The God of Second Chances!

Pastor Jim Kniseley preached this sermon at Resurrection on March 3, 2013, the Third Sunday in Lent.  The text for the sermon is Luke 13:1-9.

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

 

You can easily find two faces of God in the Bible.  One face is angry and seems hell-bent on exacting punishment for sins.  The other face is loving and seems heaven-bent on showing mercy and forgiveness.  Jesus tells us today which face is the one he believes is accurate.

 

He begins by pulling out two stories from the headline news of his day and then presenting a story that he has made up to teach a lesson.  The first news story was about a group of Jews from Galilee who had come to the temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice.  For an unknown reason, Pontius Pilate ordered that they be killed and their blood mixed with the blood of their sacrifice.  All the Jewish people were horrified.  Some thought: these people must have really angered God and God made this happen.  Bible scholars tell us that  this thinking was a common understanding in the ancient world.  Jesus busts through this understanding of God and God’s ways by asking, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And Jesus goes on to say, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

 

Jesus pulls out another news story.  The Tower of Siloam collapsed and killed 18 people.  “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in that part of Jerusalem?”  Again Jesus goes on to say, “No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

 

Why does Jesus repeatedly turn the focus back to all the folks listening about the need to repent?  Why the definite declaration that these people were not punished for their sinfulness?

Could it be that Jesus is really saying “unless you change your thinking, you’re going to have real problems with God?”  Just remember that when you point your finger at another, you are also pointing 3 fingers at yourself…

 

Leonard Sweet is an excellent United Methodist preacher.  He prepared a sermon based on this scripture from Luke and began it this way:  What Christians sometimes say right after a disaster is disastrous and downright embarrassing.  He is thinking of the horrendous tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Here are some of the most offensive statements that he heard or read were said by Christians after that tragedy:

 

 

“They didn’t deserve this”

Leonard asks the question: Does anyone ever deserve suffering, pain, evil,  or murder?  Of course the children and teachers at Sandy Hook didn’t deserve this tragedy.  It isn’t about reward and punishment.  It’s about evil in our world that can happen to anyone.

 

“It’s part of God’s plan”

Leonard asks: Are evil and suffering part of God’s plan?  And then he states with emphasis: THEY ARE NEVER A PART OF GOD’S PLAN.  God is about goodness and justice and mercy.  Evil and suffering are the opposite of what God wants for his creation.

 

“They’re in a better place”

Many of us have said these words.  This statement seems to really bug Leonard.  He believes sincerely in heaven and the afterlife. But he also believes this: God values this life and expects us to value and not take this life for granted.  Heaven is wonderful, but so is this world that God created  with the hope of goodness and abundance and health and happiness.

 

“It’s punishment for the sins of the nation”

Leonard asks: Do you think that a good, beautiful, true God would raise up a shooter to kill children to make us repent?  And yet, we have heard this message from some Christian groups.

 

The repentance that Jesus is emphasizing is for all, including every one of us here today.  But here is something that I know needs to be declared over and over again: Repentance is wholly dependent on God’s imploring invitation to take that action.  Repentance is not something human beings initiate.  Repentance is something that starts with God and is placed in our lives.  Repentance is  grace and mercy that God extends toward all of us.  All the credit for repentance goes to God and not to us. 

 

What is repentance?  The usual explanation is “turning toward God.”  It’s focusing our lives on the one who loved us so much that he sent Jesus to this world to declare this love and forgiveness and life eternal.   In the world of Christian denominations, we disagree on who takes the first step in repentance.  Some say “the individual repents and then God acts.”  Our Lutheran teaching emphasizes that “God acts first and then we respond.” 

 

The parable that Jesus told has been called “the parable of divine patience” by Fred Craddock, a great preacher and teacher of the 20th century.  After reading the parable, I came up with this sermon title, “The God of Second Chances”.  Let’s see what title you might choose…

 

 

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here!  For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.  Cut it down!  Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

 

Jesus knows the common understanding of God as one who makes demands, has rules, and seeks to punish.  But Jesus inserts a gardener into this story, a gardener who is compassionate and asks for more time, a second chance for this unfruitful tree.  And don’t miss the truth of this story too, that the owner of the vineyard grants this request.

 

If the parable is really saying that Jesus is the compassionate gardener who does everything to help the tree (us) bear fruit, then the owner of the vineyard must be God who listens to the gardener and grants his request. 

 

One final thought:  In the eyes of some, Jesus himself must have been one of those “worse sinners” who “got what he deserved.”  Some would look at Jesus on the cross and think “he must have deserved it.”  But for those of us who have been given the gifts of repentance and faith, the story of Jesus takes on a much different meaning. “He, who knew no sin, took on our sin”. For this we can only say, “Thank you, Lord Jesus”. 

Amen!