Here is my sermon, more or less, from last Sunday…
March 11, 2007, Luke 13:1-9
Imagine the police knocking on your door one day, accompanied by a scruffy ex-convict, whom only yesterday you befriended. As thanks for your generosity, the ex-con has stolen most of your silver. What do you do?
This is the opening question of “Les Miserables,” the magnificent Victor Hugo classic. The classic, now out on video, is a stunning illustration of the way truly great art incorporates rich biblical themes. The convict’s name is Jean Valjean and the man he has stolen from is a bishop.
But this is no ordinary bishop. He’s a radical believer who takes the words of Jesus literally. So when Valjean is dragged before him holding the stolen silver, the bishop informs the startled police that the silver was a gift. He turns the other cheek by giving Valjean a pair of silver candlesticks as well, and then sets him free. Later we learn that Valjean had spent nineteen years in prison merely for stealing a loaf of bread out of hunger, an injustice that left him deeply embittered. The bishop’s act of generosity and grace breaks the cycle of anger and sin. This is Valjean’s first taste of grace, and it transforms him. The ex-convict later shows the same extraordinary forgiveness and grace to someone who wrongs him.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s extraordinarily compelling, with a powerful Christian message…
(Adapted from (c) 1998 Prison Fellowship Ministries)
One we’ll think about as we reflect on our interesting reading from Luke. It compares the suffering of others to the sin of the people Jesus is talking to.
First there is an obscure reference to some Galileans’ blood being mixed with sacrifices. Apparently done by Pilate. While we don’t know exactly what happened, it is widely accepted that at some time Pilate had some Galileans killed in the temple. Their blood mixing with the blood of their offerings, desecrating the temple and the offering.
Then Jesus mentions some people who were killed when a tower fell on them. This event we have no clue about, but presumably those in his attendance would. Sort of how we might talk about Hurricane Juan, but people in Italy might have little clue as to the devastation we’re talking about. But they know this sort of thing happens and have an idea of what it’s like. Just like we don’t know the facts around this tower, but we do know that people die in accidents like this.
So we have two separate incidents where people have died. The question Jesus is getting to is â€œWhy did these people die?â€ Did they sin? Is this why they died? Or was is just an unfortunate place to be at the wrong time?
Jesus recognizes accidents happen. And so would those around him, just as we do today. Whether we sin or not, we can’t be protected from all accidents. Many things are beyond our control. We fall on slippery surfaces, we get into fender benders on the roads. Bad storms come and do heavy damage to communities. We can’t control these sorts of things.
But Jesus pushes a bit more. He’s telling us there are things we can control. And that is ourselves. We can avoid sin. We can protect ourselves by avoiding dangers in our lives. Jesus says those who do not repent and turn away from sin… well… those people will face the same results as those he already mentioned.
Now, the fact that no one jumped up to kill Jesus right then and there is a surprise! Jesus just told everyone in his audience they are sinners and need to repent. If they don’t he says they will die. â€œYou will all perish just as they did.â€ Very strong words for those in attendance, and for us today! But Jesus is giving us a choice.
Sure there are things in life that just plain suck. We can’t avoid it, we can’t plan for it, we can’t make it go away. But there are things we can avoid. There are situations we get ourselves into where choices we make get us into trouble. Decisions maybe we shouldn’t have made. The easy thing of course is to just never get out of bed! But we can’t do that and still be good Christians now can we? And it’s a lot more fun for us all to gather here on Sunday than it is for me to talk to an empty room!
So what about all of us who just have so much trouble following these teachings? We struggle daily with the hard decisions between Christian living and sinful living. Well, this morning Jesus tells us a comforting story. The story of the fig tree in the vineyard. This tree is producing no fruit, for three years the owner has waited. We know from the old testament that it is forbidden to eat the fruit of newly planted tree. We learn this in Leviticus. And the fruit from its fourth year is to be a sacrifice to God. So presumably, the tree is still two years away from being harvested for personal use.
Anyways, the owner is ready to give up, to dispose of the tree and to replant. He is prepared to cut his loses and go on. But the gardener has compassion for this tree. He asks for one more year to get the tree to produce fruit. The gardener will pay extra attention to this tree, coddling it with care. If it doesn’t produce fruit next season, then they will cut it down.
The vineyard is a common reference to the people of Israel in scripture. So immediately listeners will understand that Jesus is talking about more than a tree. He is talking about God’s people
and what happens when it’s perceived someone is not living properly. When someone is not being a productive member of the community. What do we often want to do when someone is not being helpful? Being the proverbial â€œbump on a log!â€
Well, Jesus tells us what God would do. Just as the gardener wanted to give the fig tree another chance, he also asked the owner to do the same. God gave the tree one more chance, and he’s willing to do the same for us. We might be struggling in finding our own place in this world. We might feel like we aren’t producing any fruit. But God will nurture us, God will care for us and watch over us. And God expects others to do the same.
It is then up to us to respond to that care. It is up to us whether we will produce fruit or not. It is up to us whether we make our decisions more wisely, more Christ-like. It is up to us to, as Jesus puts it, repent.
There’s that word… Repent… Repentance is more than just saying I don’t want to do something anymore. It’s more than saying I won’t do that anymore. It’s about changing your life and the purpose for which you live. Turning away from sin is part of this change, but more importantly you are turning to God and Godly things. Your focus in life is the example of Christ. It won’t be focusing on avoidance of sin or worrying about pleasing God. It’s about trusting in God to lead us as we follow Christ.
We will still fall short, we will still make mistakes. But when we repent, when we turn to God in all things, the mistakes are smaller… less frequent… Because when we make these mistakes, we are aware we have done wrong, and we can then go back to God and say, â€œOops I messed up here God… what do I need to do to get back on track?â€
Accidents are accidents, they still happen. Mistakes can be reduced. We can learn from the wrongs we have done, and what we can do in the future. We learn God’s way of living our lives through reflecting on His Holy Word, and through prayer and discerning what the Word has to say to us each day.
From this, we are able to bear fruit. We’ve let God nurture us and help us grow. As we grow, we can now be fruitful. We learn how to react with grace to others who are struggling. We learn how to share the Good News and grace of Jesus Christ with those we meet.
Just as the Bishop did for Jean Valjean. A man who was struggling from injustices in his life, a man who never experienced grace. But the bishop showed the grace he had learned from Christ’s example… and a life was changed.
We don’t know much about the Bishop, except he was like us… human. He once didn’t produce fruit, but God gave him a chance, God took care of him and helped him understand what it meant to be a disciple of Christ.
How are we doing as we look to Christ for leadership? Are we fruitful? Are we helping share God’s grace with the world around us? Are we letting God speak to us in our busy lives in reading scripture and prayer? Have we allowed God to care for and nurture us?
I think this is a good time for us to pray…