Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent (March 3, 2013)

Wordle: Untitled
Text: Luke 13:1-9

My wife has always said that if she had the choice, she would live in a place without any disasters. The Midwest and the South are out because of tornadoes. The Deep South is out because of hurricanes. Here on the West Coast we have earthquakes … not to mention a couple of volcanoes in our backyard. So where can we go to escape the potential for calamity? Montana, perhaps? Maybe Wyoming? Utah? You hardly ever hear about natural disasters occurring in those places. Myself, I would pick Arizona. Sun. Warm. Spring Training.

Realistically, my wife knows … and we all know … that disaster can strike anywhere, anytime. It may be something caused by the fallen creation in which we live. Tsunamis in Japan. Superstorms on the East Coast. It may be something brought about by fallen man … either by accident or by criminal activity. Multiple car pileups on ice-covered expressways. Mentally ill gunmen terrorizing movie theatres and elementary schools. Where is God in all of this? Skeptics say he's either impotent or uncaring. Christians know to find God in the heart of suffering, even as the Son of God entered into suffering at the cross to save us from our sins. “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence Faith sees a smiling face” (LSB 765:2). Apart from the cross, this is difficult, next to impossible, for humans to believe. Through the lens of the cross, we know we have a loving God even in the midst of the most heinous, unexplainable tragedies. And peering through the door of the empty tomb, we know that Christ has triumphed over sin, suffering, and death … and shares that triumph with us in Holy Baptism and the preaching of Good Friday and Easter.
Jesus discusses two tragedies in today’s Gospel lesson. We don’t know the exact details of these events other than their record here. Evidently, they were fairly recent events familiar to the hearers. The first was an act of religious persecution. Some Galilean Jews were in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the temple, probably for the Passover feast. For some reason, the Roman governor Pilate sent troops in to murder these Galileans while they were at worship and thereby “mingled” their blood “with their sacrifices.” The second event was a tragic accident. A tower near the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem toppled over and fell on a group of people, killing eighteen.

Our Lord then gives a stern warning: “Unless you repent, you will all in the same way perish.” Jesus teaches us first to refrain from judging the ones upon whom tragedy falls. The Gentiles who were killed by Pilate may have been judged by the hearers as somehow deserving of their fate. They must have done something wrong. And the Judeans upon whom the tower fell … well, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, people would be tempted to think “Did they do something to deserve this?” That line of thinking was very common in those days. It still may cross our minds today.

Jesus says that kind of thinking is pointless. Those struck by tragedy are not worse sinners than anyone else. Instead, consider your own sin at times like these. Judge yourself as one who deserves God’s judgment. Don’t automatically assume that because you are a nice, friendly, church-going person that you are exempt from terrible things happening to you. And because terrible things can happen to us unexpectedly, it is all the more important to not be complacent and put God to the test, as the Israelites did in the wilderness … as described in today’s Epistle reading. They chased after other gods. They engaged in sexual immorality. They complained and “grumbled” against Yahweh. Many of them died in the wilderness because of their sin. So St. Paul writes, “Now 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. Therefore let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:11-12).

When disaster and tragedy strike, use these events to examine your own life and your own readiness to face your Maker.  Hear the words of our Lord, “Unless you repent, you too will likewise perish.”  To repent, remember, means to change your mind … to have contrition or sorrow over your sin … to grieve over offending God … to turn away from your sin and to turn to God in faith and trust.  Death is God’s judgment over sin in general, not because of something specific you have done.  We are all going to die at one time or another.  But our Lord’s warning here is about eternal death.  It’s about perishing without recognizing your own sin and your need to repent.  Death in this condition brings eternal death … eternal condemnation … eternal judgment.

God is serious about sin and repentance. But he is also graciously patient with us. That’s what the parable of the fig tree is all about. It had plenty of time to produce fruit. Three years from the time it came to maturity and was able to produce fruit. But no figs. The owner of the vineyard in which the tree had been planted wanted to cut it down. Throw it away. But the vinedresser pleads for more time, and it is granted.

God was giving Jerusalem and her citizens a bit more time to repent of their sins and turn in faith and trust to Jesus the Messiah. Even after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Jerusalem had about 40 more years to acknowledge Jesus as Savior. But they did not. And the city and the temple were leveled by the Romans.

In the same way, God gives people today more time to repent of their sins and to turn in faith and trust to Jesus. He says in today’s reading from Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). Each breath a person takes is another moment of grace. Each day the Lord delays his Second Coming is another moment of grace. Yet no one knows exactly when their last breath will be or when Christ will visibly return. At that time, it will be too late to repent. The Lord delays, but we must not. St. Paul wrote, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). And the Psalmist declares, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7-8).

This also reminds me of an apple tree that my grandpa once planted at their home in the mountains … probably not the best growing conditions for an apple tree.  But he planted it nonetheless and carefully tended that tree year after year.  He built up the soil around it to contain the water when he watered it.  He would stand there with the hose and diligently soak the dirt.  He fertilized it appropriately.  And each year after the blossoms were finished he would patiently wait and inspect it for any evidence of fruit.  My dad finally decided to play a trick on grandpa.  One night he went out and tied one little store-bought apple to the tree.  Grandpa looked out the window the next day and got all excited … until he realized the truth.  We all had a good laugh.  Grandpa was a good sport.  But I think by that time, he had pretty much had it with that pitiful little apple tree.  It was time to cut it down.  It was just taking up precious space in the soil.  Grandpa was just wasting his time.

You can’t fool God with the type of fruit you display. It’s possible to appear to the world like you are a good person, doing all sorts of nice things for others, thinking that in this way you will escape God’s judgment and deserve eternal life. But if those works do not organically grow from a heart full of faith in the Savior, then it’s only like counterfeit fruit tied on to grandpa’s tree. Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). The true fruit of repentance is a heart that grieves offending God, loves his commandments, desires to amend its sinful life and entrusts itself completely to his grace in the crucified Christ.

Moreover, God doesn’t see himself as wasting his time with you. If he thought that you were a waste of time, he would never have sent his Son to die for you. But you are valuable to him. He loves you. He is not finished with you yet. He continues to dig around, working the soil of your heart, plowing up the hard ground, nourishing it with his Word of Law and Gospel, calling you to a life of repentant trust in Christ.

Those Galileans and Judeans perished inside the city of Jerusalem. Jesus perished outside Jerusalem, like so much refuse that was thrown out of the city. Like a barren fig tree that produced no fruit and was cut down. Jesus became like a barren, fruitless fig tree, cut down under the wrath of God, suffering the punishment you and I deserve for our fruitless, sinful hearts.

And now Christ’s cross becomes a life-giving, fruitful tree for you. From his cross flows his saving blood that covers over your sin and forgives you. His cross bears the true, nourishing fruit of his body and blood that we eat and drink in the Holy Supper. From the preaching of the cross, the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of true repentance and true faith in your heart. And in this way, God plants you, nurtures you, and causes you to bear good fruit in the vineyard of his Holy Church.


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