Saturday, March 03, 2007


Luke 13:1-9

I’m not a gardener. In fact, I have what they call a brown thumb. I wouldn’t know when to prune a bush or to fertilize the flowers. I water the lawn when I remember, but too often I forget. So, I can’t comment on Jesus’ parable of the fig tree from a gardener’s perspective. But, it’s the conversation that happens before the parable that catches my eye.

It’s human nature to try to figure out why things happen to people. There’s got to be a reason, or, so we think. When Katrina hit, certain preachers, blamed the residents of the region for their moral laxity. The same thing happened on 9-11 – Our nation was reaping what it had sown. For some reason there’s a tendency to think that suffering is God’s punishment for our sins. That’s the message Job’s friends brought him when things went bad.

When Jesus heard that Pilate massacred a group of Galileans worshiping peacefully in Jerusalem, he raised the question of why. Were they worse sinners any other Galileans? And, what about the eighteen killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them. Were their deaths divine punishment? Were they more sinful than anyone else living in Jerusalem? I’m sure Jesus got a few yeses to those questions. But Jesus said, no, they’re no worse than anyone else, though he does add a bit of a warning – if you don’t repent you’ll end up like them. But, the message I think Jesus wants us to hear, is that bad luck doesn’t mean you’ve done bad things. Bad luck isn’t divine punishment, it’s just the way life is.

If suffering isn’t divine punishment, then what should we take from these examples? Perhaps they tell us that life is unpredictable and that despite our best laid plans we can't be sure about tomorrow. Therefore, when it comes to the things of God, don’t put them off until tomorrow. Don’t wait until tomorrow to get things straightened out with God and with your neighbor, because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. There is, it seems, a sense of urgency.


While suffering isn’t divine punishment, it does get our attention. Repentance isn’t just saying you’re sorry, it’s deciding to live life differently. Sometimes when bad things happen, we stop and examine our lives, and as we do this, we discover that there are things that need changing in our lives. William Willimon, following St. Paul, suggests that repentance is a four-part process (Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 29 (Jan., Feb., Mar. 2001): 46].
  • First, "True repentance means comprehension that wrong has been done." They say that you can't help an alcoholic until they realize they have a problem. That’s the point of the Law. It doesn’t reconcile you to God, but it does help point out the problem.
  • Second, you have to make some effort to change things.
  • Third, is a renewed longing to be in God's presence. Although God never leaves us, we can ignore God’s presence. But if we turn to face God, like a piece of metal that gets near a magnet, we’ll find ourselves drawn to God.
  • Finally, we discover that our lives have changed. True repentance leads to good fruit. As Willimon aptly says, repentance "is considerably more than a feeling." It’s a transformed life.


As I watched the documentary Jesus Camp the other day, I saw the dangers that are inherent in the call to repentance. This film is about a group of Fundamentalist Christians who try to rally children to their cause. Unfortunately they used guilt as a way of manipulating these children into joining their cause. Calls for repentance easily fall into those kinds of bad habits that lead to guilt trips, depression, and even hopelessness.

Martin Luther’s story is a good example. He tried to please God, but found himself feeling depressed and inadequate. He prayed and studied; he served others and he deprived himself of pleasure. But he didn’t find any relief from his guilt. Then he began to hate God, That is, until the day he discovered God’s grace, and that grace freed him from guilt and it changed his life.

The parable of the fig tree is a counterpoint to this discussion about repentance. Fig trees were considered signs of God's favor, and so a tree that doesn't bear fruit is a problem. In this story, the landowner comes every year to see if the tree is bearing fruit, and each year he goes away disappointed. Finally, after doing this for three years the landowner decides to tear it out and plant something else. Like a typical network executive who yanks a TV series if it doesn't bear immediate fruit, that is, good ratings, this landowner demands results.

The parable begins with a word of judgment: That tree must go. But the gardener responds: "Please Mr. Landowner, don't pull the tree out just yet; I think can get it to bear fruit." This is the word of grace. God is like the gardener who has patience with his people. Life’s events may lead us to reconsider our lives, but transformation comes from God’s gracious activity in our lives.

Anti-crime enthusiasts tell us that long prison sentences and the death penalty are deterrents to crime, but in spite of longer sentences and overcrowded prisons, a growing prison population suggests otherwise. If this was such a good deterrent, why do we continually need more prisons? It would seem that fear isn’t the best context for repentance. Willimon writes that "when a parent stands over a little child and says `Now Johnny, tell me honestly, did you steal those cookies from the cookie jar?' that parent shouldn't be too surprised when the child looks up at the threatening parent and answers, `No.'" (Pulpit Resources, p. 46)

As we take this Lenten journey toward Good Friday and the Easter, Jesus reminds us that we are sinners needing to repent, but he also reminds us that there is grace sufficient to transform our lives and restore our relationship with God and with one another. Lent calls us to confess our sins, but it also offers a word of forgiveness.

Consider for a moment the grace that took a slave trader like John Newton and transformed him into a man who helped end the slave trade in England and who wrote one of the church's most beloved hymns. We don't know what tomorrow will bring, and so repenting today is probably a good idea, because the end result is a new life with God! And as we do this, we will bear good fruit.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, California
March 4, 2007
2nd Sunday of Lent

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