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.' "

Gardening and grace

On July 8th 1741 Jonathan Edwards preached his most famous sermon in Connecticut Ė It was entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Edwards was a preacher at the time of the revival movement in America. Here are some parts of that sermon and you soon see that he used some very vivid imagery.

"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 . . . If you cry to God to pity you, he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment. He will not only hate you, but he will have you in the utmost contempt. 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".

Considering that the people he was preaching to were Christians not much different to the people gathered here today, this is remarkable piece of work.

What would you think if I preached a sermon like that with all the appropriate raised voice, pulpit thumping and hand waving?
You might think that the pastor 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 or God squeezing the life out of you with his foot. Itís a terror filled horror story. What chance have you got on your death-day when you will face God? In fact, we might even give it MA (Mature Adults) or R (Restricted) rating.

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. After hearing about the fire and torture that awaited the sinner, every member of the congregation would have been shaking in their shoes. For a Christian sermon his message was a little (to say the least) unbalanced. For example, he used the words "anger" and "wrath" over 60 times, the word "hell" 50 times and the name of "Christ" 6 times.

A little heavy on God's wrath and judgement and a little light on God's mercy and love but the overall message is a real wakeup call to the power of sin in our lives and the terrible effect that it has on our relationship with God. All three readings today focus on just this theme. We heard from Isaiah, "Let the wicked leave their way of life and change their way of thinking. Let them turn to the Lord, our God; he is merciful and quick to forgive" (55:7).

When Paul is writing to the Corinthians he reminds them of the sins of their forefathers as they journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land. They worshipped idols, indulged in sexual immorality, complained about God and after putting "the Lord to the test" thousands were destroyed by the Angel of Death. Sin has a devastating effect on the closeness between God and his people but in the end God's grace wins the day for those who trust in God and he will give them the strength to endure everything that will test the bond between God and us (1 Cor 10:13).

In the Gospel reading it is reported to Jesus that there were some Galileans who were worshipping at the temple, when Pontius Pilate sent in troops and killed them right then and there as they were offering sacrifices. Doesnít this kind of thing prove that those seemingly innocent people had committed some terrible sin that had affected their closeness to God and so were punished like 23,000 that died from snake bite after "an orgy of drinking and sex"?

Nothing unique with that kind of thinking.
A prostitute is murdered, her body dumped in a ditch Ė "she got what she deserved".
A teen is mugged and killed at 4am, "Well, what do you expect Ė whatís a teen doing out at that time of the night!"
AIDS Ė thatís Godís punishment for a life of sex and drugs.
They had it coming because of some sin!
What do you think, Jesus?

You can imagine the shock when Jesus replied, "Well, 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 people 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."

Jesus is giving his listeners the same warning that the preacher of the 1700s who proclaimed, "O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in. There is nothing between you and hell Ė but air." Jesus wants to impress on his listeners that sin has awful consequences when he said, "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. They are aware of their sin and have taken Jesus' warning to heart. Then Jesus says, "Listen, there was a man who planted a fig tree. Three years passed by and the man 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. It is clear how disappointed the owner is in his fig tree and that he has every right to destroy the tree that fails to bear fruit. As they listened I can imagine that they knew that Jesus wasnít just giving them a lesson in horticulture but was talking about Godís judgement on their sin.

"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" and give the tree another chance. Unlike Jonathan Edwards whose sermon was filled with graphic images of God dangling us like a spider over the fires of hell Jesus concludes his talk about sin and repentance with a story about forgiveness, generosity and kindness.

Today Jesus is telling 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. In this sense to repent becomes making ourselves acceptable to God. Repentance is an act of sheer will and true sorrow. It would be like the fig tree saying, "Leave me alone! I can bear fruit next year. Itíll just take a bit of effort on my part to pull it off". In Jesusí story, the tree does nothing. It is the gardener who puts in the effort to change the fig tree to something that will please the owner. Only then is the tree able to produce fruit.

Repentance is about relationships; an acknowledging that something has disrupted closeness and friendship.
It is a turning toward God because God 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 be faithful to the God who loves us.

Like the fig tree we are given second chances, third chances and more and it is thanks to God's grace and our reorientation to God's way by his power working in us that we can feel safe and secure in the arms of Jesus when the day comes when all people will be judged. 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, crucified 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. With the Spiritís help we simply trust in his grace. In Christ, we are made beautiful, fruitful gardens.

So, how does Jesus end his story about the fig tree and the gardener who applied the manure and dug around the tree? Did the tree bear fruit? How did the fruit tree respond to the gardenerís careful attention? We arenít told. Jesus leaves the story open-ended.

We are forced to ask ourselves,
"How have we responded to the generous application 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?
How has God's grace worked in us to the point of bearing good fruit?"
The parable clearly indicates that we, like the fig tree, have been unfruitful and not fulfilled our calling as disciples of Christ, yet in spite of our lack of faithfulness, 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 calls us to repentance and faith in Jesus our Saviour. His blood gives us new life.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
7th March 2010

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