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LSB Lent 3C Sermon – Luke 13:1-9

March 7, 2016

February 28, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’”

A man looked at the fig tree in his vineyard. For three years, he wanted to put figs on his table, fruit that should have come from his tree. But each time he went to take from the tree, his desire would be thwarted. So the man complains to his vinedresser: “Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none.” His statement reveals the problem: his fig tree doesn’t produce figs. So his patience with the plant has come to an end.

That end of patience is seen in the man’s command to the vinedresser about the fruitless fig tree: “Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?” The owner has no more use for that tree. It has become worthless. The tree occupies land. The tree draws nutrients from the soil. The tree grows leaves. Despite all this, the tree produces no figs. It has become nothing but decorative, at best. But the vineyard owner desires a fruit tree, not an ornamental tree. And so he gives the command to chop it down.

Jesus’ Parable of the Fig Tree is a call to repentance. His message is similar to the preaching that John the Baptizer gave while preparing Jesus’ way: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” That call to repentance was issued to the people of Israel, so that they would amend their ways and return to the LORD’s Covenant—both trusting His promises and following His commands.

This call to repentance was not new within Israel’s history. The ancient prophets had spoken similarly. They directly addressed the people’s incorrect thoughts about themselves and the LORD. Where the people did not place themselves under the LORD’s ways, the rebuking and correcting voice of the prophets sounded. That included addresses against people’s belief that the LORD was not being just and right to them. This is what you heard from Ezekiel’s prophecy: “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this.”

In these calls to repentance, the focus is placed on what the people were doing or failing to do. The LORD’s message through Ezekiel told the Israelites that when He sees them turning from righteousness to injustice, they are abandoning their status as His people. Jesus’ parable about the fig tree speaks to the inactivity of the LORD’s people to act according to His ways. In both cases, the result is destruction. The unjust die. The fig tree is cut down.

The call to repentance goes out, because the day will arrive when the axe will hack down the unfruitful tree and the nation will be judged. But these acts are not the LORD’s great desire to carry out. He makes that clear to His people: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Jesus’ parable includes the same sentiment, when the vinedresser speaks: “Sir, let [the tree] alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” In both cases, the LORD’s intended result is disclosed: He wants the house of Israel to live; He wants the fig tree to be fruitful and keep its place in the vineyard.

These calls to repentance go out to the LORD’s people. The primary audience of these calls to repentance is not the pagan or the agnostic or the unbeliever. No, the words are directed to those who identify themselves as belonging to the LORD’s household. Ezekiel speaks to the house of Israel. Jesus speaks to individuals who are in the kingdom. The same is true for the words of the Epistle Reading, where the apostle Paul writes about the Exodus people who rebelled against the LORD and His ways and suffered punishment for it: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” 

All of these messages are meant for the Church to receive. Ezekiel’s prophecy points out the end result of a life that is lived in open rebellion against the LORD and His ways. Jesus’ words show that a life of inactivity also brings judgment. Paul’s writing details the divine displeasure for those who test the LORD’s patience. The point of these calls to repentance is plain: judgment will befall those who perform injustice or who don’t bring forth the fruits of faith or who seek what displeases the LORD. Where any of this describes you and your life, then the lesson is clear: turn away from that and live.

But these calls to repentance also testify about the LORD’s character toward His people. None of the statements declared the matter finished. Yes, they were blunt about the judgment that awaits. But they were even more explicit about the hope that is present for those who heed the call. They are full of gracious statements that speak about the divine activity done for the LORD’s people.

Remember how the LORD spoke that hope through Ezekiel: “Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.” The LORD lays out the way that the wicked are taken from death to life: people renounce their sins and turn back to the LORD and His ways.

Even more involved was Jesus’ statement in His parable. For when the owner decides to cut down the fruitless fig tree, the vinedresser intervenes on its behalf: Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” The vinedresser doesn’t simply leave the matter up to the fig tree; he himself actively works to maintain the tree’s place within the vineyard.

That is the greater lesson to be learned from the LORD’s words spoken this day. The LORD speaks truthfully when He says: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live….” The truth of that has been demonstrated in what the LORD has done for you: He has sent the Vinedresser who intervenes for your sake and who works for your benefit. That is the role that Jesus has taken up for your sake. He doesn’t want you chopped down, so He has come as your Redeemer. He has atoned for your guilt, all the times when you have done unjust acts or failed to produce the works of faith. He has given what is necessary for you to have blessing instead of curse.

Your Vinedresser is hard at work in you. Jesus is a diligent and attentive worker. He digs around and prunes you. He feeds and nourishes you. Your Vinedresser tills the soil of your hearts and souls, spreading His Word in them and giving them the sustaining power of His Sacraments.  With this being done, you lack nothing necessary to bear good fruit. Your Vinedresser neglects nothing needed to take you from being ornamental trees that simply occupy space to become fruitful trees that produce the works of faith. He even gives assistance when you are presented with the option to wander from the way of righteousness: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

So you hear the calls to repentance that the LORD speaks to His people this day. But as you hear them, your hearts and minds are driven away from the objection: “The way of the Lord is not just.” No, you recognize the justice in the LORD’s statements. You know that condemnation destruction is ultimately right for those who take up the ways of wickedness.

But you also have come to know that the LORD has done more than what is just and right; He has acted graciously and mercifully for you. He has done so in the past, and He does so again today. For even now, the Vinedresser is tending to you with the Gospel message of His death and resurrection and His life-giving gifts on this day. With those at work, your end will not be the burn pile. Instead, when the LORD sees you as active, fruitful people, He will declare you “well and good.” And that judgment about you means that you will have a place in His Paradise forever.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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