collapsed and killed eighteen individuals. Here again, the tendency would be to ask, “What did they do to deserve this? They were simply innocent bystanders. Or maybe they weren’t so innocent after all. Perhaps God is punishing them for something.”
Faultfinding when something bad happens is still a strong tendency even today. TV preacher and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson always seems to make headlines when disasters occur. He blamed 9-11 on America’s immorality. He blamed the devastation in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina on the debauchery of Bourbon Street. Following the earthquake in Haiti last month, he pronounced that Haiti had made some sort of pact with the devil with its voodoo practices, and God was getting back at them. I haven’t heard what he’s said about how God feels about the people in Chile and the recent earthquake there. I’m sure he has some strong opinions about it. About the quake in Haiti, I think Pastor Matt Harrison had a better take on it than Robertson. In a letter to Lutheran World Relief, Harrison wrote, “…Pat Robertson suggested that Haiti had some deep dark sin in its past, which brought this curse. In God's inverted, cruciform economy, where a sinless Son of God suffers for the unrighteous, I rather think this is God's shaking of us sinners in the U.S., for ignoring our impoverished brothers and sisters, also brothers and sisters in the faith in Haiti. Lord have mercy.”
Faultfinding is usually a fruitless task. We live in a fallen world, with all of its sinful conditions, and that means that “bad things” will happen. You can count on it. In particular, death happens. Violent deaths in the case of the Galileans. Accidental deaths in the case of those upon whom the tower of Siloam fell. But bad things that happen to us, including death, are not necessarily the result of any specific sinful action on our part. We cannot always point the finger of blame at others or ourselves. As Jesus said, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you … Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No I tell you.” Or we might ask today, “Were all those people in Haiti or Chile who died worse sinners than the rest of the residents of those regions?” Our Lord’s answer would be the same: “No, I tell you.”
The point that Jesus is making in our text is that the tragedies we see happening around us are reminders that repentance is necessary. Were those who died worse sinners than everyone else? No. But then Jesus quickly adds, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Repentance is necessary because the wages of sin is death. We are all sinners. Therefore we have earned our wages well. Each one of us deserves death, no matter how it comes our way. We don’t really deserve good things in life, as Luther puts it in his explanation to the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “We daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.”
This goes against what most people think. Many people believe the song from The Sound of Music, where Captain von Trapp and Maria fall in love with each other, look tenderly into each other’s eyes, and sing, “Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.”
Certainly, good things do happen to us, thanks be to God. Our lives are not normally one tragedy after another. The good things we do receive – that which God gives us to support our body and life – are gifts of God’s grace, “purely out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” (from Luther’s explanation to the First Article of the Creed)
And part of God’s fatherly divine goodness and mercy is that he is patient with us and gives us the opportunity to turn from our sin and to turn to him in faith. That’s what we call repentance.
But we should never presume on God’s patience, like those who wait until they are near death to repent of their sin and turn to God in faith. St. Augustine had this to say about deathbed repentance: “There is one case of deathbed repentance recorded – that of the penitent thief, that none should despair; and only one that none should presume.” (unknown reference; quoted in Illustrations Unlimited, p. 440)
The Israelites in today’s Epistle lesson are described as having presumed on God’s patience. They had seen God’s rescue and tasted the Lord’s goodness. He called Moses to lead them out of captivity in Egypt. Yet they worshiped other gods, engaged in sexual immorality, tested the Lord, and grumbled. All those who were unfaithful and unrepentant were put to death before they entered the Promised Land. St. Paul writes, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did … these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11)
Now all this may seem rather harsh. But think of it this way. If someone came crashing into your house in the middle of the night yelling “Fire! Fire!” you might be startled and a bit angry that your sleep was so rudely, harshly, and unpleasantly disturbed. But then, once the fuzziness of having just woken up wears off, and after sniffing the air and smelling smoke, you would quickly jump out of bed and find a way of escape. Would you then complain about that harsh cry, since that was the means by which your life was saved?
In the same way, the words of Jesus here – “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” – may at first seem stern and severe. But they are the means by which your life is saved. They are harsh words, but there is love behind them. As the Lord said to the prophet Ezekiel, “As I live, declares the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (Ezek. 33:11)
Jesus’ words tell us that faultfinding is a fruitless task, but that repentance is a necessary part of receiving his life-giving forgiveness. Next, Jesus goes on to tell us about another fruitless task. He tells the parable of the fruitless fig tree. A man had the fruitless task of waiting three years for a fig tree to bear fruit. But it never did. Three years is plenty of time for a tree to at least give one fig. So he told the caretaker of the vineyard that three years of waiting is enough. It’s time to cut it down. It’s only using up precious soil. But the caretaker replied to the man, “Let’s give it one more year. I’ll dig around some more and fertilize it. Then let’s see what happens.”
The parable initially applied to the people of Israel. God’s people in the Old Testament were often compared to a vineyard that he had planted. God was patient in dealing with them and their stubborn hearts. He sent the prophets to call them back to him, so that they might bear the fruit of faith. Finally, he sent his Son to them. Except for a remnant who remained faithful, the rest were fruitless, without repentant trust in the Savior.
Although the parable of the fruitless fig tree initially applied to the people of Israel, it applies to all people today. The parable teaches us that there is still time to repent. It is by Christ’s intercession that we still have time. God is so very patient in dealing with us. He sent his Son for us, too. Jesus went to the cross for us, and we might rightly ask, “What did he do to deserve this?”
Even Pilate, the one who had put those Galileans to death, when the crowd was crying out for the death of Jesus, asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” (Matt. 27:23)
And that deathbed penitent, the thief on the cross, got it right, too. He said to the thief hanging on the other side of Jesus, “…we are receiving the due rewards of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:41)
Jesus had done nothing wrong. He was completely innocent. In every way … not just outwardly according to the law of the land, but also according to the Law of God. As he hung there on the cross, he was getting what WE deserve … so that we might receive what we do NOT deserve, but that God gives to us out of his grace and mercy: life, forgiveness, and salvation.
And like the caretaker of the vineyard, he digs around our hardened hearts through his powerful Word. He waters us in Holy Baptism. He feeds us with the nourishing bread of his Word and his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. Through these means, God leads us to use the time we have on this side of heaven to bring forth the fruits of repentance … turning away from our sins, fixing our eyes on Jesus, trusting in our loving Father’s saving mercy through his Son, with hearts full of gratitude that respond to God’s love with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.