The second Sunday in June God’s people in Crafton Heights sat with Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-11 as we considered what Jesus did when people wanted him to publicly denounce those people who were somehow considered more sinful than the rest of “our team”.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite diversions was Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. These cartoons and books provided me with hours of entertainment, as each panel portrayed some incredible or horrific depiction of humanity. Many in our culture have found their own curiosity stoked by the tabloid papers, or by “news feeds” that point to salacious details about some celebrity’s life. And of course, there is now an entire industry based on “reality entertainment”, and our culture has been exposed to more information about the lives of people like the Duggar Family and the Jenner and Kardashian families than I ever wanted to know.
I mean, seriously. I have friends who are being hunted down in South Sudan because they talk about Jesus; in the amount of time you’ll spend in worship this morning, close to 25 children under the age of five around the world will die, largely from preventable causes like diarrhea, malaria, or pneumonia; there are dozens of kids in this neighborhood who are crying out for mentors and authentic relationships… All this is true, and yet so many of my acquaintances will say, “Yes, but did you see what THAT dude did?”
I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten from fellow pastors and “concerned Christians” who want to know what I’m going to preach about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. My honest and weary response has been, “I’m not interested in preaching about that in the slightest.”
However, for some reason this text from Luke 13 has crept into my heart and consciousness in the past few weeks. So I’m not going to preach about any celebrity, but I would like to talk about Jesus for a few moments.
Apparently, the Roman Governor in Palestine, whose name was Pontius Pilate, had brutally murdered a few folks from Galilee while they were in the act of worshiping God. One of the things that “everybody knew” back in that time was that if you are bad, bad things happen to you; and if you are good, good things happen to you. I think that’s what Facebook users today call “Karma”. Folks in that time came to believe that you get what you deserve.
It’s not a huge leap to go from thinking, “if you are bad, bad things will happen” to thinking, “well, if something bad happened to you, you must be a bad person”. “What did HE do to deserve this?” can be transformed into “Oooooh, I wonder WHAT he did to deserve THIS?” very quickly.
So Jesus’ hearers grab a headline and say, “Wow, those people from Galilee must have been pretty awful, huh? I mean, what happened there was terrible, Jesus. What did THEY do?”
And Jesus pointed to the next headline in their news feed and said, “Yeah, what about those folks killed in the earthquake? They must have been pretty bad people too, right?” And as his crowd begins to shake their heads, he interrupts himself, saying, “No! That’s now how it works. Life is uncertain. You are going to die. The question is, what will you do between now and when you die?”
Do you remember that time when a bunch of people came to Jesus in a hurry to get him to point out how sinful and evil someone else was, and Jesus was like, “Totally! I mean, that guy is going to BURN! God is so angry with him!” Do you remember that time?
No, of course you don’t, because it never happened. Every time someone came to Jesus in a huff about someone else, Jesus instructed people to take a good look at their own lives. Whether it was the man who was born blind or the woman who was caught in the act of adultery or the crooked tax collector named Zacchaeus or the “sinful woman” who poured out her oil on Jesus…in every case, Jesus refuses to shame them publicly. If you can find a place in the Gospels where Jesus piles on someone for some moral failing, please show it to me, because I can’t.
In our reading for today, Jesus tells his hearers, “Listen, don’t you worry about THEM. Instead, you worry about you. You have some serious repenting to do.”
Repent. Isn’t that a churchy word? I mean, seriously, who else uses that word any more? You hear the word “repent” and you figure you’re going to get a sermon on how you ought to feel badly about what you did, or sorry for what you said. When we say “repent” these days, we pretty much nod our heads and say, “oh, yes, sure. I’m sorry. I slipped up there. I repent.”
But when the prophets, and John the Baptist, and Jesus used the word “repent”, they meant it to be a fundamental turning. The Greek word, metanoia, means to change direction, it is a total change of mindset and practice. It means that we are converted from one way of living to a different way.
If you drive by Cumberland Street you’ll see that I have a new look on my front porch. It’s the second time I’ve rebuilt that porch. When I did it ten or twelve years ago, I did it wrong. It was not sealed properly, and so no matter what I did, the boards shed paint in big, ugly strips. Every year, I’d feel bad about how ugly it looked, and repaint it. And every year, the porch got uglier – because the structure was bad.
So this year, I didn’t repaint. I repented. I took down what was poorly-made and replaced it with something better. I had to fundamentally alter the reality of the porch in order to make it functional. When I treat you poorly, or scoff at someone else, or dishonor God’s intentions for the world and then say, “Oh, yeah, my bad…”, and then shrug and walk away – that’s repainting. Repenting is when I ask the carpenter from Nazareth to change my framework so I’m not likely to cause that kind of harm in the future. The prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus – they didn’t want us to feel badly about the ways we’d messed up. They wanted us to become so dissatisfied with the unhealthy ways in which we were living that we asked God to help us re-align our lives from the inside out. That is repentance.
And Jesus elaborates his call for repentance with a parable about a man who had a fig tree that was not productive. His gardener talked him into giving it a little more time. Now, while sometimes it’s difficult to assign specific meaning to parables, I think that there are several clues here that stand out.
The landowner stands for God the Father, the one who created and tends to and rules over all things.
Throughout scripture, the prophets and teachers often compared the people of God or the nation of Israel to a fig tree. When Jesus told a Jewish audience about a wealthy and powerful man who owned a fig tree, they would have assumed right away that this was a story about God and his relationship to his people.
Now, about this fig tree. Where was it? In a vineyard. What do you expect to find in a vineyard? Vines. Not trees. Yet for some reason, it pleased the landowner to plant a fig tree in the middle of his vineyard.
It’s important to remember that this man’s identity is not bound up in growing figs. He doesn’t have to have a fig tree; he wants to have a fig tree.
People of God, you, and me, and the church…we are not God’s job. We are not some duty to which he attends each day because he feels obliged. God has caused this world, these people, this church to be here because he wanted us to be here. For some reason, God the Father finds joy and satisfaction in the idea of you and of me. That’s important to remember because sometimes we talk about grace and love as if it’s an idea that came to God after we got into the story a little bit. No – it’s there from the very start. This? This is here because God thought it would be cool.
But the problem is, things are not the way that the owner intended. There are no figs on the fig tree. There is no joy, no fruit. And so he decides to get rid of it. He calls the gardener – the vinedresser – to remove the tree.
And in this parable, the Vinedresser is clearly God the Son, Jesus of Nazareth. How can I be so sure of this? I know because of what the vinedresser says: “Leave it alone, sir. Let me take care of it.”
“Leave it alone.” “Let it be.” In Greek, the word is aphes. It means, fundamentally, “forgive.” “Forgive this fig tree for not bearing fruit. Let me tend to it, nurture it, and enrich it.” That’s what the vinedresser says, right?
And the reason I know that Jesus is the vinedresser is because eleven chapters later, when he is hanging on the cross, suffocating and bleeding out because of all the terrible things that religious people did to him in the name of God, Jesus lifted up his head and spoke to his Father and said, “Father, aphes – forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s the same exact word said by the same exact person for the same exact reason.
Most of the time, most of the world and indeed most of us live under the perception that we are doing all right. Oh, don’t get me wrong – we’re not perfect – not by any stretch, but at least we’re not nearly as bad as those people. They disgust me. I mean, I may have my quirks, but I’m not as twisted as them.
And then Jesus shows up, reminding me that my own little world is so fragile, my own heart is so twisted, my own morality is so narrow and self serving…and then he reminds me that I am headed for death, too, no matter how much better I am than those people.
And then Jesus – this same Jesus, this beautiful Jesus, offers to come to me in my unfruitfulness, in my sinfulness, in my death, and he says, “I will become death for you. In fact, I will nurture you, I will tend you, I will feed you in my own death.”
Robert Capon has written more powerfully about this than I could ever hope to, so let me simply give you some of his words here:
The Vinedresser who on the cross said “aphes” to his Lord and Father comes to us with his own body dug deep by nails and spears, and his own being made dung by his death, and he sends our roots resurrection. He does not come to see if we are good: he comes to disturb the caked conventions by which we pretend to be good. He does not come to see if we are sorry: he knows our repentance isn’t worth the hot air we put into it. He does not come to count anything…he comes only to forgive. For free. For nothing. On no basis, because like the fig tree, we are too far gone to have a basis…We are saved gratis, by grace. We do nothing and we deserve nothing; it is all, absolutely and without qualification, one huge, hilarious gift.
All because there is indeed a Vinedresser. I can love Jesus…I don’t know about his Father. The only thing I can say about God the Father is that he’s lucky to have such a lovable Son. Sometimes I think that if I had to go by his track record instead of just taking Jesus’ word for his good character, I wouldn’t give him the time of day. And I don’t know about the Holy Spirit either. So much hot air has been let off in his name that if Jesus hadn’t said he was sending him, I’d write him off too. But Jesus I can love. He does everything, I do nothing; I just trust him. It is a nifty arrangement, and for a deadbeat like me, it is the only one that can possibly work. As long as I am in him, I bear fruit. As long as his death feeds my roots, I will never be cut down.
Do you see what I mean? When that Vinedresser, that Jesus, comes to me and says that I am rooted in him, I can’t stop to look at the tabloids or the Entertainment Network and try to judge those people.
Am I saying that God does not care about them, who they are, what they say, what they do? No – I’m not saying that at all.
What I am saying is that I am bound to follow Jesus’ lead and that I will not pile on anyone publicly. Does God have a word for the Jenners, the Kardashians, the Duggars? You can bet that he does. Only they are not here. I’m not their pastor. I’m not their friend. There is no point in talking about them this morning. Do you have questions about your life? Do you want to come and talk with me about where God is speaking to your heart? Would you like to explore what repentance and conversion and bearing fruit looks like for you? Man, I am all over that. Come in. Let’s talk. About you. Not them.
For some reason, the Father delights in you, and the Son died to nurture you, and the Spirit lives in you. Live into your God-ordained purpose of bearing fruit in a world that is starving. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1988, p98).