Summary of the text
Jesus Christ did not mince words. He seems to have always spoken the unvarnished truth, but, I think, with a smile on his face and compassion in his actions. This passage today clearly reflects his self-described purpose in Luke 12:51, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”
The Son of Man knew his audience. Human-kind has not changed in two millennia. As back then, so today. We want God to accept us as we are without much effort to be better, let alone changed people. “I’m not perfect but I’m not bad either. Live and let live, that’s my motto.” Such is the thinking of the vast majority of people, world-wide.
Christ has a different understanding of reality and how mankind is to relate to the creator God.
The truth of our relationship to God applies to both the individual and to the collective people, the nation, the chosen ones. The language in both the historic tragedies of v. 1-5 and the instructive parable of v. 6-9 speaks to both the one and the many.
In Lk. 13:1-9 Jesus is asked to respond to two actual tragedies, one the result of murder, the other the result of an accident, and then he draws the deeper implications with a terse, probing parable.
In the ancient world (and probably a good part of the modern world) most people believed God, or the gods, punished evil and rewarded the good; hence these unforeseen deaths were blamed on the victims themselves. They must be evil, or, at best, just sinners whose sins had caught up with them. Somehow, they deserved it and so God had punished them. Such was the thinking of Eliphaz who accused his friend Job of unforeseen sins that had resulted in the deaths of his children. (Job 4:7-9). The inexplicable is simplistically dismissed.
But Christ says, ”No!” Death must come to everyone, but not everyone must perish. The timing of our death is unknowable, but the surety of surviving God’s judgment is knowable. The idea of judgment after death is the unspoken reality of Jesus’ cry for repentance. All are guilty, all deserve punishment, all must repent. This is the message of all of scripture, from Genesis through the prophets, from Jesus through the apostles, repent and believe. This reality is most clearly explained in Matt. 25:31-46. Mankind is so invested in this world and in living for this moment that we generally give little thought to eternity and the prospect of life with or without God our creator.
In v. 6-9 Jesus, via the parable of the barren fig tree, takes the reality of sin to a deeper and broader level. Throughout the Old Testament grapevines and fig trees are seen as symbols of God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel. This applies to both a spiritually healthy people and to a punished/scattered people. (cf. I Kings 4:25; Hosea 9:10; Isa. 34:4; Jeremiah 5:17; Joel 1:7)
William Marty in his commentary on the parables says, “Jesus told the story of the barren fig tree to emphasize the need for repentance and warn of judgment for refusing his offer of the kingdom.” (page 210). Israel had not been productive as God’s chosen people. John the Baptist echoed this same truth when he said, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:10)
Fortunately, in the end, Jesus offers the hint of mercy both to the individual and to the nation. The gardener volunteers to care for the tree for one more year, doing what he can to coax fruit from its branches. The writer James echoes the gardener when he urges the church to, “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22)
Taking responsibility for ourselves, our actions, our decisions, our sins, is always a difficult message to hear, and hence, a difficult message to preach. Openness, compassion, self-awareness are necessities on the part of the pastor, preacher, teacher. The self-knowledge of our own forgiveness should amply supple our courage to preach this passage.
Ideas and themes to be explored
Evangelism and the call to repentance, is almost unheard of in the current church. Is the church to me “seeker friendly”? To what degree? Are all believers supposed to participate or just the “gifted” ones?
Do a word study and explain “all”, “perish”, “repent”, “fruit”.
Develop the relationships between the individual, the nation of Israel, the church.
Contemporary angle to preaching
Western societies have become hyper-sensitive to disrespecting, disagreeing, non-accepting, of any and all groups, life-styles, ways-of-thinking. No one is to be offended. (The U.K. is now planning to prosecute internet trolls with threatened imprisonment.) How is the gospel message of repentance and forgiveness to be expressed in this current environment? What message is to be promoted and what is to be avoided?
Bud Thoreen was raised in Southern California and has a BA from Wheaton College and an Mdiv. from Fuller Seminary. He spent nearly 10 years as an Area Director for Young Life. Retired after 37 years as a remodeling contractor, he now works for FaithQuest Missions, engaging believers in what God is doing around the world. He spent 40+ years as an elder, teacher, part-time preacher at Irvine Presbyterian Church. You can contact Bud at [email protected]
“It is always dangerous to attribute human suffering to human sin; but always safe to say that the nation which rebels against God is on the way to disaster.”
William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, p.174
“If we refuse chance after chance, if God’s appeal and challenge come again and again in vain, the day finally comes, not when God has shut us out, but when we by deliberate choice have shut ourselves out.”
William Barkley, The Gospel of Luke, p.177
“We cannot save ourselves. The Bible is clear that salvation is by grace, but is equally clear that a transformed life is evidence of genuine faith. James reinforces Jesus’ warning when he writes ‘So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces deeds, it is dead and useless.’ (James 2:17 NLT)
Dr. William H. Marty, Fascinating Bible Studies of Every Parable, p. 212
“Now what was the sort of ‘hole’ man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down you arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—this movement full speed astern—Is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
There is a premier spine surgeon who emphasizes repentance. He is well known and popular. After and exam and test, if you need surgery, there is no guarantee he will do it. He requires his patients to change their lifestyle (aka repent). For example, if a person is overweight, a smoker, or drinks excessively, he insists they make lifestyle changes before he does surgery. If they don’t comply they need to find another surgeon.
Dr. William H. Marty, Fascinating Bible Studies on Every Parable, p.208
Chuck Colson tells the story of a young Christian man who was overcome with remorse over a murder he had committed years earlier while in a drunken stupor. He had never been caught or convicted. After much prayer with his wife and a friend, he confessed and repented, turned himself in to the authorities and served a ten-year sentence. God then used him as an agent of reconciliation in the prison he was sent to.
Eugene Peterson tells the story of trying to remove the blade from his lawnmower in order to sharpen it. Despite using several tools and great effort he was unable to budge the blade. A neighbor saw his efforts, and knowing the nut was reversed threaded, suggested that Eugene reverse the direction of his efforts. The blade easily came off. Such is the working of God’s grace.
Having gone through an extremely painful and unwanted divorce, I was vigorously blaming God for my woeful circumstances. While cursing Him as I drove to work, the voice of Jesus clearly spoke to me, “Bud, let me be God and I will redeem your life.” I said, “Okay, I can do that.” I repented of sin that had hold of my life, changed the direction of my behavior through prayer and counseling. Christ was true to his word, he lifted me out of the mire and set my feet on solid ground.
Additional Sermon Resources
Call to Worship
Leader: As the deer pants for streams of water,
So my soul pants for you, oh God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
People: My tears have been my food day and night,
While men say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude,
leading the procession to the house of God
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving
among the festive throng.
Leader: Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
Prayer of Confession:
Adapted from Psalm 51:1-5
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
According to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from by sin.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
So that you are proved right when you speak
And justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Assurance of Pardon
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts,
you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take the Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.
May you have the sure knowledge, as you go into the world, that repentance is the only sure path to Blessing.
Live your lives with the confidence that your are God’s redeemed people.