Thursday, March 08, 2007


I wrote this sermon when I was in Seminary. I think I even wrote it for one of my homiletics courses but I don't remember which one. I think I preached it in 2001 while I was on my internship and then again in 2004 in my current congregation. I'm not preaching it again, just sharing it with anybody who reads my blog.

3rd Sunday in Lent
Luke 13.1-9
Thomas Arth

No doubt you've asked,
at one time or another,
"Why me?"
"Why me?"
"Why did this have to happen?"
"What did I do to deserve this?"

"Why did those kids have to die in that car accident?"
"Why did my father get cancer?"
"Why can't we get pregnant?"
So many things happen, that don't make sense
or that make us wonder why they have to happen.
"Why were those Galileans killed
just when they were at the altar making their sacrifices?"
"Were they worse sinners than any other Galileans?"
"Why were those eighteen workers killed
when the tower of Siloam fell?"
"Were they the biggest sinners in Jerusalem at the time?"

Let's face it. They're common questions.
You wonder, from time to time, when bad things happen,
whether or not it's punishment for something bad you've done.

Jesus gives the short answer.
Flat out

But what's with the qualifier that he adds on?
In both cases he senses what's behind the people's questions.
"Were they worse sinners than all others?"
"Were they worse offenders than all the others?"
And his answer is what appears to be a plain and simple "No!"
But it's not so plain and simple.

His answer to the question about the punishment deserved is
"No, I tell you; but unless you repent,
you will all perish as they did."
How does that fit?

A few summers ago there was a car accident.
Three teenagers were hit
when the jeep they were driving ran a stop sign.
Two were killed, and the one left alive was paralyzed.
He asked the hospital chaplain "Why?"
The chaplain could do little more than look down
and shrug his shoulders.
You turn on the news and see reports of these things all the time.
But for most of us, life goes on.
Maybe we tsk at the waste of it all.
Maybe we say a quick prayer for our loved ones
who are out on the road.
But then life goes on.
They seem like random calamities.
Did they deserve what happened to them?
"No, I tell you;
but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did[?]"
How does that fit?

Then Jesus told a parable.
Maybe the parable would clear things up.
Well a fig tree grows in a vineyard.
In the Bible, to sit under one's vine and fig
was a symbol of peace
and the serenity of a peasant farmers life.
So, the owner of this vineyard comes to find some fruit on his tree.
And what do you know, there is none.
For three years this tree has produced no figs.
It's no better than a weed, wouldn't you say?
Taking up space, hogging sunlight, drinking from the soil
and producing no fruit.

So cut it down!
It doesn't deserve the care, and the water,
and the nourishment that it's getting.
Another plant could just as well be growing here.
Maybe more grapes
at least they're producing.

But the gardener is thinking.
"The owner doesn't work here day after day.
The sun can get hot.
And without the shade of this tree
at least to eat my lunch under,
and maybe to take a noon hour siesta,
this plot of land would be unbearable to work on.
Who knew he wanted figs anyway?
I work like a dog tending these grapes
and I bring him a good harvest.
His wine is renowned.
It's the first to be served at all the local banquets
and today he comes looking for figs."
So the gardener says, "Sir, let it alone for one more year,
until I dig around it and put manure on it.
If it bears fruit next year, well and good;
but if not, you can cut it down."
"I can turn this thing around.
It can change from a waste of space
to a fruitful tree."

Jesus says, "repent, or you will all perish."
The gardener says, "let it alone for one more year,
then if it doesn't bear fruit cut it down."

A tree that doesn't bear fruit, is liable to get cut down.
A life of sin without repentance?
Well there's liable to be consequences for that too.

Jesus was quick to reject the idea
that a person's sin was the cause of their suffering.
The people killed by Pilate
or by the fall of the tower of Siloam
or the kids killed in the car crash
were not such great sinners that they were being punished by death.

That rejection was nothing new.
That's what the book of Job was saying
long before Jesus showed up.
But the view that specific sins bring specific judgment
was alive and well.
We probably don't hold to that view.
We don't imagine God to be a vindictive and angry God
lurking in the shadows
ready to pounce on sinful people
waiting to dole out well deserved punishment?
We believe in the merciful God revealed in the cross.

But there must be some kind of relationship between sin and judgment.
"unless you repent, you will all perish."
But is that a warning of impending judgment
or the wisdom of seeing it like it is.
If you play with fire, you're liable to get burned.
If you live by the sword, you'll die by the sword.
If you keep on sinning, nothing good will come of it.

So repent.
Turn yourself around.

No doubt you've heard or read testimony from people
who were on the path to disaster and turned their lives around.
The man, addicted to drugs.
First he made up excuses,
borrowed money from family and friends.
Then his wife's jewelry started disappearing.
After a while his problem had him living on the streets.
His family couldn't put up with the way he was living
and what it was doing to them.
He hadn't been able to do his job properly for months
and he'd missed so much time at work
they'd had it with him too.
So he ended up stealing to support his habit.
He had his share of run-ins with the law.
He got himself beat up a few times too.
Finally he came to himself.
He saw that the way he was living would lead to his destruction.
He had to turn his life around.

How bad does it have to get, though,
before you see the error in your ways?
Do you only wake up when you end up in those kinds of dire straits?
Or is it enough that your kids stopped asking you
to help with their homework
because you were too busy the last 10 times they asked.
Is your life producing fruit,
or is it time to repent?

That is what the fig tree parable implies.
Fruits are expected.
And they come from a repentant life.
We're told to get rid of anger, wrath,
malice, slander,
and abusive language.
Instead we should clothe ourselves with
compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness,
and patience.
Bear with one another,
forgive one another,
and love.

Good thing we're not growing these fruits on our own.
Thank God for the gardener.
And for the owner,
who's in no hurry to cut us down.

1 comment:

Lutheran Zephyr said...


Thanks for this post. A good sermon - particularly for a seminarian! I am supply preaching this Sunday, and your thoughts are helpful. As a hospital chaplain I see lots of suffering and can find no "reason" or "explanation" for it - surely it is not the work of God. (BTW, I just picked up Douglas John Hall's 1986 work, "God and Human Suffering." 40 pages into it, it is an excellent book. And he's Canadian, too!)

How to talk about the coming/eventual/end times judgement? That's more difficult, but there's comfort in knowing that the gardner asks for one more year - "Give me more time to work on the tree, Master," the garner says. "I'm not done with this tree." The gardner takes a certain responsibility for the tree, a certain dedication to seeing the tree to fullness. There's comfort in that (but yes, I admit that I'm avoiding the whole good works/sanctification issue that is so problematic for us Lutherans).