You grind to a halt. Car after a car ahead of you. And you’re stuck. You were already running late. Then your phone battery dies too so you can’t call ahead. You will miss your appointment.
- What happens next? How do you feel?
- Do you respond it by pounding on the steering wheel?
- Do you rage outwardly, against yourself, other drivers, the council for the roadworker…
- Do you rage inwardly – especially common when you have a passenger…
- How did this happen? Why didn’t you charge your phone? Why me?
- And when you finally arrive will you ‘fess up? Will you cover up?
The way we react to what happens to us shows what’s in our hearts.
Knock into me and coffee might spill from my cup. Why? On the one hand because you knocked me. But on the other hand because there was coffee in my cup. Circumstances reveal what’s in our hearts. Good days, bad days, all circumstances reveal what we’re like.[Thanks to the brilliant people at CCEF & BCUK for these senarios and observations...]
As we share experiences as a community the temptation is to think that taking away the bad situation would solve things? Would it? Or, to think that if we could just control response that would help? Would it? It’s said that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart… and Jesus is into heart-change not just outward change.
1. JESUS CALLS (1-5)
The people tell Jesus about a tragic event. A political atrocity done by Pilate. v1. And Jesus will retell as second example about a tower that fell and killed people in v4. That’s just two examples. Paris, Beirut, Lebanon... examples never go away.
What would you say if asked about such events? Jesus’ responds with questions, answers and a challenge. The question? Twice.
v2: “do you think that these… were worse sinners…?”
v4: “do you think they were more guilty…?”
Jesus doesn’t explain why these events happened. Not because that doesn’t matter. But because he has something else to say here. Jesus looks at how we respond to seeing suffering in our community. In this section of his gospel Luke records Jesus inviting us to read the times. We check whether it’s going to rain before going out… so look at the world and see what is going to happen.
When someone suffers does that mean they’re worse than me? Do bad things happen to bad people? As a teenager I loved that kind of approach to life – I was a good kid, so that meant good would happen to me… right?
When Jesus is asked the question he answers, twice: Do bad things happen to bad people? v3: No. v5: NO. In the heat of suffering Jesus addresses our hearts with an unexpected. Twice he says:
v3: “unless you repent you too will all perish”
v5: “unless you repent, you too will all perish”
Faced with the heat of suffering in our community, Jesus turns to our hearts. He asks: when someone nearby is wronged, when someone is hurt, when someone is ill… What do I think? What do I feel? What do I do? Where am I with Jesus?
Jesus knows that we might judge others but he wants us to repent. REPENT is a big word. It can sound heavy-handed. It just means turning around. To repent is to turn. The question is to what or who? Here it’s about turning to Jesus. In the heat of the day Jesus is concerned for my heart. Seeing my heart is painful.
Naturally, I want to run and hide in the darkness, and cover up what I’m like so you won’t think less of me. But seeing is an opportunity. A moment of grace.
Will I turn from my anger, my desire to be in control, my judgement of others? But I can't change my heart... God can, and so Jesus speaks - by his word all things can be changed. He invites us to come to him. To come to his cross, where his arms are wide open to receive me. There my old heart can be put to death. There a new heart is offered.
Tragically, going to Jesus, isn’t always my first move. When there’s suffering in my community…
- When my son gets sick: I think it’d be better if he was well.
- When my friend is struggling at work: I think it’d be imagine it’d be better if his situation changed.
- At times: numb and exhausted.
- At times: frustrated and struggling to see.
- At times: bewildered and confused..
- But, looking at my life, and those I’ve walked with… good fruit from turning to Jesus.
- The pain may not go away.
- The job may not get easier.
- The suffering may not ease.
For Jesus in this conversation – and for us – it’s not really about suffering, tragedy, pain and betrayal. The issue is human heart and sin. All situations - good or bad - give me the opportunity to turn again to Jesus. A friend challenged me about something he'd observed in my behaviour. A painful moment. My selfishness, my self-interest was exposed. Why wasn’t I being generous? Why wasn’t I giving myself to know them? How had I not seen that before? What hope is there for someone like me?
Get away from the dull glow of the city lights the sky darkens, and then the stars shine brighter.
Seeing my sin is a moment for seeing God’s grace all the more brightly. There is mercy in Christ I never knew I needed. One look at my sin, sent me to ten times at Jesus. It’s one of the beautiful things about the church community. Our rough edges rub up against one another, showing up the attitudes of our hearts. Helping us to grow both in the good days and the bad days....
2. JESUS CARES (6-9)
Jesus then tells a parable. What’s the story? In the Old Testament Israel were described as a vineyard, and Jesus picks up that picture. There’s the owner of the vineyard and he wants his trees to be fruitful. V6: He went to look for fruit on it. He says he’s been looking for years and he’s found no fruit. v6. So Jesus says: v7, cut it down. But, the man who looks after the vineyard for him says, v8: ‘…leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’
He calls for "one more year” to cultivate this tree. Luke carefully organises the eyewitness reports he’s collected. He puts things next to one another to highlight aspects of who Jesus is. This story is about the same thing as the conversation before. The owner is looking for fruitfulness, just as Jesus was looking for repentance. Time is given. “One more year.” There is a moment to respond.
This is a story of care and compassion shown by the man who we can understand as representing Jesus. It’s a picture not an allegory, so we’ll not over read the detail. We don’t want to pit the owner against the worker – for example as if somehow Jesus is more compassionate than his Father. Luke is clear that Jesus makes his Father known - there's no nasty Father hiding behind a loving Jesus, and knowing Jesus is to know his Father.
See Jesus. See him care for the unfruitful tree. Giving this moment now to turn to him. He doesn’t want the tree to perish, be cut down or removed.
Parables aren’t just neat illustrations though... Parables test our hearts. They offend. And we need to catch the sting of this one. There’s suspense: will there be fruit before the axe falls? There’s scandal: He says we’re unfruitful. Dead in the water. Will we agree and so receive his care?
Naturally, we want to think of ourselves as full of life. Jesus says we’re lifeless and helpless to change ourselves. "We might look colourful and bright like a Christmas tree, but we’re dying inside." [Glen Scrivener]
We might try to cover it up, but we know it. We’re offered skin creams to look younger. We might follow the Newspaper headlines and avoid bacon or coffee or cheese to live longer. But in the end: everyone dies.
But, Jesus isn’t really talking about death. He warns against “perishing” – twice in verses 1-5. Jesays says, if we fail to repent, we will perish. Jesus is not saying that people who don’t trust him will suffer atrocities… nor that towers will fall on people. Evil and suffering in this world don’t check your beliefs or behaviour. Jesus is talking about something worse than death.
- Being cut down and removed.
- The axe, ready. Judgement, coming.
- Oh to have a deeper horror at my sin, and dread of being away from Jesus. But when Jesus warns…
- He doesn’t do it to chase us away.
- He calls. He cares.
- In speaking of judgement there is always an invitation.
Jesus works his vineyard. Tills the ground. Prepares the soil for the roots of grace to spread far and wide. He wants us to know him – to enjoy him like the summer harvest. Our experience of life exposes our hearts. Ordinary situations give us opportunities to turn to Jesus.And turning, we meet Jesus at his cross.
- The one who was innocent, but had atrocities committed against him.
- The one who was innocent, but the tower fell on him.
- The one who was fruitful, but was cut down and removed from the vineyard.
- The one who freely offered his life in our place.
This morning and this week: Jesus has moments of grace for us. As you catch yourself, or others catch you, raging, frustrated, judging, despairing, covering up… Right there is the opportunity to turn again to Jesus. He’s calling. He cares. He won't turn you away if you turn to him, so will you turn to him? You’re invited. And he’s yours if you’ll have him.
An old puritan prayer puts it this way
“Quarry me deep, dear Lord, and then fill me to overflowing with living water.”As life reveals our hearts, and even in this moment, Jesus is calling and caring for us. Inviting us to turn to him and have HIM.
Image: (Creative Commons) Spill by Darrol.