Fifth Sunday in Lent
Luke 20:9-20 – But Jesus, having given them a look, said, “What then is this that is written, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Back in my growing up days, my dad and I were pretty strong Minnesota Twins fans. We would listen to games late into the night on little transistor radios, and my very first hero in life was Harmon Killebrew, #3, an aw shucks kind of a guy who struck out a lot, wasn’t particularly good in the field, but he hit all kinds of home runs. In 1965, when it was the Twins vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, I remember the school office playing the games over the intercom in our little school / would play full nine inning games between dreaded Yankees and Twins / would see to it that Killebrew would hit at least one grand slam home run each game / would dream of playing in Metropolitan Stadium, hitting home runs to win games / would dream of the crowd standing and roaring and watching balls sail over the fences/ My dream ended in about 7th grade summer Babe Ruth baseball, when I figured out I wasn’t a very good baseball player. I wasn’t particularly good in the outfield, and I had a really hard time even making contact with the ball as a batter, much less being a home run hitter. My dream wasn’t really rooted in reality, it was all about me, wasn’t at all a prayerful approach to what God’s plan for me might be. To use the language of our Gospel lesson for today, my first dream in life was missing a (Cornerstone).
Our sermon theme today is “Living The Dream.” You have perhaps heard it said that there are three kinds of people – those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened. Another version of that might be that there are folks who are living God’s dream, those who are living their own dream, and those who have stopped dreaming and maybe never did have a dream. The prophet Joel predicted that in the latter days God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh…your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.
In our Old Testament lesson, Israel was focused on the glory days of the past, but God wanted them to see Him as their present day provider and to see an even more glorious future. They were fixed on days gone by when God had delivered them out of slavery in Egyptian, they were fixed on their triumphant crossing of the Red Sea, but God wanted them to fix their eyes on Him as deliverer from Babylon. But their return to the homeland wasn’t at all the climax of the dream God was calling them to live. God’s ultimate dream for the Babylonian exiles was that they would spend their lives (declaring His praise!) Yes, God was doing a new thing for their nation, and yes He was going to make for them a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, and yes He would be providing water for His thirsty people, and yes they would be living their dream and living happily ever after, but the joy was meant to be contagious, “the people I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.
In today’s Epistle Lesson, we see that Paul had a vision for how to live out his life as well. We see that once Jesus Christ got ahold of Paul, His life long dream was to (lose) Himself and (gain) Christ. Prior to meeting up with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul’s passion was to destroy Christianity, but once Jesus got ahold of him, his passion was to spread far and wide the good news of Jesus Christ. Prior to conversion, Saul was on fire for the status quo of Judaism, but once Christ called him out of darkness into a marvelous light, He was all about forgetting what was behind him and knowing Christ. He wanted to be found in Christ. He wanted nothing to do with his own righteousness and everything to do with the righteousness from God that depends on faith. His dream was to share in the sufferings of Christ, it was to become like Christ in his death and know the power of resurrection. Living the dream for Paul meant that that whatever he could do for the sake of the Gospel, he would do. Whatever he could suffer for the sake of His Savior, he would suffer. Wherever he was called to go for His Lord, even if it turned out to be a nightmare, there he would go.
As it was with the people of God in the days of Babylonian exile, as it was with St. Paul, so it is with us this very day, in this very place. God has to shatter our self-centered dreams before we can (share His vision). We see that principle getting played out also in our Gospel lesson for today. In Luke 20, Jesus is getting on the nerves of Jewish chief priests, scribes, and elders. In fact, he’s doing more than that, he’s driving them crazy with rage and jealousy. Their dream was to live out their divine appointments as the teachers of Israel, but here was Jesus standing in temple, teaching their people, and horror of horrors, the people were listening to Jesus and more than a few were believing and they were following.
When they asked Jesus by whose authority he was teaching, he answered their question with his own question.”You tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” They knew if they said John’s baptism was from man, the people would stone them to death, and if they said John’s baptism was from heaven, Jesus would ask them why then they didn’t believe John. And so they answered the way my 7th and 8th grade students occasionally answer, with a shrug of the shoulders, and “I don’t know.” And so Jesus says, if you won’t tell me and answer, then neither will I tell you by whose authority I do these things!
Instead Jesus tells them a parable meant to shatter their own self centered vision for Israel and call them to repentance. In this parable, the vineyard refers to God’s people, God is the owner of the vineyard who has done everything necessary for fruit to be produced, and the Jewish religious leaders are the tenants hired to manage the vineyard while the owner is good. Two questions we ask today to learn what it means to have our self centered dreams shattered, then replaced and aligned with our shared vision in this place to mature as disciples for Jesus Christ.
Question #1 - What kind of renters would see themselves as (owners?) The problem with these tenants was not that they were not doing their job of working the vineyard. The problem was that they refused to provide the fruit of their labor. Instead of honoring their God with their work, they were serving themselves. They were dreaming big dreams for themselves. The owner had provided them with a comfortable arrangement, they had solid employment and a secure future. Their ultimate dream wasn’t to produce fruit, it was to have the inheritance for themselves. Their dream was for the status quo to continue, for old traditions to be maintained, for their positions of power to be increased, for Roman oppression to end, for the temple of Jerusalem to be central, and for the glory days of old to return. Instead of striving to be faithful stewards of all the owner had given them, they were living with the illusion that they if they would kill the owner’s son, the vineyard would be theirs to keep.
The kingdom of God is like a man who almost dislocated his arm the other day patting himself on the back. He was congratulating himself for paying off the mortgage on his house, congratulating himself for owning nice vehicles, congratulating himself for having his finances in order, congratulating himself for planning his estate well. Yes, he is living the dream, he thinks to himself, and he doesn’t mind it at all, if others comment on what a nice life he has fashioned for himself.
Question #2 - What kind of owner would send his only son to his (violent death?) We can understand an owner who would send a servant to collect his share of the fruit, that’s what absentee landlords would do in that day. But once they beat him up and sent him away empty handed, we do not understand how a clear thinking owner would send a second servant all by himself. And when they beat up the second servant and send him away empty handed and do the same with a third servant, what owner in his right mind would send his beloved son and think they would respect him? The same kind of God who would send one prophet and then another and then another dozen to a rebellious people over the course of thousands of years, in hope that his people would repent. The same kind of God who would send his only begotten Son into this world, that whoever would believe in him would not perish but have eternal life. The same kind of father Pastor Muther preached about last Sunday, the father who would run with reckless abandon to greet and love and forgive his returning and rebellious son, the same kind of father who would kill the fatted calf and throw a party and plead with the entire family to celebrate that the lost had been found and the dead son was now alive. The same kind of God who would look you in the eyes today and say that no matter how far you have strayed, no matter how self-centered you have been, no matter how ungratefully you have lived, no matter how often you have patted yourself on the back and congratulated yourself for being so hard working and successful….he says fix your eyes on my son and do not be distracted, he has suffered all that you deserved to suffer, he has paid the price you could never begin to pay, for the joy set before him, he endured the cross and he scorned the shame, his dream is for you some day to be with him in paradise, and until that that day comes, would you do me just this one favor……….just let your light shine, let your light so shine before others that they might see your good works and give glory to my father in heaven.
THE LOOK In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus giving his listeners THE LOOK, he looks them in the eyes and tells them in no uncertain terms that you either build your house on the true cornerstone, or your house will collapse into rubble. You either believe in Jesus as Lord and are saved or you believe not and are condemned. You either live the dream that God has called you to live, you live your own self centered dream, or you just sort of wander through life with no particular dream.
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town where Jesus is looking them in the eyes in a regular kind of a way and inviting them to live out their dreams in a way that gives Him glory and binds them together. It’s like a young mother of five children who posts on FB, “my dream is simple. Be married to the right man and raise beautiful children.” It’s like a single person who loves to go to church, she listens closely to the sermons, she has a passion for serving ina quiet and behind the scenes way. It’s like a busy and hard working couple whose marriage has all kinds of ups and downs, and one of their favorite times in life is when they look each other in the eyes, they say they are sorry, and they forgive as they have been forgiven. It’s like a single mom whose son is going down the wrong path in life and she spends her days crying her tears and worrying until she is sick to her stomach, but at the end of most days, she is still, she knows that God is God, and she endures. Finally the kingdom of God is like an elderly couple doing less and less what they would like to be doing and more and more their dream is to take care of each other, to season their conversations with grace, and that their Christian joy would be contagious. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I want to tell you about something lost that my wife just wanted to stay lost. I have a blue St. Croix soccer T-Shirt that I’ve loved for a long time, and I mean a very long time. I got it when I was in 8th grade at the St. Vinnie’s Thrift store and it’s worn and threadbare and smells a little bit bad, but just a little bit. But I love it. I cherish it. I keep it. I wear it.
And so whenever Laura folds the laundry, she’ll make a point to fold that shirt and put it away for me. But, you see, I never know quite where she puts it. Sometimes its in one of the bins, other times it’s under the bed, but usually it’s stuffed way back in the back of my dresser, and I think she just hopes that I would forget about it.
I wait for the day when my beloved shirt in the trash, and when Laura just can’t stand it anymore, I’ll know, and I see it there, my beloved shirt, and I’ll run to it, pick it up, I embrace it, and bring it back to its home. The thing some just want to stay lost, I rejoice in finding it.
Today, we read the parable of the Prodigal Son, and it’s a sermon that preaches itself. It’s the story of a man with two sons. It’s the story of a father full of unexpected delight. It’s the story of a man that rejoices when his sons come back home. It’s the story of a son that doesn’t deserve to be forgiven and another son that doesn't see his father’s heart.
It begins with tragedy. A younger son says, “Dad, I wish you were dead. I wish you were dead and I wish my inheritance would be mine right now.” A family gets blown apart, and you’d better believe that this would’ve been like most family blowouts, it’s the last word in a long battle. And so the father gives him his inheritance. Now, know this, that the inheritance he’s asking for was probably in the land and in the cattle. It wasn’t so simple of a task as just cashing out your IRA or writing out a check. It was the long, painful process of a divorce. Deciding to sell a third of his assets, selling a third of his land, downsizing his herds, laying off his workers. It may have taken a year or more of painful bookwork to get to the next verse.
But they do, and then his son gets lost. He decides to walk in the wrong direction. He loses his name, he loses his family, but most of all he loses himself. He dishonors his father, he dishonors his family, but most of all, he dishonors himself. He is absolutely reckless – that’s what prodigal means – when it comes to food and drink and wine and women.
If you were the father, what would you do? Some of you have been the father. What did you do?
It seems a harder thing to love from afar than to cut ties. In our little baptism classes, we talk about how before the age of adulthood, I have two kinds of love for my little Benjamin Button: Conditional Love and Unconditional Love. Conditional love because on the one hand, if he does what I tell him to do, I reward him, if he doesn’t, I punish him. There are rewards when you set the table. There are consequences when you break the lamp. On the other hand, there’s unconditional love. It doesn’t matter if he breaks all the lamps in my house, I will love Benjamin no matter what, because he’s my son. Now, after he becomes an adult, conditional love fades away. I don’t have that power over him. I only have as much influence on him as he lets me. You don’t get to choose whether your son lands himself in the White House or in jail. Parenting, it seems, is the art of letting go, little by little, of your children and trusting them with their own lives.
So, this young man, he’s reckless and he’s unwise, and he’s foolish, and then he’s broke. He gets exactly what he deserves, exactly when he deserves it. Do you know any young men that have this coming?
He hits a place that drug addicts call rock bottom. There’s nowhere to turn. You have to face the truth or die.
And he comes to his senses and goes home.
Our story continues in unexpected joy. First the son dishonored himself, but now it’s the father’s turn. Dishonor number 1. His son wished him dead, and he let him have his wish. Dishonor number 2. He runs to his son. In that culture as well as our own, children run to their parents, not the other way around. Dishonor number 3. He embraces his son who’s full of mucky pig waste. Dishonor number 4. He kisses him on his filthy face, he fits him in his best suit, and throws a party for him. And he suffers all this because he sees that the main thing is the main thing: his son was dead but now is alive. His son was lost but now is found. His son had left but now is home.
Our God is absolutely reckless – that’s what prodigal means – when it comes to forgiveness and compassion. The Father is absolutely reckless with his love, so much so that at the slightest provocation, at the littlest gesture of turning, even before his son can get the words of his confession out of his mouth, he runs to his son, he embraces his son, he cherishes his son. He loves his son. That which some just want to stay lost, he rejoices in.
Turn to the book of Jonah and how the prophet went to Nineveh. You remember that Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, the nation that sows salt into the conquered lands that they have a grudge against. The nation that slaughters cities that oppose them. The nation that hauls slaves away a thousand miles to force them to work the land. He goes there to the nation that had just slaughtered and deported the kingdom of Israel with a message of judgment, that their number was up, and they repent – and that’s remarkable in and of itself – when they repent, do you know what God does? He relents. He forgives. He runs to them. He embraces them. He cherishes them. He loves them.
That’s God’s stance on sin, not that he lets it go or ignores it, but on the cross he pays for it fully. While we were still sinners, he rescues us. While we were still running away, he chases after us. While we were still dead in our trespasses, he makes us alive. While we were still chanting “Crucify him, crucify him!” he was pronouncing forgiveness over us. He’s reckless – that’s what prodigal means – with his love in a way that makes dead things alive.
Our story ends in wondering. You can wonder about what the neighbors would have said when they heard the story. You can think, as I did when I wrote this sermon, “Well, how can you tell your people to do this? They’ll just get burned!” You can think about how unreasonable it would be for him to take in his son again.
And then realize that the logical choice, the one that you jump to first, you can see is in fact the exactly what the older brother says. One author writes from the older brother’s perspective: “There was no way […] I would join in that ungodly celebration. What was there to celebrate? A faithless son? A destroyer of our family? A sexual predator? At the very least, he ought to have been taken back in quietly and made to do the work of the lowest slave if, and until, he had earned our trust. He needed to be taught a lesson. He needed to earn his way back into our family’s good graces. That boy didn’t need a forgiving father but a strict judge. Otherwise, who’s to say that history wouldn’t repeat itself and, once again, he’d soil the good name of our family.”
He would rather that the lost would just stay lost.
When we think about the older son, the application is simple. Rejoice where your Father in heaven rejoices. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Jesus calls us to have compassion on others the way that God has compassion. It’s simple, but it isn’t easy. When I think of the older son, I think of the siblings that have held an olive branch out to the black sheep for too many years. I think of the friends who are afraid that they’ll be taken advantage of. I think of the fear that someone’s not going to learn their lesson.
You can see that the older son is just about as lost from the father’s will as the younger son was. The younger may have wandered farther from home, but the fact of the matter is that both sons weren’t following the heart of their father.
The heavens rejoice when the church follows the compassion of our heavenly Father. The heavens rejoice when the undeserving are given compassion. The heavens rejoice when God’s people are persecuted, beaten, reviled and despised for doing good, showing compassion, running to others, cherishing them, loving them.
The kingdom of heaven is like a Lutheran school where the Gospel is not only taught in its truth and purity but practiced as well. Where teachers chase after all kinds of wayward students to follow them around with goodness and mercy. Where parents and students alike know that the compassion of their heavenly Father. Where no one - and I mean no one - is turned away.
The kingdom of heaven is like a community food shelf in a small town where tens of thousands of pounds of food are given away every year, where pastors and laypeople alike chase down the hungry to stomachs with bread but moreover to fill their souls with the bread of life.
The kingdom of heaven is like fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters having compassion rather than anger, in the business of mending fences more than setting fires, knowing that they were all lost sons until they were found by the reckless – that’s what prodigal means – love of their Father in Heaven. Amen and Amen.
Matthew 27:45-49 Now from the sixth hour[f] there was darkness over all the land[g] until the ninth hour.[h] 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
Dear Friends in Christ,
• A story with an ugly beginning, but a beautiful ending……from forsaken to loved……..A story of Micah, adopted son of a pastor and his wife from Richfield. He had been left to die in a dumpster in India. Born as a survivor of abortion, born with cerebral palsy and a host of other health issues, rescued by folks who wanted him to live, baptized into the Name of the Triune God, raised in a loving Christian family, sat next to me for hours and hours on our bus rides to and from the remote mountains of Mexico.
• Few stories are more heart wrenching than stories of being unwanted, left behind, and abandoned. A baby left in a trash container. A student getting bullied with no one to stand up and protect him. A wife abandoned by her husband as he runs off with a younger woman. A teenager is told by his dad to leave and not bother coming back. An elderly parent sits alone for days at a time feeling as though nobody really cares.
• We cringe when hearing stories like these. We’d rather not think about how painful it is. Tonight, for just a few minutes, we are going focus on Jesus being unwanted, left behind, bullied, and left alone on a little hill outside of Jerusalem. Isaiah had predicted it, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised.” The painting before us is one of darkness, thieves are far behind, guards are barely visible, little groups of people talking to themselves, Jesus forsaken.
• First, Jesus was forsaken by his people, the people of Israel. Five days after they shouted “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him.”
• Secondly, Jesus was forsaken by the religious establishment of his day. Priests, scribes, and Pharisees initiated, insisted on, and carried out his public execution.
• Third, and perhaps worse than that, his friends abandoned him. Like birds scatter when a cat comes into the yard, his good buddies ran when the soldiers came on the scene. Peter denied that he had ever been associated with him. Judas betrayed him with a sign of affection. Even John watched at a distance.
• The list of forsakenness goes on and on. The light of the sun deserted him, as total darkness ruled from high noon to 3 p.m. To add insult to injury, even justice abandons Christ. He hangs on a cross, though innocent of all crimes. A Roman governor declares him not guilty and in the same moment washes his hands. A wicked king Herod has to acquit Jesus of the charges against him, and yet there he hangs.
• Jesus doesn’t question any of that. He knew what was coming and that all of his days had been getting him ready for this day. Up until this point on the cross, he had been taking care of people, but now he cries out with one question for his Father. First he had pleaded with his father to forgive those who were nailing him to the cross, for they really didn’t know what they were doing. His second crossword was a promise to one sinner who was repenting that in fact paradise was on the way. A third crossword was making sure John would take care of his mom. But now he asks for what purpose His Father had to forsake him?
• As darkness covered the entire earth, Jesus tasted the very judgment of a righteous God. In Gethsemane, His Father heard his Son’s prayers, but not in these three hours of darkness. In Gethsemane, God sent angels to strengthen, but no angels were there for him in these three hours leading up to death. In Gethsemane, Jesus and His Father were one, but for three hours they were separated. In Gethsemane Jesus wrestled with himself and brought himself to do the Father’s will, on the cross wrestles not only with flesh and blood, but with the forces of darkness. As all
• A story of my wrestling days, and on how on the mat you really are alone. Coaches can encourage, and friends can cheer, but each wrestler fights alone. On their way to defeat, no doubt many wrestlers think about quitting, but every time victory comes their way, the will to keep on practicing and fighting is renewed.
• The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, and yet without sin. No doubt he was tempted to quit or to take the easy way out, but he didn’t. No doubt he was tempted to cry out for legions of angels to come down and smack these soldiers silly, but he didn’t. No doubt he was tempted to ask why his father had turned away, and he did ask the question.
• My God why have you forsaken me? Jesus knew well the purpose of dying, but was it really necessary for him to be left alone? We know now the answer was yes. It was necessary for the full price of redemption to be paid. He had to be left alone as an orphan so that we could be claimed as sons and daughters. He had to have this one prayer unanswered so that we could pray to our Father as dear children ask their dead dads. He had to be cursed so that we could be blessed. He had to be loaded down with sin so that we could have our burdens lifted. He had to be punished so that we could be forgiven. He had to be alienated so that we could say with St. Paul, “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels no rulers, no things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What a privilege it is to be persuaded by the Holy Spirit that our sins have been forgiven, the price we could never begin to pay has been paid, that our names have been written in the book of life, that our mansions in heaven are on reserve, and that through thick and thin, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, in riches and in poverty, we are never alone. Christ is inside of us. He is walking alongside side of us. He goes on before us.
What a privilege it has been to minister to the redeemed, the forgiven, the persuaded and believing people of God over the years. Tears………..
• Ruth, as she approaches death, rejoicing in her forgiveness and soon to enter heaven.
• Ida, as she approaches death, telling me to quit crying, she’s going to be just fine, and then gives me coffee and cookies.
• Mom, as she approaches death, wondering why I am crying, and assuring me that she will be just fine.
What a privilege to say to you tonight, no matter what is causing you to be afraid, no matter what storms are blowing hard your way, no matter how alone the darkness is making you feel……….what a privilege to say to you that by virtue of your Baptism, Christ is inside of you. In the preaching and in the teaching and in the remembering of God’s Word, He is walking alongside of you. In the bread and the wine of the Holy Supper, He is forgiving you and strengthening you and drawing you close. And in those times you can feel his presence as well as those times you can’t feel it at all, know that He goes on before you.
Third Sunday in Lent
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” 6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Dear Friends in Christ,
We live in a culture that has mastered the art of being outraged. We hear of yet another gunman in Hesston, Kansas being served with a protection order barring him from contact with his girl friend, that 90 minutes later he goes on a shooting spree wounding 14 and killing 3 or 4, and we say to one another, “that’s outrageous!” What’s the matter with people nowadays?” As if something is really wrong with him and not so much with us. And then Jesus looks us in the eyes and says, “Let me tell you something, unless you repent you’re going to die.”
We hear of Black Lives Matter protesting violence against blacks by stopping traffic on busy freeways or we hear of swarms of Bernie Sanders fans crying out for free college education or $15 minimum wage for everybody and we say to ourselves, “That’s outrageous! Why don’t those people get their attitudes straightened out and see life the way we see it? As if something is really wrong with them and not so much with us? To which Jesus replies, “Unless you repent, you’re going to die.”
Or we hear of Syrian Muslims beheading Christians just because they are Christians and we shake our heads and wonder what’s the matter with those people, and we maybe even take it a step further and yearn for the day when they will get what they have coming to them all the way into eternity, as if something is really the matter with them, and not so much for us. Jesus looks us in the eyes today and declares, “Unless you repent, you’re going to die.”
Also in our text for today, there were some people who were absolutely outraged that Pontius Pilate would send his Gentile soldiers into the sanctuary where only priests were normally allowed and murder Galilean laypeople who were engaged in sacrifices to the one true God. They assumed that the Galileans who were murdered must have committed some great sin for which God sent this particular punishment through Pilate. They assumed that these Galileans must have been worse sinners than the average sinner. They assumed that the evidence was in this terrible tragedy. Jesus tells them they are assuming wrong. That unless they repent, they also will die. Another way of saying that all we like sheep have gone astray, that the soul that sinneth it shall die, that the wages of sins is death, that the need for repentance is universal, and that the time for repentance is today.
To drive the point home with a second example, a recent news item that would have been known to the crowds engaging with Jesus in conversation. He asks them whether those 18 who were killed by a collapsing tower were worse sinners than all the other men living in Jerusalem? Jesus makes the same emphatic denial and uses the same words that form our sermon theme for today, “ No I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish the same way.”
Two truths the Spirit of God would teach us today. First of all, we learn of God’s great desire to have mercy on sinners, and secondly, we learn of God’s strong expectation that we bear fruit and that we do so sooner rather than later.
First, we see in today’s lesson God’s great desire to have mercy on sinners. The section in Luke from which our text is taken is part of a larger conversation in which Jesus has just been discussing how crucial it is to interpret the present time. Just as we act accordingly when we see storm clouds gathering on the horizon, so also we should act accordingly by recognizing that the time for repentance is now. The message of this larger section of Luke is that no knows the day or hour of his or her own death, much less when the world will end, so don’t be putting off until tomorrow the forgiveness you need today.
On the subject of suffering, we do well to remember that there are at least three kinds. There is self inflicted suffering, there is suffering inflicted by others, and there is suffering that comes our way through no fault of our own. While the presence of suffering in an individual’s life should not be interpreted as punishment for a specific sin, the presence of suffering in general is indeed a consequence of the fall. Therefore, whenever we hear yet another gunman shooting up a town or a school, whenever we hear yet another political candidate saying things that make us shake our heads and want us to run for cover, whenever we hear of Palestinians training their four year old children to strap bombs on their bodies and be suicide bombers, our response should not be to assign blame, but rather to see in the tragedy further evidence of our own sin and need for repentance.
Repentance is being sorry for our sins and trusting in Jesus as the forgiver of those sins. It is admitting our own failures and shortcomings and nasty habits and looking in faith to Him who was beaten bloody and murdered on a cross on account of every one of those failures and shortcomings and nasty habits. Repentance is getting the log out of our own eye before we start commenting on the speck in the eye of some angry gunman in Kansas. It’s crying out for mercy for my own soul before I start wringing my hands in despair over how much everybody else needs to get a life.
The good news today, of course, is that Jesus came that we may have life and that we may have it abundantly. This is the reason for which Jesus Christ came, lived, suffered, died, and rose up again – that the logs in our eyes could be removed, that the debts we have accumulated could be forgiven, that our mansion in heaven would be on reserve.
Listen carefully dear friends, when Jesus warns us to repent or we’re going to die, He is at the same time promising that as often as we repent, we live. The kingdom of God is like a mom who disciplines her toddler for playing in the street so that he can live. It’s like a family that intervenes in the life of a loved one whose drinking problems are ruining family life so that this family can have a new beginning. It’s like the hearers of God’s Word on a third Sunday in Lent decide to be outraged at their own faults rather than the faults of their neighbors. Outraged at their own failures to be light of the world and salt of the earth kinds of people instead of aiming their outrage at those Washington DC in general and this year’s crop of presidential candidates in particular. Outraged at their own lack of fruit rather than the bad fruit of others.
You see, as often as we are outraged at our own lack of fruit, that often the vinedresser has a chance to dig around us and apply a bit of fertilizer. First of all we would learn again today of God’s great desire to have mercy on repentant hearts, and secondly of His great desire that we bear the fruits of repentance. Fruits like love and joy and peace. Fruits like patience and kindness and goodness. Fruits like faithfulness and gentleness and self control. Paul writes to the Galatians that against such fruits there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
Jesus’ parable of the fig tree supports his call to repentance by illustrating how God’s great desire to have mercy on us is always paired up with His strong expectation for us to bear fruit. To bear fruit today and not some day in the future. As a vineyard owner plants and cultivates and prunes and protects and cares for and takes great pride in his vines with an eye towards harvest, so has God planted and cultivated and pruned and protected and cared for and loved this congregation in the past with an eye towards a harvest in the present and multiplying out into the future.
The kingdom of God is like a man who has developed a habit of being embarrassed by his own sinful habits, but outraged at the nasty habits of those whose messed up lives make the news. In this very sanctuary, in this very moment, his God is opening his eyes. Opening his eyes to see that he is chief of sinners and not somebody else. Opening his eyes to see how beautiful life is as often as he throws himself on the mercy of his God, how beautiful life is as often as He receives all that His God is wanting him to have, how beautiful life is as often as he goes looking for people to forgive, to love, and to serve. Amen.
Jeremiah 26:8-15, Philippians 3:17-4:1, and Luke 13:31-35
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Jeremiah prophesies against a city that doesn’t care to hear him, a city that would sooner kill him than listen. Paul cries tears when he warns the Philippians not fill their bellies but to set their minds on what’s above. Jesus laments over a Jerusalem that kills prophets and stones messengers.
In all three readings, these faithful kinds of people all have to speak hard words to the people of God, and frankly, after the readings are read, it is difficult to respond with “Thanks be to God.”
I’d invite you to keep in your mind a person or two that you are in conflict with, someone to whom you have to speak hard words, or someone that you’ve let down.
Because the question for today is, how does the Christian speak hard words when they need to be spoken? How do you avoid, on the one hand, being a marshmallow that never deals with conflict and, on the other hand, being a hard-nose that always burns your bridges? How do you speak truth, but speak it in love? Three parts today, from the three readings, with three don’ts and three dos.
First don’t: speaking hard truths, it doesn’t come from a place of satisfaction. It’s not about sticking the knife in further and watching them squirm. That’s why the officials of Judah charged Jeremiah. They assumed his motives. They thought he was speaking from a place of satisfaction. They thought his personal agenda was getting in the way of his judgment, and they respond accordingly.
And that’s pretty easy to do. I was thinking just the other day: After a long day at work, with my bouncing baby boy Benjamin Button a little bit fussy, and Laura came home a little bit later than I expected, and the whole day had put me out of sorts. Now, instead of putting on my big boy pants and admitting that I was out of sorts, my first inclination was instead to make her pay, to ignore her, to let her stew and guess at what I was mad at. To just make her feel bad before I tell her what’s wrong. Who does that? Now, when I eventually came around and asked for her forgiveness, but the point is....
That’s not the way to speak a hard truth. Instead, notice Jeremiah’s response: “The Lord sent me to prophesy. Turn from your deeds, mend your ways, obey the voice of the Lord. Turn and the Lord will relent.” Now, notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Turn and maybe the Lord will string you along for a while and then forgive you.” He doesn’t say, “Turn and guess what I’m mad at.”
The intention when the Lord speaks hard words is repentance, and when that end was achieved, immediately the Lord comes with goodness and mercy. Immediately his wrath is ended and his love shows. Luther calls this “the over-burning love of God,” that he would love us enough to tell us when we stray, and love us enough that when we repent he is there with forgiveness.
More often than not, married couples going through hard times have great difficulty with this. They have been at conflict for so long that the expectation of repentance is that it’s total and incredible. You have to be perfect in absolutely every way before I will begin to think about forgiveness. You have no room to make mistakes. You’ve got to prove yourself each and every day until I decide you’re ok. Thank God that he doesn’t work that way. He is absolutely quick to let forgiveness flow. The angels in heaven rejoice to see another sinner stumble his way through confession and hear what God has already done.
Second don’t: speaking hard truths, it doesn’t come from a place of retribution. It isn’t an eye for an eye. It isn’t about taking what’s owed and then just leaving you alone, right?
I mean, could you see Paul doing that in our text from Philippians? Saying, just stop setting your mind on earthly things, remember your citizenship is heaven, and then I’ll leave you well enough alone. Do that and you can go your way and I can go mine.
He doesn’t say that. He says, “Join in! Imitate me and walk with me and gather around with others and stand firm, because you are my brothers, and you are beloved.” The Christian does himself a disservice when he fails to recognize all the kinds of people that walk with him on the path of life. The Christian does himself a disservice when he doesn’t see the great depth and width of different stories contained in even our little church, even here in our little town. The Christian does himself a disservice when he assumes that conflict is just about giving back what’s owed, because conflict is first about restoring relationships.
And here’s the point: Paul sorrows over their sin. With tears in his eyes he writes about how they walked as enemies of the cross of Christ. With tears in his eyes he sorrows and suffers over their sin, even if they wouldn’t sorrow or suffer with him. With tears in his eyes, he would face their shame, their destruction, even if they wouldn’t for themselves. Are you willing to suffer for someone, so that you can do what’s right for them?
Third, speaking hard truths: It doesn’t come from a place of self-righteousness. It’s not about saying, “I’m better than you, and you should come crawling back.” Out of all of us, Jesus would have the most reason to say this. As perfect Son of God, he could say you better come to me. But he doesn’t. You see it in what Jesus say, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets. Nevertheless, I will go to you. I will gather you. I will finish my course.
No, when the righteous one comes among us, you can see how he acts. Christ looks your sin full on in the face, and he doesn't flinch. Righteousness incarnate runs after all kinds of people that don’t deserve him to run after them. Righteousness Incarnate longs to gather together under his wings those who would scream “Crucify him, Crucify him!”
And here’s the point: Jesus Christ looks to do what a person needs, even if we would fight him on it. His love is absolutely relentless and his grace is overwhelming. His path for you led to the cross, and it led through the grave, so that he could bring to you what you were too dead in your own trespasses to long for – salvation. And all who would follow after him look to do what a person needs, not what they want, not what you want them to want, but what a person needs.
It isn’t the Christian’s calling to avoid conflict or eschew sin. It is our calling to see the places where sin wreaks havoc, and then do all that we can to bring the healing power of the Gospel to bear. That’s our aim, our every hope, in every situation, with every person, that we would see Christ gather all of us sinners like a hen gathers her chicks, that we would love and long for the reconciliation of our brethren, and that whether or not God calls us to speak like Jeremiah, we would know the power that the Gospel brings to bear.
In conclusion, we see three questions to ask in our texts, three questions that shed light on how Christians deal with conflict. First, “Am I eager to forgive as Christ has forgiven me?” Second, “Am I willing to suffer with them for what they need, just as Christ suffered on my behalf?” Third, “Am I seeking this person’s good as Christ has sought mine?”
Christians follow after Christ, and we stand in a long line of faithful men and women who spoke truth in love, no matter what the consequences, because we know the end of the story. Amen and Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther