This sermon went quite well. The text presented an excellent chance to preach repentance, which both preacher and congregation need to hear. It was also a very timely text — disasters like these happen all the time, and we are continually tempted to think that it’s the other guy’s fault. Something I didn’t go into, but could have, was to address the issue of what happens when you are the one suffering. We are quickly convicted (in a moment, sometimes) when disaster strikes us personally that God hates us and wants to destroy us. Nothing could be further from the truth! Christ has borne all our sins in His body on the tree, and He has paid for every last one of them. What is left for God to punish us for? Nothing!
“1Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4Or 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? 5I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7So 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?’
8” ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”
It seems like every day the news gets more and more unwatchable. While we lived in Milwaukee, my wife and I stopped watching the news because it was always so terrible. Another pileup on the freeway. Another child hit by a random bullet. Not too long before we left, a child was playing by the river and fell through the ice. They found his body a couple days later. It’s not just Milwaukee that that sort of thing happens, though. The news from all over just keeps getting worse and worse. Earthquakes, fires, floods; terrorist attacks, shootings, school violence. We can think of the recent disasters in Haiti, or the huge earthquake in Chile. All that pain and suffering. It’s enough to make you want to turn off the TV. I guess that’s what current events are made of: other peoples’ hardships and problems.
That’s not necessarily a new development; we just hear about it more now. In our gospel some people come to Jesus with the latest news. Pilate had murdered some Galileans visiting the temple to worship. Not only were their deaths a shock in themselves, but they also took place in the temple. To do this, Roman soldiers had to burst in in the middle of their offering the sacrifices and kill them on the spot. Gentiles weren’t even supposed to be in the temple. This is a horrible event in many ways, a desecration against God and an offense against the Jewish people. Those who brought the news look at Jesus expectantly, waiting to see what the Teacher will say. When Simeon saw Jesus as a baby at the temple, he had prophesied that through Jesus the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed. Jesus fulfills that in part here. His answers shows that he knows what they expect him to say, and that they’ve got a lot to learn. Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! Or what about those eighteen who died in the accident when the tower fell on them? Were they worse sinners? No!” Jesus knows that they’ve assumed that since that horrible thing has happened to those Galileans, they had to have done something. God wouldn’t smite someone like that unless they really were bad people. They had it coming.
It’s an easy assumption to make when we see someone else suffering. It’s very easy to think that they earned it – God must be getting them. Recently the televangelist Pat Robertson announced in the wake of the recent earthquakes in Haiti that they had happened because the Haitians had made a pact with the devil. In exchange for their independence from France, they promised their country to Satan. That’s why they were hit with such devastating earthquakes. Could this be true? Perhaps. The Caribbean has a long history of demonic activity and demons do tend to work openly when people believe in their powers and seek them out. But is that the exact reason, or the entire reason? Did everyone in Haiti deserve to get hit with an earthquake? That we can’t say. Pat Robertson presumed to know what God was doing with those earthquakes, even though he has no way of telling. Or another example: during a feud with another celebrity who happened to have cancer, Rosie O’Donnell famously said, “Mean people get cancer.” She was basically saying that this person she didn’t like deserved to have cancer happen to them. I don’t think Rosie was thinking about her own sins at that moment; in fact, I don’t know if she thinks about her sins at all.
Neither do we when we look at others’ problems and conclude that they had it coming, whether they’re homeless people, poor people, foreigners, or our own neighbors down the block. That’s the problem when we decide that the other person got what was coming to them. When others suffer and we don’t, it’s not necessarily a sign that God is currently displeased with those particular people. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. You can’t tell who the good people or the bad people are by what happens to them. Look at Job and all he suffered. Look at Jesus.
Disasters, whether natural or manmade, are instead a foretaste of the punishment God will carry out for all sin, on all sinners. We’re inclined to think that God’s judgment is never going to come. I used to work with a guy who once said, “He didn’t get me yesterday, and he’s not going to get me today either.” Our old Adam shrugs off talk of God’s judgment as fairy tales – not real and nothing to worry about if it is. But God’s punishment is indeed coming on all sin – on your sin and my sin. Destruction from the Almighty will come like a bolt out of the blue, like a piano pushed out of a ten story window to drop on your head. Isaiah warns us, “See, the day of the Lord is coming – a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger – to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it…I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless…therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger” (Isa 13:9,11,13).
Regardless of how good you think you are, God’s anger burns against your sins. Regardless of what the other guy did, you have sins that deserve God’s judgment. I don’t know what they are, but you might and he sure does. It is those sins for which you should repent, or else God’s wrath will sweep you away with no one to rescue. It might not be today, and it might not be tonight or tomorrow. But one day you’re going to die. You’ll get hit by a car or cancer will get you or you’ll choke on a chocolate donut, and that’ll be it. Nobody knows when that day will be, but it’s coming. Then you’ll be judged. When you die, that’s it. Your time to repent is over. He takes you as you are. Will you be ready?
Jesus’ call to repentance is so urgent because we can easily misunderstand God’s grace and patience. We can figure that since I sinned and God didn’t strike me dead, it must not matter if I sin. It’s no big deal. God won’t do anything about it anyway. That would be a dangerous attitude indeed to take. That’s not why God waits to punish sin. It’s not that he condones sin. Instead, he’s giving you time to repent before he carries out his judgment. That’s the point of the parable Jesus tells. The landowner had given the tree ample time to produce fruit, but there was none. Why let it waste the soil? Just cut it down. Then notice what the gardener does. He goes to bat for the tree. He pleads for extra time. He volunteers to do extra work on the tree to make sure it has every chance to produce fruit. If it doesn’t, then it gets cut down, but he did everything he could.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think many people would volunteer to do that much extra work, all for what was basically a dead tree. But that’s what Christ has done for us. He willingly left the glories of heaven to walk the dusty roads of this fallen world. He made sure he kept every one of God’s commandments, and he left none of them undone. Then he let the Roman soldiers nail him to the cross. He let Pilate and the Pharisees and also us, and ultimately God the Father, batter all their wrath against him and lay him in the dust of death until God’s wrath burned itself out and there was nothing left to forgive, because there was no more sin. He had atoned for it all. Now he has risen, the firstfruits from the dead, and he lives to intercede for us. He’s like the family member who gets in the middle of an argument and talks to both sides, trying to calm everybody down and restore peace. Jesus goes to the Father on our behalf when we sin. He constantly comes before God and pleads for God to have mercy on us. Through his own sacrifice and merits, he holds off the ax from the root of the tree. By his life and death and intercession, he stands between us sinners and a holy God.
Jesus always is asking for more time, Father, just give them more time. I’ve sent the Holy Spirit into their hearts and they belong to me. They are clothed in my righteousness, Father, not their own. They aren’t sinful anymore. They’re holy, because of me. They know right and wrong – I’ve told them in my Word, over and over. Just give them more time. I know they’re going to bear fruit.
So don’t waste the time God is giving you. Don’t show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience. God’s kindness leads you toward repentance. Don’t throw away Jesus’ intercession for you. Return to the Lord your God. Look at your life, your heart, your sins the way God does. Search your heart and confess everything wrong that you find there. Realize how you have offended against him, and turn away from your sin. Then cling to Christ. He is the only one who saves you from God’s anger. He is the only one who can rescue from your sins and their just punishment. He will welcome you back! Trust that for Jesus’ sake, you have a gracious God. You are sheltered from the wrath of God. Every reason for God to be mad at you has been taken care of by Christ. Come to his altar and taste forgiveness. Here he gives you himself, the guarantee that all your sins are forgiven and you are received into his grace. Here you receive not only a bit of bread and a sip of wine in a few brief moments. Here you receive life and health for your soul – peace of conscience – comfort that the angel of death will pass you by and you will not die for your sins. You taste the favor of God. You have his assurance, in a tangible form and real in every way, that he hears your repentance and forgives you everything that would condemn you. Repent and live, because God’s patience means life.
Luther once commented that if God punished each of us the moment we deserved it, none of us would survive beyond the age of seven. Thank God that he does not do that. Instead he chooses to show us mercy by patiently waiting for us to come back to him. May we repent of our sins, turn to him for forgiveness, and thus find life forever. Amen.