Monday, March 16, 2009

Sermon: Jesus' Way: A New Mind and Eternal Fruitfulness

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

Our reading in Luke begins with the report of a story of outrage. The report told that Roman soldiers had entered the Temple in Jerusalem and slaughtered a crowd of worshippers there as they offered their sacrifices to God. Luke is the only historical source of this incident, and we know nothing more about it.
Surely those who brought the report wanted to hear Jesus say, “Curse those Roman dogs!” It didn’t matter what else Jesus might say, just as long as it started with, “Curse those Roman dogs!” That is what any loyal Israelite was expected to say.
The fact that Jesus said nothing of the sort really underlined the way he finished his thought: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
What Jesus said was completely unacceptable in every way. Jesus drew the attention away from the perpetrators, and away from the victims, and pointed directly at the people who told the story, and told them to repent or perish. That was a shock!
As far as we know, Jesus is the one who brought up the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, which formed part of Jerusalem’s fortifications. The collapse of the tower was not an act of atrocity by the enemy; it was an act of gravity.
The two incidents were unrelated, but both the Roman atrocity and the collapse of the great tower had something in common. They would both be news headlines, if the world of that day had had headlines. I think that Jesus turned the report on its head because he wanted to cure the people who came to him from a kind of headline fever.
Even though the Romans had brought a considerable amount of peace, and order, and stability to their world, the Romans had also brought pagan influences; materialism, a culture of broken families and marriages; a culture of pride, and cruelty, and immorality. The overpowering presence of the Romans brought alarm, and anger, and indignation to God’s people.
Their reaction is perfectly understandable, but it was like poison to their life. It was like poison to their faith. Their problem with the Romans felt so wrong that it seemed like a betrayal of their faith (a betrayal of the Lord himself) to live quietly under such circumstances. And so they lived with a continual sense of crisis. They lived in a constant state of alarm.
Crisis and alarm focus all our attention on the headlines that happen in the outside world, or even in the world right around us, until we become blind to the changes that need to take place on the inside. Anger and indignation make us obsess about what other people are doing, and what other people deserve, instead of on what we need to do, and on what we need to give to others.
The Greek word for repentance contains the thought of a new mind. You could say a new heart and mind. We can receive a new heart and mind from Jesus that enable us to live in a way so that we can bear good fruit, and live fruitful lives, in a world full of the headlines of violence, and injustice, and unrighteousness, and disaster.
In the chapter that leads up to these parables, Jesus spends time encouraging us to live with a kind of attention and watchfulness that is steady, faithful, calm, and unworried. Knowing Christ is like having a new heart and mind that free us from the panic and the alarms of the headlines, and this teaches us to pay attention to what is truly important. A new heart and mind can teach us how we are to live in such a world as ours.
Then there is the really odd thing about what Jesus says about death: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” As a general rule, we cannot escape death. Death comes to everyone. Even Jesus died, for our sake, and then rose from the dead.
But, according to Jesus, there was a kind of death that could be avoided. The way to avoid that death was repentance. The third parable, the one about the fig tree, helps us to understand the meaning of repentance.
Now the Hebrew word for repentance carries the idea of turning, as in turning around; as in going back to where you were before you went off course. It is like turning 180 degrees.
Every few years I visit relatives in Southern California. It’s crowded down there, and getting from place to place is complicated, tricky, and sometimes a bit scary. I always plan to get lost, at least once, while I am down there.
It may seem odd but, as long as getting lost is part of my plan, it doesn’t seem quite so upsetting. I also find that I have an odd way of dealing with being lost. Sometimes I get the funny idea that, although I am lost, if I just keep on driving, I will find another way to my destination. But this is usually wrong. The way to my destination is generally behind me. And, so, I must turn around.
But the parable of the fig tree gives us another kind of turning. It is the turning of an unfruitful tree into a fruitful one.
Jesus was looking for that kind of turning in his people. Jesus wanted his people to live lives that would bear fruit by being like him.
He talks about this all through the gospels. In the fruit bearing life you love your enemies. (Luke 6:27) In the fruit bearing life you give without expecting anything in return. (Luke 6:35) In the fruit bearing life you refrain from judging others. (Luke 6:6:37) In the fruit bearing life you not only listen to Jesus, but you actually do what he says. (Luke 6:46) In the fruit bearing life you are willing to carry a cross to follow Jesus. You are willing to die to yourself; to lay yourself down. (Luke 9:23) In the fruit bearing life you create neighbors by being a neighbor yourself, and having mercy on them. (Luke10:36-37) That is quite a change.
There was a bride who was very, very nervous on the day of her wedding. She didn’t look like she would get through it without getting sick, or fainting. Now it happened that the wedding was taking place in the same church building where she and her family had worshipped all her life. So her Pastor gave her this advice. “As you walk down the aisle, remember you have walked down that aisle almost every Sunday of your life. Concentrate on that aisle. As you go forward, look at the altar that you have seen almost every Sunday of your life. Concentrate on that altar. Then look at your husband-to-be. You love him. So concentrate on him.” The bride walked down the aisle, and she stayed calm, but those who were sitting close enough were surprised to hear her chanting three words, over and over. “I’ll alter him. I’ll alter him. I’ll alter him.”
Repentance is a gift. We cannot alter ourselves. But the work that Jesus does for us (through his living, and serving, and loving, and dying, and rising); alters us. He transforms us. Jesus bears his fruit in us. This transformation is a repentance that is beyond our abilities, and it comes to us from outside ourselves, and it saves us from the deadly life of fruitlessness. It is a life that is truly alive because the life from Jesus.
In the parable, the master who looks for fruit, and the vineyard keeper who pleads on the tree’s behalf are both Jesus. Jesus is where the judgment and mercy of God meet.
The cross is the really fruitful tree. Receiving the love that is poured out on that tree is what gives us an altered life, a fruitful life, a Christ bearing life. That is the life that will never be alarmed or overwhelmed by the headlines, because it is a life that knows that, in Christ, it will never be fruitless and that, in Christ, it will never die.

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