Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lent 3, Series C

Sermon on Luke 13:1-9
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 3, 2013 (Third Sunday in Lent)

Back in 2001, I’m sure all of you remember the massive destruction that took place in New York City as a result of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 of that year.  Now, there were some well-known televangelists who said that these attacks were the punishment of God on the United States for its toleration of homosexuality and other sins, and they were rightly criticized and condemned for saying that.  Disasters, both natural and man-made, happen all the time in this old, messed up world, and for the most part you can’t draw any sort of connection between a disaster and the sin of its victims.  Otherwise we would have to conclude that the victims of the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear meltdown in Japan almost two years ago were also worse sinners than the rest of humanity as well, and that’s just not the case.

In our text this morning, our Lord discusses two disasters that took place in His own day:  Pilate murdered several Galileans while they were offering their sacrifices in the temple, and  also an old tower in Jerusalem which collapsed and fell on eighteen bystanders, killing them instantly.  The people who asked Jesus about these disasters thought that the victims were probably worse sinners than average, and therefore the disaster was a punishment sent by God.  However, these disasters were far more than that.  They were warnings for us.

Jesus himself said in our text, “unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  Those who died in those disasters weren’t any worse sinners than those who asked Jesus about these things.  They weren’t any worse sinners than we are, either.  Jesus’ warning applies to us as well: “repent, or you too will all perish.”  We are all sinners by nature.  Our hearts, our souls, and our minds have been corrupt since the day we were conceived.  Even notorious, gross sinners such as pornographers, abortionists and other murderers, thieves, adulterers, homosexuals, and so on are only showing the symptoms of the same inherited sinful condition we all share.  If they need to repent of their sins, so do we.  Before God, their sins and our own are equally offensive.

But what does that mean, to repent?  Most people think that it means to “turn over a new leaf,” to improve our behavior in order to turn God’s anger away from us.  By nature we think that if we stop doing whatever it was that caused God to be angry with us in the first place, He will no longer be angry with us.  What we forget, however, is that when we are slack in our love toward God or our neighbor, or when we perhaps commit gross sins, we are only showing the symptoms of the disease of original sin.  No mere resolution to stop sinning will remove this disease from us.  Any “repentance” we produce leaves us firmly in sin’s power, and is bound to be temporary in any case.  True repentance is the life-long denial of our natural selves, with all our natural desires and longings.  As Martin Luther said in the first of his 95 Theses, “the entire life of believers [is] to be one of repentance.”  Repentance is thinking of ourselves as belonging to someone else, namely God.

When you look at it this way, a one-time resolution to “turn over a new leaf” is the exact opposite of repentance.  When I make a decision to fix some aspect of my life, that aspect of my life is still in my control rather than God’s.  Such a decision may in fact be deadly to true repentance because it causes our own pride to grow until there is no room for God.  True repentance, true reliance on God, cannot be a decision we make, a “turning point” in our lives that we bring about.  Anything we do, anything we decide on our own, is a denial of genuine repentance and an insult to God.

To illustrate the importance of true repentance, Jesus then tells a parable about a barren fig tree.  This tree had been standing in a certain vineyard for years, and had never borne any fruit.  The owner of the vineyard had every right to expect this tree to bear fruit, and yet it continued living without fulfilling its purpose.  This is a vivid picture of what we look like to God under the effects of original sin.  We are fruitless, barren, selfish creatures.  We consume God’s gifts of food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, yet fail to thank Him or act as His hands to give them to others.  The owner said to the gardener in the parable, “Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?”  God could very well say about us, “Why should these creatures of Mine keep using what I have given them for their own selfish purposes?  Why should they take up space in My creation?  Cut them down!”

Thankfully, however, this is not the only picture of God in this parable.  The gardener in the parable also represents God.  But he presents us with a very different picture of God than the owner did.  While the owner gives us a picture of God as He appears to us apart from Christ, the gardener gives us a picture of God as we know Him in Christ, the God who loved the world so much that He sent His Son to die on the cross in our place.  This is a picture of Christ who stands as our High Priest and pleads with the Father on our behalf.  “Leave it alone for one more year,” he says.  Every day God continues to grant us life on this earth, giving us the blessings we need for body and soul, is evidence of God’s grace.

But did the gardener simply leave the tree alone for a year and see if it would bear fruit on its own?  Of course not.  It had borne no fruit for three years; why should it suddenly start bearing fruit now?  Trees can’t hear human conversations and human threats.  Instead, the gardener feeds and waters the tree.  He goes out of the way to make sure the tree receives what it needs to bear good fruit.  He digs around the tree and fertilizes the ground.  He makes sure the tree has plenty of everything it needs to be healthy and to produce the fruit that it was created to produce.

God does the same for us.  He has connected us with the streams of living water in Holy Baptism, and He continues to give us that water of life through Holy Absolution.  God gives us His Word, in which we hear the promises of a Savior sent to take away our sins, and the fulfillment of those promises.  When the Word is preached, we are strengthened and fortified to live repentantly our whole lives, relying in faith on God who has promised us every blessing.  He gives us His Word as food to nourish us on our journey through this life.

The gardener put forth a lot of time and effort in order to make sure the tree had enough nutrients to put forth fruit.  But what our Lord does for us is infinitely greater.  He gives us His own body to eat and His own blood to drink.  The body that was hung on that cross to die for us and the blood which was shed for us have become our meat and drink, which gives us the strength and stamina we need to bring forth our fruit: a repentant life in His presence.  Since He conquered death by dying, His risen body and blood are now our antidote to eternal death.  If this food gives us eternal life itself, it will certainly sustain us for a repentant life in this world.  The fruit of the tree of the cross, Christ’s own body and blood, now enables us to bear fruit for Him and His kingdom.  And we do bear that fruit as we serve our neighbor out of love, each of us within his own calling in life.  Through our loving service God serves those around us and thus we become fruitful trees in God’s vineyard.

God had mercy on the barren fig tree by allowing it to stand another year.  Every year we are granted in this life is a gift from God, since He would be well within His rights to cut us all down right now.  We live here on this earth solely by His grace, and because of His mercy.  Everything we have is an undeserved gift of God, just as the tree in Jesus’ parable did not deserve the extra year the gardener gave it.  But our blessings extend even further than that.  Not only are we allowed to continue in this world, but when we eventually do die to this life we will be gathered into eternal life.  God has given us far more than an extra year to live.  He has given us an eternity to thankfully receive His gifts to us and to sing His praises.  The spiritual food and drink we receive in the Word and Sacraments does far more than cause us to be fruitful during our lives here.  This food grants us eternal life itself.  It is the medicine of immortality.  It is itself the fruit of the tree of life.  Come, let us eat and drink, and so live forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

No comments:

Post a Comment