The Focus is on You!
The Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey
Joel 2:11-14, Psalm 63.1-8, Luke 13.1-9 Acts 5.27-39
The heroic citizens of Ukraine amaze me as they resist vastly superior Russian forces from occupying their country. But they are doing what every nation would do to fight an empire that has taken away their freedom. It was sadly this way when Jesus lived in Palestine. His land was occupied by Roman troops and governed by a Roman procurator, Pilate. The region from whence Jesus came, Galilee, was a hotbed of guerilla warfare against Roman troops. The wise Pharisee Gamaliel whose speech we read today from the book of Acts reminds his hearers of the fate of one Judas the Galilean who rose up in revolt of Roman occupation. His uprising was ruthlessly put down; he himself was executed; and his followers were scattered.
So our story from Luke today tells of unnamed persons coming to Jesus to tell him about other revolutionary Galileans whom Pilate’s troops caught in the act of sacrificing animals as part of their temple worship. Now Pilate was a crafty procurator. He had studied the folkways of his subjects. He knew, for example, how the Jews thought that anything touched by a human fluid became instantly unclean. He knew also how particular the Jews were in keeping their sacrifices before God totally ritually clean. So, knowing how insulting it would be to the Jews for their sacrifices to be polluted by contact with any human fluids, Pilate had these zealots beheaded on top of their sacrificed animals so that human blood and animal blood flowed in one stream all over the altar of God.
What about that, Jesus? What do you think about that? Isn’t that gross? Isn’t that just revoltingly disgusting? How can God let Pilate get away with this, Jesus? How can you just stand there and not do anything about it? Aren’t you the Son of God?
Am I not lucky that I wasn’t in the temple courts that day when the soldiers came in? I might have gotten caught myself. I wonder what they had done for their luck to have run out?
You know what we call that kind of talking? We call it triangulating. Triangulating is when two persons talk about a third party as a way of talking about themselves, or when two persons talk to a third party instead of talking to each other directly. In either set-up, a third party is being used inappropriately. Jesus, as his retort indicates, will have nothing to do with triangulating. “I tell you, that unless you repent, you, likewise, will perish.”
Jesus’ retort brings us back to where he wants the focus to be. The focus is on you. Unless you repent, you likewise shall perish. Unless you repent. That’s a cutting remark. That kind of a remark shows no feeling for the burden of suffering caused by such atrocities. As a rule, Jesus is not so brusque in replying to those who approach him.
Something about the tone of the messengers must have set him off. Perhaps they were breezy, caviler, gossipy in their delivery of the news. Perhaps they were enraged and vengeful. Perhaps they were despondent and ready to throw in the towel. Whatever their demeanor, Jesus sensed that it was their hearts that needed to be softened; their wills needed to be bent. They needed to cast their lives totally on the grace and mercy of God, just as those freedom fighters had given their all in defense of their country. The question is not “What about them?” but “What about you!”
Unless you repent. We all can call up scenes of red-faced, sweaty, preachers striding up and down the platform, collar-opened, tie-askew, shouting hoarsely, “Repent! Repent!” Put that image out of your mind right now. Unless you repent. Unless you are all in the fight. Unless you don’t hold anything back. Unless you cast yourself upon the hope that God can make all things new. Unless you stop using another’s misfortune to magnify how well you are doing.
And to this warning on the need for repentance Jesus attaches as an illustration the parable of the barren fig tree. The fruit wood that is ready to be turned into firewood. There is no fruit from an unrepentant person. A self-sufficient soul doesn’t permit anything else to reach its root system, does it? A self-sufficient soul can’t bring forth fruit, can it? A stony heart is like stony ground. Nothing new can soak in.
But how the gardener still wants to care for and tend this fruitless fig! Give it one more year, the gardener pleads. I hope no one is a feckless fig in this church. I hope no one is jealously guarding the center of their soul, not letting themselves become soft and open to the work of the gardener.
God expects fruitfulness. Fruitfulness in service. Fruitfulness in giving. Fruitfulness in prayer. Fruitfulness in worship. What God expects, God labors to produce.
One more year! The window of grace remains open. The opportunity is extended to slough off the life of invented excuses for inactivity, excessive sleep, and sloppiness. God is the holy fool of a gardener who never gives up on bringing out our potential to love and serve. By God’s grace persons constitutionally turned in upon themselves can be turned inside out and can glory in the thrill of contributing significantly to the human community.
Ah, but you might say, “My sorrow is beyond God’s reach to help me. I am doomed to depression.” “No!” retorts the gardener, “Give me one more year!” And by God’s grace, I tell you, shattered lives, shattered families, shattered friends, shattered health and a shattered spirit are mended, healed, and sealed for the everlasting kingdom of Jesus Christ.
One more year! Is this your year? You better know it! Best you be ready to become serious and creative about turning from self-absorption, spiritual laziness, and a lay-about attitude. We face critical and important issues affecting our families, our health, our friends, our spirits, our church. You have a fruit to bear. Whether a persimmon or a pear, whether a kumquat or a pumpkin–you are being given another chance to escape becoming firewood or deadwood or driftwood.
Is this your year? Certainly, it is for everyone. None of us can coast on through the rest of our days in ease and comfort based on our past good works. Every day we all must lean into God’s mercy and grace. The good news is that God is our gardener who defends us in the face of a mountain of our demerits, by claiming the divine right to have one more year with this people, with this church, with this world.
It is not enough to do simply what we can. It is not enough to surprise ourselves by doing what we thought we couldn’t. With the care of the gardener, we do more than we can. We care more than others think is wise. We risk more than others think is safe. We dream more than others think is practical, and we expect more than others think is possible. We’re being cared for by the gardener for one more year. Thanks be to God!