Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Third Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent.

The Third Sunday of Lent 2022

Reading: Luke 13:1-9

Our Gospel reading from the beginning of chapter 13 of St Luke’s Gospel is the conclusion to teaching Jesus has been giving since the beginning of chapter 12. Immediately before this section of the Gospel in chapter 11, Jesus is severely critical of the Pharisees. In chapter 12, St Luke begins this section of the Gospel by describing how a huge crowd has gathered to see and hear Jesus.

Jesus has become something of a celebrity and people trample over one another to get to see him. Jesus, however, has something he wants to say first to his disciples. Jesus links what he wants to say to his disciples to what he has been saying previously about the Pharisees. He begins by warning his disciples of the ‘yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy’ (Luke 12:1). Today, he may have told them to beware of the virus of the Pharisees, that is their hypocrisy! The idea is of something that spreads and affects the whole in the process. Jesus sees the Pharisees’ hypocrisy as being like that.

Jesus has condemned the Pharisees’ hypocrisy in stark terms, describing them as being one thing on the outside and another altogether on the inside. They love outward show and want people to look up to them and show them respect (Luke 11:39-44). One day, however, what they are really like will be exposed. Jesus tells his disciples:

‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.’ (Luke 12:2-3)

This statement about God’s future judgement, which will affect everyone and not just the Pharisees, provides the theme for Jesus’ teaching that follows in chapter 12 and continues in our Gospel reading.

Having introduced the theme of judgement, Jesus warns his disciples that they should not fear those who can harm them physically, rather they should fear him who can destroy them completely in hell! They are to be fearless in their witness to him knowing that God will watch over them and help them (Luke 12:4-12).

Someone in the crowd asks Jesus to act as the judge now and to settle a family dispute they have over inheritance. Jesus replies that this is not why he has come (Luke 12:13-14). Jesus warns against the materialism that leads to these sorts of disputes by telling a parable about a rich man. In the parable, the rich man thinks that because he is so well off materially, he need have no concerns and can get on with enjoying himself (Luke 12:15-21). Jesus relates how the man in the story will die at the very moment he thinks he has nothing to worry about. What good his riches then?

Jesus tells his disciples that they should learn from this and not worry about the physical things of life such as food and clothing. The disciples are to trust God for them and focus instead on God’s Kingdom (Luke 12:22-34). Jesus goes on to tell a parable about slaves waiting for their master’s return. The parable describes how good slaves will always be prepared for when their master comes. Likewise, the disciples’ main concern should be that they are ready for when the Son of Man comes (Luke 12:35-40).

At times in his teaching, Jesus is speaking to everyone, and at other times just to the disciples. Peter is finding it hard to keep up! So, he asks Jesus whether this parable about slaves being ready for the master’s return is just for the disciples or for the crowds in general (Luke 12:41). Jesus answers, as he often does, with another parable. At first, it isn’t immediately obvious how this parable answers Peter’s question.

In the parable (Luke 12:42-48), Jesus describes a slave who is in charge of his master’s household when the master is away. The slave will be rewarded if the master returns and finds him working. If, however, the slave takes advantage of his master being away to indulge himself and mistreat the slaves under him, then he will be severely punished when the master returns unexpectedly and catches him not doing what was expected of him. Jesus says that the slave who knew what his master wanted and did not do it will receive a greater punishment than the one who, although doing wrong, acted in ignorance of his master’s wishes. Much, says Jesus, will be required of those to whom much is given.

Jesus is saying in answer to Peter’s question that the disciples have been given a privileged position by Jesus, but this carries with it greater responsibility. The disciples will be held to account if they don’t live up to what Jesus expects of them. Those who are given positions of authority over God’s people will be subject to a more searching judgement when Jesus returns.

Jesus then tells them he has come to ‘bring fire to the earth’ (Luke 12:49). Jesus knows that suffering lies ahead for him and refers to it metaphorically as a baptism he must undergo. It is, he says, causing him a great deal of stress waiting for it to be completed. Jesus asks them whether they think he has come to bring peace to the earth? No, he says, he has come to bring division. Families will be divided because of him (Luke 12:49-53).

Jesus says to the crowds that they know how to interpret the signs that indicate what the weather is going to be. Why can’t they see the significance of the present time (Luke 12:54-56)? Don’t they realize the seriousness of it? Jesus asks them:

‘You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’ (Luke 12:56)

Following Jesus’ teaching has so far been reasonably straightforward, even if, like Peter, we have some points needing further clarification!

Jesus has announced that judgement is coming. His disciples, then, are to fear God and not what people may do to them. Their responsibility is to witness to Jesus. They need to get their priorities sorted out. Rather than worrying about how much material wealth they have now, they should worry about what they are going to say to God when he calls them before him. They are not to worry about their physical needs, God will take care of them. They must seek God’s Kingdom and make sure they are ready for it when it comes, for it will come unexpectedly. Much is expected of those to whom much has been given. Jesus has come to bring the fire of judgement, and his coming will bring division, even between those who are closely related. People ought to realize how critical the present moment is and what danger they are in, and, having realized it, they need to act accordingly.

Jesus then tells yet another parable (Luke 12:57-59). If, Jesus says to them, they are accused by someone and they are being taken to court, it is better for them to do what they can to settle the case before it comes before the judge. If it comes before the judge, they may find themselves locked up in prison and unable to get out. Jesus is urging them to get right with God now, while there is still time.

St Luke writes that at that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. We don’t have any reference to this incident outside the Gospels, but we do know from the Jewish historian, Josephus (c AD 37-100), that Pilate (AD 26-37) was more than capable of such atrocities.

Jesus has been talking about how serious the current time is and warning of the terrible judgement that is going to come upon people. The reason those who are present tell Jesus about the Galileans who have suffered such a horrible death is that they see it as an example of God’s judgement on people who were sinners. Jesus challenges them. Jesus asks them whether they think that these Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans? Clearly, they do; that’s why they told Jesus about them. Jesus is blunt:

‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ (Luke 13:3)

There is always a tendency for us to see other people’s misfortune as being their own fault, even if we wouldn’t always speak out our thoughts. Jesus asks them whether they also think that the 18 people who were killed in a disaster in Jerusalem, when the Tower of Siloam fell on them, were worse offenders than others who were living in Jerusalem at the time? Probably they did! Again, Jesus tells them:

‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ (Luke 13:5)

Sermons on our Gospel reading will use Jesus’ words to argue that we shouldn’t see the bad things that happen to people as the judgement of God on sinners. This may be what we want Jesus’ words to mean, but it isn’t what Jesus actually says. Jesus doesn’t say that the Galileans and the Jerusalemites who were killed weren’t sinners, but that they were not more sinful than anyone else. Jesus uses what happened to the Galileans and Jerusalemites as an illustration of what will happen to anyone who does not repent. The point Jesus is making is that this is what is coming to everyone who does not repent.

Jesus says twice for emphasis that unless his hearers repent, they will perish. This shouldn’t provide us with any sense of satisfaction but should be a stark warning to us. Jesus’ message is that what the Galileans and Jerusalemites suffered, all are in danger of suffering. Jesus reinforces this message by telling a parable about a fig tree in a vineyard.

The images of a fig tree and a vineyard and are important and well-known ones in the Hebrew Scriptures. The fig tree is the only species of tree mentioned by name in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:7). The vineyard was a symbol for Israel (Psalm 80:8; Isaiah 51:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21). The fig tree was used as a symbol for Judah or Jerusalem (Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-10; Micah 7:1; Hosea 9:10). The presence of vines and fig trees in the Promised Land were signs of its abundance and fertility (Deuteronomy 8:6-7). Being able to sit under vines and fig trees represented prosperity and peace (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4). Conversely, the destruction of vines and fig trees represented judgement (Joel 1:6-7; Amos 4:9).

Jesus is thus drawing on familiar imagery in his parable. The fig tree, says Jesus, has produced no fruit for the past three years. The owner, therefore, orders it to be cut down. It is wasting valuable space. The gardener, however, asks the owner to give it another year. He will do what he can during this time to encourage the tree to produce fruit, if it doesn’t, then it can be cut down. Theophilus would immediately remember the words of John the Baptist. St Luke writes that John says to the crowds that come to be baptized by him:

‘Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ (Luke 3:9)

Jesus’ message is clear: God is giving his people every opportunity to repent, but if they don’t, there will be no escape. God’s judgement will come upon them.

Despite the clarity of what Jesus says about judgement in his teaching, we are increasingly unwilling in the Church to acknowledge that Jesus said anything of the sort. This despite the theme of judgement being an integral and important part of Jesus’ teaching. We have seen how it runs through everything Jesus says in chapter 12 and in our Gospel reading this week.

To repeat: the theme of judgement is there in Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees; in his warning to fear God who can cast us into hell; in his story of the self-satisfied rich man who is called to give an account of his life; in the story of the slaves who are blessed because they are ready for their master’s return; and in the story of those who are punished because they are not.

It is hard to see how much clearer Jesus could be. He says plainly he has come to bring fire to the earth. He criticizes his hearers for not being able to see how significant is the time in which they live. He challenges them directly to face the reality of the prospect of judgement and, if all this is not enough, he says twice in our reading that unless we each repent, we will all perish.

Nor is the theme of judgement confined to this section of the Gospel or to a few isolated sayings. It is a theme that runs through the whole of Jesus’ teaching, and it is an essential part of it. Jesus frequently talks about God’s judgement in explicit and even graphic terms. All of which makes it all the more incredible that people refuse to see the theme of judgement in Jesus’ teaching or deny that it is there, or else pretend that if it is, it is peripheral to it and can be safely ignored.

The overwhelming picture that people in our churches have of Jesus today is of the inclusive and welcoming Jesus who accepts everyone. It would be far better if we were just honest about what Jesus said and did and then rejected him, but instead we cling to the picture we want to have of him, that is, Jesus as we would like him to be, and resolutely refuse to face the truth about Jesus and his message. One day, however, we will have to, and we are going to be in for some nasty surprises. Jesus says:

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.’ (Luke 9:26)

To our great shame, we are ashamed of Jesus’ words, very ashamed. This is why we ignore them or simply deny that he ever said them.

Quite frankly, I don’t know how to put it any more plainly and clearly. Jesus, as he is presented in many churches, simply did not and does not exist. It is a Jesus who is a figment of our imagination, the result of mere wishful thinking, and simply the projection of our own prejudices and beliefs.

We can and should discuss what Jesus means when he talks of judgement. It is completely legitimate to ask what form the judgement will take. It is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about how what Jesus says about judgement relates to other aspects of his teaching. But it is dishonest and deceitful to talk as if Jesus never spoke of judgement or to suggest that if he did it was unimportant.

If we filter out, ignore, or dismiss something which is central to someone’s teaching, work, and self-understanding, it is hard to see how we can be said to be taking them seriously or how we can claim to believe in them and be their follower. If, then, you listen to a talk, sermon, or presentation on Jesus and his teaching that doesn’t mention what he believed and taught about judgement, what you are hearing is not about Jesus as he appears in the Gospels, but about a Jesus that has been manufactured to suit our liking, and a Jesus that has been manufactured cannot save us no matter how appealing we may find him to be.

The theme of judgement in the teaching of Jesus is so important precisely because it was to save us from the consequences of that judgement that Jesus came. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews asks:

‘… how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?’ (Hebrews 2:3)

One of the reasons that we neglect this salvation is, of course, that we don’t think we need saving. We may need forgiving from time to time; we certainly need people to accept us and encourage us; and we want people to affirm and support us in the pursuit of our goals. Talk of ‘saving’, however, implies that there is something wrong with us and that we are not up to coping with life by ourselves. It is an implication we refuse to accept.

Jesus warns his disciples:

‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.’ (Luke 12:1)

Hypocrisy is about pretence. It is about wanting to be seen one way outwardly while what we are inwardly is very different. It is about projecting an image of ourselves that doesn’t match the reality of what we are like. Hypocrisy is one the major sins of our age.

Social media, for example, encourages and thrives on hypocrisy. Social media is where we put on a show for the camera and edit pictures to make us look more like we want to appear. It is where we post things that will get us liked. It is not, however, just on social media, but in everything we do that we feel the pressure to work on our image. The society we live in leaves us in no doubt as to what that image should be. It should be an image of someone who believes in themself, who is capable and confident, and who seeks to realize their ambitions and follow their dreams wherever they may lead.

The problem is that the happy-smiley-selfie we post on Instagram is not how we are feeling inside. We can photoshop the image, but we can’t change the reality. And that self-confident person we claim to be on our CV or in our online bio is not the person we actually are. When it comes to hypocrisy, we make the Pharisees look like amateurs.

Jesus challenges the crowds:

‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?’ (Luke 12:57)

Jesus’ teaching on judgement is not meant simply to frighten us, and taking the judgement of God seriously is not about living in an uncertain fear of what will happen in the future. Instead, the prospect of appearing before God for judgement should cause us to face up now to who we are, what we are like, and how we live our lives.

The realization that we are under the judgement of God radically changes how we think of ourselves in the present. Knowing that there will be a day when the truth about who we are and what we are like will be revealed for all to see, in the way Jesus describes, encourages us be honest about ourselves. Knowing that we will be required to appear before him and give an account of our lives leads us to reassess our priorities and values in life and to rethink what it is that really matters and is important. Knowing that one day we will get to hear what God thinks of us makes the opinions of people and the world around us seem somewhat less important than we are constantly tempted to think they are.

The criticism is often made that focusing on the judgement of God gives rise to fear, and fear, it is said, is not a good reason to believe in God. I am not, however, personally averse to fearing God or to encouraging such a fear in others. Jesus, after all, specifically tells us that we should fear God - and for good reason (Luke 12:5). Our fear of God, however, should not be a fear that paralyzes us, but a fear that, seeing our own weakness and wretchedness, compels us to throw ourselves on the love and mercy of God. It is as we see ourselves as God sees us, and as we tremble with fear and repent in shame at the sight, that we experience the love of God that casts out fear. It is by fearing God that we lose all fear.

If we are willing to believe Jesus and take his teaching seriously, what then shall we do? In the conclusion to the story about the slaves who are blessed because the master finds them alert when he comes, Jesus says:

‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ (Luke 12:40)

Writing to believers in Corinth, who are already experiencing the judgement of God because of their wrong behaviour, St Paul tells them:

‘But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged.’ (1 Corinthians 11:31)

Lent traditionally is a time for self-examination. The saints constantly encourage us to engage in self-examination. This is not about a morbid introspection or self-obsession, but about being real and honest before God. It is about having the courage to let the light of God shine into our lives and reveal those things we hide, sometimes even from ourselves, but which are known and seen by God. This would be an overwhelming and terrifying experience, far beyond our ability to cope with, were it not for the fact that the God who knows us, loves us. Loves us not in some vague, sentimental way, but in a way that transforms us and conforms us to the image of his Son. St Paul writes:

‘… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ (Romans 5:5)

It is God himself through his Spirit who is at work in us to make us like his Son. This is the image we ought to be most concerned with and becoming like Jesus should be our over-riding concern. St Paul writes to the Philippian believers:

‘… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Philippians 2:12-13)

The fear of God and the love of God belong together.

May we, as we seek to follow Christ, know and experience both.


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