Sermon 3 Lent, Yr C, 11/03/2007

3 Lent Yr C, 11/03/2007

Lk 13:1-9

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Another Chance”

 

Cause and effect, everything can be rationally explained and understood, if God is just, then the world ultimately operates on just principles because God made it, you get what you work for and deserve, nothing more, nothing less. Such statements are common creedal-like beliefs of many people. In today’s gospel, Jesus is addressing people who think and live this way. He’s basically telling them they’re wrong.

Jesus is asked about the tragedy of some Galileans who were killed by Pilate while they were sacrificing in the temple. Pilate, that cruel and treacherous tyrant, mixed their blood with those of the sacrifice, thereby asserting Roman authority over the Jews—even in their most holy of places. Jesus asks the audience: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Then he goes on to answer the question: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Without any recorded response from the audience, Jesus goes on to cite another example of tragic, unexpected death in Jerusalem: “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Once again, Jesus repeats the same answer as before, emphasising the importance of his audience to look at themselves honestly and repent today while there is still time to do so, rather than judge those who died a sudden, tragic death.

In other words, Jesus was making the same point as the book of Job made centuries earlier, and Jesus himself makes again elsewhere in the Gospel of John chapter nine, concerning the man born blind. Jesus is saying that his audience is definitely wrong if they think that those murdered Galileans and those eighteen killed by the falling towing of Siloam got what they deserved because God was punishing them for their sins. No! Jesus says that is not the case. Job was not punished for his sins, he was a righteous man. Neither was the man born blind because he or his parents had sinned. No.

Jesus does not embark on any attempt to give an answer in terms of philosophy to the problem of pain any more than he gives us any philosophical arguments for the existence of God. We have to recognise that there are some questions that are ultimately unanswerable because of the limitations of the human mind. Why some should be afflicted with incurable diseases and others not, why some should go through life trouble free and die at a ripe old age peacefully in their beds, while others are untimely snatched from life both in peace and war, to such problems we may one day know the answer, but certainly not in this world.1

However, Jesus rather than giving a philosophical rationale for these events makes a point in the form of both a warning and an invitation to repent. Life can be short and unpredictable. This might be our last day here on earth. Make the most of it while you still have the time and opportunity. Turn away from your sin and return to the LORD your God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

It’s not some superstitious thing you know; it’s not the notion that if I repent, then I’ll be protected from a tragic, unexpected death—although I might, but not due to the repentance so much as to the grace of God providing me with life. Rather, what Jesus is saying here in his warning and invitation to repent, is that what really matters is our relationship with God and one another. When we repent, we return to God, we return to a healthy relationship with God, trusting him, his love, and forgiveness. As a result, we can also return to new and healthier relationships with others too, for now we can love and forgive them too. It’s about relationship, for even if we die suddenly, even if terrible things happen to us, we can be at peace, and yes, die in peace, trusting in God.

Jesus then tells his audience an agricultural parable of a barren fig tree. The parable does indeed lend itself to an allegorical interpretation. The man, i.e. the owner of the fig tree and the vineyard may refer to God. The barren fig tree may refer to each of us as sinners. The vineyard may refer to the Church. The gardener may refer to Jesus. The three years may even refer to the time of Jesus’ ministry here on earth.

At any rate, what we have here is a debate within God’s Self as to whether or not to cut the barren tree down right now after giving it three years to produce fruit and it didn’t or whether to give the tree another chance, another year in which to bear fruit. There seems to be a tension, a conflict within God’s Self whether God’s judgement or God’s grace shall prevail—cut it down, no wait one more year.

Who knows what amazing things can happen if the gardener digs around the tree; fertilizes it with some manure; lets the rain and sunlight do their work—maybe it will produce fruit.

Thomas G. Long tells a story that was told him by Seward Hiltner about the state-run mental hospital where truly hopeless cases were relegated to a back ward. The psychiatrists and other medical staff avoided this ward, making only the bare minimum of calls and writing off the patients there as unsalvageable. Then a women’s group from a local church began, as a matter of compassion, to visit the patients in this hospital. No one bothered to tell them that the patients in the back ward were abandoned cases, so they visited them regularly, bringing flowers, fresh baked cookies, prayer, cheerfulness and mercy. Before long, some of the patients began to respond, a few of them even becoming healthy enough to move to other wards.2 It is amazing what some time well spent with love and grace can accomplish! Another chance, another year, can make all the difference in the world.

Do you remember another chance in your life? Do you remember another chance when perhaps someone saved you in the water when you were drowning and fighting for your life? How grateful you were to that person at the time.

Do you remember another chance when you developed a chronic health problem? The doctor advised surgery and therapy, you agreed, and the congregation remembered you in your prayers. By the grace of God you got through the surgery and therapy and those prayers lifted your spirits, now you are well again.

Do you remember that time when the professor said that’s it, time is up, hand in your paper? Then, after you met with the professor and shared your struggles, she said, “I’ll give you another chance, hand the paper in next week.” You were surprised and delighted, and you passed the course with flying colours.

It is most instructive that in verse eight the gardener employs a Greek word, aphes, loaded with meaning. In English it is translated “let it alone.” However, in Greek, it can also mean: allow, permit, suffer, pardon, and forgive.3 So it is that in Christ, there is forgiveness, even in the midst of our barrenness. Even when we fail to produce fruit, Christ comes to us, nurtures and cares for us, and gently, lovingly awakens new life and new growth in us.

As we journey with Jesus to the cross, we discover how his aphes—his forgiveness, his suffering, his pardon is offered freely in this greatest example of love ever known to humankind. Jesus is the Saviour of another chance. Throughout his public ministry this is one of his major themes. When others write off folks different than themselves with a word of judgement; Jesus comes to them with open arms and gives them another chance—offering grace and forgiveness and new life.

It is interesting that the parable of the fig tree does not end a year later. Rather, it leaves us hanging, wondering. Did the owner of the vineyard agree to leave the fig tree standing for another year or have it cut down? We don’t know. Did the fig tree produce fruit after it was given another chance to do so? We don’t know that either. Why this open-endedness? Well, I believe that it goes back to one of the points Jesus made earlier—namely, don’t judge others. Rather, look honestly and openly at yourself. Then, rejoice in the freedom of Christ’s forgiveness as he provides you with another chance to repent and follow him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. Amen.

 

1 Wm. Neil, What Jesus Really Meant (London & Oxford: Mowbrays, 1975), p. 94.

2 Cited by Thomas G. Long, “Breaking and Entering (Luke 13:1-9)” in The Christian Century, March 7, 2001, p. 11, as posted at <www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2165>.

3 See e.g. Robert Farrar Capon’s, The Parables Of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), pp. 95ff., especially p. 96, for his well articulated, grace-oriented take on this parable.

 

 

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About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: dimlamp.wordpress.com gwh photos: gwhphotos.wordpress.com

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