Lessons – Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 103; I Cor 10:1-13; St. Luke 13:1-9
Last week contained a startling news story out of Florida. A Hillsboro County man was swallowed up in his bedroom at 11pm. Usually sink holes give warnings of cracks in wall or even walls falling down but in this case there was no warning at all. His brother, hearing the commotion ran into the room only to see the end of his brother’s bed. All of the furniture in the room was gone. The brother jumped into the hole to try to find his brother to no avail. He had to be rescued by the sheriff’s department and the home abandoned due to safety issues. The man’s body will never be recovered.
When you hear a story of such a freak accident you cannot help but wonder why this happened. Some will say that it was bad karma, others that God was punishing him, while others will see evil behind it all. It is human nature to try to make sense of things so out of our control.
Of course this is nothing new. Jesus was asked to give an opinion about the news of His day and dealing with its implications. Two news events were being discussed. One was the story of Pilate killing some people and mingling their blood with the offerings that they had brought to the Lord. The other was a local event where a tower in Siloam, constructed by some ancient equivalent of Hardcastle Construction Company, developed a crack down the middle and fell over and killed 18 people. We can tell from Jesus’ response that He was addressing the “who is responsible” question, and even though He was addressing a specific question from His specific day, His answers are pertinent to us today, especially as we journey through this season of Lent.
I want to begin with a little background so that we understand the context better. The two news events mentioned are unknown outside of Scripture, but that should not make us question their authenticity. While there is no record of Pilate mixing some people’s blood with their offerings, it does fit his profile. The ancient historian Josephus tells of a time where Pilate heard of a Samarian prophet gathering a large crowd with the goal of uncovering sacred vessels that supposedly had been buried by Moses. It reads like Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazi’s were afraid of the power of the ark. Pilate dispatched his army and massacred the crowd. It was this act that ended his career in Palestine in 36 AD and Eusebius tells us that he was sent to Gaul and he later committed suicide.
And as far as the tower falling and killing 18, this was a matter of local news but it is not surprising that it would not have made it on CNN, (Caesar’s News Network) or made it into the history books. The only thing of interest in this story is that it may have been connected to an aqueduct built by Pilate. This would have made the news of the day because it was surrounded by another scandal because Pilate built this famous aqueduct with temple money. As difficult as it is for us today to imagine government fraud and ineptitude still we have no reason to doubt that these things occurred.
So just like modern people talking about the news, the locals of His day wanted to know from Jesus who was responsible. But very much unlike modern people they were working from a presupposition that the two tragedies must some how be connected to sin. In the case of Pilate we see an evil man triumphing over godly people whose only crime was to bring sacrifices to God. In the case of the tower we don’t see sin directly but we see a fluke accident that invites the suspicion was that the victims were getting their just desserts because of sin in their lives.
Again, that kind of thinking may be foreign to many of us today but we can see this mindset in a more direct manner in an episode in St. John’s Gospel. “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.’” (Jn 9:1-4)
Do you hear their question? It was not really “Why was this guy born blind?” They believed that they knew why, they only wanted to know who was responsible. He was blind because of sin. The only question was who did it.
It was this mentality that Jesus addressed with the two news events and notice, just as we saw Him do last week, He turns it back on them. “So you think that this happened to them because they were terrible sinners, well unless YOU repent YOU will die just like they did.” Jesus is not corroborating their theory; rather He takes their perspective and turns it around like a mirror so that His questioners can take a good look at themselves.
But why did he do this? Because people, especially we religious people are very good at deciding what it right and wrong for others while neglecting to address our own back yards. We want justice for everyone else but mercy for ourselves. So Jesus tells us to get the beam out of our own eyes before we try to help our brother with his splinter. It may not be in our hymnal but there is a great old gospel tune that we need to keep in mind, especially during this season of Lent. It says, “It’s me, it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not my brother or my sister but it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
We love it when people in high places fall. It’s all over the news when celebrities can’t keep their marriages together or when a overpaid sports’ star gets caught cheating or when some financial guru gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar. We take delight that we aren’t like those sinners. Or are we?
I read a very convicting sermon about what the preacher called “soft addictions.” These are things that don’t show up in the Ten Commandments but tend to become such priorities in our lives that they gently push God out of the picture. Here are the preachers list: “…working too much…spend(ing) to much on things we don’t really need, chocolate, neglecting the family, spreading gossip, undermining a coworker, neglecting your daily prayer life, chocolate, preferring to read anything but the word of God, a hankering for the latest and most fashionable clothes, spending too much time at Car Toys, and did we mention chocolate.” (Homiletics, March/April 2004, p.21).
Since I own a T Shirt that says, “Hand Over the Chocolate and No One Will Get Hurt” you can imagine that I take exception to part of this sermon, but other than that I find his list convicting. Some of these soft addictions we can even rationalize but when we begin to rationalize our soft addictions is when we can see that they truly are out of control in our lives. He refers to several rationalizations and as I read them see if you can’t find yourself here. “This designer dress is really an investment”. “This doughnut has no calories if I eat it standing up”. “I can’t exercise this afternoon because I’ve already showered this morning”. “Wide screen TVs are easier on your eyes.” “All this shopping is good for the economy.” “But I’m earning frequent flyer miles.” (Homiletics, p22).
These soft addictions do not happen over night. They begin subtly, softly and what Jesus was communicating to the crowd then and to us today is that if we only focus on the sins of others then we will never see our own sins as they take root in our lives until they take their toll. Surely Jesus’ council to us today would be the same, “Forget about them, what about you? Is there nothing for which you need to repent?” I for one can say and mean the words of the old spiritual, “Its me, its me, its me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
After Jesus turns the question of the crowd back on themselves, he points them to two important things about God that are also important for us to be reminded of during Lent. He points these things out with a parable that has a surprise ending.
Jesus was famous for telling parables. As Father Chris pointed out last week in his Christian Ed class, Jesus used parables so that those with a soft heart, a prepared heart, would get his message but it would be water off a ducks back for those whose hearts were unprepared. In this way Jesus was not casting His pearls before swine.
So Jesus tells a parable of an unfruitful fig tree, a servant who intercedes and asks the owner for one more year and it is granted. Most of you already know this, but let me remind you that a parable is an extended simile or metaphor meant to make one or two major points. It is a brilliant technique because it is told in story form so that we remember the points. All I have to say is “Good Samaritan” and you will remember the point. The major point here is that God is patient and merciful and gives us time to repent, but that time has its limits.
Fig trees are supposed to bear fruit every year. It would not have been just for the owner to demand the tree to do what it could not if it was a kind of tree that only bore fruit once a decade. But in this case his expectations were just, and he was being more than generous using the three-strikes-and-you-are-out rule.
You have heard it said that time heals all wounds and in many ways it does. It is wise when you are angry with someone to sit down and write a letter but then give it three days before you mail it. Most of the time you won’t. Many people follow a three days rule before making a major purchase so that they do not buy impulsively. In many many areas of our lives, time is an ally. But Jesus is telling us here that when it comes to sin and repentance it is just the opposite. The clock is ticking. If after a year there is no fruit the tree will be cut down. The longer we put off repentance the greater control a sin has over our lives. If we have an attitude that we will repent later, there may never be a later. You could be attacked by a crazy man like Pilate or have a tower fall on you today!
I once spoke to a student about the Christian faith and he told me that his plan was to live as wild a life as he could and then repent and get baptized when he became an old man. This was an educated person and yet a child could see through that line of reasoning. It was shocking to see how much he was willing to test God’s patience.
It is my reading of Scripture that if on the Day of Judgment we tell God, “I MEANT to repent” that God will respond, “And I MEANT to send you to heaven.” After the tree is found to bear no fruit it will be cut down. There is no second chance. This means that time is of the essence. And so St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor 6:1,2).
The last thing that I wish to point out about our lesson today is that Jesus ends the parable by leaving the story open ended. The servant is going to dig around the tree and put manure on it. But we don’t know how the story ends. Was the tree spared because it bore fruit or did it go another year without fruit and ended up being cut down?
The story is left as open ended as our lives. We don’t know how our lives will end up so we better do the right thing today. We believe that God is sovereign and in control but we also believe that our choices are real and that those choices have consequences. What choices are we going to make? God will be patient with us and give us time. He will even send servants to dig around us and to help us to bear fruit but in the end if we refuse, time will run out and we will be cut down. As I said last week, this season of Lent is a gift to us. It is a time to take an inventory and repent where it is called for and then focus on fruit bearing. But for that to happen we have to stop worrying about the theoretical “them” and start worrying about ourselves. Jesus said, “Unless you repent….” So again I say, “It’s me, it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” Amen.