There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 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; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ” ” (Luke 13:1–9, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Recently one of those television preachers said that Haiti suffered its earthquake because they made a deal with the devil to get rid of the French. The story goes, according to this preacher, they wanted to end French occupation so they prayed to Satan to kick them out. He did and that’s how they got Voodoo. This is the kind of thing that these folks were taking to Jesus. We’re not exactly sure what happed to these Galileans, but it seems they had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and were killed by Roman soldiers, maybe even in the temple. It is a terrible thing. And Jesus brings up another example. Others were killed when a tower fell. The question was the same. Lord, what caused this? What kind of sinful people were these that died so horribly? What they were looking for was a reason for the problem, a reason for bad luck and random death. They wanted to know what these folks did to deserve the death that they got. They must have been terrible sinners. It is a natural thought. But Jesus has a different idea. No, he says. These folks weren’t any worse than anyone else. And in fact, you all deserve the same fate! Ouch! That’s not what we want to hear. That doesn’t even sound like Jesus, does it? After all we kinda think Jesus walks around all day with a smile on his face, feeding people, healing people, holding their hand… these words make Jesus sound, well, not nice! Certainly he’s not speaking to us! Maybe he’s talking to the drug addicts, drunks, and child molesters out there, but not to his people. Not to people who willingly give up their Sunday morning to sit in the pews here at church. Not to people who drop their hard earned money in the collection plate. Is he?
Well, yes. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying. Actually, the parable at the end really puts the fine point on it. The owner of the vineyard has every right to expect fruit from the fig tree. But year after year he gets none. No one would complain about him axing it. He has the right to expect that things he plants will produce fruit. But it doesn’t. The amazing thing is he doesn’t destroy it. The gardener actually tells him to wait. I’ll tend it some more and see what happens. Perhaps with some care it will produce. Amazingly the owner relents. This is what’s amazing about the world, too. That God hasn’t destroyed it. Even though the news is full of rotten fruit; people kill each other over a trifle; children starve to death while powerful men do nothing; people who speak out about God’s clear will for the world are shouted down and called bigots. And personally, you and me, well our sins seem smaller, but they are sins just the same. We fail to help when help is needed. We push our needs and wants ahead of everyone else. And what is worse is that the people we most often hurt are those who live in our own house. So much for family love. In fact, every day we have that God waits to destroy the world is a gift; a gift to change. That’s what Jesus says after all. Repent. Unless you repent you (all) will perish. Now he’s not really agreeing with the television preacher. The folks in Haiti are no worse sinners than we are. What he is saying is that judgment happens. Every earthquake, tsunami, construction accident, car crash, illness and death is a picture of the world’s deserved judgment for sin, and yours and mine. Now is the time for you and me and the world, as Jesus says, to repent.
There’s that word repent. Tragedies like the tower of Siloam (or the Haiti, Chile earthquake) and Pilate’s heinous crime against the Jews (or the World Trade Center) don’t show us their sin but show us all the need for repentance. But here’s the thing. You can’t just change what you do on the outside. That’s not really repentance. The word literally means to change your mind. And this is the real nub of the problem. We must be different people than we are, not in actions, but in heart. Changing what we do is like dipping a bucket into the ocean over and over again and expecting to get to the bottom of sea. The deepest problem with sin isn’t in the doing. The problem with sin is in the heart. We sin because we are sinners. With Jesus word repent he lays the ax at the root of the tree. Good fruit only comes from good trees and we know, because Jesus tells us so, that we are not good trees.
But, Jesus’ parable shows us that God is mercy. Actually, he has already taken care of sin. He doesn’t ignore it like some forgetful grandfather. He actually does cut down the tree. The axe is laid at the foot of Jesus. And it leads him to the cross. All his life he falls under God’s judgment. Every sin he forgives, every person he heals, every mouth he feeds, every hand he holds is good work, good fruit. He is changing sin’s power over people. He brings God’s mercy where there is only suffering and death. As he goes he gathers up all that evil from everywhere and bears it in himself to the cross. If you would look at Jesus hung on the cross, bloody, beaten, suffering the pain of nails and thorns you might well ask, what kind of a sinner is this that he should deserve such and evil death. Well, the truth is Jesus dies as the worst sinner of all. He carries your sin and mine, and all the people who died at Pilate’s sword, and all the thousands who died under rubble in Haiti. The axe cuts him off. He is ignored by God, rejected to a sinner’s death. There is no mercy there, only punishment. There is no time to repent God’s anger is poured out in full. This is where God deals with sin. This is where the tree is cut down and cast out. Jesus instead of you. Jesus instead of me. Jesus hangs in our place in suffering and death.
You see, apart from Christ you must deal with God on your own for your own sin. And you can’t stand on your own. You will be cut down because your fruit is only bad. Jesus offers you, instead his punishment. And more than that he offers you his fruit. There is nothing for you to do, nothing for you to change. Jesus earns all that you need. He pays the whole price. His life lived. His death died. Given for you for the forgiveness of your sin. You see, that’s actually what repentance is. God showing you your need and giving you what you need. Nothing for you to say or do. His gift of love. His mercy in Jesus Christ.
So what about the tree, and the garden and the fruit? Well, Jesus really is showing us a picture of him at work. He tends the trees. He cultivates the soil and fertilizes and the trees bear fruit. But here’s the difference. You and I don’t need to do anything for God. God is the one who does everything for us. Through Jesus and the forgiveness he gives to us we have been changed from bad trees to good ones, so we do bear good fruit. Not stuff we do for God but stuff we do for our neighbors. They are the ones who have needs. They live in a world that is full of trouble, and pain and suffering. Jesus solves our good fruit problem, not so that we can spend our time serving God, but that we can serve our neighbor (and in the process serve God by serving our neighbor).
And when bad things happen they are our opportunity to humble ourselves and remember our place before God. We are sinners who actually deserve nothing from God, but we receive everything from him instead. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
The doctrine which proposes to make men godly by their own works is the doctrine of pagans, Reformed Jews, and Turks. It proposes to empty a great river of iniquity by continually dipping up pails of water from it and expecting to reach the bottom some time. If a river of iniquity is to be dried up, the evil source from which it springs must first be stopped up, and then pure water can be led into it. Walther, C. F. W., Dau, W. H. T., & Eckhardt, E. (2000). The proper distinction between law and gospel : 39 evening lectures (electronic ed.) (300). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.