Sermon / February 28, 2016 / Luke 13 / The Best is Yet to Come / Pastor Terry Defoe
Our Bible text is found in Luke's Gospel, chapter 13. I’m reading verse 6:
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. (N.R.S.V.)
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Today's Gospel reading summarizes the whole of the Christian life in a few short verses. It speaks a word of Law, telling us about the sin which plagues us all. And it speaks a word of Gospel, proclaiming new life as a free and gracious gift from our Lord Jesus Christ. Our text describes tragedies which sometimes strike God’s people without warning. And it reminds us that the best time to let God work in our lives is right now, not sometime in the future. I pray that the Holy Spirit would enable us to hear God's word this morning -- and not just to hear it, but also to understand it, and to put it into practise every day!
The Christian life is often compared to a journey. Our lives take us on a journey through uncharted territory, to a goal shrouded in mystery. None of us knows exactly what we'll encounter on the journey. Each journey is unique. We'll experience many emotions on the way - joy and sorrow, peace and conflict, satisfaction and frustration. Life is a testing ground – a spiritual boot camp, if you will. Thankfully, our God promises to go with us. Our God is a God who cares. He seeks out a relationship with us through the preaching of His Word and the administration of the Sacraments. Our God wants the best for us. He sets us on our journey and promises to meet us when the journey comes to an end. He doesn't leave us to fend for ourselves. He's with us, every step of the way. He protects and strengthens us – he takes us under his protecting wing. He promises
"... I will never leave you or forsake you." (Heb 13:5. NRSV)
The Apostle Paul says that nothing can separate us from God's love. On our journey through life, circumstances will change, and we will change, too. I'm not the same person I was when I first preached a sermon on this text 33 years ago. God's will is that we mature in our faith as the years go by. Our text this morning from the 13th chapter of Luke's Gospel presents us with two accounts of untimely death. First, Jesus was told about an incident where Pontius Pilate killed some Jewish worshipers at the Temple. Perhaps there was a disturbance of some kind, and Pilate felt obligated to nip it in the bud it before it turned into something that got out of hand. Because of Pilate's actions, innocent people were killed. Jesus was asked about that. On our journey through life, untimely death is a possibility. The individuals in our text this morning were caught unawares -- caught up in a situation that was completely out of their control. Their lives were snuffed out. They had assumed, as we would, that they had many more years to live. But such was not to be the case.
Jesus also heard about a situation where 18 people were killed when a tower collapsed. That tower may have collapsed through shoddy construction or sheer neglect. But, for whatever reason, 18 people died. Those people, too, had no reason to think that they would die on that particular day. They were many things they still wanted to do, many plans left unfulfilled. But death intervened and changed everything. These people, like the first group, were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.
When people die in this way, people have questions --
"So why was it these people, and not someone else, who was killed?" they want to know.
"Was God punishing them for something they had done?
Questions like these were put to Jesus. And Jesus surprised his hearers with His answer. He stated that these people didn't die because of some great sin in their life. God was not punishing them. Their death, said Jesus, had occurred by chance. These things could have happened to anyone. Jesus then got to the heart of the matter. He said that sin is a problem for all people – in every generation -- and not just for these folks. Untimely death may come to anyone at any time. While I was working on this sermon this week, we received an email at the church informing us that the 40-year-0ld daughter of Pastor Luther Heinz and his wife Lois, an individual who had been living in Phoenix, Arizona, died as a result of a fall in her home. And earlier last week, before hearing about Pastor Heinz's daughter, I had sent out a Tweet with the following message:
"In the blink of an eye, everything can change. So forgive often, and love with all your heart. You may never have that chance again."
Jesus was saying that the people who were killed were not any worse or any better than anyone else. Sin, said Jesus, is a problem for everyone. It plays no favorites. And we need to deal with it if we are to ready to meet Him when the time comes. There's no doubt about it. Our journey through life is fraught with danger. Calamity is no respecter of persons. No one is promised a life free from difficulty. Whether we are victims of senseless violence, such as those who fell victim to Pilate's wrath, or whether we are the innocent victims of an accident, like the 18 people who were killed by that collapsing tower, none of us is promised immunity from such things. Life isn't fair. The just and the unjust are struck down indiscriminately by the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
When trouble comes, we want to know "why." And almost always there's a frustrating silence as to “why” something happened the way it did. Our text this morning gives us two examples of needless suffering and death. And after each one, Jesus says
"... unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." (Luke 13:5, N.R.S.V.)
So what did Jesus mean by that? In case people didn't hear what he said the first time, he repeated it. Here, Jesus is preaching God's Law, pure and simple. Here, people are being warned about the consequences of their sin. Jesus is telling us that no one escapes the curse of sin and the curse of death that follows. All of us – it doesn’t matter who we are – are guilty of breaking God's law. And all of us – again, it doesn’t matter who we are -- deserve death and eternal separation from God because of our sins. Jesus is calling for repentance. The Apostle Paul says that sin pays wages and those wages are death. Untimely death is a warning to all of us to be prepared for the end of the journey.
As Christian believers, those who trust Jesus Christ for our salvation, we know that our life and death are in the Lord’s hands. And we know, deep down in our hearts, because Jesus is our Savior we are ready for whatever may come as we travel the journey. As Jesus was beginning his ministry, he said:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15, N.R.S.V)
It was as if Jesus was telling his hearers,
Today, let God's Holy Spirit work in your life.
Today, let God bless you.
Today, submit to His Will for you.
But our sinful human nature resists God's call to repentance. Our sinful human nature puts off a response. We may say:
Well, Lord, I’m not quite ready to repent. But I’ll do that at some time in the future. You can count on me.
I’ll repent when I’m older.
I’ll repent on my death bed.
I’ll repent when I have nothing better to do.
I’ll repent after I've made my fortune in life.”
I could go on. But I’ve made my point.
You know, "repentance" is a word that's often misunderstood. For many older people it brings to mind an image of someone standing on a street-corner carrying a sign that says, "REPENT, THE END IS NEAR." For many people today, repentance seems terribly old-fashioned and out of date. And yet it's a central theme in the Scriptures. Repentance was a critical part of Jesus’ ministry. In the Old Testament, the word means to turn, to turn around and head in the opposite direction. In the Old Testament, the word has to do with changing the direction of your life. Today, we talk about making a "U-turn." And that’s one of the meanings of repentance. To repent is to turn back to God -- a better way to say it would be to allow Him to turn you back -- towards Him and the new life He offers.
In the New Testament, “repent” has a slightly different meaning. There repentance is often associated with a change of mind. To "repent" is to change your mind about something. To repent is to see something in a whole new light. And there's another meaning in the New Testament as well. And that has to do with feeling remorse – feeling sorry. In this case, repentance is saying, "Lord, I'm sorry for my sins.” I want to emphasize that repentance isn’t something we can do on our own. The ability to make a u-turn on the journey, the ability to change our mind about God, the ability to feel sorry for our sins comes from the Holy Spirit. On our own, apart from God and apart from the work of the Holy Spirit we cannot make it happen.
Repentance opens the door to an abundant and joyful life that we cannot experience apart from God's grace. Repentance opens the door to many precious blessings we cannot earn or pay for. When it comes right down to it, repentance is a gift – God’s gift – and he gives it to those who let Him transform them. Repentance is God's work in us. Our Lord gets all the credit for the change that happens in us. A wise Christian once said that the battle against sin is the only battle we win by surrendering. Only when we let go and let God take over in our lives will we be what He wants us to be.
Repentance means honestly admitting our failures and weaknesses. Pride keeps us from enjoying God's gifts. Thankfully, our God is gracious and merciful. Thankfully, our God is patient with us. On our journey, He offers us many rich blessings. And he sends his Holy Spirit, working through Word and Sacraments, to enable us to receive them. It’s my prayer this morning that we recognize the presence of God's amazing grace in our lives. It's true. Life is often unfair. Difficulties not of our own doing may come. Tragedy may strike. But our God has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." Because of Jesus' death on the cross, and His resurrection from the dead, we believe that, although this life may be difficult, the best is yet to come.
A woman had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. As she was getting her affairs in order, she contacted her pastor and had him come to the house to discuss her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at her funeral, and the scriptures she would like read. She said that she would like to be buried with her favorite Bible.
Everything was in order and the pastor was preparing to leave when she suddenly remembered something very important.
“There’s one more thing,” she said.
“What’s that?” came the pastor’s reply.
“This is very important. I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”
The pastor didn't quite know what to say.
“That surprises you, doesn’t it?” she said.
The woman explained. “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, I remember that when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would lean over and say, “Keep your fork.” It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming… like velvety chocolate cake, or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful! So, I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand, and I want them to wonder, “What’s with the fork?”
Then I want you to tell them, “Keep your fork… the best is yet to come.”
The pastor gave the woman a hug before he left. He knew he wouldn't have many more opportuties to visit. He knew that she had a wonderful grasp of what heaven was all about. She KNEW something better was coming.
At her funeral, people approached the casket and the saw her favorite Bible and the fork in her right hand. Over and over, the pastor heard the question, “What’s with the fork?” And he smiled.
During his message, the pastor spoke of the conversation he had with the woman before she died. He told them about the fork and what it meant to her.
So the next time you reach down for your fork, may it remind you, ever so gently, that God's best is yet to come! Remember as you travel the journey, wherever it may take you and whatever may happen along the way -- THE LORD WANTS YOU TO KEEP YOUR FORK! THE BEST IS YET TO COME! AMEN.
Let's pray. Dear Heavenly Father: On life's journey, we encounter many things, some good and some not-so-good. Our spiritual journey begins with our baptism and ends in heaven with You. Keep us safe on the journey. Strengthen our dedication to serve you and others in Jesus’ name. Amen.