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03.03.13 Standing Firm, Luke 13.1-9, Sermon Summary

by on March 4, 2013

“Is it ever too late to repent?” If you can ask that question, the answer is, “No, it’s not too late.” “Am I someone who needs to repent?” If you can ask that question, the answer is, “Yes.”

Summary Points

  • The place of repentance in the Christian’s life
  • God’s perspective on our lives, from beginning to end
  • Why God is patient with us
  • Things to repent of

We all love scriptures and sermons on forgiveness and grace, and images of God as generous. Like the Isaiah passage: “come to the waters all you who thirst; come and buy food, you who have no money;” or the Psalm response: “my soul is satisfied as with a rich feast.”

Too often we forget why we need forgiveness, grace, and generosity. We need forgiveness because of sin; we need grace because of our inability to overcome sin; we need generosity because we are in need. Or maybe we realized that once in our life, but now we just assume God’s forgiveness, grace, and generosity and declare: “I’ve repented; end of story.”

But it’s not the end of the story. In the gospel passage today Jesus is asked a “have you heard” question. I get these pretty frequently: “Have you heard that so-and-so was seen drunk last night?” “Have you heard that the big church has lost 20% of its membership and budget?” “Have you heard that the Roman Catholics have a pedophile priest problem?”

Jesus’ question was, “Have you heard about Pilate, how he slaughtered some of our fellow Galileans while they were simply worshiping our God?” Those who were asking were expecting righteous indignation. They wanted Jesus to condemn Rome. Surely Jesus would say, “Oh, that is terrible indeed. We’re good; they’re bad.”

Instead of the expected scripted response, Jesus urges repentance. What should have been a soft-ball question for Jesus becomes a hard-ball response. “Unless you repent, you likewise shall perish.” Jesus is being consistent. In his stock sermon found in Matthew (5-7) and Luke (6), Jesus exhorts us not to judge others, lest we be judged. He asks, “Why point out the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye when you have a plank in your own?” Instead of judging those Galileans who died, or even Pilate, Jesus calls his audience to repentance.

This episode exposes the nature of “have you heard” questions—they are intended to justify ourselves. We delight in the gossip of others because it makes us feel better about ourselves. You wouldn’t know it by the frequency we Protestants talk about the pedophile priest “problem” the Roman Catholics have, but the rate of sexual abuse of children by ministers in the Protestant church is double that of the Roman Catholics. Have you heard?

Every year my wife plants a few garden items, usually tomatoes and some spices. And every year we’re disappointed by the meager harvest. I’m reminded of the words of the prophet Micah who speaks for God in 7:1, “What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave.”

Still, it’s a joy for me to see her excited each spring as she envisions a bountiful harvest and plants new seeds in hope. It reminds me that God has planted each of us with a hope. God has envisioned our lives as a fruitful harvest. The prophet Isaiah depicts this well in 5:1-2, “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes . . .”

But more often than not we put God to the test, tempting him to uproot us. This is the situation depicted in Jesus parable about the landowner who wants to cut down a barren fig tree. His gardener intervenes and asks for one more year during which he will irrigate and fertilize the tree. If it bears fruit, well and good. If not, then it should be cut down.

It’s interesting to compare this parable with the simile Jesus offers in John 15. There Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and God is the gardener who prunes the branches that they may bear fruit. Here God is the landowner and Jesus, presumably, is the gardener trying to save the tree. While we never want to push parables too far with the one-to-one correspondences, I think the lesson to take from this is it is the nature of the triune God to be patient.

Sometimes we think God is too patient, especially with our enemies. We yell out, “What are you waiting for?! Get the Romans!” But what we find more often than not in the Bible is that God restrains himself, is patient, is forbearing. God planted us in hope, and patiently waits for us to repent and bear fruit.

In the words of the prophet Joel, God “relents”: “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.” (Joel 2:13-14)

Isaiah also urges repentance. He says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call upon God while he is near.”

All of us are in need of repentance. Here are some things to repent of from today’s lectionary readings:

Self-justification—the “Have you heard” attitude. A parallel to this is an attitude that judges others.

Underestimating temptation—Paul warns us, “If you think you are standing firm . . .”

Not taking responsibility—Paul urges us to “Watch out”

Idolatry—spending our lives on that which doesn’t satisfy (Isaiah)

Fruitlessness—What fruit is God calling you to produce? What stands in the way? This is something to repent of.

Hopelessness—don’t think just because you haven’t born fruit yet that you can’t ever. The gardener wants to help you bear fruit.

Thinking there’s no way out—Paul assures us a one-to-one correspondence between temptation and deliverance. “God will provide a way.” God always delivers.

Thinking God is too small—Isaiah assures us that even though we don’t understand (“God’s ways are higher”), we can approach God.

Leaving worship untransformed—Paul warns us not to be like the ancient Israelites who sat down to eat and drink (as we do at the Lord’s Table), and then proceeded to live untransformed lives

These are some of the things we need to repent of. It’s not too late. Even with the devastation wrought by raiding armies, Joel offers this assurance, “Do not be afraid, you wild animals, for the pastures in the wilderness are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.” (Joel 2:22) It’s not too late. It may never be too late. But why wait?

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Some people struggle to get in touch with God’s forgiveness, grace, and generosity. Others forget why we need these from God. Where are you? What can you do in your life to bring balance between God’s forgiveness, grace, and generosity, and your need for them?
  • Let’s assume that Jesus would say to you today, “Unless you repent, you too will perish.” What would he be referring to?
  • Have you ever thought about the hope God had when he created you? What hopes do you think God has for you today?


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