March 24, 2019 – The 3rd Sunday in Lent
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
Chad Post was a friend of mine at Birmingham-Southern College. He played baseball for the college and was known as quite a slugger. So distinguished was he on the baseball diamond that he was the subject of a piece in Sports Illustrated…but not for the reason you might expect. Instead, he was the subject of the weekly SI feature known as “This Week’s Sign the Apocalypse is Upon Us.” One afternoon, while playing a regional opponent, Chad teed off on a pitch, hitting it over the fence, out of the ballpark, and through the windshield of a car in the parking lot. The owner of the car? The pitcher who had given up the home run.
Every week, Sports Illustrated shares a wacky, off-the-wall story of such remarkable coincidence that one might interpret it as a sign that the end of the world has arrived. They are stories of athletes who tore their LCL while putting on a pair of shoes or teams banning high fives because pink eye was spreading through the clubhouse. And, if you read Luke 12, you might get the impression that Jesus himself would approve of this kind of interpretation. He spends most of the chapter warning his disciples to stay alert and watch for the coming judgment of God. Finally, as the chapter comes to a close, Jesus chastises the crowd for not knowing how to interpret the present signs that God’s reign is imminent: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
When we turn the page and get to chapter 13 and today’s gospel lesson, it seems that some in the crowd want to try their hand at the kind of apocalyptic interpretation that Jesus had in mind. They approach him and ask if he had heard about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, implying that God had had a hand in their deaths because of some unknown unfaithfulness on their part. We don’t know exactly what happened except that some Jews from Galilee—the same place where Jesus was from—were offering their sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem, when Pilate had them killed. Luke is the only gospel writer to recall this incident, and it isn’t substantiated by other historians. We do know that Pilate was brutal and that he was known for killing Jews who threatened the authority of Rome. It’s reasonable to think that these Galileans had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, a time of intense national pride and potential unrest, and had been murdered by the nervous governor while they were getting ready for the feast.
Whatever the reason, Pilate had them killed, and the crowd who asks Jesus about it seems to think that their untimely death was a sign that God was punishing them for some secret misdeed. That’s kind of like a preacher dying of a heart attack right in the middle of a sermon about adultery and everyone in the congregation wondering whether God had struck him down because he had been unfaithful. But Jesus rejects that insinuation: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” And, to prove his point, he reminds them of another senseless tragedy: “Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” God’s judgment may be at hand, but that doesn’t mean that the only people who experience it are people who deserve it.
When it comes to proclaiming a message of God’s judgment, it’s always easier to point a finger at somebody else. It’s “they” who need to worry about divine punishment. When God comes to set the world right, it’s not “we” who need sorting out. It’s always someone else. I remember when a parishioner in Montgomery, Alabama, told me that God had sent Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans in order to wash away all the notorious sinners on Bourbon Street. Gene was a man who squeezed more bigotry and hatred into 5’2” than anyone else I ever met, and I never figured out a way to help him understand the need for his own repentance. And that’s the real problem with identifying God’s judgment on someone else: it always causes us to forget the judgment that is coming for us as well. You can’t see that there’s a plank in your eye when you’re worried about the speck in someone else’s. That’s why Jesus says what he says to the crowd that asked whether the Galileans were getting what they deserved: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Repentance is everyone’s business.
As he often did, Jesus used a parable to explain what he meant: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” Frustrated at the tree’s lack of productivity, the owner spoke to the gardener and asked that the tree be cut down. “Why should it be wasting the soil?” he asked. But the gardener begged him to give the tree another chance. “Sir, leave it alone for another year,” he explained, “and I will dig around it and put manure on it. Let’s see if I can get it to grow figs next year. After that, if it doesn’t bear fruit, you can cut it down.” In the Hebrew Bible, fig trees are often used as an image for God’s people. When God’s judgment comes, the prophets explain, the only thing that matters is whether the children of God are bearing fruit. Jesus takes up the prophets’ metaphor in order to remind the crowd that preparing for judgment doesn’t mean pointing fingers at other people but turning inward. Keeping watch means shining the light of self-examination inside oneself in order to ask, “Am I bearing fruit?”
God’s judgment is imminent. All around us are signs that the apocalypse is upon us, and it’s not just pink eye and baseballs smashing windshields. It’s faithful worshipers being murdered by a terrorist. It’s another plane crashing within minutes of taking off. It’s walls and guns and overdoses and #MeToo. God’s judgment is here. How will we respond—by making a big deal about how other people live or by focusing on ourselves and our own failures? Jesus speaks some harsh words to us this morning: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” But what does that mean? Repentance doesn’t mean being miserable. It means turning around, coming back, and returning to God. In agricultural terms, repentance means digging around the fig tree, turning over the soil, and amending it with manure. We are all living in that extra year of grace, but that means that the time for us to bear fruit is now.
Is your life bearing fruit for God? If not, it isn’t too late. Turn around. Come back to God. Ask God for help. And let God bring your life to full blossom.