Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2016, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Luke 13:1-9
Sermon Theme: “The Mystery of Suffering and the Tragedy of Inertia”
(Sources: Anderson’s Cycle C Preaching Workbook; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Brokhoff, Series C, Preaching Workbook; original ideas; The Parables of Peanuts by Robert L. Short; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 26, Part 2, Series C)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our short sermon text from Luke this morning consists of two paragraphs, each with an interrelated message. The “mystery of suffering” is the import of the first paragraph, and the “tragedy of merely taking up space” is the intendment of the second.
Together they cover a lot of ground in terms of trying to understand the dilemmas of human living and the enigmas of God’s ways. Just like the cartoons of Charles M. Shultz, the God and human life issues are at the same time both simple and complex.
I love the way Charlie Brown responds to Lucy van Pelt in one of the Peanuts’ strips. Charlie and Lucy are walking together when Lucy asks, “You know what your trouble is, Charlie Brown?”
Charlie keeps walking without saying anything, so Lucy continues, “The whole trouble with you is you don’t understand the meaning of life!”
Charlie stops, turns around, looks at Lucy and asks, “Do you understand the meaning of life?”
Lucy replies in a loud voice, “We’re not talking about me, Charlie Brown, we’re talking about you!”
In another Peanuts strip, Snoopy suffers one of those calamities that sometimes happen in life. His doghouse burns down. As Charlie, Lucy, and Snoopy stare at the charred ruins of Snoopy’s doggy home, Lucy exclaims, “So your house burned down! So what? A little tragedy now and then will make you a better person! Man was born to suffer!”
Charlie turns away in disgust and says to Lucy, “He’s not a man. . . . he’s a dog.”
“The theology is the same,” Lucy shouts back at Charlie, throwing up her hands as Snoopy lies down on the burned out remains of his doghouse. He looks up at the sky and says, “I don’t believe it. Dogs were born to bite people on the leg and to sleep in the sun!”
Even for a dog, Snoopy’s doghouse burning to the ground wasn’t comparable to the disasters mentioned in our sermon text, — the tower of Siloam falling down and killing 18 people or Pilate’s massacre of folks in acts of worship. Nor to the even more recent tragedies like Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the 1976 earthquake in China, or the Twin Towers collapse after the 9/11 terrorist attack.
The mystery of suffering is the first message of our sermon text. In Judges 6:13, Gideon asked the question, “If the Lord is really with us, why has all this happened to us?”
As human beings struggle for an answer to that question, they usually come up with four possible answers: One, God is trouncing us (we’re being punished for our sins). Two, God is teaching us (we’re being educated by these misfortunes). Three, God is testing us (we’re afflicted so God can learn how strong we are). And four, God is transferring us (through terminal illness from this bitter world to a better one).
So which answer is correct? None of them, — as far as we know for sure. You see, in the text, Jesus does not answer the question for us, — He leaves the question hanging. He does tell us though that people do not suffer tragedies because they commit more sins than other people. He makes it clear by a scriptural example that those who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 were not greater sinners than those who survived.
No, God is not trouncing those who sin. Is God teaching us a lesson with the misfortune? Jesus doesn’t say. Is God testing us? Probably not, but Jesus doesn’t say. Is God intentionally transferring us from a terminal illness into heaven? No, it is not God’s active will that anyone should die, His permissive will, but not His active will.
While Jesus does not answer the questions about the mystery of suffering, He does say very directly, ‘If you want to avoid eternal death and damnation, you must repent.’
Well, that’s a statement which causes a Lutheran’s ears to flap, isn’t it? But wait, that’s not at all inconsistent with the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther affirming that we are saved by grace through faith alone. You see, repentance is a fruit of faith; if there is no repentance, there is no faith, as no true believer can possibly think that he should go on and on disobeying God by wallowing in sin. Yes, salvation is still by grace through faith,.
The tragedy of merely taking up space is the second message of our sermon text. In the parable Jesus told in the text, when the owner of the vineyard observed the unfruitfulness of his fig tree, he commented, “Why should it be wasting the soil?” The tree was taking up space and valuable resources and not giving anything in return. It’s not for us to judge specific lives, but we wonder how many millions of people are merely taking up space, not because they have no ability to produce fruit but because they are unwilling to do so.
I grew up hearing my father spout off about certain persons, “He’s not worth the lead it would take to shoot him.” I don’t think that was a very Christian thing for Daddy to say, but it certainly made me want to amount to something. The philosophy he lived by and taught me to live by is to do your very best in everything you do, whatever your best is, and the only reward you need is doing your best. In Jesus’ parable, the people who have perpetual inertia and merely take up space not only don’t do their best, but also, out of choice, they don’t do anything.
In our text, the owner of the fig tree was disappointed that his tree still did not produce after three years. He orders his vinedresser, or gardener, to chop it down because it is merely using up the soil. The gardener advises to leave it alone for another year. He will do all that he can to stimulate the tree to fertility.
This parable tells us something of God’s patience and purpose. God is patient in that He doesn’t merely cut us off when we don’t produce the fruits of the Spirit, but attempts to stimulate us to growth and maturity. Nevertheless, the Lord’s ultimate purpose for our lies is fruitfulness. He requires that we do more than merely take up space. What is tragic is that lives of inertia, which are barren lives, deprive others of what they need to live.
Gardeners like my wife, as well as the vinedresser in our parable, know that digging around the roots and feeding with manure, along with pruning, are keys to fruitfulness. Horticulturalists have learned that one of the keys to fruitfulness is pruning, because cutting off that which is dead or dying will strengthen the rest of the tree or vine. Some of the live branches need to be snipped off, too.
I think I can say this better by switching to Isaiah’s metaphor here. God is the potter, and we are the clay. If we give ourselves up to God, He will shape us to be useful, fruit-producing beings. If we resist the potter, we will remain an ugly lump of clay. Just as a barren fig tree cannot produce figs, a shapeless lump of clay cannot hold water.
To be sure, as we look back at the two messages in the two paragraphs of our text, it all boils down to this: Humans have always tried to make sense of suffering, as did the people who brought to Jesus the case of Pilate’s slaughter in the temple.
Jesus makes the point that death and tragedy are not directly related to our moral condition. The Lord also teaches that death is always lurking around the corner and if we were to die in an unrepentant state, we would all perish spiritually. However, if we live lives of daily repentance, we will not perish.
Finally, a life can be like the fig tree in the parable, which raises life’s most searching question, “Did my life count for anything?” God created man, provided, and cared for man. As a result, man has a responsibility to produce fruit worthy of God. God is patient and is willing to give us another chance to become fruitful, to repent. The justice of God will be visited upon unrepentant man. A useless, fruitless person will be cut down like the tree. Repent. Now. Lent is a time for repentance! Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.