A sermon on Luke 13:1-9 by Nathan Nettleton, 19 March 1995
Suffering and prosperity are not punishments or rewards, but God's grace may eventually be exhausted by those who squander it.
Probably all of us have cried out at some time or another, What have I done to deserve this?
Occasionally there is an obvious answer - if you drove home blind drunk then we can all tell you what you did to deserve getting smashed up in a car accident. Actions have consequences, and there's not much point complaining.
But if you were the one sitting innocently in the bus shelter when the drunk ran into it,then there doesn't seem to be any connection. But still we cry out, What have I done to deserve this?
Why do we do it? Because we have all soaked up the view of the old covenant of Moses, If you obey the commands of the Lord your God, then you will prosper and God will bless you, but if you disobey and refuse to listen then you will be destroyed. And we turn it round so it says, I am not prospering, I am being destroyed, therefore I have displeased God and I am being punished.
It almost makes sense. But we are a people who say that in Jesus Christ we have seen the true face of God, and as we will hear this morning, Jesus disputed that doctrine. Jesus calls us to another way of looking at things, and so it is for that way that we go searching this morning.
The people who approached Jesus to tell him of the murder of the Galilean worshippers were, judging by Jesus' response, apparently assumed that the only way such a thing could happen was that the victims were evil people who deserved God's punishment. In seeking confirmation of this view, they are both seeking an assurance that the world is an orderly safe place so long as you do the right thing, and an assurance that the fact that they weren't victims themselves was evidence that God was pleased with them.
They were not the only people to ever come to Jesus with such a question. The disciples once saw a man who had been blind since birth and asked Jesus, Whose sin caused his blindness, his own or his parents'? On that occasion, Jesus said, It was nobody's sin, and on this occasion he says, Do you think that that proves they were worse sinners than anybody else? I tell you No!
Not only does Jesus deny the doctrine, not only does he refute the suggestion that God causes human misery to punish us, but he turns the question back on the askers and says, But I tell you that unless you repent, you'll cop a similar fate. Now logically speaking, that doesn't actually make any sense. But I think what Jesus is trying to do is to shift their focus. He's saying that you can spend a lot of time trying to work out the extent of other people's sin and never take a good look at yourself. He's saying that if you're looking for the seeds of destruction, take a look into your own heart, because if you can't face up to the evil there and root it out, then you'll never get anywhere dealing with the evil out there in the rest of the world.
And then Jesus goes on to tell a parable about God's mercy and God's judgment. The imagery of the parable would have been well known to his listeners. There were a number of vineyard parables in the Hebrew Bible, and the vineyard always stood for the people of Israel, and a fig tree in the vineyard always stood for the leadership of the people of Israel. So when Jesus says the fig tree in the vineyard is not bearing any fruit, everybody would have known what he meant, especially when it is in response to questions about other people's sin. He's saying, If you want to talk about who needs to repent, take a look at your own role in the community. What sort of fruit are you bearing?
But Jesus, in his usual style does not make this just a parable of God's judgment. He doesn't just write off the unfruitful leadership. He says that judgment would certainly call for the tree to be chopped down, but that mercy pleads for it to have another chance. God's mercy asks for a reprieve and promises to redouble the efforts at nurturing the tree so as to give it every opportunity of producing fruit.
Jesus is doing two very interesting things here. Firstly he is emphasizing the priority of God's mercy over the inevitability of judgment. He doesn't deny the possibility of judgment, of the tree being eventually chopped down, but he does say that it will be given every opportunity to avoid it, including the best of nurture and care.
And secondly he is redefining repentance. Now forgetting the context for a moment, what do we usually understand by the word repent? What else could it mean?? (Allow time for people to suggest some answers)
Repentance means turning around, and we tend to focus on the life we turn away from. The New Testament word translated as repentance is metanoia which is the root of our word metamorphosis which means something like transformation. It is what happens to a caterpillar when it becomes a butterfly, and just like a butterfly, the emphasis is on what it turns into, not what it turned from. So when Jesus says Repent, he is not so much saying, Turn from sin, he's saying, Turn to God.
Jesus is describing a God who is not really interested in doing an count of each sinful action, but who calls us to fulfil our role as co-creators with God. And if that is who God is then repentance is a decision to join God in producing love and peace and justice, in actively bringing about the reign of God in the world. The focus is not on what we break, but on what we make. We live up to what we were created for when we become creators of the new world with God.
How many of you have seen the movie Forrest Gump? There was a brief scene about the origin of a bumper sticker. You may remember the bumper sticker even if you haven't seen the movie. It was very simple; it just said Shit Happens. It's a good slogan in a way; a bit crass, but clear and simple. I can imagine Jesus saying it when those people came asking him about why the Galileans got killed. In fact he does talk about manure. Same thing. Shit happens. Its a philosophical shrug of the shoulders in the face of meaningless tragedy. It says, Hey, don't try to explain it or understand it. There is no rhyme or reason sometimes. Shit happens. It doesn't mean anything, it just happens.
The tower of Siloam fell down and killed eighteen people. A petrol tanker blew up in Madras last week and killed a hundred people. Peter Walker is still in a coma after a car accident at Christmas. You can't make any sense out of these things. Shit happens. You lost your job and can't get another. You got cancer and didn't find out till too late. Your child got born disabled. You got bashed in the street. These are horrible horrible things but you can't explain them. There is no reason why it happened to you and not someone else. Shit happens. You'll only drive yourself nuts if you try to work out how you deserved it or why God wanted it to happen to you. God didn't want it to happen to you or anybody. It just happened. The question is where to now.
What Jesus says to those trying to come to terms with these tragic situations is Repent, which certainly takes me by surprise, until I remind myself that he is not so much saying, Turn from sin, but, Turn to God.
And that can make sense in the midst of tragedy and suffering. God did not cause this, it just happened, but God can make something out of it. God can turn any death into the basis of a resurrection. But if we are to find that resurrection it is up to us to repent, that is to turn ourselves around and follow Jesus on the path that leads through suffering to new life. As we have already said in this season of Lent, the path that Jesus leads us on is not one that avoids suffering, but it is one that comes out on the other side of it.
Tragedy happens. God doesn't cause it, but God's goodness is not thwarted by it. God is not going to let it prevent you from experiencing the love and goodness of God. However, God does understand when you are barren and unproductive because of what has been going on in your life. God's mercy will not allow the fig tree to be cut down just because it hasn't borne any fruit lately. God's mercy says, Hey, maybe this tree needs a bit more love and care before we can expect much of it. If you're just getting over a death in the family, or a relationship breakdown, or a psychiatric illness or something, God doesn't expect you to be busting your gut changing the world. There are going to be times in anyone's life when they have very little to give and they need a lot of care and nurture. And at those times the economic rationalists of this world will often call for the axe because there are no figs on the tree, and productivity is the only measure of worth that they can see. But God is not a rationalist. A bit of a futures speculator maybe, but not an economic rationalist.
If you want a good example of the way God refuses to just chop down the tree and start again, have a look at this church. The last decade of life in this church has not exactly been a story of dramatic productivity. The figs have been very few and far between. A year ago a few people thought that the axe was being sharpened. When we had Graham Corr in to help us look at ourselves the week I got here, one of the questions we asked was how do you see the future of this church in the next five years? and a few people said they thought this church had no future at all. New people would come through the door from time to time but they were never heard of again. Club 12, the after school kids program, had closed; the mini-mart was down to once every three months; it had been over three years since the last permanent minister had left; and things were pretty gloomy and depressed.
If you had had to justify the church's existence in terms of productivity for the Kingdom of God or service to the local community or anything like that, the axe might have been on the way. But God didn't give up on this little church, and most of the people here didn't give up either. God didn't see a tree that needed an axe, God saw a tree that needed some digging and some manure. God saw a church that needed some nurture and encouragement. God gave us another chance, and now look. There is some promising growth, quite a few new branches and lots of new foliage. The signs are suggesting there could be a good yield of fruit in the not too distant future.
God is unbelievably good to us. God's goodness and love go far beyond any rational limits. God repeatedly pours out love and opportunity on those who appear to be lost causes. But it must be said, in fairness to the parable that Jesus told, that the possibility of the axe eventually getting the go ahead is still there. God's love is unconditional in that there are no requirements for eligibility, everyone receives God's love. But it is conditional in that there is a required response. We are required to respond to God's goodness by stepping onto the road and following Jesus and working with him to create a world of love and peace. And as I have said, and I stress again, God knows whether you're able to put much into that task at present or not, and if not God will happily wait and give you all the care and nurture you require, but if you squander it all away and never grow, this parable is not a promise of an open cheque.
That is the challenge facing us as a church now. God has been extraordinarily good to us. The growth is happening. Now it is up to us to produce the fruit. That is why our current process of determining our structures and approach to the future is so important. God has been good to us and we have to take that goodness seriously and plan for the harvest. It's up to us to turn around and follow Jesus into the future.