This is a sermon I preached on March 12, 2017. If you prefer to listen to it, here's the audio.
I was talking with a friend this week who is preparing for a cruise. On Saturday they’ll head to Texas, board a cruise ship and head out on a new adventure. But as she was telling me about her cruise, I couldn’t help but think about stories that always make the headlines, you know the ones, hundreds of people sick on a cruise ship. How would you be feeling if you had a ticket for the next voyage on that ship? Or what if you booked tickets to fly somewhere and then you saw on the news that the airline had a tragic plane crash. Would it make you a little unsettled about flying with them?
When something like this happens, it makes you second guess where you’re going, right? You start to wonder if you should just stay home.
In our story today (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus is on a trip. He’s traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate a major holiday. It’s almost time for the Passover celebration, which is a huge Jewish festival where Jews from all over the world gather in Jerusalem.
They’ll all arrive eating and drinking and enjoying the company of their family and friends and others who share their faith. It will be a joyous time when they remember God liberating them from slavery in Egypt. It’s one of the most important events in their history.
Jesus and his friends and followers, and strangers alike were all walking on the road to Jerusalem, on their way to one of the greatest holidays of the year.
They’re taking the long way, so as to avoid conflict with the Samaritans along the way.
Last week we talked about the political climate, what it would have been like to live under Roman occupation.
The tension between the Jewish people and the Romans was growing day by day. We know from the historian Josephus, that Pontius Pilate tried to bring pagan symbols into Jerusalem, and they had taken money from the temple to build an aqueduct, which caused a rebellion among the Jewish people, that was crushed by the Romans. And in our story, Jesus has just gotten word that Galileans, people who were just a little ways ahead of Jesus and his fellow travelers had been killed in the temple. They had gone for the celebration, and their blood had been mixed with the blood of sacrifices.
And there was also a tower in the center of the city that fell and killed 18 people.
In Jerusalem. Where Jesus is heading. Violence and tragedy are breaking out right where Jesus is going. He’s walking towards it. The government is killing people in in the temple. Towers are falling. What should be a celebration, is turning into chaos.
Jesus asks, “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 perish.” “Do you think they were more guilty than all others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
He’s asking if people think that the victims of these tragedies were punished because they were bad people, because they were sinful and had done something do deserve punishment. Jesus says, no. They were no worse than any of the rest of the people heading to Jerusalem. They weren’t being punished as vindication for their sins.
Instead Jesus says they were not more guilty than anyone else.
But! If you don’t repent, you’ll perish.
Perish means to destroy or die.
If you don’t repent, then you’ll die.
Right here, Jesus is talking in the present tense, about life right now in the present. He’s talking about the life people are living right then. If they don’t repent, then their life is destroyed.
If you don’t repent, then you’re living death. You’re living destruction. You’re living a hollowed out existence of what you’ve been designed to live.
If you don’t repent, you’ll perish.
To repent is “to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about wrongdoing or sin.” We typically associate repentance with asking for forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong.
Asking for forgiveness has kind of become like a habit. Oops, I shouldn’t have behaved that way at the grocery store, I better ask for forgiveness. Oops, that wasn’t a compassionate response, I should probably ask for forgiveness. Oops, I know this isn’t what I should be doing, but I’ll ask for forgiveness later and everything will be fine.
Too often, we ask for forgiveness, and then return to our vice in the morning.
We ask for forgiveness, and go right back to what we’re doing. We go back to our same habits and routines and nothing really changes.
The English word repentance is one dimensional. It doesn’t come close to embodying the Greek word, metaneo.
The English word doesn’t capture the spirit of what Jesus is saying.
The Greek word means:
- To undergo a change in frame of mind and feeling.
- To make a change of principle and practice.
- It’s to rethink your ways.
It’s to realize you’re choosing an unhealthy way to live. It’s to realize you’re killing yourself the way that you’re living. It’s to realize that you’ve got destructive habits. It’s to realize you’ve been unfaithful to God. It’s to realize your life and the life of Jesus are at odds with one another It’s to realize you’re walking around blind to the Spirit’s movement in the world.
And not to stop there.
It is to realize, and then it is to take the next step. To undergo a transformation. Metaneo is to be changed. To be transformed. It’s to have remorse for what you’ve done, and then transform your life in a way that reflect that remorse.
It isn’t feeling bad about what you’ve done, and asking for forgiveness, only to return to the cookie jar tomorrow.
Earlier in Luke 3, we read about the people who had traveled over 85 miles from Jerusalem to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. It would have been like traveling from Osceola to Omaha. Without a road, or a car. Through the desert, rocky and littered with caves. It’s not like the flat plaines we are familiar with. They would have traveled by foot or on a donkey and it would have taken them 2-4 days to get to the river, one way.
These people were so desperate for repentance, that they were willing to travel 85 miles by foot to receive what John was offering them. They were desperate for transformation.
John said to the crowds that were coming out to be baptized, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 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.”
Then he essentially says: if you don’t produce fruit, the kind of fruit that grows from a repentant life, then the ax is ready.
It doesn’t matter whose lineage you come from. It doesn’t matter how good your bloodline, the ax is ready. If there isn’t fruit, then you’ll be cut down.
After John warns about the destruction coming for those who do not bear fruit, the people ask what they need to do. They want to know how to bear fruit.
- Anyone with two shirts, share one with someone who doesn’t have one.
- If you have food, do the same.
- If you’re a tax collector, don’t take more than you’re supposed to.
- If you’re a soldier, don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely.
The people who walked out to the river to be baptized by John, were not returning to Jerusalem the same people. In ancient baptismal practices, people would take off their clothes before baptism, leaving them behind, and then they would put on new clothes after to symbolize they had taken off their old life, their old life had died, and now they were raised to new life. Repentance.
Remorse for the old, leaving it behind. And then a change and readiness to walk towards the new life.
They were not returning home the same. What would have been the point in that?
They wanted to experience complete and total transformation. New life.
The repentance that Jesus is talking about is not one dimensional. Jesus’ instruction requires a transformation.
Jesus learns that people are being killed, that violence and tragedy are casting a dark shadow over Jerusalem, and he says, “if you don’t repent, you too will experience this darkness.”
And then he tells a story about a fig tree.
There’s a tree growing out in the vineyard, and the landowner went out to the tree looking for fruit, but didn’t find any. So he went to the gardener and said, “For 3 years I have come to look for fruit on the Fig tree and hadn’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”
The gardener asked that they give it one more year. The gardener wants to fertilize the tree, and he says if it bears fruit next year, then it can live, and if not, then it could be cut down.
In the Old Testament, fig trees represented Israel.
Some have interpreted this parable with Jesus as the landowner, and others have interpreted it with God as the landowner, and Jesus as the gardener. God continues to come to Israel, seeking fruit. And now, it’s Jesus’ turn to try. He tries to inject life and health into the old tree.
And we can see Jesus doing that throughout his ministry. He is trying to bring life and health to Israel.
He is trying to bring life and health to the world. To show the world a better way.
However it’s interpreted, the conclusion is the same. If the tree doesn’t get healthy, then cut it down.
If it doesn’t bear fruit, then cut it down. If it doesn’t bear fruit, why should it use up the ground?
But the gardener wants to dig around it, put manure on it, and then see if it bears fruit the next year.
Fruit doesn’t just appear on trees.
It requires work. A lot of work. A healthy tree has deep roots, firmly planted in rich soil, a strong trunk, and strategically trimmed branches. A tree that is not cared for produces poor quality fruit, if it produces fruit at all.
We can’t just sit back and expect fruit to grow, or to show up overnight. If we want to cultivate a life that bears fruit, we have to know that fruit is equal parts gift and work. We have been given the ability to produce fruit, and sometimes the Spirit works in spite of us, sometimes it works mysteriously without any effort. But we can’t just sit back and wait for it to grow. Fruit is something that’s cultivated. And when the tree is tended, and the roots are deep, the trunk is strengthened, the branches shaped and pruned, then the fruit grows in abundance to be shared.
In order to bear fruit, we have to know our source of life. We have to know Jesus. Who he was. What he did. Who he loved. Who he asked us to love. And who he asks us to be in relation to the world in which we have been placed.
If you want to bear fruit, I have three steps for you.
- If you want to bear fruit, you need a mentor. You need a guide. You have to find people who will speak truth in your life and you have to ask them to do so. Trees grow naturally, and so do people. But they don’t always grow in a way that produce the best fruit. Sometimes they only grow to survive. In our lives we have blind spots, things that we can’t see, or things that we simply refuse to. We all need people who will hold us accountable and steer us towards the truth. We aren’t meant to simply survive, we are meant to thrive, but we simply can’t do it on our own.
- If you want to bear fruit, you need to trim your branches. Sometimes growing healthy means knowing what to cut and what to leave. Some branches on trees may grow and produce beautiful flowers or delicious fruit, but do so at the expense of the rest of the tree. Areas of our lives get out of control and take over. Sometimes they may even produce good fruit, but become out of balance and cause the other aspects of our lives to suffer. It’s hard to do, but sometimes we have to pick areas of our lives that need pruning. Relationships. Commitments. Hobbies. Activities. When any of these categories grow unchecked, our growth becomes out of balance. You need to do this regularly.
- If you want to grow fruit, you have to be intentional about bearing fruit. It doesn’t happen on accident, you have to decide to grow fruit. You have to do the hard work it takes to live a healthy and fruitful life. Discipleship is a process, it’s a journey, it’s not something you accomplish and mark off of your to-do list. There’s always a next step to take, to be more like Jesus.
To repent, means to change. It means you realize you aren’t Jesus, you aren’t like Jesus, and that there’s always a next step to become more like Jesus. The part that makes the whole thing worth while - the part that makes it so fulfilling - the part that makes our world better and our lives more meaningful - the part that makes our faith in Jesus compelling to the world that doesn’t know Jesus is this:
Fruit doesn’t grow on trees for the sake of the tree, but for the people who need nourishment.
The fruit doesn’t grow to sustain the tree, but the tree grows the fruit to feed and sustain others. When the tree is healthy, fruit spills out of the branches in abundance. A tree never holds on to the fruit, insisting that it doesn’t have enough to give. It produces to share.
It produces to share.
John told the crowds who were repenting and being baptized that if you have two shirts, give one away. If you have food, do the same. If you are collecting money, don’t take more than you need.
The fruit you produce is the fruit that another will need to begin to grow. Somewhere on your path will be someone who will be nourished and who will be able to grow because of the work you did to produce fruit and because the Spirit made it possible to begin with.
May you repent, commit yourself to living a life that bears fruit, and share your fruit with the world!