Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent
Sunday, March 3, 2013
Good morning! My name is Alex Easley. I am a first-year student at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, and I’m so grateful to be with yall this morning. Thank you, Jimmy for having me!
I have to admit, I was sorely tempted to skip over the Gospel lesson completely today and just stick with the safer, slightly more cheerful Burning Bush story. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But I chose to focus on our Gospel lesson for today, tricky though it is, because we can’t just run away from the portions of the Bible that challenge or disturb us. I believe we’re called to dive right into the midst of that difficulty and wrestle with the text, to let it surprise, disturb, and challenge us. In Isaiah chapter 8, God tells us “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God is so much bigger than us that we often can’t even begin to understand his ways. But I think God wants us to try anyway. So. Let’s give it a go.
First, let’s get some context and start to unpack what is happening in this story. So Jesus has been teaching a big crowd of people. Some of the people in the crowd have a question for Jesus. They ask him to shed some light on this horrific thing that happened recently. Apparently Pilate, the Roman governor, murdered several Jews as they were making their sacrifices. So these people in the crowds are asking Jesus to help them understand how something this horrible could happen. They are trying to make sense of something terrible and unfair. It’s obvious to us, reading it today, that this tragedy was a shocking act of injustice, of uncalled for violence. But in biblical times, it was often thought that suffering, illness, or an early death was punishment for sins. We see this in the Gospel of John when a group of Pharisees bring a blind man to Jesus, and ask him whether he was blind because he had sinned, or because his parents had sinned. So when the people in the crowd ask Jesus about the Galileans murdered by Pilate, Jesus understands that this is what is going through their heads – they’re wondering if these people suffered such a cruel fate because they “were worse sinners.” Jesus then brings up a similar example of this kind of thinking – apparently a tower had fallen recently and killed 18 people – another senseless tragedy. So Jesus asks, do you think these people were killed because they were worse sinners than the other people in that town?
We wait expectantly for Jesus to answer this question – surely we’ve all had thoughts like this before…when tragedy strikes, we want some sort of justification for it. We want to be able to understand it, to explain it away. But Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t give us quite the answer we were looking for. He says “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Hmmmm. So the answer is no, these people weren’t killed because they were worse sinners than anybody else. And yet, if we do not repent, we will die in the same way. What are we to make of this? My first instinct is to stay away from any towers that look a little shady.
But surely we cannot all be slaughtered by Pilate and killed by crumbling towers…Jesus isn’t just saying, “Watch your back, you’re next.” Nor is he saying, “Repent and nothing bad will ever happen to you; leave behind your sinful ways and no tragedy will ever befall you.” Unfortunately, we know all too well that that just isn’t true. Bad things happen to good, faithful people all too often. (Why? I don’t know. I’ll leave that sermon for Jimmy.) To understand what Jesus is saying, we need to read the text more literally: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” – that is, having not repented. If you don’t repent, you will perish un-repented, just as these people did. So while at first this response from Jesus seems rather cryptic and ominous, it’s really quite simple – repent, or you will die having not repented. Death can come upon us at any time. Towers fall. Life is uncertain and fleeting, so don’t delay. Repent.
Okay. I think I’m tracking with Jesus thus far. I need to repent, and soon. But why do I need to repent? And what does that repentance look like?
Jesus answers these questions with the parable of the fig tree. He tells a story about a tree that bears no fruit. The owner of the tree agrees to give it one year, and if it still bears no fruit, it will be chopped down. This may seem harsh at first, but think about it – a fig tree’s purpose is to bear figs; if it’s not doing that, then it has no place in a fig vineyard. In this parable, I think Jesus is the gardener and we are the trees. Jesus, the gardener, intercedes on our behalf, giving us a second chance at life. Jesus wants us to bear fruit, so he puts time and energy and work into us, fertilizing our soil, so that we may have life, and give life. Because fruit hanging on a tree is both a sign of life – it shows that the tree is well – and a giver of life, something that provides nourishment to others. The gardener Jesus gives of himself so that we may have life and have it to the fullest, bearing good fruit.
Ok. So. What does this fig tree have to do with repentance? Why would Jesus choose to tell this parable in conjunction with his call to repent? Here’s what I think: Real repentance bears fruit. If we’re only repenting out of a sense of obligation, or because we’re afraid a tower might topple over on us tomorrow, that isn’t the kind of deep, soul-repentance that changes our lives. That kind of repentance is more like the New Years resolutions we make but never really plan to keep. The kind of repentance Jesus is interested in happens when we allow the full force of the good news to wash over us so completely that we can’t help but change our lives in response to it. New-Years-Resolution-Repentance is kind of like a fun challenge. Real repentance hurts, it costs us something. But this is the kind of repentance that bears fruit, that clears the way for good things – so that we can have the kind of full, abundant life Jesus calls us into. We can’t bear good fruit if there is ugly, rotten fruit taking up the soil. Real repentance means chopping that bad fruit down, so that we make room for the kind of abundant life that is ours in Christ.
Today is the third Sunday of Lent. In Lent we repent of our sins in order to prepare ourselves to bear the fruit of resurrection, of new life. We can’t get to the resurrection without first going to the cross. Will we continue to live in sin and selfishness, in ways that lead only to death? Or will we repent of those ways, and choose life – choose to be people who bear fruit that gives life to the world, even in the midst of uncertainty and suffering and tragedy? Are we willing to suffer the death that is necessary to get to the resurrection, to the bearing of good fruit? What parts of our lives need to be pruned away by the good gardener, Jesus?
It won’t be easy. Allowing parts of us to be chopped down is no picnic. But in reality, it is the only way to life. If we want to bear fruit, we have to engage in real repentance, and that’s hard work. But Like Jesus, we have to go to the cross before we can be raised to new life. Let’s choose life.