Luke 13:1-9 (EHV)
1 At that time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 He answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered these things? 3 I tell you, no. But unless you repent, you will all perish too. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse sinners than all the people living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no. But unless you repent, you will all perish too.”
6 He told them this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it, but he did not find any. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘Look, for three years now I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and I have found none. Cut it down. Why even let it use up the soil?’ 8 But the gardener replied to him, ‘Sir, leave it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put fertilizer on it. 9 If it produces fruit next year, fine. But if not, then cut it down.’”
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so that we may repent of our sin and believe your promise of forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
As I preached this sermon I asked the congregation: “If you reckon you’re the worst sinner in this church building right now, please stand up!”
Some people stood up. Some people didn’t. I then continued:
The point of this exercise is to identify who of you won’t stand up because you might reckon you don’t sin as much as others do. Jesus is talking to such self-righteous thinking people today in the Gospel reading as they came to him to gossip about others who had something bad happen to them. They assumed bad things usually happen to people because of their sin. But they also assumed the greater the tragedy, then the greater their sins must have been.
And don’t we do the same sometimes?
Don’t we wonder what people have done for them to deserve any misfortune happening to them, as if it was sent as punishment for their terrible sins? Don’t we wonder if our own little catastrophes are punishments sent by God for something we did? And, if we’ve ever escaped such tragedies, don’t we often figure God has blessed us because we’re not as bad as others?
But how quickly we forget we live in a sinful and corrupted world where bad things happen, often without any purpose or meaning behind these events. But just because somethings happen without any purpose behind them doesn’t mean God can’t use our personal or national disasters to lead us to repentance or to strengthen our faith!
Jesus’ response to these self-righteous people coming to him to gossip about other people’s misfortune was to use these local tragedies as examples of the way we’re often tempted to grade other people’s sin and assume we’re better than they are.
He asked the people in front of him if they reckoned those who were affected by such tragedies were worse sinners than they were.
But before we hear their answer, Jesus answered for them. He told them plainly that, even though these people died, they weren’t worse sinners than anyone else. Bad things happen, and it’s not always because they’re being punished for their sins.
Even more importantly, after each example, he called the people in front of him (who may have thought they weren’t as bad as those who had died), to repent.
In other words, Jesus used this opportunity to teach them that it’s not about how good or bad we reckon we are (especially in relation to others), but he calls everyone, including you and me, to repent.
Part of our human problem is that, while we have a tendency to acknowledge all of us have fallen short of the glory of God (as we’re taught in Scripture), we might come to Confession on Sunday morning racking our brains to remember many particular sins.
Most of us are simply not aware of how much we hurt people or how much we hurt God by what we do or say or think. But God knows how much we’ve sinned against him and those around us. He knows the secret desires of our heart and knows we need to repent.
Another issue is, even if we were to recall how we’ve sinned through careless words, selfish actions, reluctance to serve others, or laziness toward God and his Word, we don’t often know what it means to repent.
In this case, repentance isn’t just feeling sorry for what we’ve done or even feeling sorry for being caught. That’s called remorse. Feeling sorry or remorseful about what we’re said or done isn’t repentance. It’s much deeper than that.
Instead, repentance (which literally means to do an about face) seeks to discover the reason we’re doing the wrong thing in the first place so we can truly do an about face and, with God’s help, resist the temptation to do it again.
In other words, repentance isn’t just about turning away from what we’ve done (which would treat only the symptoms of our sin). Repentance seeks to turn from the reason why we did it in the first place (which would be treating the cause of our sin).
Once we know the why of our actions, which are usually because we don’t fear, love, or trust God as we should because our hearts are fearing, desiring, or trusting in someone or something else, we can then look for Christ to create within us a good and clean heart so that we can be transformed and renewed from the centre of our being.
For example, if we were to use a fruit tree as an analogy (as Jesus did), I think we can all agree that the purpose of any ‘Christian fruit tree’ is to bear fruit, right?
St Paul even describes some of the ‘fruit’ we Christians are expected to bear in his letter to the Galatians saying, the ‘fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Gal 5:22-23).
Now, if a fruit tree is looking good and lush to the passer-by but not bearing fruit, where’s the first place you’d need to work on so the tree could bear good fruit?
You’d work on the roots, right?
Perhaps you’d dig around a bit, check the ground to see if there’s any mineral imbalances, perhaps fertilise it some more, and make sure it gets the right amount of water. Usually, with the right amount of effort at a tree’s roots, you’d hope to see some fruit next season.
It’s the same with us.
Repentance involves looking at the root cause of your sinful words and actions or looking to identify why you didn’t speak those words of encouragement and mercy in the first place.
For instance, one symptom of your sickness could be that you’re critical and judgmental toward others. If you’re only seeking to treat the symptoms, your ‘repentance’ might involve just trying to hold your tongue, but your hearts would still harbour those sinful thoughts and critical attitudes toward others.
However, if you were look deeper at the roots of what you do and say, you might discover the cause of your critical and judgmental thoughts and words is because you’re proud of yourself and reckon you’re better than them. It could also be because you’ve jumped to the wrong conclusions about them based on your own presumptions or misunderstandings. In either case you haven’t sought to understand or love them, but you’ve simply judged them as worse than yourself.
But what’s even worse about such a critical attitude is that you’ve become the judge and jury of people made in the image of God, when God should be the only Judge. Therefore, when you judge and criticise others, you not only sin against those you’re critical about (in your words and actions), but you attempt to shift God from his Judgment seat and replace him with yourself!
This means you not only need to repent of your critical words and actions which have hurt others, but you also need to repent of your proud and arrogant heart which has attempted to enthrone yourself as judge and jury in the place of God!
If you only repent of the symptoms of your arrogance and pride by holding your tongue, you’d never repent of your idolatrous and arrogant heart which is the cause of your sins against both God and the people around you.
When your repentance goes all the way to the root cause of your sinful words and actions, which is your proud and idolatrous hearts which don’t fear, love, or trust God as you should, you may finally despair of yourself and your own abilities, and rightly receive the nourishment of the gospel of Jesus Christ who creates clean hearts and a renewed spirit within you.
This is because Jesus is the patient and merciful gardener who understands your temptations, who speaks for you, defends you, and loves you enough to ask for another chance to work away at your hearts so that you may produce the fruits of faith.
He digs away at your sin-infected hearts through his word of the Law to expose the sinful attitudes, self-centred fears, and selfish desires of your hearts, in order to lead you to repentance. He patiently and persistently calls you to repent how you haven’t truly feared, loved, or trusted God above all things. By digging at the roots of your sinful natures, the grace of Christ is able to work deeper into your hearts.
Then, like some gardeners who speak to their plants, Jesus continues to speak to you. He tells you the good news of the Gospel that you’re forgiven because he paid the full price for your disobedience and your rebellious attitude. He forgives you for what you’ve said or done which hurt others and hurt God. He forgives you for what you didn’t say or do when you should have. He forgives you for the sinful attitudes of your arrogant heart and creates a new heart within you so that you may bear the good fruit of the Gospel.
Like blood and bone being placed on the ground to nourish it, he gives you his own body and blood to reassure you of his forgiveness and strengthen your faith. Despite your sinfulness, you’re still welcome at his table so you can receive his grace and mercy and peace.
The Gardener doesn’t want to just prune a few words and actions out of your life, but he purposely comes to disturb your roots where those words and actions came from. But he also tenderly treats you with his Gospel of grace, love, forgiveness, and peace.
Through repentance and faith, and with the Holy Spirit’s help, we’ll all go from this place willing to live as in God’s presence, and lead a holy life, even as Christ has made us holy, and produce the fruits of faith, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So, one more exercise, and hopefully this won’t be uncomfortable for you.
Stand if you believe you need a Lord and Saviour who’ll speak for you, forgive you, and give you another chance to bear the fruits of repentance and faith…
Well then, may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, patiently and lovingly guard and renew your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.