Don’s Speeches and Writings

Sermon Delivered to Dighton United Methodist Church
“The Reason for the Season” – Scripture: Luke 13:1-9

March 11, 2007

A preacher’s young daughter noticed that her father always paused and bowed his head for a moment before starting his Sunday sermon. One day after church she asked him why he did this. He was very happy that his daughter was observant to notice so he explained “I’m asking God to help me preach a good sermon”. She responded by asking “How come He doesn’t do it?” Well I can tell you that I have indeed prayed for help. Let’s hope He was listening…

The Gospel reading this morning started out with a little bit of current events. Some people in the crowd shared with Jesus the news that certain Galileans were at the temple preparing to offer their sacrifices when Pilate’s men entered and killed them on Pilate’s order. Now the people in Israel at that time were quite the same as people today. When something bad happens we, just as they did, try to make sense of it and try to understand why it happened. Many times folks wonder if the people involved somehow brought the tragedy on themselves by their wickedness. And surely, they probably thought, in this case it must be true. Just think. These people were in the process of offering their sacrifices to God. They were making sacrifices in the very presence of God when they were struck down. They must have been very evil indeed. Well Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead he replies that these people were no greater sinners than any other Galileans. Then he uses another example of a recent construction accident where the tower of Siloam had fallen and killed eighteen people. Again he says that those who lost their lives were no worse offenders than any of the other inhabitants of Jerusalem. Notice he didn’t claim they didn’t deserve it; he merely said they were no worse than others. In fact we know they were sinners as are we all, but Jesus says they were no better or worse than others. They died not because they were sinners but because they were mortal. Evil causes evil; not God. God tolerates it but he doesn’t send it and he doesn’t cause it.

Think about it. If sin causes death would any of us be here today? As the Apostle Paul put it, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So it can’t be sin that causes death. Aha, you say to me, Paul also said that “the wages of sin is death”. Yep, yep. That is true. But do you really think that Paul was talking about physical death in this world? It seems much more likely that he was talking about what happens after this life. He was referring to an eternal separation from the presence of God. That is real and that is the true meaning of death, and it is not a pleasant prospect. We all eventually die not because we are sinners but because we are mortal beings. These bodies we inhabit are fragile and vulnerable to disease and injury. And I am more aware of that with each passing year… We are not at all bulletproof like we thought we were when we were teenagers, and eventually events catch up with us. We run out of second chances in this physical life and we die.

But Jesus doesn’t want to focus on why some people died. He wants to use their deaths as a warning to us of our own mortality. He tells us to view the deaths not as indictments of their sinful nature but as prophecies of what fate eventually awaits us all. The question shouldn’t be “Why did it happen” but rather “What are we going to make of it”? Speculation about the “whys” surrounding their deaths is fruitless, and we should instead concern ourselves with our own mortality and our own sinfulness. This isn’t easy for us. Sin is a part of us. It is almost as if sin is imprinted in our DNA, that it is a genetic disorder that afflicts us all. As the Apostle John put it, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The fact that sin is a universal condition is made evident in Paul’s own words to the Romans: “It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love to do God’s will so far as my new nature is concerned; but there is something else deep within me, in my lower nature, that is at war with my mind and wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. In my mind, I want to be God’s willing servant, but instead I find myself enslaved to sin. So you see how it is; my new life tells me to do right, but the old nature that is still inside me loves to sin. Oh, what a terrible predicament I’m in!” This is the Apostle Paul speaking about his own struggles with sin, the same Apostle Paul who was a dedicated servant of the risen Christ! His words ring true to all of us, and like him, we may be tempted to see our situation as hopeless, as something we are powerless to change. How ironic, then, that Jesus would tell us to repent. Instead of offering a word of support and glossing over our sinful nature, he simply says “Repent.” But how? How can we ever do that? Let’s again go back to Paul’s words, spoken after he has confessed his sinful nature: “Who will free me from this slavery to sin? Thank God! It has already been done by Jesus Christ our Lord. He has set me free!”

You may have noted that the bulletin doesn’t list a title for my message today. That’s because, frankly, I didn’t have my thoughts assembled enough by “press time” to give a title to Joy. But today I think I might title it “The Reason for the Season”. Normally that phrase is used at Christmas time to remind us that Jesus Christ is the reason for the season instead of all the commercialism and materialism that is so rampant at that time of year. But this isn’t Christmas season; this is Easter season. And in one sense Jesus Christ is the reason for this season as well. But in another sense, sin is the reason for the season. Or maybe more precisely, sin is the cause of this season. It was because of our sinfulness that Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, came into this world and it was because of our sinfulness that he was offered up as a perfect sacrifice on the cross. We are uncomfortable with all this business, partly because we don’t like to admit and confront our own sinful nature, but also because we hate the idea that our actions could be responsible for the death of Christ. And maybe you, like me, have wondered why, if God is love, would He have ever allowed events to come to this point that Christ was crucified. I think the answer is found in the scriptures which indicate that our sinful nature is serious, serious business. To turn away from God, to rebel against God and follow our own self-centered natures, is an action that disconnects us from God. It is an action that exiles us from Him. And wrong actions demand consequences. Have any of you ever been stopped by a Highway Patrolman and been issued a warning instead of a ticket? Did that warning have much effect in getting you to obey the speed limit? Probably not. If you warn your young children not to play in the street and you come home one day, discover they are in fact playing in the street, and you ignore the situation, what will happen? They will play in the street again. Our sinfulness is like that. It is a serious enough offense to require a very serious consequence. It is serious enough that God could demand our death as justice. But as we have already discussed, He does not do that. But the infraction cannot go unpunished, so He sent His Son to die on the cross as redemption for all of our sins, once and for all. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish but may have everlasting life.” This familiar Bible verse that we have all heard and recited countless times demonstrates both the magnitude of our crime, and the depth of the love God extends to us, love we do not deserve, and love that we receive freely through grace.

So is that it then, we receive free grace and there are no further demands on us? The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a word for this concept. He called it cheap grace. Well, grace is definitely free, but it is not cheap, because it demands a response from us. Saint Augustine once wrote, “Whatever we are, we are not what we ought to be.” This is what Jesus means when he calls us to repent. And when he compares our lives to a barren fig tree, he is urging us to truly understand and believe in the depth of the love that is extended to us by God, and through that understanding and believing to be encouraged to lead a productive, fruitful life. The parable of the barren fig tree is also a reminder that God is in the business of offering second chances. And third chances. And fourth or fifth chances. Chances to get it straight, and do that which is pleasing to him. Jesus’ message is that God would rather look for ways to redeem us than to weed us out. But we can sense some urgency in Jesus’ voice as he tells us to repent, for he understands that our time here on earth is finite. And just like the Galileans in the act of offering sacrifice or the workers at the tower of Siloam, we don’t know when we will run out of second chances.

Little Johnny was on his way home from school with a couple of his buddies when they passed by his grandfather’s house. They noticed that his grandfather was on the porch in a rocking chair, intently reading a big black Bible. “What is your grandpa doing?” asked one of his friends. “Oh, Grandpa is just cramming for his finals”, replied Johnny. We all have “finals” coming up, but we don’t know when they will be upon us. Maybe now would be a good time to cram.

Are we bearing fruit, or are we still working for that which does not satisfy? Jesus urges us to repent and change our ways, and he promises us we will not be alone, for he is there to nurture us, to till our soil, to water and fertilize us. In the words from Isaiah, “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Amen.