February 28, 2016 - Luke 13.1-9

“There is Still Time”

Luke 13.1-9

February 28, 2016

 

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’  6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

 

What is it that Jesus has against fig trees?  Seems like every time Jesus mentions a fig tree, he gets all herbicidal.  But Jesus is not dangerous to plants.  This tree is simply a metaphor.  We need to pay attention because the tree is a metaphor for us.

 

We are not the people that we ought to be. We sin. Our lives are a long story of rebellion against God's will for us. Yet the good news is, by the grace of God, there is still time to turn, to return, to repent and be saved. God has given us time, time to change.

 

This is the gospel of Luke where Jesus' message is often, "Good news! Repent!" For Luke, the gospel is always a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins (24:47). Also typical of Luke is this parable of the unproductive fig tree (13:6-9) in which there is a plea for mercy. Luke reminds us of Jonah in which even terribly sinful Nineveh was given the time it needed to change and repent.

 

Set in the context of the question about those unfortunate Galileans and Jerusalemites, the parable of the fig tree becomes a kind of response to the question, “What does God do with our sin?” The questioners presuppose a God who mainly punishes for sin. The parable speaks of a God with amazing forbearance whose nature is to give us the time we need to repent of our sin. Rather than bog down in disputes over sin and its punishments, let us take our cue from the parable and speak of sin and its divine forgiveness.

 

Our great hope, in our sin, is for divine delay of judgment. Jesus does not say that there will be no accounting, no judgment, but rather he sets the inevitability of divine judgment in the context of divine mercy. Therein is our hope, our Christian hope, our hope as sinners who need even more time to turn and return.

 

A neighbor planted an apple tree in his front yard. It grew fairly well, put out new leaves, new growth.  But no apples. They told him, "Apple trees don't bear fruit for a year or so." So he waited a year. No apples. Another year, none. Spring of the third year, not a blossom, not an apple. The tree was gone by that summer, cut down to make way for something more productive.  "You just got hold of a bad tree," explained the man at the nursery when the neighbor complained.   Patience is a virtue, forbearance is a good thing. But there are limits. It would be overly judgmental for there to be punishment for one infraction. But there are limits, we tell ourselves.

 

A student once took a philosophy course. He told the professor that he was not a very good reader and that he had some fear of taking a philosophy course. The professor told him to keep up with the assignments, study each day, and he would do fine.

He said that he tried, but found the work difficult. When the first assigned paper came due, he pled for mercy. He had gotten behind, he said, needed more time to complete the assignment. The professor gave him more time.  

The professor got the paper about two weeks late. Then there was the second paper. Of course, because he was already behind from the first, that paper was late. He didn't hand it in until the end of the course, which meant that the professor never even saw the third paper. Flunked him sometime about two months after the course ended. Three strikes, right?

When you begin a class, the students are told, "Here are the requirements for this course, the boundaries. Stay within these boundaries, and you will be fine. Transgress these rules, and you will have big trouble in this course." Students like to know the limits, and they appreciate being told what is expected.

And when they don't meet up to expectations, when they cross the boundaries, when they abuse the limits, bam! That's what we have professors for, to enforce the limits, to insure the boundaries.

 

Where would life be without the limits? We like our limits and sometimes we take a kind of sadistic pleasure when we can say “You have reached the limit.  BAM!”

 

Jesus, I must admit, was not the best at this sort of thing. One day they asked him about forgiveness. Ought we to forgive say, seven times. (They knew that Jesus was big on forgiveness and would never except once or twice.) Seven times, how do you like those numbers, Jesus?

And Jesus replied, "Forgive seven times seventy times," in other words, without limits.

 

He told stories. A shepherd searches for the one lost sheep (how long?) for about 24 hours, then calls it quits. No. He said the shepherd searches for the one lost sheep until he finds it. Limitless searching.

 

So the owner comes to the gardener saying, "We've taken a great deal off this fig tree. It's been here year after year. Can I cut it down?"

That sounds reasonable. After all, why should this unproductive, unfruitful tree be taking up good space?

And the gardener says, "put some manure on it, dig around it, leave it alone."  And Jesus says that God is just like that. There is still time.

 

It is not a story about us and our limits, our three strikes and you are out mentality. It is a story about God, about a mercy that is without limits. There is still time. There will come a day when there is no more time, either for us as individuals or for everyone, but for now, we still have time.

As C. S. Lewis puts it,

The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two.[1]

 

You don't hear much about judgment in much of today's church. Christ is our friend, our companion, perhaps our savior, but rarely is Christ our judge. We tend to be our own judges. We tend not to be accountable to any higher standard than our own conscience. When asked,

"Why did you do what you did?" We are likely to respond, "Who are you to judge me? You can't possibly understand what I did unless you are me."

I fear that our lives before God have been diminished in the process.

 

I was watching a television program on "New Paradigm Churches," those burgeoning churches, many of whom are found in Southern California. A young man was being interviewed, a pastor of one of these fast growing churches. His church gathers each week, led in music by a rock band, a church with a median age under thirty.

The reporter asked the young pastor to what did he attribute the phenomenal growth of his congregation. The pastor replied, "I think you've got a generation of young adults that never had anybody look them into the eyes, and say directly to them, in love, 'You really, really suck.'"

Though I might have put the matter much more delicately, I could see his point. We've told people for so long they are basically good, they're making progress, that they are nice people, who always mean the best, but they know better. Are we now at a point where we might speak the truth? Might we once again speak of judgment and repentance, of our need as sinners for a gracious, forgiving God?

If we are, this is a pressing message, if the tree is not bearing fruit it really is in danger! But, there is still time.

 

The man said "I regret that I did not grow up in a religious home. There is so much of the Bible that I don't know. A lot of people memorized that stuff when they were children. But I'm over 40."

And I said, "Well, we could dig around you a bit, put some manure on you and . . ." No, but I did say, rejoice, there is still time.

 

There was a man; he wasn't much of a husband, was an even worse father. He was a talented physician, much in demand. Therefore he was always at the hospital, always working. I was not surprised to hear that his wife of 20 years just one day left him. She said she didn't know him anymore, that she couldn't take it. His children, I was told, never see him now that they are grown. Why bother? He didn't seem to want to see them when they were young.

I saw him years ago. He has remarried. At 60, he is starting over. That's what he said he was doing, starting over. "Here, toward the end of my life, I'm getting a second chance. I'm going to do better this time, have learned a thing or two. I'm going to do right."

I expect more than one person considers him to be somewhat of a fool who didn't do much with marriage the first time around, and now getting married a second time!

Yet, knowing Jesus' little story of the fig tree, I, even though I don't like divorce and all, I said, "rejoice, there is still time."

 

Sometimes God's mercy comes in the form of forgiveness, as when Jesus looked down from the cross and prayed, "Father, forgive them."  Sometimes God's mercy comes in the forms of gifts, as when a child is born to a couple, or we are given some great opportunity.

 

Yet sometimes, God's greatest mercy is time, time to learn from our past, to profit by our mistakes, time to start over. Christians have a word for that sort of mercy - repentance. It's a word that means turning around, a change of direction. The Greek word is metanoia, which is the root from which we get our word metamorphosis - to change form. Repentance is when a sinner (and who here isn't one of those) changes form, turns, returns to God, starts over, bears fruit.

It’s important to understand the difference between confession and repentance.  Repentance is not saying “I’m sorry.”  That’s confession.  Repentance is actually living life out differently.  Repentance is showing that you meant it when you said “I’m sorry.”  The abusive husband who constantly pleads “Honey, I’m sorry,” but never stops beating his wife is not truly sorry he beat his wife; he is just sorry he got caught. Repentance for that man is stopping the abusive behavior – for good.  But even for him – there is still time.

 

I don't care what you have done before you got here this morning. It doesn't matter how you have messed up your life, made a mockery of all the gifts that God has given you. There is still time. God is giving you one of the greatest of gifts - the gift of time.

 

Now, will you use that gift? Will you take the time to use the time that God gives? In self-examination, in honest confession, in joyful turning, will you become who God intends you to be?

 

The good news: there is still time.

 

[1] (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity [San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 2001], pp. 94-95.)

 

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