Of Towers, Fig Trees and Repentance–A Sermon on Luke 13:1-9

Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton, February 28, 2021

In our scripture lesson, Jesus talks about two disasters that were ripped from the headlines of his day. 

The first was a politically motivated murder of innocent people in the very of act of worshipping God.  Pontius Pilate a was ruthless ruler who was willing to resort to force to get his own way.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, who lived at the time of Jesus, gives us another example of Pilate’s brutality.  Pilate wanted to build an aqueduct from the Pools of Solomon to the city of Jerusalem. To pay for it, he forcibly took money from the temple treasury, money that had been dedicated to God – and this outraged the priests and the people. When the Jews sent a large delegation to protest and demand that Pilate return the money, Pilate sent undercover soldiers into the crowd dressed as common people. At Pilate’s signal, they took out their daggers and viciously attacked the unarmed crowd. It was quite in character for Pilate to repeat this atrocity in the Temple when a group of Galileans were offering their sacrifice.

The second, was a natural disaster.  The tower of Siloam was a part of the walls of Old Jerusalem originally built to help defend the city.  It overlooked the pool of Siloam.  This pool was used by the Jewish people as a place to wash and purify themselves before going to the temple.  Jesus once sent a blind man to this pool to wash his eyes and receive his sight.  Most scholars also believe that this is also the pool that was used on Pentecost to baptize all of the people who were converted by Peter’s sermon.  It was an important and significant place.  And it was shocking that the tower collapsed due to old age and structural weakness. 

Human nature is such that we often assume that disasters are “karma” or punishment for some sin in the victims’ past.  That was true in Jesus day and it is still true in ours.  Pastor Richard Floyd says

We may deny that we think that way, but at some primitive level such a belief protects us from life’s harsh truths. So, when disaster happens to others, we often tend to think there must be a good reason. When we read the obituaries, we may imagine the AIDS victim is an IV drug user or perhaps involved in high-risk sexual behavior. The one who died of COVID must have been careless about public health recommendations to wear a mask and social distance. (Richard Floyd, blog https://richardlfloyd.com/2021/01/21/a-meditation-on-divine-providence-and-human-freedom-luke-13-1-9/)

Be honest, haven’t you thought that way sometimes?  These thoughts are a self-protective reaction that provide a way of emotionally distancing ourselves from the pain of others and giving us a sense of personal safety. 

When we make such assumptions we are really saying two things:

  1. First, please reassure us that we are not as “bad” as those who suffered. They deserved what they got, but we don’t, right?
  2. Second, someone please show us what we need to do to be sure we don’t suffer this way. We hope to strike a bargain with God, that if we live relatively ordered and cautious lives, we will be safe from the terrorists’ malice, safe from drunk drivers, safe from a deadly pandemic. (Sharon Ringe, Working Preacher, February 24, 2013)

In our scripture lesson, Jesus tells us something that we already know. There is no guaranteed way to avoid suffering and not all suffering is due to sin.  Sometimes suffering is caused by bad people and sometimes it’s just random.  As the old saying goes, “stuff” happens. 

So Jesus says, No, their sin had nothing to do with their death; it was not some divine punishment. However, what he says next is absolutely shocking. “They didn’t sin but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  And lest we missed it, he repeats it a second time, “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”  To be honest Jesus sounds like a fire and brimstone preacher: “Repent or perish! Turn or burn!”

So what does Jesus mean by repentance?  Do we need to put on a hair shirt and beat ourselves up with how bad we are?  Is that what Jesus is telling us to do? Craig R. Koester helps us to understand what Biblical repentance is.   He says, “Repentance is often reduced to feeling bad, which is really not the point.  To repent is to turn.  It is to turn away from something, but just as importantly it is to turn towards something.” ( NL Podcast 443: Lament over Jerusalem – Feb. 28, 2021 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary )

Koester continues, “Jesus is turning people away from the propensity to be self-protective.  When we say things like, “Bad things happen to them; I’m so glad it wasn’t me,” what you are really are thinking, I’m so good that I am exempt from trouble.”  And Jesus says, “Really?  You think you’re better than everyone else so nothing bad should ever happen to you?”  What you’re really doing is throwing other people under the bus, thinking that will keep you safe.  It is only when we give up our self-protection that we recognize our need God’s protection, only when we acknowledge our own short-comings and vulnerability that we will be able to turn towards God. 

Disasters of any type remind us of our own mortality and our own need to stop trying to live by our own wits.  That by the way is what Lent is all about.  Lent is a time of self-examination, a time to take stock of our shortcomings and sins so that we can turn away from them.

So repentance is turning away from self-protection, self-will, self-sufficiency and a whole host of other attitudes centered on our own self.  But secondly, repentance is also turning towards God

I learned something very interesting this week.  Did you know that the French word for sunflower is tournesol¸ which literally means, “turn towards the sun?” Tourne means “to turn” and sol, is another name for the sun.  If you watch, you can actually see sunflowers turning their faces toward the sun, which is the source of their life, as it makes its way across the sky.  Pastor Floyd notes, “Sunflowers are ‘helio-tropic,’ made to turn toward the sun, and people are ‘theo-tropic,’ made to turn toward God, the source of our life.“ (Floyd, op. cit.)

So repentance is turning away from self and turning towards God.  It is also about change.  That’s the point of the parable of the fig tree that Jesus tells in the second part of our scripture lesson.  For three years a man has been waiting for a fig tree to bear some fruit with no success.  He has reached the limits of his patience and so he commands his gardener to chop it down. 

This parable seems to contain a threat.  It suggests that if we don’t repent, God will chop us down.  That’s a scary thought that suggests impending judgement.  But Joel B. Green points out that what is unique about Jesus parable is not that the owner is about to chop down the tree but that the gardener asks for more time to get the tree to produce fruit.  There are similar stories in ancient literature of an owner cutting down an unfruitful tree, for example, in the Babylonian Tale of Ahiqar, a story written in the 5th century B.C.  What is unique about Jesus’ parable is a “motif of clemency.” To quote Dr. Green,

The details of the parable, …highlighting the sterility of the tree, also point dramatically to the lenience allotted the tree in order to give it additional nutrients and time for fruit-bearing. The parable points to the possibility of change leading to faith. (Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke (p. 515). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1989)

This parable then is not about destruction but patience, not about condemnation but hope.  The parable illustrates the words of 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” 

Notice that while the owner is waiting, the gardener is actively helping the fig.  He loosens the soil around the tree so that it will better be able to absorb water and nutrients.  He also spreads a load of manure so that it will have abundant nutrients. He doesn’t expect the tree to produce fruit all by itself; he helps the tree along. 

That’s how it is with Jesus, he cares deeply about us will do all in his power to help us even if we may not particularly like the way he is helping us.  David Guzik humorously comments,

God did not leave the tree alone; he gave it special care. When God shows special care for someone it may feel to them like they are surrounded by manure, but He is nourishing and preparing it for fruit-bearing to come. (David Guzik, Enduring Word, commentary on Luke 13:8-9)

Conclusion

The truth be told; it seems like we have been up to our necks in manure for over a year now.  We can complain about it or trust that God knows what he is doing. God wants to give us hope.  But to receive that hope we need to repent.  We need to turn away from our self and turn towards God.  Then and only then will we bear fruit that pleases him.

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