Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent 

Text: Luke 13:6-9

Jesus told them this parable: "There was once a man who had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. He went looking for figs on it but found none. So he said to his gardener, "Look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?' But the gardener answered, "Leave it alone, sir, just one more year; I will dig around it and put in some fertilizer. Then if the tree bears figs next year, so much the better; if not, then you can have it cut down.' "

For Growth, add Manure

In 1741 a sermon was preached entitled "Sinners in the Hands of God. " Here are some parts of that sermon.

"The wrath of God burns against his enemies . . . The pit is prepared, the fire is made ready. Hell opens its mouth wide to receive them. There is nothing between you and hell Ė but air.

God holds you over the pit of death as one holds a spider or some other loathsome insect over the fire . . . for God abhors you; God is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire. O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in; it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit full of fire and wrath, that you are held over in the hands of an angry God. "

What would you think if I preached a sermon like that with all the appropriate shouting, pulpit thumping and hand waving?
You might think that Pastor Vince has finally flipped out, gone over the edge, is in need of a long holiday.
If you take it seriously, itís the stuff nightmares are made of as you imagine God dangling you like a helpless insect over the fires of hell. Itís a terror filled horror story that makes you fear God. It gives you no chance on your death-day when you will face God. In fact, we might even give it MA (Mature Adults) or R (Restricted) rating.
On the other hand, you might pass all this off as the message of some misguided preacher who got it all wrong. God isnít like that at all. He isnít an angry, judgemental, tormenting God.

I donít know how the rest of the sermon went but you are right if you are thinking that this preacher went just a bit too far in his vivid description of God and his total disgust and abhorrence of sin and the sinner. I guess in the 1700s this was a common way of bringing people to a realisation of their sin and their need to change their ways if they were to have any chance of eternal life. After hearing about the fire and torture that awaited the sinner, every member of the congregation would have fallen to their knees seeking Godís forgiveness.

In spite of the fact that the preacher overdid it somewhat compared to modern standards there is an element of truth in what he had to say. In fact, he is stating what Jesus says in our Gospel reading today.

It is reported to Jesus that there were some Galileans who were worshipping at the temple, when Pilate set in troops and killed them right then and there as they were offering sacrifices. Those who reported this wanted to know if those Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans.

Nothing unique with that kind of thinking. People get what they have coming to them, and if something bad happens, at some level, somehow, somewhere, they were asking for it. A prostitute is murdered, her body dumped in a ditch - divine retribution, some say. A young woman is attacked; "Well, what do you expect - look what she was wearing!" AIDS Ė thatís Godís punishment for a life of sex and drugs. Lots of people believe that suffering is the result of some evil that the tormented person has done (or if the victim is too young or obviously innocent, it must be the fault of parents or grandparents). What do you think, Jesus?

You can imagine the discomfort of the questioners when Jesus replied, "Well, Iíll tell you what I think, youíre wrong Ďand I tell you if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they didí" (Luke 13:3).

Jesus went on to drive home the point by referring to the headlines of the "Jerusalem Daily" that reported of a construction site accident. He asks, "What about the eighteen who were crushed when the Siloam tower in Jerusalem collapsed on them? Do you really think they were guiltier than the rest of the people living in Jerusalem? Not a chance! But rest assured that unless you repent, you will die just as they did."

Like the preacher I quoted earlier, there is no beating about the bush here. Jesus is deadly serious about the consequences of sin. He is giving a stern warning that there is no hope for those who persist in their sin. "Turn away from your sin", he is saying, "or die!" Jesus is telling his listeners that when it comes to sin, God doesnít pussy foot around.
Sin puts us in terrible danger.
Sin brings damnation.
Sin is totally intolerable to God.
Sin is disobedience to his will, rejection of the way God had designed his creation to live, turning against God and ignoring his love for us.
The wages of sin is death
Ė or as the preacher stated Ė "There is nothing between you and hell Ė but air."

Jesus is giving his listeners the same warning that the preacher of the 1700s gave when he proclaimed, "O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in". Both Jesus and the preacher want to impress on their listeners that sin has awful consequences. "I tell you that if you do not turn away from your sins, you will all die."

Jesus lets his words hang in the air and slowly scans the crowd. People are looking at their feet. "Listen" he says. "A man has a fig tree and plants it in his vineyard. (Apparently it was common for fruit trees to be planted among the vines. Itís clear this vineyard owner had a liking for figs). Three years later heís making his way up and down his vineyard, he is looking forward to the taste of a ripe fig but he sees that the fig tree still hasnít produced any fruit. He calls to his gardener, ĎHey! Get over hereí. ĎWhy is this tree still here? Itís taking up soil and moisture and everything else. Cut it down, right now.í"

Jesus pauses, his words ringing in the hot, humid air. The power of his last words has cut you deeply. You acknowledge how disappointed the owner must have been in his fig tree and that he has every right to destroy the tree that fails to bear fruit. You also know, somehow, deep inside, that Jesus is not talking about a fig tree in this story. Heís talking about you. Heís talking about Godís judgement on your sin.

Jesus takes a breath and continues. "Leave it alone for one more year, the gardener pleads, and Iíll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year fine! If not, then cut it down."

And with that, Jesus ends his story of the fig tree leaving his listeners to ponder the generosity, the patience, the grace of the gardener. They are struck by the words of the gardener when he says "Leave it alone". He is asking the owner to "forgive" (the Greek word here has this meaning). They know now that Jesus wasnít simply telling a story about a fig tree but he was talking about God and the way he forgives us even though we donít deserve such generosity and kindness.

Today Jesus firstly tells us to turn away from our sin, repent or we will die. Some have wrongly misunderstood repentance as a matter of straightening out our lives and avoiding certain wrong behaviour. To repent then is to lift oneís self up to a proper moral level. In that way, we make ourselves acceptable to God. The pitfall of this kind of thinking is that if we can do this through an act of sheer will, then what need do we have of God? Clearly, this isnít what Jesus is talking about.

Repentance is relational. It is a turning toward God who has already turned toward us. It is a new orientation to God who has already broken into our lives with his love and grace. It is a turning away from disobedience and sin towards the God who has dealt with us so graciously through his Son. Repentance is returning to our Father who has been waiting for us to come home. That will involve a change in our lives as we seek to live be faithful to the God who loves us.

Everyday we are inclined to want to break the relationship that God has with us and to turn our back on the way he wants us to be as his children. We are like the fig tree that fails to produce good fruit. Thank God for the patience and grace of the gardener.

Jesus gives himself for us. He becomes the manure, the fertiliser for us as he is rejected, laughed at, crucifies as a criminal. On the cross, nails, thorn-spikes and spear dig into him. He waters the ground with his own blood. He does everything. We do nothing. We simply trust in his grace. In Christ, we are made beautiful, fruitful gardens.

Well, how does Jesus end his story about the fig tree and the gardener who applied fertiliser and dug around the tree? Did the tree bear fruit? How effective was the manure? We arenít told. Jesus leaves it open-ended.

This parable forces us to ask ourselves, "How have we responded to the overdose of God's grace? How have we responded to the care and love that Jesus has shown for us when he gave his life on the cross so that we might have life." The parable makes it quite clear that we have been unfruitful, unfaithful, yet in spite of our lack of fidelity, God is faithful. We are given one chance after another to respond to God's Word, to bear the fruit of the Christian life. How have we responded to the manure of Godís grace? There is still time, time to repent, time to change.

A couple were visiting Innsbruck, Austria and noticed the unbelievably beautiful red geraniums growing all along the front of an inn. What beautiful red flowers! How do you do it? What kind of fertiliser do you use? they asked the landlady.

"Blood", she replied. "My husband brings a gallon of blood from the slaughter house each week. These flowers grow best with blood."

Jesus gave his blood for us on the cross. His blood became fertiliser for us to enable us to grow into Godís children every day, and to bear the fruit of love. His blood saves us. His blood gives us new life.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
18th March, 2001

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