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We come now to the 3rd Sunday in the season of Lent. Just 18 days ago on Ash Wednesday, we received the ashes on our forehead as the sign of our repentance and heard the prophet Joel cry out to us, "Yet even now," declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster." (Joel 2:12-13)
Just 18 days ago, we heard the apostle Paul plead with us, "We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." (2 Cor. 5:20).
By now, the ashes have long since been washed away and the words that we heard on that night have been forgotten. Which explains tells us why Lent can never be just a one-night-stand. The Church has always insisted on a prolonged period time for the call to repent to be sounded. 40 days and 40 nights is not too long a period of time either.
For the truth of the matter is, we being who we are, are never finished with repenting. Repentance is not something you do once and then get on with your life now that you've got that messy little business taken care of. Turning from the death of our sins and idolatry and being raised up to new life by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ is a continual process for the Christian. It only stops if you stop following Christ or when you die in Christ. In the meantime, we always need to hear the call to repent and turn from our sin and to the steadfast love of God in Jesus Christ.
I. The Call To Repent
Today, the call to repent comes from the lips of Jesus. He was teaching the crowds when some who were present in the crowd "told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices." Luke doesn't tell us who "the Galileans" were and frankly, there's no historical record that this ever actually happened. But it's the kind of thing, knowing Pilate and those Romans, wouldn't surprise us a bit.
What were their motives for raising such an issue with Jesus? It would have helped if Luke had told us who the "some" were. If they were Pharisees and Scribes, then we may suspect that their motives were to set a trap for Jesus. Seems they had never gotten Jesus to make a clear statement about which side of the aisle He was on. Was He for the nation of Israel or was He for the Romans? Such an emotionally charged issue like this one, even if it weren't true, would certainly provoke a response. Would He speak out against Pilate and the Romans? Or would He defend the government and their abuse of power, which would certainly turn this adoring crowd against Him? Either way, they had Him trapped. Or so they thought.
(If it was indeed some Pharisees or Scribes, the irony here is too precious to pass up. They were outraged that Pilate would shed the innocent blood of the Galileans. Yet before long, they themselves would pressure Pilate to shed the truly innocent blood of one Galilean.)
But maybe the "some who were present" weren't Pharisees or Scribes. Maybe they were 'seekers' who were asking Jesus to help them work out a theological view of divine justice. Was God behind this massacre? Why these Galileans? Why not others? Did they do something to deserve such a violent death?
Whatever the motive might have been, Jesus gives the unexpected response. "No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."
And then Jesus ups the ante. On top of acts of terrorism, He adds acts of mass destruction or natural disaster. "Or those 18 on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?"
The situation and circumstances may be different but the result is the same. "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
Let's be sure to get this straight. "To perish" is not the same thing "to die." Inevitably, we will all "die," but hopefully, we will not all "perish." All of those Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices died. But hopefully they did not all perish. But unless you repent, you will perish. All 18 on whom the tower in Siloam fell, died. But hopefully they did not all perish. But unless you repent, you will perish.
To "perish" means that after you died and faced the judgment of your life before almighty God, you failed because all your sins were counted against you, and you were cut down and thrown into the fire.
To "not perish" means that after you die and face the judgment of your life before almighty God, you passed, because your sins were not counted again you, and you were raised up to eternal life in heaven.
And Jesus says that the thing that makes the difference is "repentance." He doesn't say, unless you are innocent, unless you are good, unless you improve your behavior. He doesn't even say, unless you believe. He says, "Unless you repent, you too will perish."
St. Paul wants to add his two cents to this. You think your religion will save you? You think just because you're baptized you're free to live according to your sinful nature? Do you think that just because God has made you His own and called you by name and said, "I will be your God," that you will not perish even if you live as though, "I will not be your people"?
Paul says, let Israel be an example to you. If ever there were a people who were religious and of whom God said, 'these are my people,' it was Israel. "They were all under the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual drink. But with most of them, God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness."
But please understand this, it is God's fervent desire that you "not perish." "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways…" (Ez.33:11). Or don't you know that "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whosoever believes in Him shall NOT PERISH"? (John 3:16). "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us" so that we would not perish. (2Cor.5:19).
"But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
II. The Lesson About God's Mercy and Patience.
"And He told this parable." This is a very short parable, but a brilliant parable, that not only teaches us the truth about God, but also tests our beliefs about God, and hopefully, ultimately causes us to repent of them.
It's a simple story about a man who has a vineyard which has a fig tree planted in it, which is not as strange as it sounds. Every year, year after year, the owner of the vineyard comes to pick some figs from this tree, and every year the tree is fruitless. He tells the 'vinedresser,' whom He has appointed to manger His vineyard, "cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?"
So, here's the test. When the man says, "cut it down, Why should it use up the ground," what is the tone of His voice when He says this? What is the look in His eye? With what emotion are these words spoken to the vinedresser? Is He angry or is He sad? Is this just business or is this personal to Him? How do you hear this man say, "cut it down, why should it use up the ground"?
Do you hear the man in this parable, who is God the Father, give orders to the vinedresser who is His own dear Son, like a big boss who demands a certain quota or else? Is the man angry with this disappointing investment of his, and in his anger, demands that it be uprooted and burned in order to free up some capital for other, more productive investments. You know, better to do away with one for the sake of the many.
But then, how do you hear the response of the vinedresser, who is Jesus, the Father's Son, who says, "Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure"? Is the Son disagreeing with the Father? Is this the loving Son protecting us from the grouchy, demanding Father whom we must constantly work to please so that He won't be angry with us and cut us down and throw us into the fire? Is this the "Trinity in unity and the Unity in Trinity," that we confess in the Athanasian Creed?
But now, try this on for size. When the man says, "cut it down, why should it use up the ground," there are tears in His eyes and He speaks the words so slowly that they're painful to hear. And there is a sorrow in His voice so deep that the angels in heaven weep at the sound of it.
And now, hear the reply of the vinedresser, who in perfect sympathy and agreement with the man, and for His sake says, "Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure."
Oh, doesn't that change everything about this story when we hear it this way? Doesn't that sound much more like the Jesus we heard last Sunday who speaks on behalf of His Father, with tears in His eyes saying, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood."
Here is the real damage that the fall of Adam has done to us. All of our sinful deeds are nothing compared to this. Our whole attitude about God and toward God has been changed. The first words out of Adam's mouth after his fall into sin were these, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid…"
All Adam could see in God was His terrible demands weighing heavy on him. Because we have been born in Adam's image, we do not, by nature, see a loving and merciful God. That is the great gift of the Holy Spirit. Apart from Him, we only see a demanding, impossible to please God.
But here, in this simple little parable, Jesus shows us a God that is foreign and strange to us. Jesus portrays a loving Father who is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and who relents over disaster." Who gladly and willingly gives more time and provides more attention for this tree so that it may "not perish."
Isn't this the 'repentance' that Jesus is calling us to when He says, "unless you repent you will perish?" A complete and total change of heart and mind about the God whom we call 'our God' and who calls us, 'my people.' For if He is indeed the loving, patient, longsuffering Father whom Jesus portrays here, then every life is precious in His sight.
Then I am not just a wooden tree, whose purpose is life is to produce a certain quota of fruit or else. Or an investment, which must produce an adequate return or else. Or a nameless worker in the factory who must do his share for the 'almighty company' or else.
No, if this is the way Jesus told the story and meant us to hear it, then I, fruitless and barren tree that I am, am His beloved. And my loving Father has given me time, time for His Son to work in me, to transform me.
The fruit that the Father is looking for is the fruit of His Son, for it is only Jesus with whom the Father is well pleased. We are no more capable of producing this kind of fruit in our lives than a fig tree is. It is the work of the Holy Spirit alone.
So, in the perfect unity of the Trinity, the Father tells His Son to tend to us. And the Son uses the Holy Spirit to dig around us with His Word. And when He loosens the unrepentant, hard-packed soil around our heart, He fertilizes it with the holy manure of Christ's body and blood until we say, thanks be to God that the same Pilate who mixed the blood of "the Galileans" in their sacrifice, also mixed the blood of that One Galilean with the one sacrifice for all of our sins. For by His blood we are reconciled to God, and have become "fruitful trees."
So repent! And enjoy your life in the vineyard.