Teach Us to Number Our Days: One More Year

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
March 3, 2013

The Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:1-9

Today we continue a sermon series called ‘Teach Us to Number our Days,’ based on Psalm 90 where Moses says, “The days of our years are three score years and ten. And if by reason of strength they be four score, yet is their strength labor and sorrow. For it is soon cut off and we fly away.”

Now that’s good King James English, but if you didn’t grow up on it you might not know what it means. It means this. You may live to be seventy years old, of if you’re strong you might make it to eighty, but you won’t live forever, not in this world. Life is hard and sooner or later it will get the best of you, and so Moses says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” In other words, “Lord, if we’re not going to live forever, teach us how to live well. Teach us how to make every day count.” And that’s what I’m hoping will happen in this series, that the Lord himself will teach us some lessons about how to live.

Two weeks ago, the Lord taught us how to resist temptation. By being so clear about why you are here and what you are supposed to do, that you also know why you are not here and what you are not supposed to do.
Last week He taught us how to overcome fear, by putting others ahead of ourselves, and always thinking of them first.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus begins with a hard lesson. There were some people listening to him who asked him about this terrible thing that had happened. Pilate, the same Pilate who would later condemn Jesus to death, had apparently had some Galileans killed while they were worshiping in the temple courtyard, or as Luke puts it poetically, “Pilate mingled their blood with their sacrifices.”

It was a terrible thing, and these people were asking Jesus about it, they were asking the same kinds of questions people always ask in times like those, “Where was God? How could he let such a thing happen? What did these people do to deserve something like that?”

But Jesus says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did!”

And then he gave another example. “Those 18 who were killed with the tower of Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem that this thing happened to them? No! But I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

And this is the lesson, that while the days of our years might be three score years and ten, they might not. Moses says you might live to be 70. He says you might live to be 80 if you’re strong. You might not, Jesus says. You might be cut down in the prime of your life on your way home from worship. A tower could collapse, life is short and fragile and uncertain. You never know when it’s going to end. And then Jesus says this, which has left scholars and preachers scratching their heads for centuries, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Now, one of the things Jesus does here is to reject the cause and effect relationship between sin and suffering, and that’s a good thing. “Do you think these people suffered because they were sinners”, he said, “No, God doesn’t strike people down just because they sin.” It’s not his way, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.

That’s what leaves us scratching our heads. Does Jesus mean that unless we repent we will die suddenly and unexpectedly? No, does he mean that unless we repent we will die. No, we will all die, sorry to say, whether or not we repent.

Then does he mean that unless we repent we may perish without having seized the opportunity to repent? Yes, I think he does. And I think he means that this is our opportunity, this moment right here, right now.
In the chapter just before this one, Jesus spends a good bit of time talking about the coming of the Son of Man. He says, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes.” He says, “Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit. Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” He says, “But know this, if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Jesus goes on like that for nearly 25 verses, hammering away at the themes of readiness and faithfulness and unexpectedness. The message is clear, if we are doing what good and faithful servants are supposed to be doing when the Son of Man comes, then we will be ready, we will have nothing to fear.

And then we come to chapter 13, which begins with these words, “At that very time.” I assume that Luke means at the very time Jesus was talking about the need to be always ready for the coming of the Son of Man, some people asked him about these Galileans. It’s a perfect illustration. “That’s what I’m talking about,” Jesus says, “You never know when the time will come, or when your time will come.” And that’s why you have to be ready at all times. Or to put it another way, unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did, that is, without having seized the opportunity to repent. This is the opportunity, he says, this is the moment, right here, right now, just do it, just repent.

That’s the word, but in Greek it is more than one word. In Greek there is a word for repentance that means to change your ways, and another word that means to change your mind. The word Jesus uses here is that second word, the one that means to change your mind. Change it. he says. And we want to know how, about what? That’s when he tells the parable of the fruitless fig tree.

“There was a man who had a fig tree planted in his garden, and he went looking for fruit on it and didn’t find and, and he said to the gardener, ‘Why don’t you cut it down?’ I’ve been looking for fruit three years on this tree and I haven’t found any. Why should it use up the ground? But the gardener said sir, ‘Let me dig around it and put manure on it. Give me one more year, and if it bears fruit next year, well and good. If not, you can cut it down.’”
That seems fair enough doesn’t it, but if you look at this parable a little more closely you see that the gardeners request is more than fair.

First of all, fig trees are abundantly fruitful. In Israel, where they get both the late rains and the early rains, a fig tree can produce as many as three crops per year. So the fact that this owner has come looking for figs for three years means that this little fig tree has missed nine opportunities to bear fruit.

Secondly, fig trees thrive on neglect. For this gardener to talk about digging around the roots to stimulate productivity, for him to talk about putting on some good, organic fertilizer to encourage growth would have been laughable in a time like that. You didn’t baby a fig tree, you just let it go, you let it grow, and soon its branches would be bending down with fruit.

But not this fig tree, for whatever reason, it isn’t doing what a good and faithful fig is supposed to do, and we don’t know why. Was it being stubborn and rebellious? Was it being lazy and undisciplined? Was it only thinking of itself? We don’t know, but we can see this tree needs to repent, and the gardener is going to give it an opportunity to do so. “Give it one more year,” he says, “let me just give it a little special attention and see if it won’t come around.”

The people in Jesus’ time would not have been able to understand such a thing, and in our time it’s difficult to understand someone who is so willing to give us a second chance. But that’s how this gardener is.

Now whether or not Jesus told this parable right after he used the word “repent” is anybody’s guess. We don’t know if he told the parable hours after he used that word, or weeks after he used that word, but Luke at least wants us to make the connection between the word repentance, and this fruitless fig tree. As if what we needed to repent from was “fruitlessness.”

I remember the first time I made that connection. I was about 30 years old at the time, about the same age Jesus was when he first preached this parable. I was a seminary student at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and also serving my first church, First Baptist Church of Newcastle. I made the mistake that so many seminary students did in those days of taking much of what I had learned down in Louisville up the road with me to Newcastle and unloading it on that little church, and I did it with this parable.

When we were talking about it in my gospels class, the professor said something about how this fruitless fig tree might be compared to the nation of Israel which Jesus found equally fruitless. I thought about that all the way back to Newcastle as I was driving, “fruitless fig tree, fruitless nation.” And when this passage came up in the lectionary, I stepped to the pulpit and said, “This church is like that tree, fruitless! You’ve been standing on this choice piece of ground for nearly 200 years, pushing your roots down into fertile soil, lifting your branches toward the sky, soaking up rain and sunshine, and not producing any fruit! You get together for worship, and that’s good, you go to Sunday school, and that’s good, but then you go home again without doing one thing! And a few of you, a handful, come back for prayer meeting on Wednesday night, but then you go home again without doing one thing. Week after week, it’s the same thing, and there is no fruit in this place! And if the owner comes looking for it, he’s going to be disappointed.”

I don’t know what provoked that kind of outburst. I’m almost positive that those good people at Newcastle Baptist Church didn’t deserve what they got that day. But here’s the amazing thing: they heard it. They were like those people in Jesus’ original audience to whom he said, “Let anyone who has an ear hear.” They heard, and they responded.

That night, that very night, more than seventy people came back to church to talk about how they might do things differently in the future. They began to dream big dreams for that little church, and one of them was a dream of being more involved in the community. We started talking about reaching out to Osage Estates, a government subsidized housing project just down the street. And one woman in our church, Betty, practically adopted a single mother and her two children who lived in that place. She helped this woman learn how to budget the little bit of income she had, so she could get to the end of the month without running out of money. She helped her get her teeth fixed. She got her daughter into a good, Baptist school with a full scholarship, and she found out that her son, the one who was always squinting, was legally blind, which explained why he was always so angry and couldn’t succeed at school. She got him into the institute for the blind, and suddenly the anger went away, and he began to do well.

Now that’s just one example of what happened in those years after that sermon, although it’s probably the best one, but still, things changed. We began to think of ourselves as a church that was bearing fruit. In fact, we made a banner and hung it on the wall up behind the pulpit, of a fig tree loaded down with sweet, ripe fruit. We put that image on the cover of the bulletin along with these words, ‘First Baptist Newcastle, bearing fruit.’ We began to believe it wasn’t enough to do for ourselves, we had to do for others as well, and I began to believe that if the owner of the vineyard came looking for fruit on that little fig, he would not be disappointed.

But what had to happen before any of that could happen was repentance. That church had to change it’s mind about why it was there. It wasn’t there just for Sunday morning worship and Bible study, even though those are good things. It wasn’t there just for Wednesday night prayer meeting, or the once a month business meeting, even though those are good things. It wasn’t even there just to collect money for foreign missions so we could send people to the other side of the world to preach the gospel, although that’s a very good thing. It was there to bear fruit. Fruit that would hang from its branches so heavy and sweet, that a child passing by could reach up and pick it. It was there to be a blessing to the place in which it had been planted.

And little by little, over time, that church began to learn that lesson, until bearing fruit wasn’t just a slogan on the front of the bulletin, it was a way of life.

Now I think there are a lot of churches in America these days that could learn that lesson. There was a time when people came to church simple because it was the Sunday morning thing to do, our churches were full, our Sunday school classes were full, and it may have been appropriate for us to focus most of our attention on those people. We didn’t worry much about the ones outside the door, because everybody was in here.

But in the 70’s and the 80’s, people began to stream away from the churches, they began to find other things to do on Sunday mornings, and most churches, instead of going after them began to wonder what they could do to get them back. Or they simply sat around, wringing their hands, bemoaning the fact that things had changed. And those people who used to come to church, the ones who drive past dozens of churches every Sunday on their way to the river, or to the mountains, they don’t see much fruit hanging from those branches.

It may be because those churches are so inwardly focused, thinking how they might get people back into the pews and their money back into the offering plates, but that’s not what churches are for, is it? Not any more than that’s what fig trees are for, or what you and I are for.

I believe we were planted in this place to bear some fruit, and if we’re going to do it we need to get started soon, because life is fragile and uncertain. You never know when Pilate is going to mingle your blood with your sacrifices, or when a tower is going to crush you and kill you, unless you repent you will all perish just as those people did.

Unless you change your mind, unless you begin to believe that your purpose in life is to bear some fruit and to get busy bearing it. “Give me one more year,” the gardener said. “Let me dig around the roots, put on manure, and if this little fig tree bears fruit next year well and good. And if not, you can cut it down.”

—Jim Somerville 2013

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