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Sunday 3 March – Jesus the teacher digs deep

Reading: Luke 13:1-9

Jesus the teacher digs deep

There’s a great story of a teacher who got arrested for a traffic violation and appeared before a judge who said: “Teacher, I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time”. “Will you sit down over there and write five hundred times, ‘I will not go through a red light again.’”

There are all kinds of ways of getting your message across. I threatened to take our home groups books in to mark them this week – to see how many people had answered some of the questions. Or any. It’s the teacher in me – it was said in jest of course.

Teachers also get asked interesting questions – some of which it is best not to answer. A great strategy is to ask the students questions in response – because they have to learn to learn through inquiry themselves.

In this case people come to Jesus with bad news. I suppose no TV and internet meant you were the news people.

In verse 1 of chapter 13 people in the crowd tell him that Pilate “mixed the blood” of some Galileans with their sacrifices. They were murdered one assumes when at worship. Various theories exist as to who and why. The point is they were killed.

Jesus – perhaps sensing that people were fishing for his thoughts on the matter – or just seeing a teaching opportunity – creates the questions for himself and gives the answers!

The issue is the age-old problem of suffering – the question of theodicy – the justification of God’s existence or fairness in the face of the suffering of the world. The question about WHY people suffer – why “GOOD” people suffer, and whether this is all a punishment we deserve anyway. Or is it “random?” – another word that is complex because random things are not very random at all.

Here’s a bizarre one this week – that poor man who was killed by a shark (or more than one shark) – the headline at the bottom of the screen on Thursday on TV one said something like this “not to worry about this (talking I assume to would-be swimmers) – it was a case of mistaken identity”.

That is odd! Who was that shark after then?

So in another place (in John 9:2) his disciples asked this question:  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That question was settled with this response:

 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:3)

Of course we also would like a cause – someone to blame – for the tragedies we see.

They would – in Jesus’ time – still have seen disaster as a punishment for sin. So if it was a great disaster, perhaps it reflected really bad sin or lots of sin in the people’s lives.

And so in this passage Jesus responds with a sobering thought:

To the question he raises about the Galileans murdered by Pilate – “Do you think they were worse sinners? – the answer is No.”

And to the question he poses about the people who had a work accident – with a tower falling on them: “Were they worse sinners? – the answer is No.”

In both cases he is very direct, and even more so in verses 3 and 5 which are identical:

“But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

We are all sinners who need repentance.

As Paul was to say later – in Romans 3:23:  “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

We are not really good at this repentance thing. There are mixed views:

  • Some of you love it when I mention the word. I get good feedback.  In every church I have been in there are always those who love the preacher preaching hell fire and brimstone.
  • Others avoid repentance. They’d rather not deal with it – for some it seems a bit too old world perhaps.

Repentance is not a one-off thing. I’ve mentioned before that the word in Hebrew means to turn as in change direction- and in the New Testament Greek it means a change in mind or a change in our thinking. They both apply. Turning and changing.

In my personal readings last week I revisited Jonah and found this amazing passage about the repentant people of Nineveh. Perhaps we will learn more about repentance through example. Listen to the proclamation of the King of that city: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.

Jon 3:8  But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.

And it started with him – the King: Jon 3:6  When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.

They had been given 40 days to sort themselves out. His response seems quite quick – but I’m not sure whether it was immediate. It must have been early on in that 40 day period.

Sackcloth and ashes were the way. It certainly sent a message to those who witness the transformation. It meant a prolonged period of reflection and remorse.

As we have seen in the gospel reading today: Jesus said to his learner audience:

“But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Sobering. Perish is a strong word. There are sins all around us in our city that lead to death. Like the seven deadly sins.

Even more sobering this week was the study released on the seven deadly sins in New Zealand – showing where the badest (worst!) places are for lust, gluttony, pride, sloth, wrath, greed and envy.

Have a look if you want to see the maps on line:

Auckland scores top in 4 of the 7. Like to guess which?

Yes you were right. Lust, pride greed and envy. Repentance in our city may be more urgent that we think.

In this passage Jesus our great teacher doesn’t end it there. The parable that follows is a parable of grace. Here it is again from verse 5:

Luke 13:5  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Luke 13:6  Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any.

Luke 13:7  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

Luke 13:8  “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.

Luke 13:9  If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”

1 – The tree

The use of a tree to measure growth and fruitfulness is common in the bible. The very first Psalm goes like this:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (verses 1-3)

In this parable the owner of the tree is unimpressed with it’s performance. Here’s verse 7 again: Luke 13:7  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

2 – The axe

is about to swing!

John the Baptist’s message also makes this connection: John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. (Luke 3:7-8)

John the Baptist continued with this line as well: The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9)

In the parable of the vineyard there is only really one main point. You’ve not producing – you’re wasting the soil.

No pressure – but that is us. So how are you – tree person? Are you rooted right – fed properly – and bearing fruit? Are you growing at all?

The gardener or caretaker– in this allegory – asks for time. One more year.

3 -The gardener of grace

This is the gardener of grace. Grace means that although we don’t deserve it we are being given time. Don’t waste that time!

The gardener of course does not just want time. That would assume that the tree would somehow suddenly grow figs. Why would it if the three previous years were unfruitful?

He says: Luke 13:8  “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. Luke 13:9  If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”

There is the digging and the manure! They are very specific. The translation is a bit understated really. “Fertilize it” is not the application of modern fertilizer, but the application of animal dung.

4 – The dung

Digging and dunging is the term people use. We need God to do that. Some have suggested that the dung – is a sign of humility (Augustine). The digging and dunging means that we are dependent on the gardener.

Repentance is not saying sorry I WILL DO BETTER next time. It’s saying – I can’t do this. It’s about grace – God doing it in me and through me. Despite me!

Some have talked about the dung as something warm in a cold garden bed. They did not have what they needed in bags then. It was pretty fresh and smelly. Humbles us doesn’t it?

As individuals and as a church – perhaps God is speaking to us today!

  • About grace! God giving us time!
  • About getting help through digging around in our hearts and minds (which need changing and renewing)
  • About some manure/dung – how deep and how much for each of us?
  • About fruitfulness!

5. Fruitfulness

God’s grace giving us time and our openness to the Lord’s digging around in our lives and applying what we need for our growth is the key to bearing fruit. And there are various biblical references to fruit bearing – like Galatians 5 in which Paul contrasts the acts of the sinful nature with the fruits of the Spirit: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:23).

John 15:16 is a great reminder though that this all begins with God who works in our lives and brings us to repentance, and chooses us for his purposes. Jesus says: You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.

Amen. May it be so in your life and in mine.

(Note to on-line readers around the world: I hope you enjoy reading these messages. If you have questions feel free to post them here or contact me via the website More importantly we believe that you can know the Lord who we write about – that Jesus is alive and at work in our lives. May you trust Him as your Lord and Saviour and find a local church where you can grow in your faith journey. Robin.)