GCI Sermon – 20March2022

Repent or Perish

Luke 13:1-9 (NRSV)


Tragedy.  Disaster.  Undeserved suffering.  These are the things which raise challenging questions regardless of one’s beliefs.  Perhaps as a Christian, we may think these questions present no challenge to the Christian faith.  But as Christopher J. H. Wright has expressed, believing in a God who is both all-powerful and all good presents “a problem at every level”[1] when it comes to suffering without explanation.  Yet, we will seek explanations in the wake of the numerous accounts of tragic undeserved suffering.

Let’s take two events just two years ago from our upcoming Easter celebration.  First, on Easter, April 21, 2019, there was a coordinated terrorist attack that included the bombing of three Christian churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, claiming the lives of 207 people while injuring another 450 at time of reporting.[2]  Finding some form of causality and explanation in the wake of this irrational act of murder never amounted to any satisfying answer.   There was blame, there was commentary, but there was never an answer that accounted for the loss of innocent worshipers on that Easter Sunday.  In stories of such violence, it may be easy to dismiss any culpability on God’s part.  After all, it was a terrorist who sent suicide bombers to church — not God!


But, just to push the tension, let’s visit another account of tragedy, only not at the hands of terrorist, but at the hands of Mother Nature.  Less than a month before the bombings in Sri Lanka, reports went out that a series of tornadoes had touched down near the Alabama/Georgia state line destroying several homes and claiming the lives of 23 people.[3]  Unlike the terrorist, the target of the tornado was indiscriminate.  You may remember this event yourself, especially if you lived in the areas affected or had loved ones who did.  Perhaps you heard some of the incredible stories of those that were spared from the twister’s destruction.  Some people have told stories of how their lives were spared even though they lost everything else.  These stories are often retold as a witness of God’s miraculous protection.  We may respond after hearing such stories with a quip statement like, “Looks like God was looking after you!”

But what about the 23 people who lost their lives.  Did God lose sight of them?  Or worse, did he love them less?  And it is here we meet the challenge of claiming that God is both all-powerful and all-loving.  If that is true, the argument goes, then these tragic events are left as markers that claim otherwise.  While many may offer insightful explanations to give reasonable answers to this seeming incompatibility, we still live in the tension between who we think God is in himself and what we experience in his creation.  In this tension, there exists a much deeper threat to our lives than any terrorist or tornado can throw our way.  It’s the threat of letting our experience form our thinking about who God is, rather than learning about him from his own word of self-revelation spoken to us in Jesus Christ.  We will look at Jesus’ parable in Luke to hear what he says about God’s character, considering the inexplicable suffering we face in our world.

Before we go further it will be good to consider how Jesus used parables in his teaching.  I would like to borrow an illustration from Robert Farrar Capon who wrote a thought-provoking book on Jesus’ parables.  Picture a block of wood.  If I were a science teacher trying to teach students about the atom, I could say this block of wood is made up of atoms.  Then I could illustrate an atom by way of the solar system.  Just as the planets are circling the sun, electrons whirl around the nucleus of an atom. With that comparison the students can now see the inner workings of atoms that once remained invisible in the block of wood.  This is typically how a teacher would use illustrations. What was once confusing to the mind is now made plain and simple.

However, that is not what Jesus did with his parables.  He would take the same block of wood and solar system comparison to utterly challenge the way students once thought about the apparently solid piece of matter held before them.  Like the solar system, this block of wood is composed mostly of vast empty space.  So, your thoughts about what is solid turns out to be mostly full of holes.

The way Jesus used parables wasn’t to explain things in simple termsHe was aiming to reveal how peoples’ understanding of God fell short of who he is.  Ultimately, Jesus used parables as a tool to lead people to repent of wrongful ways of thinking about God.  We will look at one of those parables in Luke 13:1-9 intended to do just that.  Jesus begins with a choice to either repent or perish.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam 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 just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5 NRSV)

Now before we go further, let’s clear up a point here.  Jesus is not telling us that unless we change the way we think about God, we will perish, because we are all going to perish.  Rather, Jesus is talking eschatologically.  If you continue your wrong way of thinking about God, and believe the common, though mistaken, assumption that tragic events or evil happens as a result of sin and guilt, you will be left with a false view of GodThis false view will cause you to avoid pursuing a relationship with him.  You will feel left out, and unable to enjoy being with the real God.

Keep in mind that repenting means primarily to change how one thinks about somethingActions, of course, will follow the way we think.  Jesus knows that if we carry this wrong-headed thinking about the Father in our hearts, the suffering and tragedy we all experience will be a weight too heavy to bear, and may turn us to blaming God, rather than worshipping him.  C.S. Lewis seemed cognizant of this threat in his observations of his own grief upon the loss of his wife:

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God.  The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.  The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like.  Deceive yourself no longer.”[4]

That is what is truly at stake in how we think about tragic and senseless acts of violence by the hands of men or nature.  We are tempted to let the experience of the event tell us who God is in his inner being.  Our pain can drive our thoughts to counter Jesus’ revelation of his Father of love.  What is important in knowing God is who he reveals himself to be, not what we project onto him by our experiences.  Jesus will now follow up with a parable that serves to reveal to these distraught hearers God’s character that is consistent with God’s interaction with Israel throughout their history.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.  Cut it down!  Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9 NRSV)

In Jesus’ Parable of the Fig Tree, we are better served to hear Jesus challenge our thoughts about suffering rather than hear a word of affirmation to what we typically tell ourselves.  After all, he is telling this parable to help his disciples think differently about who God is and how he deals with our sin and guilt.  Remember the block of wood illustration.  Here are a few ways we will look at the parable:

First, the owner of the vineyard in the parable will be a stand-in for the erroneous viewpoint that people typically hold about God.  It may be helpful to see the “owner” as a mythological god ruling in our headsSecond, the vinedresser serves as a Christ figure who helps us see how God actually deals with humanity.  Third, all humanity, including you and I today, will be represented by the fig tree.

As with all fruit trees, under the law of Moses, fig trees were protected from being cut down.  They were precious and meant for the enjoyment of the owner.  Note that in this parable, the fig tree was planted in a vineyard not an orchard.  The Father did not “plant” us in his garden to market us or to produce fruit for his livelihood.  We were created for his pleasure and enjoyment, not for some utilitarian end.  There is more to this detail of the vineyard or garden that can be explored.  Perhaps Jesus means to invoke the recollection of Adam and Eve in a Garden where they chose to listen to the lie that God was holding back from them, not having their best interest in mind.  Adam and Eve chose to listen to the lie about a mythological god rather than the God who walked with them in the Garden.  With this setting within the parable Jesus has found a backdoor where we may revisit the choice of who we listen to.  Do we give more weight to experiences that feel like God is absent or do we trust in the one who has promised to never leave or forsake us?

Let’s take note of some historical details that Jesus includes that we modern readers may miss.  For the Jews these details would serve to remind Jesus’ disciples of God’s presence with Israel throughout her history.  In Leviticus 19:23-24, we see that it was forbidden to take fruit from fruit trees for the first three years.  In the fourth year the fruit would “be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord.”  For the Jews hearing this parable, the act of the owner wanting to cut down the fig tree because he couldn’t find fruit on it for three years would have run counter to what the law stated.  If we see God looking to cut us down when we don’t produce, we hold an image of God in our minds that contradicts his own revelation to us.  The “owner” in the parable is not acting like God had acted with Israel in their experience or with their law.

The vinedresser at this point speaks to the “man” — the mythological god we have created — and echoes what the law would have said to do: “Leave it alone for one more year.”  This phrase “leave it alone” comes from the Greek aphes, carrying the meaning of forgive.  It’s the same word Jesus utters from the cross in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive (aphes) them ….”  The vinedresser takes upon himself the fruit-bearing of the fig tree by digging around it and fertilizing it with dung.  It would be a smelly job of blood, sweat and tears but he gets to the root of the problem.

This parable in the hands of Jesus challenges any concept we might hold of a God whose patience runs out on us and  looks to destroy us like some short-tempered mad man.  Rather, he comes to us in Jesus and operates through grace; through aphes.  Through the crucifixion, digging into the dirt and dung of death, Jesus has rooted out the unfruitfulness of our human nature. We are called to repent of any wrong-headed notions that it is up to us to produce fruit in the fear of an axe-crazed owner bent on our destruction.  We abide in the fruitfulness of our Savior who works only through aphes. 

The parable ends with the vinedresser saying to the “man,” “If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then you can cut it down.”  The vinedresser trusts in what he is doing to the tree.  He knows the tree will bear fruit, and he knows the man will not need to cut it down.  We can trust in Jesus working through grace for our fruitfulness, or we can perish in our wrong-headed belief in a mythological godThe mythological god will cut us down every time, but the real God never will.  Notice the fruitfulness of the fig tree is bound up in Christ’s work in the tree.  He does not magically make fruit appear on the tree but rather he takes up the role of the true gardener who remains in faithful relationship with the tree.  In this way we can see that we participate in our own fruitfulness by Christ presence with us, working by his Spirit in our lives.  In this way Jesus brings in the incredible dignity that comes from being in real relationship with him.  Our relationship and response to him in our actions and decisions are gifted with incredible significance.  Our prayers and what we say and do in our lives adds up and counts for something.  We are not just wasting time in our relationship with Jesus in the here and now.

Jesus’ words in response to senseless violence and unexpected tragedy serve to build our faith in the God who is faithful to his people.  We may never have satisfying answers to the challenge of suffering this side of heaven. But we do have God’s Word to us in Jesus Christ.  His Word is that God is good even when our experience is bad.  No matter what our thoughts may be telling us!  This can lead us to face our sufferings with hope rather than fearful questioning of God’s character.  As we come to see more and more who the Father is in Jesus Christ, we will be less inclined to demand an explanation from him of “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Instead, we can pray as Jesus taught us, “Deliver us from the evil one,” trusting that God aims to remove all evil and suffering to bring us into his everlasting Kingdom.  This is the greatest ministry believers can engage in for the sake of the world.  Pray to the one who has, is, and will do something about evil and suffering.  Like the Speaking of Life video brought out, if a child has a broken gift he cannot fix, the most powerful and effective thing he can do is to bring it to his Father who can.  This is a position of hope and not despair.  May we join the cloud of witnesses seen in the biblical story and those faithful believers who came before us by turning to the One who is for us when everything in life seems to be against us.


[1] Christopher J. H. Wright. The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of faith. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 27.
[2] Louis Casiano, Stephen Sorace, Lucia I. Suarez Sang. Easter Sunday explosions at multiple churches and hotels rock Sri Lanka, death toll rises past 200. Fox News, accessed July 30, 2019, https://www.foxnews.com/world/easter-sunday-explosions-at-multiple-churches-and-hotels-rock-sri-lanka-death-tolls-rises
[3] Frank Miles. At least 23 dead, many injured, in apparent large tornado in Alabama, officials say; fatalities could rise. Fox News, accessed July 30, 2019, https://www.foxnews.com/weather/more-than-10-dead-many-injured-in-apparent-large-tornado-in-alabama-officials-say
[4] C.S. Lewis. A Grief Observed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1961), 6-7.


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