3rd Sunday in Lent
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, In 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit southeast America and became the costliest natural disaster of U.S. History and caused the death of some 1,836 people and many others injured. In September 2001 a group of terrorists attacked the World Trade Center killing some 3,000 people and untold damage. In August of 2007 the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed killing 13 people and injuring some 111 more. In April 2011 for 4 days 358 tornadoes tore through southern, midwestern, and northern U.S. leaving some 324 people dead and over 11 billion dollars of damage. In July of last year in Aurora, CO a mass murderer shot and killed 12 people and injured many others while they were simply watching a movie at the theater. And of course last December, 28 people died in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school while they were simply teaching or attending school. That’s just a small sampling of some of the tragedies and catastrophes that have happened in America in about the last 12 years!
This phenomenon of people dying by the cruelty of others or by a natural phenomenon is nothing new to our world. It’s been happening since the fall into sin and will continue to happen until the end of time. And as we see in our text this morning, it’s also something that happened during Jesus’ earthly ministry as well. So, how do we deal with these times of crisis, tragedy, and accident? What is to be our reaction to sudden loss and death?
Just before our text Jesus told the people he was teaching that they were mentally capable of interpreting the signs of weather. In other words when you see a massive dark cloud getting closer and closer, you know there is a storm coming. But with regard to the things of life and spiritual understanding they were completely oblivious. Well, at that very time some came to Jesus and told him about some Galileans. The Galileans were people who lived in the northern part of Israel, the same territory where Jesus spent his growing up years. Apparently, the Galileans were known as being sort of hot-headed and nationalistic and were often involved in some sort of political action against the hated Romans who were occupying their territory. Well, it seems that at some religious festival they were in Jerusalem offering their sacrifices and Pilate had his men go into the temple and kill them and in so doing mixing their own blood with their sacrifices. So now the question: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners because they suffered such a terrible fate? Do you think the fact that they were even in the temple of all places and were killed a specific judgment from God for some heinous sin they committed?
Then Jesus added another account. “Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them-do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” This tower of Siloam was apparently located in southeast Jerusalem and for whatever reason- be it age or disrepair- just happened to fall on 18 people and kill them. Here there’s really no human agent involved. So what? Was this, too, a divine punishment from God for some special sin they committed? Jesus answered both of these the same way: “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish!”
God has a reason and a purpose for everything that He does or allows to be done on earth. We, however, are neither privy nor able nor invited by him to always understand exactly what his purposes are. Certainly bad things happen as consequences of sin in the world, but it goes too far to say that some individual is being punished for some specific sin. Rather, as far as these incidents are concerned- and everyone like them- we are to see in them God’s call to repent. Yes, these sudden and unexpected incidents caused physical death, but if you don’t repent in time you will face something much worse than mere physical death: eternal death in hell.
Then Jesus went on to tell a parable- a story with everyday things that we relate to that illustrate a spiritual truth. There was a man who owned a vineyard. Now as the owner he had some exclusive rights, right? It was his vineyard, it was his soil, it was his fig tree. And if someone plants a fig tree, assigns a portion of his soil to that fig tree, he expects to get figs from his fig tree, right? Now the owner also has another right, of course. He has the right to cut down a tree if it doesn’t do what he wants it to be doing. So, for 3 years, 3 YEARS, the owner went up to his fig tree expecting to collect his fruit and… nothing, he finds none. Now, if you owned an orchard and had apple trees and depended on these apple trees to produce apples for your support, for your livelihood, would you wait 3 years to cut down a tree that produced no fruit but just used your soil? I wouldn’t. But then the gardener interceded, “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it to aerate the soil and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”
Now let’s think about it. When it comes to everything that exists God has absolute rights. Humans on the other hand have rights to only one thing in life and that is to be condemned. The fair right that every human being has in life is to be sent to hell. That is our one and only right because that is what our sins have earned us. Anything besides that can only be a gift from the mercy and grace of God. God, on the other hand, has exclusive rights. Everything is His. He owns the world. We belong to Him. We are in His world, His vineyard. We breathe His air. We enjoy His sunlight. We drink His water. We eat His food. We live in His homes. We benefit from His laws of science. We enjoy the abilities He has given us. Everything we have and use and enjoy is His. And what does He expect of us? Figs. Fruit. He has every right to expect fruit from His people. He has every right to expect every act of every person to be done for His glory and His honor and His service. He has every right to expect from every person complete selflessness and total care towards other human beings. He has every right to expect that when we go to work we do so in order to give Him glory in whatever we do, to work in order to help people out, and to provide for our family. He has every right to expect from us the exact same fruit that expected from His own Son.
So, what does he find? What does he find when he examines the world? Does he find fruit? Or does he find people bent on doing only what they want? Does he find people using His resources for their own vain glory, their own selfish interests? What does he find when he examines us? Does he find us bearing fruits of faith? Does He find us living our lives to His glory and honor and service? Does he find us using what He has given us for the benefit of other people? Does he find in us an attitude that seeks to turn from sin or that keeps on sinning even when we know it is wrong? Do we take to heart His stern warning, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Does tragedy or calamity give us pause to examine our own hearts and lives and hear God’s call to repentance?
Now, this might sound strange but in every tragedy or catastrophe involving loss and death there is implicit in it God’s grace. Because it is a gracious call of repentance to the whole world. Every person who hears it is run face to face with death and has to admit it’s a reality we all face and we all need an answer to.
Now, unfortunately, just like what happened in Jesus’ day, happens today. People, though they have minds and though they have the ability to reason and make conclusions about things fail to recognize the real significance of tragic events in life. It is our sinful human nature to look at such events as something other than what God want us to. You can look at such a tragic event and shrug your shoulders and say that could never happen to me. You could analyze the event and try to determine what was going through the murderer’s mind. You could sit back and study maps and data and try to figure out weather patterns to come to a conclusion of why such a natural disaster took place. Or you could even spend all your time guessing as to why God would have allowed such a horrible thing to take place or what the victims might have done to experience such suffering. But all of that is failing to recognize the clear message that God is giving in such circumstances.
All those catastrophic events point to the reality of death. The wages of sin is death. Death is a clear and unmistakable preaching of God’s law. And seeing such circumstances ought to bring each person to examine themselves and say, “You know, that could have very well been me. The fact that I wasn’t in the “wrong place at the wrong time” today doesn’t mean that I won’t be in the “wrong place at the wrong time” tomorrow. How do I stand with God? Am I ready to face my Maker? Am I ready at any moment to die and be judged? Am I holding on to an unrepentant sin? Am I doing things in my life that I know are wrong and I know God hates simply because the gardener hasn’t used the ax to cut me down yet?”
And the fact that those tragedies bring us to that conclusion is evidence of God’s grace. You see, repentance involves more than one thing. Not only is it acknowledging my sin and turning from it, but it is also trusting in the Savior God has provided for that sin. It is only by seeing our sin and our deep need for a Savior that we are ready to hear about the Savior whom God has provided. Only then are we ready to hear about Jesus who bore perfect fruit for God His whole life in our place. Only then are we ready to hear about how Jesus spared us from the worst calamity of being sent to hell eternally by suffering hell in our place on the cross.
And then notice one other thing. The Gardener intercedes for the fruitless tree. God is patient not wanting any to perish. He doesn’t deal with us as our sins deserve. He’s graciously given each of us a time of grace to be brought to faith in Him and to bear fruit in His kingdom. Our Savior is the best gardener who by the power of His gospel, His message of all sins forgiven in him, is able to take lifeless and fruitless trees like you and me and cause us to bear abundant fruit serving our God in our lives. Thank the Lord for His gracious calls to repentance and when tragedy does strike again see it for it really is by repenting of your sin and trusting in your Savior. Amen.