- Isaiah 5:1-7
- Luke 13:1-9
We met John the Baptist last week. We also met Herod and Pilate. The message last week was that God’s Christmas strategy to reach the ends of the world is through his Word and through those whom He uses to preach that Word.
It sounds silly and foolish to the world, and even to some Christians it may sound as if we need to add some other tricks to make things a bit more attractive and palatable to reach the masses who seem lost without the Gospel.
We understand from the Bible that the task of the church is primarily the tell about Christ, the Son of God, born in flesh in Bethlehem, who came to seek and save the lost, who came to take on Himself the sin of those who are by nature rebels against the will of God. He was crucified on the cross of Calvary as the sacrifice determined and set by his Father to purchase our righteousness so we are set free. He rose on the third day, and later ascended into heaven to take his place as the King of kings at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
We need to tell those who we come in contact with that all people need to repent and put their faith in Christ, all need to die of themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus as if they are not living for themselves but for Him who died for them, He who promised to come again.
This message is salvation to those who hear, and in whose hearts the Father, by the glorious work of the Holy Spirit, puts new life. Paul states it this way:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. (Romans 1:16)
Produce fruit – the Messiah is born
John the Baptist preached repentance and faith in God, and He pointed them to the promised Messiah, who would baptise with fire and the Holy Spirit. At the Jordan where he baptised, John used certain terms:
Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:8, NIV)
“We have Abraham as Father”. What some meant when they come to hear the Baptist preach, was that they are the privileged people of God, called by Him, born from the seed of him, Abraham, who is their father. They are the covenant people, different from all the nations in the world. They don’t really need repentance. The Romans, yes, they are horrible people, sinful, and violent, trampling on the blood of God’s people. So, you can just think what they must have though about the soldiers who also came to John by the Jordan and even asked of him what they should do.
To all who came to listen to his preaching, John said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” He told about the glory of the Messiah, whose sandals he was not worthy to undo, who would baptise them with the Holy Spirit and with fire, but he also warned that this Messiah is ready with his winnowing fork to “clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:17, NIV)
So, the message of John was both exhortation and good news. repentance and bearing fruit – this was the gospel and the good news we read about in 3:18. He, on the other did not hold back on telling them that indifference to and rebellion against the Son of God means consequent judgement. All of this began at Christmas – but it moved forward towards the cross and resurrection of Christ – through to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the spreading of the Gospel of Christ into all the world.
In the background we read in Luke 3 about Herod and Pilate. Herod had all baby boys two years and younger killed.
We need to understand this message very clearly today. Never can we remain at the crib of Bethlehem. We need to understand that Christ was born to win us from slavery of sin, not only to make us his children, but to use us as his children to bear fruit in keeping with repentance – this fruit-bearing includes consequent faith, which includes the taking up of our cross and following Jesus. That was and remains God plan of redemption: the message of Christmas must reach the ends of the world, and to this end, we are involved. We are not saved to be saved, but saved to bear fruit.
Are we all sinners?
Now here in Chapter 13, way into the ministry of Jesus, most probably upon entering Jerusalem for the second last time before He was crucified, our Lord speaks to certain people who came to Him with intriguing questions.
The argument revolves around God’s perceived unfairness upon the innocent, or perceived justice upon the sinful: their were some Galileans, who in keeping with the prescription of the Law, brought their sacrifices into Jerusalem. Whilst at the altar, blood-thirsty Pilate – there he is again – like blood-thirsty Herod, his brother in crime some thirty years ago, who killed the baby boys, thought it good to have the Jews killed. The result was that their own blood mingled with those of the animals they brought to sacrifice.
This could only be understood in two ways: either those who came to Jesus with this perceived problem thought that those who were killed by Pilate were very sinful, and God, at the hand of Pilate struck them dead. They were after all Galileans, Isaiah’s people who lived in darkness (Isaiah 9) – people of mixed religious background, the Samaritans of the old Testament.
There is another incident: There was a tower, called Siloam, which one day just gave way whilst some “innocent” people walked by, and 12 of them got killed. These people are not described as Jews; it could have been Romans. Were they innocent or was it God’s punishment upon them for harbouring some bad sin in their bosoms? The assumption with those in discussion with Jesus is that they deserved to die because of their sinfulness.
How did our Lord react to these questions?
I think it is quite possible, even more so if we take the next paragraph into consideration, that those who posed the disaster at the temple as deserved at the hand of Pilate and even God in the case of the fallen tower, saw themselves as being part of the category of people who went to John at the Jordan who called themselves “children of Abraham” – inherently good people who should actually not experience in Jerusalem the sort of treatment Pilate dished out to those who were killed whilst bringing sacrifices to God, or as bad as those who walked under the falling tower. Those people – keep in mind the first group was referred to as Galileans (they lived way out of Jerusalem and were of mixed religious background – might have deserved some sort of punishment); and the same applies to the hapless twelve under the rubble of the tower, but not them. They were pure bred, full-blooded Israelites, children of Abraham.
Our Lord did not even go into their assumed hypothesis. He preached the same message as John:
Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:2–3, NIV)
It was now the Person John was referring to who was ready with his winnowing fork talking to them. When John said, “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Luke 3:8) he was pointing to Him who now says, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
In effect our Lord also said “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’”. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All need to repent, even good church people. Yes, those baptised, those who grew up in the church, those who can so easily point fingers to God’s apparent judgement upon the godless and the Muslims and the Buddhists and the atheists. A morally good life does not exempt any person from suffering, just as a morally bad life does not necessarily mean judgement. The saying of Jesus in Matthew 7, I think, comes into play: look at the plank in your own eye before try to see the speck in someone else’s eye. Never let the spirit of the Pharisee take hold of you when you look at others and then say, “I think You, Father, that I am not like any of these”; rather, say, “Have mercy on me for I am a sinner!”
Fruit in the vineyard
This is clearly explained in the next few verses.
There was a man who had a vineyard, and he planted a fig tree within. The reason why he planted both types of trees was not to sit in the shade of to admire their leaves. The Bible says:
“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. (Luke 13:6, NIV)
Who was this man? It seems very clear that the parable describes this man as God. What were the two trees, and why would there be a difference between the vines and the fig tree? Many people have different ideas, but the best would be to understand the vineyard as being the people of God, wider Israel, including the northern part where the Galileans come from. Jesus is now entering Jerusalem, and it seems the context wants us to understand that Jerusalem, the heartland of Jewish religion, there where the temple was, where the sacrifices were brought, there where the Jewish Council sat – this privileged place, referred to right through the Bible as the mountain of the Lord, was the fig tree.
The rest of the vineyard sporadically showed some signs of fruit as people came to faith in Christ as the Messiah. But Jerusalem’s heart was heart. For three years of ministry of the Messiah there was no fruit:
So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ (Luke 13:7, NIV)
John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, they heard Him preach, they saw Him do miracles – and yet there was no fruit. What was the fruit the owner of the vineyard was looking for: essentially the same as what John was talking about: repentance and a life in keeping with repentance and faith in the One sent by God. It did not happen.
So, God said, “Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”
Is God unjust? Is God unloving in demanding this? No. It is just reasonable; ask anyone who has fruit trees. It is better to spend the time and energy, and yes, the soil on something better tree, even if it means you will have to wait a bit longer to see real fruit.
Keep it another year
But then, the keeper of the vineyard, clearly pointing to our Lord Jesus, because of his mercy, pleaded:
“ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. (Luke 13:8, NIV)
He would do whatever it would take to care of the tree so that there would be fruit to satisfy the Father. He continued to preach, to teach, to perform miracles, to call people to repentance. And He would become the last passover Lamb – even if it meant that He would die at the hands of God’s own covenant people – his own people who did not recognise Him.
This is a remarkable way in which the Bible describes the intercession of Christ on behalf of those who would come to the Father because of his life-giving death on the cross. Don’t dig them out, give then more time. Give them more time, more grace, more opportunity to bear fruit of repentance and service in the Kingdom of the Father.
But the even the Intercessor knew that grace, although immense and free, might run out:
If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ” (Luke 13:9)
The parable is open-ended. It does not tell about the owner of the vineyard who came back after the year. Applied to Jerusalem and the Israel, it has an end. They did not seize the opportunity of grace offered to them. They crucified their Saviour, crying our, “Let his blood be on us and our children!” About forty years after that, the Romans came and destroyed their temple, their city and plundered their land. They spurned the grace granted to them by their Christ – and the judgement of God fell on them. Perhaps, as the walls of the city came tumbling wind on them and they fled their houses, the words of our Lord rang in their ears:
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:2–3, NIV)
My dear brother and sister, we have seen Christmas come and go. We heard about the Saviour born in Bethlehem according to the Scriptures. This message called us to worship Him as the Son of God. Over and over again we have heard the Gospel, and we clearly understand that calling ourselves “children of Abraham” means nothing if we do not repent and follow Jesus Christ.
We have now entered another year – the year 2014 of our Lord. It brings new opportunities and challenges – and privileges. If this church is indeed part of the vineyard of the Lord, it is logic to assume that He is looking for fruit? It fair to assume that we live on borrowed time, especially in the light of the grace and mercy in Jesus Christ. Do we hear our Lord intercede for us, “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilise it.” What grace and mercy!
But do we understand the rest of what He says, “If [it does not bear fruit], then cut it down.”
Shall we beg for mercy? Shall we resolve to be a fruit-bearing church? Shall we, one by one, ask the Lord to give us grace – maybe for another year – to bear fruit that will glorify Him.
Let us pray.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 5 January 2014