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Sermon for Lent 3

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Sermon for Lent 3 – Luke 13:1-9

Augustana, 2010

15 Sermon for Lent 3 MP3 Audio

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon this morning is the Gospel reading for today.

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Repent.  That’s Jesus’ word to these folks who approached him with the news of the Galileans Pilate had killed.  Repent, or you’ll be even worse off than they are.  So, let me try this out.

Pastor, did you hear what happened down in Haiti?  Isn’t that terrible?  Why would God allow something like that to happen to those poor people?  Did you hear what happened in Chile?  And what about the one in Taiwan?

Well, I suppose you can go with one answer: the earthquake in Haiti is God’s divine retribution for Haiti having sworn a pact with the devil while under French colonial rule.  That works so long as those folks are worse sinners than you are.  But they’re not.  And the only answer is Jesus’ answer:  “Repent.”  Do you think that those folks are worse sinners than all other people?  The Chileans?  The Taiwanese?  “No,” Jesus says, “repent.”  Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.  By repenting, you admit the seriousness of your sin.

Jesus uses an example from the headlines of his day so I should probably explain a little bit.  There were these small groups of rebels who would occasionally rise up against the Romans.  This group of Galileans, apparently, was one such group whom Pilate’s soldiers tracked down while they were in Jerusalem making their sacrifices at one of the festivals and were killed there in the Temple precincts.  We don’t precisely know the details here and we can only infer in this way but Jesus’ response remains the same.  Repent.  When terrible things happen to others, it should get your attention and remind you that you’re no better than they are.  The same thing could happen to you, or worse.

Now I want to be clear about this.  Jesus is reacting against a specific idea prevalent in his day and in ours, that is:  good things happen to those whom God has blessed.  If bad things are happening to you God is zapping you.  That idea has lessened a little bit in our day, now it’s more like, if bad things are happening to you, God is not protecting you but the result is the same, somehow you’ve fallen out of favor with God.  This is precisely the kind of idea reflected in Jesus’ question to those who brought him this news.  “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?”  They are trying to play on his hometown sympathies and to draw him out on the side of the Galilean rebels and therefore put him at odds with Pilate.  But Jesus doesn’t bite and then he shares some news of his own.  “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?”  That is, God does not zap people for specific sins.  He doesn’t zap Hatians, Chileans, or Taiwanese anymore than Americans, or folks who live in Hickory.

And just in case we’ve been watching too much Kenneth Copeland or Creflo Dollar or Joyce Meyer or Benny Hinn or Joel Osteen, God does not just bless those people who are obedient in measure to their obedience.  If we were to follow that line of theology, all of us good church-going people would be the Donald Trumps of this world and all the Donald Trumps of this world would be on unemployment.  How many wives is he up to now?  The cross is always a good laboratory for testing any theology.  If we take this idea to the cross, Jesus, the perfect Son of God, should have floated down from it with angels tending to him, instead he died a horrible death for sins he never committed.  This idea is what’s called the prosperity gospel and it is dangerous and robs us of our salvation.

The parable tells us everything we need to know.  “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. 7 “And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ 8 “And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; 9 and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.’”

The fig tree is a symbol of Israel and symbolized the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who were not producing the fruit of faith.  Now the church father, Augustine, whom Luther was so fond of, said, “The gardener’s manure is the sinners’ sorrows.”  And that they who repent, repent in filthy robes; if, that is, they repent aright and repent in sincerity and truth.

Later in his gospel, Luke records Jesus parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector.  “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

If the earthquake and subsequent devastation in Haiti or some other place in the world doesn’t make us stop and not just be thankful for what we have, but bring us to repentance, we are far more like the Pharisee.  Like the prayer of the publican, we cry out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”  “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.” Those words shouldn’t come so quickly or blithely off the tongue.  Penny told me a story about a visitor who came to the church sometime before my time.  He said something to the effect of, “I’m not a poor miserable sinner and I won’t be back.”  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…” I think that visitor would feel more comfortable at Joel Osteen’s church rather than at Jesus’ Church.

There is no way for us to know whether, how much or why or how God was involved in these earthquakes and natural disasters.  But that does not leave us without an answer at all.  Yes, these people died because they were sinners.  The wages of sin is death.  But they are no less sinners than we are.  Pat Robertson is wrong to condemn the Haitians because of their sins.  Rather he should have taken the tragic opportunity to reflect on his own sins and to encourage his viewers to pray the prayer of the publican rather than the prayer of the Pharisee.  In the words of the great Lutheran Bible scholar, R.C.H. Lenski, “Every calamity that sweeps men away is a divine call to repent and a divine warning to escape perishing forever by repenting in time.” (Luke, p. 725)

We should always remember, too, the second half of that rite of confession, which we are to confess in confidence, “and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.”  God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  So, repent.  Remember the gardener is coming to inspect your fruit.  Bear fruit in keeping with your repentance.  And never forget the merciful God to whom you are returning.

From the prophet Isaiah,

“Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.

7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the LORD, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”

Hear again those beautiful words of mercy from the prophet Ezekiel:

As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.”  Amen.