Luke 13:1-9 – Jesus Will Have None of It

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So, he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (New International Version)

Jesus stood in a crowd of thousands of people. They peppered him with questions about all kinds of issues and situations. Christ responded with a combination of direct exhortations and pointed parables, designed to leave the people reflecting and thinking about what he said.

Christ’s direct exhortation is this: Repent. Change your mind. Christ’s pointed parable message is this: Bear fruit. Change your behavior.

The two go together. A fruitless life points to the need for repentance; and repentance results in bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

Jesus, throughout his earthly ministry, relentlessly went after the fruitless dead religion of his day. Jesus believed that such religion needed to be cut out and thrown away. 

Therefore, the Lord exposed the assumptions that people have about sin, faith, and judgment. Jesus challenged four false assumptions or presuppositions that people often hold. In dealing with them, Jesus wanted to foster a change of heart which would lead to a change in behavior.

First Wrong Assumption: Other people’s sin is more serious than mine.

It’s a common human tendency to focus on the bad things in the world what other people do, rather than focus on our own heart and life. We can always identify people who are worse sinners than us! 

The crowd believed Pontius Pilate was a terrible sinner who needed to be dealt with, and they wanted Jesus to get on board to their way of thinking. The people wanted to talk trash about the Romans.

“Repentance is nothing else but a reformation of the whole life according to the Law of God.”

John Calvin

We must beware of people who constantly bemoan the state of the world and the sins of others, while ignoring their own issues or how they might be contributing to the problem. It’s so much easier to scapegoat a person or group of people, believing that if “those people” change, then everything will be okay.

But Jesus will have none of it.

Christ steered the discussion to personal repentance. Although you and I cannot control, change, or fix anyone, we can practice self-control, change our personal habits, and be the solution to our own problems.

Everywhere we go, the world is rife with criticisms and accusations of others. It’s always somebody else’s fault for the ills of the world and even the church.

Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans. Anti-vaxers blame the government. The vaccinated blame the previous government. Everyone thinks that if the other changes, all will be well. 

In the church, when things aren’t right, Christians might ask things like, “Who sinned, the pastor or the congregation, the church or the denomination?” With the decline of religion in the land, we look for a scapegoat. 

But Jesus will have none of it.

Christ cut through all the scapegoating and blame-shifting by saying that every single person needs to repent, without exception. Then, Jesus upped the ante with a parable by challenging us with a very probing thought: 

Are we bearing fruit, or just taking up space? 

Whenever we howl for judgment on others, but insist on grace for ourselves, we are the ones in need of repentance.

Second Assumption: My sin isn’t that serious.

When King Frederick II, an eighteenth-century King of Prussia, was visiting a prison in Berlin, the inmates insisted they had been unjustly imprisoned – all except one. That one sat quietly in a corner, while all the rest protested their innocence. Seeing him sitting there oblivious to the commotion, the king asked him what he was there for:

“Armed robbery, your Honor.”

The king asked, “Were you guilty?”

“Yes, Sir,” he answered. “I entirely deserve my punishment.”

The king then gave an order to the guard: “Release this guilty man. I don’t want him corrupting all these innocent people.”

We may concede that we are all sinners, but then struggle with believing that our personal sin really deserves imprisonment. So, we see no need for repentance. It isn’t that bad.

But Jesus will have none of it. 

Here are some questions raised by today’s Gospel lesson: 

Do I continually locate sin outside of my life, or do I discern the sinfulness of my own heart? 

Do I believe people in hardship are more sinful than me? 

Can I envision that I must change for the church and the world to change? 

Is my life fruitful, or fruitless? 

How can I become fruitful? 

What must I repent of? 

What will happen if I don’t repent?

Third Assumption: God will not judge me.

Some might concede we are all sinners, and my own sin is bad. “But is it really so bad that God would judge me?”  Again, the two big ideas Jesus is working with here is that everyone needs repentance, and everyone needs to bear spiritual fruit in keeping with such repentance. 

Jesus alerts us that the future involves a Judgment Day. All shall be held accountable for fruit-bearing, or the lack thereof. No fruit on the branch means it will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus was talking to a crowd of people who were quite religious. They were faithful temple worshipers, and had weekly practices of giving, fasting, and prayer. But they needed to repent of trusting in self and stuff. 

They believed God would judge the evil Romans and everyone else who did not live or think like them. They were God’s people; the Lord would not judge them!

But Jesus will have none of it.

The Lord almighty looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:7, NIV)

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 1:17, NIV

Jesus wants spiritual fruit in keeping with repentance. Believing the right things and doing the right service never justifies indulging in hate, rage, anger, discord, selfish ambition, envy, impatience, unkindness, and ungraciousness. Doing a particular set of religious duties never gives one a license to use their attitude, their tongue, or their life in whatever way they want.

Fourth Assumption: I have plenty of time.

Okay, other people’s sin is not worse than mine. My sin is serious. God will deal with my sin if I do not repent. But I have time to deal with it, right? I will get around to it when I get a chance. 

But Jesus will have none of it.

Jesus was establishing a sense of urgency into the crowd. Repentance is not something to put off until tomorrow. Today is the day to deal with sin. If a lack of fruitfulness persists, judgment is imminent. Jesus was not trying to scare people into repentance; he was just letting them know that procrastination puts us in a precarious position. We don’t have unlimited time. We are on the clock.   

Just because God is gracious, merciful, kind, and patient does not mean that he won’t cut the dead religion tree down.

Today is the day of repentance, the day to quit looking for everyone else to repent and change, the day to take our own sin seriously, the day to discern that God does not show favoritism and will judge all persons equally and fairly. 

Today is the day because the hour is almost here when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.

Conclusion

So, we must repent of a lack of fruitfulness. The spiritual fruit God is looking for is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

When an apple trees bear fruit, some of those apples do not just bear the apple’s skin, some the apple’s core, some the apple’s meat. No! When an apple tree bears fruit, it bears apples – whole ones with all the things that make an apple an apple. 

There is no leg to stand on with the notion that I have love, but no patience; or display a lack of peace, but practice self-control. We either have the fruit of the Spirit, or we do not! If we have some of these, but not others, we have genetically modified fruit which has not been raised in the soil of the gospel.

Each one of us needs to look in our heart in this season of Lent and accurately assess the current state of our lives before God. Then, we need to repent, to change those things which the Spirit of God identifies. And, like a farmer, we are to cultivate, fertilize, and tend to our hearts in ways that will produce a crop.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-17 – Ash Wednesday

Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
    Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
    purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
    my sin is always right in front of me.
I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
    I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
    completely correct when you issue your judgment.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
    from the moment my mother conceived me.
And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
    you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.

Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
    wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
    let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
    wipe away all my guilty deeds!
Create a clean heart for me, God;
    put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
    please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
Return the joy of your salvation to me
    and sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
    and sinners will come back to you.

Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
    so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
You don’t want sacrifices.
    If I gave an entirely burned offering,
    you wouldn’t be pleased.
A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
    You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday is an ancient holy day on the Church Calendar. It marks the beginning of the season of Lent—a time of penitence, discipline, and renewal.

We are reminded of our mortality, we confess our sins, and we experience forgiveness through Christ’s death and resurrection. The “imposition of ashes” is a central part of Ash Wednesday observances, whereby the penitent worshiper receives ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross.

In Holy Scripture, ashes serve both as a symbol of mortality and as a sign of mourning and repentance. But neither sin nor death is the final word. So, we also have confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death, and nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus, our Lord.

Today, on this Ash Wednesday, the appropriate posture of the devout Christian is prayer. Specifically, prayers of confession of our great and many sins, shortcomings, and moral failures. 

This might sound negative and a major downer. Yet, to not look evil square in the face and call it out for what it is, is at best denial, and at the worst allowing a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul. 

It seems to me there is no better way to confront the darkness within than with using the ancient prayer book of the Old Testament Psalms. I encourage you to pray Psalm 51 out loud and slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it. 

Pray the ancient psalm over more than once, and perhaps several times punctuated throughout the day today. In doing so, you will be joining the faithful across this entire big world who today offer to God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.

Holy God, as the season now turns to Lent, we pray that you will guide us in the days ahead.  As we journey with Jesus, give us an abiding sense of your presence, an unguarded sense of ourselves, and an awareness of the needs of this world.

Loving God, as we are marked with the ashes of earth, we bring before you the frailty of our very human lives:  our fragile health; the uncertainty of our plans; the changing nature of our relationships. Grant us patience in suffering and healing from our ills. Give us, in equal measure, humility and hope in our pursuits. Bind us in love that is constant, yet able to change according to the needs and circumstances before us.

Just God, you call us to action; to bring freedom to the oppressed; to care for those in need; to lift the burdens of others. We ask you to increase our courage and our will to work for the peace you envision and desire. We pray for an end to warfare and conflict, accepting our call to be peacemakers. We pray for an end to hunger and homelessness, knowing we are called to share with others and show hospitality. We pray for an end to false righteousness, evil speech, and shallow faith in our lives, in the church, in our public life, and among all the nations.

Eternal God, we pray your kingdom will come in fullness; that what is perishable will be raised imperishable; that death itself will be swallowed up in victory; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Nehemiah 1:1-11 – A Prayer of Solidarity and Confession

These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.

In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said,

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.

“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’

“The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants.O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”

In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer. (New Living Translation)

I believe that nothing of eternal significance happens apart from God. Jesus said it clearly: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV) 

There is simply no substitute for a close relationship with God. The will of God can only be accomplished through the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer is not a passive activity. If done well, prayer takes time, a great deal of effort, and a sense of priority. It is quite possible that biblical praying can be the most challenging, exhausting, laborious, and rewarding thing we do.

Through prayer we can become filled with the Holy Spirit, gain wisdom to make godly decisions, and access spiritual power that can melt the hardest of hearts and change the minds of the most stubborn of people. 

In prayer we have the privilege of expressing our concerns and needs, as well as having God’s agenda revealed to us for what to do. Our personal and communal holiness is in direct proportion to the great task of prayer.

When faced with the reality that his hometown, Jerusalem, was in trouble, Nehemiah, the king’s wine steward, prayed. In prayer he owned the problems Jerusalem faced. He owned it through a prayer that emphasized and reminded God of the covenant with God’s people; he confessed the sins by which Israel violated that covenant; and he held onto the promise that God would lift the curse on the city if the people would only repent.

Nehemiah had a compassionate heart that was attentive to what was going on in his native land. Hearing the tragic news of the city’s condition, he immediately wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed.

Nehemiah was profoundly disturbed by the news that Jerusalem was in trouble. Rather than being preoccupied with himself and his own situation as an exile in Babylon, Nehemiah sought to do something about the security and spiritual health of his people.

In his prayer to God, Nehemiah was genuine, persistent, confident, humble, and submissive to God. He did not distance himself from the sins of the people, but clearly identified with them through a prayer of confession.  That confession was intense, honest, real, and urgent.

Sin always needs to be identified, acknowledged, and pardoned. If it isn’t, there is no hope for things to be different.

There is a season for everything. Hunting seasons may come and go, but it is always open season for prayer.  And Nehemiah’s prayer is a solid biblical model for us to emulate. We have our challenges. Like Nehemiah, let’s own those challenges through prayers which are biblically focused, compassionately offered, and spiritually curious to know and do God’s agenda for the church and the world.

Let us continually have a spirit of prayer to God in everything we say and do – prayerful spirits that above all seeks God’s will and implementing that will through God’s love.

Almighty and gracious God, we lower our heads before you and confess we too often forget that we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you and your incredible mercy. For these things we ask your forgiveness and strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may witness to the love of Christ in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us to closely and tightly in your good strong hands. Build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-12 – Facing Our Darkness

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit. (NRSV)

David experienced a lot of hard things. Through it all, he held fast to walking with God. Eventually, David became king. He used his power and authority to do exactly what God likes – showing grace and kindness to those in need. Except in the case of Bathsheba, another man’s wife. He made one unwise decision, which led to a bad decision, and then to another and another – until the prophet Nathan came and called David on the carpet.

Whereas King David began his reign using his royal position to show kindness, he ended up acting like any other worldly king by giving orders and using his authority to get what he wanted. Just as David sent others to do his personal bidding, God finally sent Nathan for a divine intervention.

If we confess our sins, God will forgive us. We can trust God to do this. He always does what is right. He will make us clean from all the wrong things we have done.

1 John 1:9, ERV

Nathan wisely helped David see his sin for what it really was. Irresponsibility, adultery, and murder are serious matters. The mental and spiritual gymnastics people make to justify their poor decisions always ends up devaluing what is right and making sin less heinous than it really is.

Good news can only be properly understood considering the bad news.

Without seeing our true predicament of being held in the vice grip of sin and unable to move, we will go on wondering why nothing ever goes like we want. A person who is lost, and doesn’t know it, is in the worst of situations. Calamity is just around the corner.

Like a restaurant owner who fails to see the health violations all around him, the business is about to be shut down with him scratching his head or blaming others for his misfortune. Only when the owner comes to recognize and agree with established health standards will there be a turn around and a renewed existence for the establishment.

We must agree and comply with God about how bad things really are without sugar coating any of it.

Only then can best practices be put into place which help everyone to be safe, healthy, and happy. To King David’s credit, he saw his terrible decisions and actions for what they were and faced them squarely with a repentant heart and a renovated life.

Thus, we have today’s psalm, crafted by David as a response to his own egregious wandering from how God wanted him to reign as king. David’s sin was mercifully outdone by God’s grace. The main event to the psalm is not David’s wrongs but God’s forgiveness. Prayer is the mechanism which accesses divine pardon to even the most awful of transgressions.

The appropriate posture of the devout Christian is to pray.

Specifically, to confess our great and many sins, shortcomings, and moral failures. This might sound negative and a major downer. Yet, to not look evil square in the face and call it out for what it is, is at best denial, and at worst, allows a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul. 

I believe one of the best ways to confront the darkness within is by using the ancient prayer book, the Old Testament Psalms. Sometimes when we pray apart from considering the psalms, our prayers go along the lines of something like, “Change my situation so I can praise you, God.” Rather, the psalms guide us toward a shift in direction by praying:

“Change me, God, because I am the problem.”

I encourage you to pray Psalm 51 out loud, slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it. Pray it over more than once, and perhaps several times punctuated throughout the day today. In doing so, you will be joining the faithful across the world who today offer God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.

What places in your life allow you the freedom to confess your sins?  What places seem to keep you from confession? How might a regular practice of repentance help you beyond this season of Lent?

May almighty God, who has promised forgiveness of sins to all who turn in faith, pardon you and set you free from all your sins, strengthen you for right living, and keep you in eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.