Sermon: “Sentenced to Life”
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9
For a commentary on Luke 13:1-9, see First Look.
We are now in our third Sunday of Lent and we’ve been focusing on the importance of repentance. This is usually the time of year in which I’ll hear about a church hosting a viewing of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, which I think left those of us who saw it with a new appreciation for the suffering that Jesus may have endured. You can’t help but feel more penitent, more willing to make sacrifices in your own life, after seeing such a startling depiction of Jesus’ own sacrifice. In addition to movies like The Passion of the Christ, you may hear of other churches offering sensory ways of engaging the Biblical texts. For instance, I recently stopped by a “Biblical Garden” at a local church and saw an actual vine known as the “crown of thorns”. After touching the vine and imagining it being wound into the shape of a crown, I once again gained a new appreciation for Jesus’ suffering.
Some of you may be familiar with “Biblical Gardens”. They include plants mentioned in scripture, like Cedars, Lilies of the field, apples, small bushes with red leaves known as “burning bushes”, and of course, vines of thorns. It is an interesting way to make the stories we read in scripture more real, more tangible. Perhaps if we can see and touch that vine of thorns, for instance, we can envision the crown that it was woven into, and realize how painful it would have been to wear it. It can make us more penitent, more reflective on our own relatively comfortable lives.
Now, completely by accident, and with no connection to Lent or repentance whatsoever (or so I thought), my wife and I have cultivated one biblical plant at our own home. Two years ago we took our first ever vacation to the Florida Keys, and as a living souvenir we brought back a Key Lime tree. Key Lime Pie is my favorite dessert, and we loved the idea of having Key Limes available at home. Of course, you will not find any Key Lime trees mentioned in scripture, but from time to time there is mention of a tree that will not bear fruit. We have this tree at our house right now.
In two years of growing, I have yet to see anything even remotely resembling a lime. It has some leaves here and there, and a few bare branches, but no fruit. When I read our scripture reading for this morning, and hear Jesus telling the parable of the fruitless tree, I cannot help thinking of our Key Lime tree that refuses to bear Key Limes. Rather than just admit that it’s our fault for buying it and moving it to North Carolina, it’s easier to claim that it is the first and only addition to our very own Biblical Garden. Our little fruitless tree, after all, is rather famous. Not only does it show up in this morning’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke, but Matthew and Mark both include accounts of fruitless trees. In Matthew, Jesus curses a fruitless fig tree just before entering Jerusalem. In Mark, Jesus curses a barren fig tree immediately after entering Jerusalem. It is in Jerusalem, of course, that Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. Matthew and Mark both want to connect Jesus’ judgment of the fruitless tree with the narration of his passion: his crucifixion and death. In both gospels, we see Jesus as a judge, pronouncing a harsh sentence upon a fruitless tree, immediately before he goes to die for all of humanity. Might there be some connection?
Very soon after The Passion of the Christ hit theatres, I was quoted in the local newspaper as saying that I would see the movie because there was really no way for me to avoid it. So my wife and I sat through the blood, and the gore, and the intense beatings, and came away from the movie with a greater general appreciation for the suffering that Jesus may have endured on his way to the cross. For the two hours that I sat in the theatre, I was also conscious of the way that Jews were portrayed, perhaps because I have heard criticism from some Jewish leaders that condemn the movie as “anti-Semitic”. Personally, I did not think that the Jewish people as a whole were portrayed negatively in the film, but I can in a way sympathize with the concerns that some Jews have had. Those who criticized the movie as being anti-Semitic were obviously concerned about a backlash against Jews for being the ones that chose to put Jesus to death. They were worried that the Jews would be blamed for the death of Christ.
While many of us disagree with that reasoning, we perhaps can understand some of the criticism. After all, we do live in a culture of blame. Anytime something goes wrong, someone ends up being the scapegoat; someone ends up taking the blame. All of us, human beings in general, are very good at pointing the finger at someone else. We can find painfully obvious examples of this every day in our world. For instance, we have Republicans blaming Democrats for the ills of our society, and of course the Democrats are blaming the Republicans. We see criminals blaming their parents, or their families, or “society” for their own failures. Whenever something bad happens, it seems those involved are always very quick to pass the buck. We live in a culture of blame, and it seems like everyone is willing to point the finger at everyone else, when really we should be pointing it at ourselves. It’s just a simple fact that we are all much better at recognizing the sins of others than we are at recognizing our own.
I happened to see an interview with Mel Gibson about his movie in the weeks after it was released. In it, the interviewer asked him, “Who killed Jesus?” I think she wanted to hear him answer, “The Jews did!” thereby stirring the pot of blame and controversy even more. Instead, Gibson’s answer was… are you ready?
“We all did.”
That’s right. We all killed Jesus.
I think the reason that his answer is so memorable is that it steps outside the question of blame, and instead focuses on the sinfulness that each and every one of us owns in the eyes of God. “We all did…” No one is blameless.
That answer is also very similar to the one that Jesus gives to the people who question him in our scripture reading from Luke this morning. Some in the crowd around him tell Jesus about the bloody massacre of a group of Galileans at the hands of Pontius Pilate. To them, this is an example of a bad thing happening to good people. They want to know why. If they were really good people, why were they killed? Isn’t it possible that their deaths were their punishment for their sins?
Jesus’ reply steps outside the question of punishment and blame, and instead focuses on the sinfulness of us all. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Jesus then mentions a tower that fell on a crowd of people, saying, “Those eighteen who were killed when the tower fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Jesus sidesteps the question of why these people died. Perhaps there really are no answers to the question of why bad things happen to good people. Jesus’ words are meant to tell us that God is not punishing sinfulness through tragic events. Instead of interpreting tragic events through our blame-colored glasses, perhaps we should learn to look at our own lives. “Unless we repent, we will perish just as they did.” These words mean that none of us is blameless. No one of us really even deserves the life we have been given. We are all sinners. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is not good news!
Jesus follows this horrifying declaration with a parable. Here’s our beloved old fruitless tree, still barren and bare, obstinately refusing to do the very thing that it was created to do. It just takes up space and wastes good soil! The owner of the tree wants to cut it down! Who can blame him? Rip it out, roots and all, and use it for kindling! That tree deserves to die! That tree sounds a lot like us, doesn’t it?
In our sinfulness, we are all fruitless trees. There are times when we refuse to bear the fruits of love and kindness. There are times that we obstinately refuse to glorify God in our words and deeds. We just take up space. We waste good soil. We deserve to be ripped out, roots and all, and thrown away. This is a harsh vision of the guilt that we all share as sinful human beings.
The famous reformer and church father John Calvin described the guilt of humanity in a dramatic courtroom setting. I often think about what it would be like if John Calvin had the opportunity to film this description, as it is incredibly dramatic. Calvin describes all of humanity coming into a large courtroom on a day of judgment. There isn’t a smile on anyone’s face. We might imagine ourselves there too, joining the somber procession to stand in front of the judge’s bench. We all know that we have sinned. We can do nothing but plead guilty. We have wasted space, taken up good soil, for far too long. We have not borne the fruits of love. We have not served others with kindness. We have not glorified God in all that we do, and in fact, we have often acted like God does not exist at all. Like the fruitless tree, we haven’t done too well with the life that we have been given, and so we expect the judge to sentence us to death. In that courtroom, we all stand together, heads hanging in shame as we look down at the floor. Anticipating the pronouncement of our sentence, we lift our heads to face the judge before us.
It is at that moment that the most amazing thing happens. As we look upon the face of the judge, we realize that we know him. We all recognize him. A new hope springs up from within us, mixed with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. The judge is… The Redeemer. The judge is Jesus Christ.
Rather than being sentenced to death, we are then sentenced to life. Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, is the voice that says, “Give them all one more year.” We don’t deserve a second chance, but that is exactly what we get. Instead of death, we are given a chance at life. We are all found guilty, but the grace and mercy of God’s love for us calls us to be grateful. We have all been sentenced to life.
That’s the amazing thing about God’s love for us. Even as we are condemned and pronounced guilty for our sinfulness and disobedience, we are loved and given a second chance. This isn’t to say that God is always warm and fuzzy, either. Just because God gives us a second chance doesn’t mean that we can go around doing whatever we please without consequence. You haven’t been let off the hook! On the contrary, you are on the hook. You have been hooked for life. Christ, the judge and the redeemer, has got you, and he will never let you go.
Thanks be to God.
* * * * *
This sermon was written by Lee A. Koontz and preached on March 14th, 2004.