Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 26:00 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You’re better off than you think. Some people report to Jesus that there were some Galileans offering their sacrifices at the temple, when Pilate apparently had some soldiers go in and kill them while they were at the altar, and their blood got mixed with the sacrificial blood. Jesus answers the unspoken question: do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? And then He adds His own example. Maybe you think that Galileans deserve to suffer—after all, what good could come out of Nazareth, in Galilee?—but what about those 18 Judeans who were killed by the falling tower in Siloam? Were they worse offenders? Were they more obligated to God? Were they greater debtors than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?
No, He says. So you’re better off than you think, because if something bad happens to you, if you suffer, if you face evil, you are not a worse sinner than anyone else. And if you suffer a lot, it is not because you are far worse than anyone else. But you are also worse off than you think, because after Jesus says that, no, none of those were worse sinners than anyone else, He says, “But I say to you, you repent or you will all likewise perish. So you are not a worse sinner than anyone else if you suffer, but you are also not a better sinner than anyone else because you don’t suffer, or because you don’t suffer in the same way as someone else does. You are both better off than you think, and worse off than you think.
And yet it still comes naturally to us to think that if bad things are happening to someone, it’s probably his or her fault somehow. Maybe it’s not a direct, one-to-one correspondence, but they probably had it coming in some way. Like Job’s friends, we’re pretty sure that that suffering person must have done something. Job has to confess, so that God will go back to blessing him! No doubt, consequences often follow our own actions, but usually we can point to the thing that we did and what happened because of it. If a hurricane hits your town and floods you out of your house, what action of yours caused it? If an earthquake flattens your house, what action of yours caused it? Are you a worse sinner than someone else, because their house is still standing and whole? No. And you’re not a better sinner if your house is the one still standing. To all of us Jesus says, Repent, or you will likewise perish.
And there’s another thing that we like to do when it comes to sin and sinners. We hope that our enemies, or people we don’t like, or people that we have designated as evil, get their punishment swiftly and completely. Why is that person still walking around, God? Take him out. But when it comes to us, we always prefer a bit of grace period. We want to push the judgment and the punishment out for a while, because we always think we have extenuating circumstances. We have reasons, justifications, a rationale for why we did what we did. But do you think that this other person doesn’t have a reason or justification for his or her actions?
No, you can’t put it right, no matter how much time you have. The judgment has already appeared in the person of Jesus, and the judgment is this: people love the darkness rather than the light. No fixing it. No putting it right. No getting better before the judgment. Only this: repent.
John said it from the beginning of the Gospel: the ax is already laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance! Trees like this fig tree in the vineyard. The owner of the vineyard keeps coming back and looking for fruit. He tells the vinedresser, the caretaker, the gardener: for three years I’ve been coming here looking for fruit on this tree and I keep finding none. Cut it down! Why should it take up space in My vineyard? It’s wasting soil and it’s worthless.
But the vine-dresser loves this tree, for some reason. “Sir, let it be.” Or, literally, “Lord, leave it.” Leave the tree this year also, and let Me do My work of cultivating, of putting manure on it, and see what happens next year. In the immediate context, this is clearly Israel. As we heard last week, from the end of this chapter, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that stones the prophets and kills those who are sent to it!” You did not know the things that make for peace. You did not know the time of your visitation. None of that is the fruit for which God is searching. But it is also all of God’s people, all the time. If this tree is left to itself, no fruit is going to come. The wicked do not suddenly become the righteous. Why will you die? God says. But we love the darkness, not the light. We choose death, not life. We will be fruitless if left to ourselves. Repent.
But the key is this gardener. He is the one who intercedes on behalf of the tree. He is the one who does the work to bring the fruit. He says, “It is not possible for a prophet to perish outside Jerusalem.” We would not repent; we crucified our Lord. We did not produce good fruit. We would not do any of it if left to ourselves, so Jesus. Repent or you will likewise perish, but we would not repent, so Jesus perishes. He sets His face to go to Jerusalem, and when He is crucified, He says, “Father, forgive them.” It is the same word as in this parable: Lord, leave it. In Greek, the word is the same. Here, it clearly means to leave the fig tree, to not cut it down. On the cross, it means to forgive those who put Him there. But it amounts to the same thing in the end: do not cut down. Do not remove. Do not destroy. His blood is mixed with the sacrifice of His body. Do you think that He is a worse sinner than all those who are not put to death? No, I tell you. He is the only innocent one, and He alone becomes sin, so that you and I will become His righteousness. Repent and believe this Gospel: the one who was crucified has been raised from the dead, and He intercedes for you, even now. Leave him, Lord. Forgive her, Father. Let me do My work. He stands between the wrath of God and fruitless sinners. He is the only mediator between God and man. And He stands for you. Let Me do My work. I will cultivate. I will feed. I will join this one to Myself, and the branches cannot fail to produce fruit when they are bound to the Vine. You have been planted in the vineyard of God.
And there is manure, too. That’s the nicer word. We don’t like it at the time, but Jesus is doing His work. And maybe it’s not this year, but Jesus is going to bring fruit from you. That’s why you’re here. He chose you. He loves these trees, for some reason. No doubt, we’re all far worse than we think. The sin goes deeper than we want to admit. We confess that we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, trees cut down and thrown into the fire, but, honestly, we have a little trouble believing it. No matter, hear God’s word: you’re worse off than you think. But you are also far better off than you could ever imagine, because Jesus has put His Name on this tree, and that one, and all of these, planted by baptism in the vineyard of God and redeemed by the tree of His death and shed blood. Repent and believe this Gospel: Jesus Christ, for you, forever.
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, 3/18/22