SERIES: I GIVE UP… a false sense of safety
SERMON: Luke 13
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”
Blood was a very normal sight for the Jewish worshipers. Bulls, calves, goats, sheep, even some birds were regularly and daily slaughtered for offerings at the altar. It would not make the headlines at all that blood was being shed at the Temple. And it would not be the most shocking headline to see that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had found some more lawbreakers who needed to be executed. The government kept a firm hand on the people and would not tolerate disorder.
But this time it was different. This was the type of thing that would make your mouth drop open in shock and your head shake in disgust if you were a Jew. The headline was “Blood mixed at the altar.” Some people from Galilee were executed while they were at the Temple courtyard making sacrifices, so their blood was mixed with the blood of their sacrifices. It’s the kind of headline that got everyone talking.
And that’s not the only one that Jesus brings to our attention today. Another tragedy that rocked the area was to hear that 18 lives were lost because of a terrible accident south of the Temple at the pool of Siloam. That headline read: “18 innocent bystanders crushed in tower collapse.”
It doesn’t take a lot to imagine those kinds of headlines. We see these types of tragedies and killings every day. We probably have a similar reaction, too. Why do bad things happen? Why all the crime? Why the accidents? Why the diseases and hospital stays? Why the chaos as if this world has no idea what is good and what is bad, what is up and what is down?
Do you want the answer to these types of questions? I know you do. It’s actually a really simple one: Sin. Now, I’ve said that before, and I’d like to have a more concrete answer that you can use when you are seeing the headlines. I’d like to clear up all the uncertainties, but God gives us only this one simple answer: sin has ruined this world. Its grip squeezes everyone and everything: people, politics, weather, crime. Sin is like radiation that permeates all things and brings destruction and devastation. I can’t get rid of it. You can’t get rid of it. Sin will linger like a dark cloud over the earth until the voice of God says, “ENOUGH! This is the end. It’s time bring our people home forever.”
So, if sin is the only answer for the terrible headlines, both way back then and now, then we have to give up a false sense of safety, because not everything is ok for us. Sin is part of my life and yours and that makes us guilty. You and I cannot deny that, and it won’t work anyways. When I see the headlines, however, I don’t want to be lumped into the same category as the killers, rapists, and thieves. I’m guessing you don’t either. I don’t even want to be in the category with people who are too selfish or have any other kind of undesirable trait.
And so I try to rationalize. We all do it. We say things like, “I would never do anything that bad. I’m glad I’m not like that.” When we think that way, we are making levels of sin. We put really bad people – like those who get a death sentence as Jesus brought up– way down here. We put the pretty bad screw-ups next. We put the foolish and selfish next up. Then, maybe we make a category for ourselves. We know we’ve made some mistakes, we know that we don’t always have the right attitude, and there are some pet sins that are hard to give up, but we like to think we’re not that bad. Finally, we might even be honest enough to make a category of really good people above us.
We are the ones who naturally rationalize like this because we are human. We rationalize because we have to find some way to cope with the guilt of sin. We have to find a way to be safe before God. And so we try to rationalize sin and minimize it. When we look in the mirror we want to see someone good staring back at us. We think if we can do that well enough then we can find our way into God’s good graces. If we can be better than others and work hard enough, then we can be right in God’s sight.
Jesus knows that we do this. He sensed it when he was talking to these people. So, he asked a couple questions that get to the heart of the issue. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? …Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” We would naturally and logically answer, “Well, yeah! Bad people get what they deserve.” Jesus answers these two questions much differently than we would. “Do you think some are worse sinners or more guilty than you? I tell you, no! These levels of sin that we make to look good in front of God don’t work at all. Turns out God doesn’t have any levels for sin. You either have it or you don’t. Period.
Brothers and sisters, in us Jesus sees sin. You and I can try to come up with a way to cope with our guilt, you and I can try to get rid of it, hide it, or explain it away. We can try to make ourselves safe, but you and I cannot change the truth. We don’t carry out God’s demands. We don’t have ability to be right in God’s sight. So then, we are not the kind of people that God accepts into heaven. Sinful people are the ones who go to hell.
However, Jesus says the headlines don’t have to be doom and gloom for us. He says, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” So there’s our solution! If we repent, we can avoid the whole mess. But what if I have forgotten to repent since this morning? There are a lot of sins that I do every day, not to mention my sinful nature makes my whole life unacceptable to God. I would almost have to walk around every second of the day saying sorry to God. And what if my repentance is not sincere enough? Would it still count? And what about unbelievers, how can they repent if they don’t know God? Why would they say sorry to Jesus if they don’t believe in him as their only Savior? Do you see how what kind of trouble we are in? If repentance is something we have to do to avoid hell or if heaven is based on how well I repent, then I’m still going to perish.
This is the point of the sermon that is like looking at headlines. Our mouths hang open a little bit in shock. We want to stop listening, shaking our heads in utter disbelief. We don’t know how our situation could be this bad. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to tell this little parable of a vineyard owner, who wanted his fig tree to be fruitful. That makes total sense. If you plant a fruit tree in your yard, I’m guessing you want to pick some fruit in the future. Well, the owner didn’t find any fruit for THREE WHOLE YEARS! He calls that tree a waste. The owner wants it cut down.
Ok, so that doesn’t change anything, does it? That news is still bad for us. God is the owner and if he doesn’t see fruits of faith in your life, then he wants to cut you down. But here’s where Jesus starts to change the headlines for us. The gardener steps in at this bleak moment and says, “Leave it alone for one more year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”
Jesus sees the situation very clearly. He sees the sins in our life. He sees how we try to rationalize them with different levels. He sees how we think maybe there’s some way I can help God fix it. But he knows there’s nothing we can do. He knows that we can’t fix our situation by trying harder, praying more, or being sincerer in repentance. He knows we are lacking the righteousness God is looking for. Jesus knows we deserve to be cut down and burned up forever.
And that makes him go to work to change our life. He doesn’t want your story to end this way. So, Jesus himself starts to work on you. He’s the only who can do this because he is the only won who is right in God’s sight. He’s the only one who can do the job perfectly. So he picks up the shovel with his nail-pierced hands and starts digging. He digs out the excuses. He digs out the sin. He digs out the guilt. He digs out the rationalizing. Making different levels for sin is not going to change anything for you. Looking in yourself for righteousness because you aren’t that bad is not going to make you fruitful. Jesus digs all that bad soil away. That’s when he hits the roots, the stark reality is that you are not bearing fruit for God and you are dying in sin. That leaves us feeling kind of exposed and raw, weak and helpless. That makes us realize we need some serious, life-changing help. That leads us to confess that we are not safe and we need serious, saving help. That’s when Jesus starts shoveling on the nutrients and the fertilizer. He fills up the gaping holes around the roots where sin used to be with his forgiveness. He loads on his love in place of the guilt. He packs on his promises in exchange for the excuses. He replaces our rationalizing with his perfect righteousness. Then, he keeps watering with his Word and waits.
Did you notice how long the work takes? It’s not one time. It’s not a couple days a week for a while. It’s every day for a whole year. If you want fruitful results tomorrow, don’t be disappointed if there isn’t any fruit yet. Jesus is doing the work underground at your roots first. Jesus is feeding you and strengthening you. He’s getting you strong and healthy. And that might take some time. But don’t give up. Jesus isn’t. He’s not ever going to give up on you.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is working on you. He is working on you with his law and gospel. He is working on you with repentance and faith. This means he changes our bad headlines. He changes the focus from our own miserable mistakes and failing fixes. He changes our attention, so that we see him and everything he has done and still does for us.
Do you think that it will work when Jesus does all these things to you? Jesus doesn’t finish the story. He doesn’t tell us what happens. But if God planted the tree and if Jesus works on that tree to get rid of the bad and nurture and feed it with his goodness, then what do you think the headline will be? “Sinner is saved.” “Guilty is innocent.” “Fruit instead of fire.” That’s you. That’s me. That’s our headline through the work of Jesus Christ. To him be thanks and praise forever. Amen.