In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
At that very time, some were present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Apparently, Pilate had sent some soldiers, who had killed some Jews offering sacrifices, and their blood had been mingled with the blood of the animals they were sacrificing. Jesus cuts right to the heart of their question: “You think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they died in this way? Or what about the 18 who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Did they owe more than all the others who lived in Jerusalem because they died in this way?”
“At that very time,” it says. At what time? In the verses right before chapter 13, Jesus says, “You judge for yourselves the righteous thing. If you are on your way to court with your accuser, you had better settle your case before you get there. Because if you try to plead your case, you will lose, and your accuser will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the jailer, and the jailer will throw you in prison until you hand over the very last cent (12:57-59). Your accuser is in the right, you have a perfectly just judge, and so you cannot win this case. You will never get out of prison, because you can never pay all you owe.
But when the people hear this, they want to deflect the light of the law away from themselves and what they deserve, to those Galileans and what they deserved. But do the Galileans or those crushed by the tower at Siloam deserve what they got more than anyone else? No, Jesus says. And we’re ready to agree with Jesus there. We don’t believe people get punished by earthquakes or hurricanes because they deserve it more. After all, we’re all sinners.
But Jesus says that not only did the Galileans and the 18 not deserve their punishment more than us; we also don’t deserve it less. I tell you, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. And we agree with Jesus on that every single week. Probably you’ve been agreeing with Jesus about that for a long time: “I, a poor, miserable sinner confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities, with which I have ever offended Thee, and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment.” I don’t deserve less than what the Galileans and the 18 got, I deserve the same and more. Punishment now and forever; death now, and death forever. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Jesus gives an illustration of what repentance looks like. He tells a parable: a certain man had a vineyard. But apparently he loved figs, because he plants a fig tree in his vineyard. When the tree is mature, he comes looking for fruit. And there are none. So the next year he comes again, ready to eat some figs. And nothing. The next year again, he comes looking for fruit on his fig tree and there is none. So he calls his gardener over, the guy who takes care of his vineyard, and he says, “Three years I’ve been looking for figs on this tree, and there are none. Cut it down. Why should it stay here, taking up space and energy and resources. I can get another tree that has proven results. Or I can just let my vineyard take over the spot and make more money. Cut it down and get it out of here.”
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like that fruitless failure of a fig tree. I like to think I look good on the outside; nice, green leaves and good, healthy branches and bark. But God doesn’t care about leaves and branches; He doesn’t care about how things look from the outside. He wants fruit. So I look around for fruit, and where is it? I want to love my wife and my family the way that I should, but my temper just explodes. It’s as if the firmer my resolve, the more quickly I break it. I want to do the things I should do as a pastor, but I can’t seem to prevent people from leaving. I know my failures as a shepherd who is supposed to bring back all the wayward and erring, who calls the missing sheep because they need the mercy of Jesus. Where are the children? Where are the young families? Maybe the pure Word of God isn’t enough. Fruitless failure.
Now, before you start shaking your head—or nodding your head—you have to hear this: you are a failure, too. In your family, in your job, in your congregation, just as I am. Why don’t your best intentions work out? Why does everything you do to make things better only make things worse? Where are all the children? Where are the young families? Where are your children, your grandchildren? Why aren’t the pews full? Why isn’t the congregation the way it used to be? And the Law hits literally close to home. The strange thing is, I preached these exact words six years ago in rural Minnesota. It doesn’t matter whether it’s northwest Minnesota or eastern Washington: fruitless failures, every single one of us.
But the thing of it is, Jesus loves failures. Besides that, if you and I are not failures, we don’t need Jesus. What do successful people need Jesus for? He’ll just as likely get in the way as help. And notice what happens to that failed, fruitless fig tree; notice what the vinedresser or gardener says to the owner of the vineyard: “Lord, leave it.” I will dig around it, and throw manure on it, and we’ll see what happens. If it doesn’t bear fruit, you can cut it down. As long as the gardener is working, the owner of the vineyard will leave the tree there. A fruitless tree. A failed tree. But here is the gardener pouring his sweat and life into it so that it will produce fruit.
Now maybe you think it’s strange for Jesus to put Himself in the middle of this parable. Maybe you think it’s strange that He would talk to His Father that way: a sort of good-God-bad-God routine. And it probably is strange. The thing is, Jesus says almost the same words from a different tree. This time, He’s suspended from it by nails. And while the people and the leaders of Israel are standing around mocking Him and spitting on Him, He says these words, “Father, leave them.” Normally, we translate it, “Father, forgive them.” But it’s nearly the same phrase, and the verb is the same word: Father, leave them. Lord, forgive it.
Strange, maybe, but there’s precedence for this sort of negotiation with God. Take Moses in Exodus 32. He is about to come down from the mountain with the stone tablets of the Law and the people are constructing a golden calf to worship; they have been grumbling and complaining the whole time. They have been complete and utter failures at being God’s people. And God says, enough. Moses, I’m going to destroy this people, uproot them, and plant a new people in you. But Moses intercedes for the people and says, God, you can’t do that. If you do, the Egyptians will see it and say that you brought your people out here in the wilderness to destroy them. And don’t you remember your promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? These are your people. And God relents from the disaster He was going to bring on them. He is steadfast in love, and quick to show mercy.
And speaking of Abraham, recall how God came down to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because their immorality was out of control. And Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah: God, what if there are only 50 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, will you relent then? And God says, Yes. What if there are only 40? Yes. 30, 20? Yes, yes. What if there are only ten righteous people? Yes, I will relent. I guess there weren’t any righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah.
But for the sake of one righteous Man, God will relent from the disaster that this whole creation and everyone in it deserves. For the sake of the one Man who intercedes between God and men, the Father will not destroy His fig tree, His Church, you and me. Father, leave them. Lord, forgive them. And He does. As long as Christ is doing His work, as long as He is digging into His own hands and feet and side and pouring His Body and Blood into the earth of His tree, God forgives. The reason God does not destroy this congregation or any other sinner is not because we’ve made Him so happy that He can’t bear to part with us! It is always and only for the sake of the one righteous man, who is God in the flesh.
So if we want more people in church just so we can see more children, or more young families (is it just so we feel less guilty about our own failures?); if we want more people in church because we need more money; or because we want it to be the way it was; or because we want more warm bodies in the pews, then we had better shut it down, lock it up, and turn it off. There is only one reason this congregation, and the Church as a whole, exists; one reason only: so that Jesus Christ can pour out His mercy on failures.
Before you even get to the court of your just Judge; before you have to hear the righteous judgment that comes from your accuser, the Law; before the sentence and the eternal imprisonment, your case has been settled by the blood of Jesus. And that is something to talk about. That’s something that people who have had enough of rules and manuals on how to live a better life and always failing—this is something they might actually find to be good news. This is something to bring people to hear. This Gospel is the Righteous thing, and by the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified we will be judged righteous.
The fruit will come. The fruit always comes where and when Jesus does His cultivating and nourishing work. It may not come in the numbers or in the way or at the time we’d like to see it. But we can trust that Jesus will never forsake His Church as long as He lives. He will continue to work on us, continue to remake us, continue to prune us. And the fruit will be produced. Only He brings back those who have gone astray from His ways. Only He grants the true faith by which we, our children, and our children’s children will hunger and thirst for His righteousness. We can doubt ourselves every day and twice on Sunday, but the Lord is trustworthy—every day and twice on Sunday. We may fail, but the Word of the Lord can never fail.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/22/19