Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 6, 2010

Sermon on Luke 13:1-9

CHRIST’S URGENT CALL TO REPENTANCE

  1. Jesus points to signs that urge us to repent
  2. Jesus gives us a time of grace to call us to repent

Text: Luke 13:1-9

Introduction

Last August, during the national convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) held at the Minneapolis Convention Center, a tornado struck the area the same day that convention delegates voted by a two-to-one margin to accept practicing gay clergy in their midst.  Those in favor of the vote said it was a sign of the Spirit of God, much like Pentecost.  Those against the vote said it was a sign of God’s displeasure, especially since the cross-topped steeple on the ELCA’s nearby Central Lutheran Church was broken by the tornado’s winds.  Was either group correct?

Shortly after the January earthquake in Haiti, televangelist Pat Robertson said on The 700 Club that Haiti’s earthquake and overall impoverished situation was because they had sworn a pact with the devil to free them from the French.  He compared the prosperity of the neighboring Dominican Republic with the poverty and devastation in Haiti and theorized that this was God’s judgment on a nation that had forsaken him.  Was Robertson correct?

When disasters like these strike, can we read a message from God into them?  Is God sending a specific warning in response to a specific sin, or are any apparent connections merely coincidence?  There’s no doubt that questions like these come to mind after tragedies.  And if we take a closer look at the Gospel for today, Jesus will give us a very clear answer to these very real questions.  But Jesus takes the discussion one step further, and shows us how these incidents underscore the urgency of his call to repentance.  Today’s Gospel reveals Christ’s urgent call to repentance.  Jesus points us to signs in this world that urge us to repent.  More importantly, Jesus gives us a time of grace in this world to call us to repent.

I.

Jesus’ words about repentance came as a response to a question that some people brought to him.  Their question was similar to the ones we considered just a moment ago.  “There were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”

In the previous verses, Jesus talked about the “signs of the times.”  In light of that discussion, some in the crowd asked him whether or not a recent gory incident with some Galileans in the temple was another sign of the times.  We don’t have any secular writings that record the incident mentioned here.  Apparently some Galilean Jews had been in the temple, offering sacrifices, when the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, ordered that they be killed.  The Jewish historian Josephus mentions about five different incidents that are somewhat similar to this, but not quite identical.  What that tells us is that at least a half a dozen times, Pilate ruthlessly mowed down people for his own political purposes.

So what did Jesus have to say about the incident?  Contrary to what some might have thought, this was not some sort of divine judgment of God against these people.  But the fact that such awful things happen in this sinful world should be a reminder to everyone of Christ’s urgent call to repentance.  Jesus points to this event as a sign that urges us to repent.  In fact, the way Jesus urges his listeners to repent emphasizes that repentance is an ongoing discipline.  As Luther said in the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” 

Jesus goes on to cite a different but similar incident—the tower of Siloam.  Once again, we do not have any information about this account beyond the Bible text.  The pool in Siloam was a part of the region’s water supply, so this tower probably collapsed when the water system was being constructed.  The incident is different because this was not an act of government retaliation, but simply an unintended tragedy.  But Jesus’ conclusion is similar.  “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?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Once again, this tragedy was not a divine statement against the people who were killed.  But it was an urgent call to repent for everyone who knew about it.  In both scenarios, Jesus concluded, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  Although it makes awkward English, we could capture Jesus’ thoughts this way: “Unless you are repenting, you will all perish in a similar manner.”  Jesus is not saying that the person who fails to respond to these signs will die a similar physical death.  Rather, he says that the person who rejects his urgent call to repent will suffer a similar tragic fate—similar, but not identical.  The eternal death sentence known as hell is similar because it is tragic, yet it is far worse.  That is why Jesus’ call to repent is so urgent.  And that is why he wants people to see the signs that urge them to repent.

At the WELS School of Worship Enrichment, one of the presentations I sometimes lead offers ideas for observing the church year.  When the presentation gets to the season of Lent, there might be some discussion about the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday.  Some of our churches have embraced the custom; others are a little uncomfortable with it.  I see no reason to force the imposition on a congregation that has negative connotations with the custom, but one reason why I advocate the custom is because of its strong law proclamation.  Face it: It’s pretty humbling to have someone smudge ashes on your forehead and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  That’s not what I would call an ego boost!

Why do I think that custom is valuable?  In our society, we tend to ignore the signs of sin and death all around us.  We sanitize death and rationalize sin.  Television footage censors the vivid images of sin and death and tragedy—and with good reason, of course.  We don’t necessarily need constant images of massive tragedies seared into our minds.  But it does keep us from looking at the signs of the times.  And it may keep us from thinking honestly about the seriousness of sin and the reality of death.  Our sinful flesh wants to ignore the signs of sin and keep its head buried in the sand of its own delusions.  We even try to hide the signs of sin and death in our own bodies, as if facial creams and Botox can undo our mortality.

Perhaps we can hide the signs of sin and death from ourselves, but we cannot hide them from God.  The Lord who has issued an urgent call to repent sees the deeds we deny and the iniquities we ignore.  Although we try to forget the signs of sin, the Lord sees plenty in our own lives to confirm the hell-bent sin in our hearts and the hell-bound judgment we rightly deserve.

II.

Jesus’ words made his listeners think.  His call to repent was urgent!  It was nothing to take lightly!  But Jesus’ goal was not to make people grovel at his feet for their failings.  Jesus’ desire is greater and nobler than that.  He wants his listeners to understand that he gives us our lives, our “time of grace” in this world, to hear his call to repent and receive the heavenly blessings he has in store for us.  Jesus makes that point in the parable he went on to tell.  “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any.  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?’  ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine!  If not, then cut it down.’”

In a number of different places in the Old Testament, a fig tree was used as a symbol of Israel.  Jesus picks up that Old Testament imagery to talk about the people of Jerusalem in this parable.  As was the case throughout their history, God’s people hardly looked like God’s people.  They looked more like a barren tree that had no fruits of faith to show.

In Jesus’ little parable, the vineyard’s caretaker speaks up when the landowner is ready to cut down the barren tree.  “Leave it alone for one more year,” he requests.  The caretaker “bought” the tree some time!  With some special nourishment and tender loving care, perhaps the tree would have some fruit to show within a year’s time.  If not, the caretaker said, they could say that they did everything possible and it would be time to cut down the lifeless tree.  The illustration should be fairly clear.  God gives people a time of grace to come to faith in him.  Even though he would have every right to chop down fruit-barren trees and faith-barren souls, God gives every person a time of grace to turn to him in repentance and faith and to avoid the ax and the wood chipper!

In our sin-sanitizing culture, it can take quite a bit to jolt us out of the spiritual apathy that treats sin lightly.  But the time comes when God jolts and jars your conscience.  When those moments come and the judgment of God seems like it’s aimed right at you, aren’t you amazed at what God actually does instead of what we deserve to have him do?  Doesn’t it fill you with awe and gratitude to know that, “When my sins give me alarm, and my conscience grieve me,” Christ will “let [his] cross my fear disarm, peace of conscience give me” (CW #98, st. 4)?  Instead of instant punishment, we receive patient grace!

One day’s worth of our sin ought to result in an eternity’s worth of hell.  But Jesus Christ entered into our sinful world, took our guilt on himself, and in immeasurable love endured an eternity’s worth of hell for the world as he hung on the cross.  Instead of abandoning us forever, God has adopted us at the baptismal font.  Instead of leaving us to despair, he lifts us up with his forgiveness, spoken and applied personally through pastors and other Christians.  Instead of letting us wander from him, he calls us back to him in the pages of his grace-proclaiming Word.  Instead of letting us neglect our soul’s nourishment, he feeds us at this altar with his own body and blood.  Instead of giving up on us when our sinful nature convinces us to give up on God, he never stops seeking us and calling us back to his loving arms.

Jesus’ call to repentance is urgent, but it is urgent because he has such rich blessings prepared for you and he does not want you to lose them!  Jesus gives you this lifetime as your time of grace to come to know his grace firsthand.  He calls us to repent so that he can comfort us with his reconciliation.  He showers our senses with his grace in the read Word and spoken absolution and the touch of his cleansing baptismal waters and the taste of his Holy Supper.  His spiritual blessings are so great, and that’s why his call is so urgent!

Conclusion

The broken steeples and earthquakes of this world are reminders of the general presence of sin and its effects in our lives.  We can’t say that they are specific statements from God.  Specific statements from God are found in his Word, and, yes, his Word is quite clear that homosexuality and witchcraft are sins.  That said, we cannot read anything specific into the tragedies that occur in our world, because God has not promised to reveal anything specific outside the clear content in his Word.  What we can read into those events is that they are signs to keep us ready for Christ’s return.

Only God knows when our time of grace in this world will end.  Only God knows the day when he will issue his last call to the world to repent.  But that means we have every reason to be always ready!  So stay focused on his cross this Lenten season and beyond, and you will be ready for his final call when he calls you and all his people to the heavenly home he is preparing for you.  Amen.

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