Archive for March 3rd, 2013

Living a Life of Repentance

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

Lent 3C, March 3, 2013
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA

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This morning, I have an announcement to make.  Our church has a leaking problem.  That’s right, we’ve had a string of problems that all revolve around things leaking.  First, it was the roof; boy that was a mess. The next leaking problem was the water main that blew up behind the sanctuary, just next to the smoking area.  It started out with just a spongy feel to the ground and a water bill that was a couple thousand dollars.  After Dwain’s poking and digging, we finally found the leak and we fixed it; at least that’s what we thought.  Six months later, we had a giant gusher coming out of the ground.  Once again, poor Dwain was out there trying to minimize the damage, after we occurred another $1000 water bill, and another $1000 in repair costs.

Next, was the hot water heater, followed by the irrigation system, and now it looks like the underground sewage pipe is leaching out into our parking lot.  All of these things and many other things, are just normal repairs that every church, every business, and every home deals with on a regular basis, so it shouldn’t be a big deal, right?  Wrong!  You see we have another leaking problem that needs to be addressed so that we can continue to address the physical leaking problem.  The other leaking problem is spiritual, made up of saints who are falling away from the church; saints who used to contribute in their offerings so that expenses such as salaries and maintenance could be met; saints whose departure have left holes in the pews.  Look around and see how empty our church has become.  What has happened to those people and their families over the last 20 years?

Perhaps we can say that life happened.  Life that is sometimes full of tragedies, sickness, confrontation, and disaster.  Life events that happen and leave someone hurting in ways others can never understand, and when those hurts are unaddressed, people can get angry with God and His people, and just leave.  Did God want them to leave the church; leave the practice of their faith?  No!

This morning in our gospel reading (Luke 13:1–9), Jesus begins his parable by saying, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard” (v 6). As he tells us the story, Jesus expects us to understand that God is the one with the vineyard and you—the believer in Jesus—are the fig tree in the vineyard of God’s grace. God planted you in his vineyard on the day of your Baptism, which St. Paul describes as being “planted together in the likeness of [Jesus’] death,” so that we may be raised one day “in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:5).

Like farmers and gardeners everywhere, God plants His seed with the expectation of a harvest, and in v. 6 Jesus tells us that “he came seeking fruit on it and found none.”  More valuable than figs, the fruit God is looking for in the life of a Christian is the fruit of repentance (Matthew 3:7–8)—a fruit that humbly acknowledges our own sinfulness and then asks God for forgiveness for no other reason than the Father’s love for us through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Once this fruit is present, God knows that it will grow and spread as we share His forgiving Word.

But not every plant bears fruit. Like the leaky roof and plumbing problems that have plagued us lately, we are experiencing a spiritual leaking problem. When did the empty seats in the pews first appear?  Did we notice the problem and just ignore it?  Did we even care? Did we fail those living trees, whom God planted in His vineyard, the church? Did we ever offer them the extra life-saving attention that they needed to produce fruit? Did we dig around their roots and stay involved in their lives? Did any of us bring them an extra watering of the Gospel in the hope of bringing new life to dry, tired branches? Did we as a congregation give them everything they needed for a full, thriving, fruit-bearing life? Were they taught to continually turn to the cross of Jesus for forgiveness and hope and then share that same gift with others?  Are we any better off?  Are we in danger of leaking away because we aren’t learning what it means to live a life of repentance; a life that bears the fruit of God’s forgiving love?

Oh yes, this leaking problem is terrible!  Why isn’t God doing something about it?  Does He even care?  And to this Jesus answers our question with a statement of truth: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  Unless we repent, we too will leak away!

To understand what Jesus means by this, we must remember that we too have been planted in the soil of God’s vineyard, the Church.  Last Sunday, we had a beautiful illustration of how God plants us in His vineyard when we witnessed baby Nathan Otten’s baptism.  You see, it was in baptism that we were all saved from the judgment of our sins and planted in God’s vineyard (Romans 6:5).

And this morning in the rite of confirmation of faith and acceptance into membership, Louise Dunbar becomes another wonderful example of how God continues to care for each of us and ensure that we too will mature and grow, and bear fruit in his kingdom (v 6; 3:7–8).  These two rites, baptism and confirmation have taken place for well over 118 years here at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Unfortunately, some of those whom God planted didn’t bear fruit and they were allowed to leak away and leave empty holes in the pews around you.

So again I ask, did we fail them by not digging around their roots and bringing them all they needed for life?  Did we as a congregation fail them by not keeping our promise to pray for them, to remind them of their Baptism and, continually encourage them to faithfully come to Divine Services at God’s house, where they might be taught the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, so that they could confidently rest in God’s ability to keep them safely in His vineyard; in their baptismal grace, unto eternal life?

As baptized believers planted in the vineyard of God’s kingdom, it is our joyful duty and privilege to share God’s promise of forgiveness with one another.  But we are also encouraged to accept Gospel help from one another because the day is coming, Jesus reminds us, when God will arrive looking for the fruit of repentance in our lives (v 7).

So what will God find a few years from today, when he comes looking for some fruit in your life?  You do know that looking and talking like a Christian isn’t enough, right?  Likewise, faithful attendance and a vigorous offering of your income aren’t enough to please your God!

In our Epistle reading (1 Corinthians 10:1-13), St. Paul reminds us that the nation of Israel thought that being one of the chosen people was good enough, but in verse 5, we read, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”   And in our Old Testament reading (Ezekiel 33:7-20), the captives of Judah thought living a righteous life was good enough, but verse 12 says that, “the righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses.”  Jesus’ own disciples thought that simply gathering around Him, giving up everything and following Him was good enough, but Jesus says they, too, “will perish unless they repent” (vv 2, 4; Mark 10:28).

So by now, the question that most of us are asking silently along with the people in Ezekiel’s audience is, “How then can we live?” [Ezekiel 33:10b]

The truth is, if you are trying to find security in your own ability, I am afraid that God’s standard of perfection is just too high!  But there is hope; there is a way that God provides, and this is the gospel.  God is on your side and wants you to flourish!   Thus says the Lord, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek 33:11).  And this is exactly where Jesus intervenes and intercedes on your behalf, doing everything possible to save you (Luke 13:8)!

Through the Law of God, Jesus digs down to your roots and He exposes your sin; the very thing that will rot away your connection with God’s love.  If this sin is left unchecked, slowly but very surely your faith in God’s faithfulness will leak away, until there is nothing left.  But through the Gospel of forgiveness, Jesus not only stops the leak, but He provides spiritual growth and maintenance that enables you to bear the fruit of repentance!

Long ago and far away, on a hill named Golgotha, stood an old dead tree that to this very day bears the only life-giving fruit that is able to save you from being cut down.  Today, in your Baptism, the fruit from Golgotha’s dead tree, forgiveness of sins through Jesus atoning death upon the cross still saves you!  Today, both the nation of Israel, and the empty seats in this sanctuary are given to us for an example: Even Baptism will not save you if you refuse the precious means by which God intends to keep you alive—his Word and Sacraments (1 Corinthians 10:5).

Today and every day, God is still providing everything we need to escape the burn pile, which is just outside the vineyard (1 Corinthians 10:13).  Through our active participation in all of the gifts that we receive here in Christ’s church, within the communion of saints, God sustains our faith through the regular and faithful reception of His Word and Sacraments.  It is through these means alone that He provides you with a real escape from eternal judgment.  And only through these means does He give you real eternal joy through the forgiveness of sins and a new life of righteousness.

Jesus Himself, does everything possible so that baptized believers like you and me may bear the fruit of repentance and live. Jesus gets his hands dirty; he digs down beneath your topsoil and exposes the root of your sin. Proclaiming the Law through the Scriptures and from the pulpit, Jesus lays bare your innermost soul so that he may apply the divine potting soil of the Gospel: his Word of life alone is able to produce fruit acceptable to God.

Sadly, like our empty pews, some of you too may eventually leave an empty space in the pew where you sit today. But for you who remain in Jesus’ vineyard, receiving His care through His Word and Sacrament, you are still bearing the fruit of humble repentance that trusts in Jesus alone for salvation; you will never leak away!  Praise God, you are still trusting in these means of God’s grace, which Jesus uses to make a way for you to escape the penalty of sin and the evil of this life. For you know for certain by faith, that by his glorious resurrection [he has] opened to us the way of everlasting life.  May we by His grace continue to gather here in His name and give Him glory for the great things He has done and is still doing within us and among us… in Jesus name, Amen.

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[i] Based on a sermon outline (Lent 3, March 11, 2007), by Rev. Robert Harmon, pastor, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Pueblo West, Colorado