March 11, 2007
Third Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9


Can you believe my luck?  Of all the wonderful verses found in the book of Luke, I have been assigned today’s passage.  Of all the incredible stories and themes available in Luke’s Gospel, I find myself preaching on this text.  Why me?  What did I do to deserve this?  This is not a terribly edifying text.  Instead of speaking about one of Jesus’ miracles or unpacking one of His parables, I am faced with violent and gruesome death, tragedy and manure.


Of course, this is the way it is during Lent – the Gospel texts force us to face the hard stuff.  The first week of Lent we looked at temptation as we journeyed with Jesus in the wilderness.  Last week we confronted our fear as Jesus refused to run from the threats of the world.  Next week we will deal with greed.  And finally on the fifth week of Lent we will experience grief.  This week we talk about doubt.  During Lent we face our difficulties: our temptations, fear, doubt, greed and grief and look for the grace that God offers in and through Jesus.


Let us pray: Heavenly Father, help us to hear your word and to repent so that we might experience the grace you have for us even in our difficulties.


Our Gospel text for this week has three distinctive parts.  In the first few verses the Pharisees come to Jesus with an apparently well known news story of the day.  We do not know what happened; there is no historical evidence for this event outside these verses from Luke.  Historians say that Pilate was capable of such unwarranted brutality; he was a cruel and ruthless leader.  We can almost see the horror of this bloody massacre in our minds, but there is something deeper in this slaughter than meets our modern eye.  The Galileans were in the Temple, the sanctuary of God, a place where they should have been safe.  They were offering their sacrifices, seeking God’s forgiveness.  Pilate not only killed those worshippers, but in mixing their blood with the blood of their sacrifices he invalidated their offering and stole their forgiveness.


In the second section of this passage, Jesus mentions a tragic event – the collapse of a tower in Siloam.  Eighteen died.  Again, we know little about this tragedy, but archeologists have recently unearthed what they believe to be the collapsed Tower of Siloam located near the pool of Siloam.  We are familiar with the pool of Siloam from the story of Jesus and the blind man.  Jesus used spit and dirt to cover the blind man’s eyes with mud, and then it was to this pool that Jesus sent the blind man to wash the mud off his eyes so that he might see.  Some archeologists have suggested that the pool of Siloam was a mikvah, or bath that was used for ritual cleansing.  It was likely used by pilgrims on their way to the Temple.  If this is true, then it is possible that those who were killed by the tower were also on their way to offer sacrifices.  They too were cut short of receiving forgiveness.  It is no wonder, then, that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law might have seen those victims as cursed by God. 

It helps to put this story into context.  When Jesus came down from the mount of transfiguration, He set His eyes and His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.  Nothing was going to stop Him from His goal.  Crowds were following Him, gathering wherever they might hear Him speak, to hear God’s Word and to be healed.  He was calling people to a deep and intimate relationship with God.  He gave them hope.  This was a message people wanted to hear.  Even the Pharisees were interested in what Jesus had to say.


One day a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner.  It is important to realize that the Pharisees must have had some respect for Jesus, or at least he was considered to be a worthy dinner companion.  Sinners, foreigners and heretics would not have been welcomed; an invitation to dinner was a sign of approval.   


Jesus made quite an impression at that dinner.  He offended the Pharisees by the things He said and the things He did.  He didn’t wash as was required and He called them sinners.  He cursed the Pharisees because they thought that they were righteous.  They thought they were blessed by God because they were clean on the outside but Jesus showed them that they had unclean hearts.  Jesus condemned their actions and He insulted them.  They rejected God’s Word in their life – first that given by the prophets and then the Word Himself, Jesus.


After the dinner, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law decided to watch Jesus and to try to stop His ministry.  They thought that Jesus had too much mercy on the sinners and too little delight in those whom they deemed righteous – most particularly, themselves. They rejected Him because they thought He rejected them.  What they did not see is that Jesus has mercy on those who recognize their sinfulness and who seek to be transformed by the Word.  What they did not see is that Jesus rejected them only because they had rejected Him.


The Pharisees who were watching Jesus had an easy explanation for the suffering in these stories: sinners get what they deserve.  To them, the victims were unworthy of God’s mercy and forgiveness, so God ensured that it could not be received.  Jesus answered the thoughts of their hearts with a warning.  “You think they were worse sinners because they suffered?  You think they were worse offenders because they died?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will perish.” 


Jesus was not threatening their lives.  He was telling them the truth.  Reject Jesus and you will die, for only in Jesus is found true life and forgiveness. 


In the third section of the Gospel passage, Jesus tells the listeners a parable about a fig tree.  The tree had been fruitless for three years, so it was worthless to the landowner.  He told the vineyard keeper to cut down the tree.  The man asked his master to give him one more year.  “I will dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine!  If not, then cut it down.” 


The landowner had every right to cut down the tree.  Figs were expensive to produce.  They are huge trees that take a great deal of land and water – unfruitful trees steal nutrients and the life-giving water necessary for the other trees to produce a good crop. 


This tree was older than appears in the story.  Fig trees begin to bear fruit after the third year, so the landowner did not even check for fruitfulness until then.  At six years the landowner had already paid a heavy price and it was unlikely that the tree would ever bear fruit.  It was hopeless.  But the Gospel message for us is in the vineyard keeper’s words.  “Leave it alone for one more year and I will dig around it and fertilize it.”  That’s grace – a second chance when there seems to be no hope.


Jesus offers the mercy and grace of God to those who have no hope.  He gave bread to the hungry and healing to those whose diseases were impossible to cure.  He cast out legions of demons and forgave the most notorious sinners.  He invited anyone with ears that hear into the heart of God through God’s Word.  He made them face their difficulties: their temptations, fears, doubts, greed and grief and then offered them His grace.


The Epistle lesson for today comes from the letter from Paul to the congregation at Corinth.  The Corinthians were Gentiles, so the history of the Jews was not part of their heritage, but to Paul all those in Christ were made part of the same body.  That meant that the history of the Jews was part of their new life and faith.  That’s why we still read the Old Testament lessons.  They help us to know God and our Lord Jesus Christ.


In today’s lesson, Paul retold the story of Moses and the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt.  Now, the Hebrew people really knew how to grumble.  Though God was always in their midst, the escape from Egypt was a difficult time.  They were headed for some unknown Promised Land.   They had to leave behind everything they knew.  They vaguely remembered the God of their forefathers, but it had been four hundred years since they had a direct experience of His grace so they were unsure of this new path on which He was leading them. 


The Hebrews could not see the future.  All they could see was that the present circumstances were far worse than what they had in Egypt as slaves.  They were hungry, tired and thirsty.  They were afraid. They waited at the foot of Mt. Sinai while Moses went to receive God’s Law, but they became impatient and feared that Moses was dead.  They saw no future in this new way of life because they had no one to guide them.  They easily returned to their old ways as idolaters, drunkards and revelers.  They doubted God in their suffering and turned to the only way of life that seemed to offer comfort in their pain.


Paul told this story to the Corinthians as an example so that they would not return to their old ways.  Though the Corinthians were living in a different time and place, they were also powerfully influenced by their cultural environment.  They had questions and conflicts that tested God’s love and patience.  Our situation may seem different than that of the Hebrews and the Corinthians, and yet we face the same problems.  We are also influenced by the world in which we live and when we get buried in the muck of life, we ask that age old question, “Why me?”


What if you were the one facing death or tragedy?  How would you react?  What would you say?  Would you ask “Why me?”   Every single one of us at some point in our life has uttered that question.  We have even asked, “What did I do to deserve this?”  We have all questioned God and we have doubted His love in the face of suffering and pain.


As I was writing this sermon, I received an email with the story I used for the children’s sermon. The teenager asked “Why me?”  Her mom answered in a most unusual way – with cake.  It would be pretty disgusting and unhealthy to eat the uncooked oil, raw eggs and flour but they are sure delicious when we use them to make cake.  We don’t always know why things happen or why we have to go through them, but no matter our circumstances, there is always hope. 


Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”  While it is natural for us to ask “Why me?” we are reminded that Jesus gives us the strength to get through.


Jesus followed the reports of massacre and tragedy with the story of the fig tree because our human circumstances often make it hard for us to bear fruit.  When we wallow in the doubts that plague us in the midst of suffering and pain, we are as good as dead – like that fig tree.  Though the vineyard keeper had been caring for the tree for years, it bore no fruit.  Neither do we when we are lost in temptation, fear, doubt, greed and grief.   So Jesus, like the vineyard keeper, digs around our roots and nourishes us to help us grow.  Though the manure seems like a bunch of crap to us, the gardener knows what He is doing – He knows how to use the manure to bring transformation.


The mother could have addressed her daughter in a much different way.  She could have reminded her daughter to study more and to get over her boyfriend.  She could have laid the blame on the daughter for her troubles.  That’s what often happens in our world – it is certainly the point of view of those Pharisees and teachers of the Law: those who suffer aren’t righteous, so they get what they deserve.  Our doubts about God come when we believe this, when we think that there is no hope.  Buried in our doubts, we turn to the old ways which we think will bring us comfort in our pain.


Jesus shows us a different point of view.  He reminds us that we are all sinners in need of a Savior.  It is easy for us to take the word of those who say we deserve what we get, to think that we are beyond forgiveness and mercy.  But bad things happen and sometimes bad things happen to people for no reason.  These bad things are not some form of divine vengeance or punishment for our sins.  Bad things simply happen and sometimes we are caught in the middle of it all.  Those who look to Jesus see a way out.  Now, the way out is not a guarantee that we will not suffer.  Jesus is not a “Get out of suffering free card.”  No, the lesson we learn today is that God is with us in our troubles.  When we repent, which means to turn our hearts and eyes to God, we’ll get through it with His help.


We won’t always understand why things happen the way that they do.  We won’t always understand massacres or tragedies, but we can rest in the knowledge that God can make good things happen out of the bad.  He says through Isaiah, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”  When we are caught up in the sorrow of our suffering, we are invited into His heart.  “Come all you who are thirsty,” He says.  We are invited to dwell in the presence of the Lord Almighty, to drink in the life giving waters of His mercy and grace.  The Word, especially those lessons we hear during this season of Lent, cause us to look at our failures and to recognize our sinfulness.  Jesus calls us to repentance with a warning – repent or you too will die.  The story of the fig tree reminds us that tomorrow is not necessarily another day.  The time is now to turn to Him.  He is not threatening divine vengeance on bad guys, but He is calling us to look to Him for forgiveness and mercy.  Without Him we will die.  In Him, we have life eternal.  He wants to transform us, to give us a way out of our temptations, fear, doubt, greed and grief.  We may seem to get buried under the manure as He makes us into fruit bearing trees, but we can rest in the knowledge that He knows what tomorrow holds and that He will help us through.  In the end, we’ll see how God has made cake out of our suffering and pain. Thanks be to God.