“Jesus’ Response to a National Tragedy” (Luke 13:1-9)

I had been up late struggling to prepare myself to preach the next night. And it was early morning before I finally passed out on the couch. But it wasn’t long before I heard the phone ringing. I ignored it. But moments later, the ringing began again. And, again, I ignored it. But when the ringing began a third time, I rolled over. But I didn’t get up. I just laid there starring at the phone sitting on top of the television. I was thinking, “This had better be good.” And it was. When the phone stopped ringing, my eyes dropped to the TV screen. There was an unfamiliar CNN reporter standing on top of a building. And smoke was rising from a building in the distance behind him. It was the World Trade Center in New York City. I jumped up to grab the phone. And when I got back on the couch, the anchorman was reporting that the Pentagon in Washington D.C. was likewise on fire. I quickly checked the called I.D. It was my mother who had been calling. So I called her back. And we talked and prayed. And after our conversation, I went to the bedroom to wake up Crystal and tell her what was going on. But she just grunted something in an unknown tongue and then rolled over. So I went back to the front room to get more of the report. And by this time, the second tower of the WTC was on fire. And at this point it was clear: America was under attack.

I’m sure that since September 11 you have heard many stories like this one, as we rehearse for one another where we were and what we were doing when we discovered that our nation was under attack. And certainly our national conversation about this shared tragedy helps the healing process. But I submit to you that there is no hope in our personal testimonies, presidential speeches, political commentary, intelligence reports, or military briefings. Church, the only hope for our world today is God. No, not the trivialized God of the televangelists. The sovereign, triune, holy, wise, and good God of the Bible. We need to know where God was and what he was doing when nineteen men high jacked four planes and began to pilot them toward prominent national cites. The only way we will find anything redeemable in the 9/11 tragedy is if we look at if from the perspective of the God who sits high and looks low. And Luke 13 gives us this divine perspective as it records Jesus’ response to an ancient tragedy.

According to 13:1, some self-appointed journalists report a tragedy in the temple to Jesus. Apparently, Pilate (the Roman governor over Palestine) sent soldiers into the temple to kill some Galilean worshipers. And they report this blasphemous act with a tabloid flavor, noting that when the soldiers where finished, the blood of both the worshipers and their sacrifices flowed together in one common stream. And this tabloid-like footnote is a hint that they were not giving this report with objective indifference. Their report was loaded with preconceived theological notions. And without commenting on the personal lost, political significance, or legal implications of Pilate’s blasphemous act, Jesus chose to directly respond to the theological assumptions that lay beneath the surface of the tragedy. Notice 13:2-3: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
And just in case they missed the point, Jesus himself plays journalist and reports to them another incident that was in the news. It was not the political powder keg that Pilate’s murder of the Galilean worshipers was, but it was no less tragic. Eighteen people were killed when a tower near the pool of Siloam collapsed. And Jesus responds to this incidental tragedy inn the very same way he responds to the infamous tragedy of Pilate’s blasphemy. Notice 13:4-5: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Jesus’ response to the tragedies of the text can be succinctly summarized in one word: “Repent!” He didn’t sympathize. He didn’t analyze. And he didn’t criticize. He sermonized. He used the tragedy as a pulpit from which he preached to those who had escaped the tragedy. And I believe the message Jesus gave these self-appointed journalists is the message he has for us today: “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” And he declares this message loud and clear through a parable about a useless tree, a frustrated landowner, and an intervening vinedresser.
Listen to 13:6-9: “He also spoke this parable: ‘A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ but he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’” This Parable of the Barren Fig Tree gives us three (3) reasons why the tragedy of death should be viewed as a divine call to personal repentance:

I. The Holy Justice of God

The landowner in this parable is meant to represent God. And the landowner’s order to his vinedresser is meant to represent the holy justice of God. Listen to him again: “Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?” This frustrated landowner orders the severe, immediate, and total destruction of this fruitless fig tree. And it is a sound business decision. This tree was worse than useless. Not only had it failed to produce fruit, but it also occupied space that could be put to better use. And by means of its strong roots, it was drawing moisture and minerals from the soil that was needed by other plants. “Cut it down!” That’s the landowner’s solution for the problem of fruitless trees. And the holy justice of God requires the same punishment for fruitless human beings: “Cut it down!”

The people who reported the murder of the Galilean worshipers held to the traditional assumption that good people succeed in life and wicked people suffer. And so this catastrophe in the temple indicated to them that there must have be some really bad about these victims for God to let them die in such a heinous and horrible manner. It’s the theology of Job’s friends who said to him, “Job, you might as well confess your sins. We know that you can’t be as godly as you appear, because you wouldn’t have the trouble you’re facing if you were right with God.” It’s the Jerry Falwell going on TV and blaming the sins of gays, feminists, and ACLU members for the tragedy of 9/11. But Jesus responds to this notion by saying, “Yes. God is a God of holy justice. But in light of that reality, you can’t afford to judge anybody else. You need to look at your own tree and examine whether your own life is bearing fruit to the glory of God. Did you get that? You are that barren fig tree. God has taken pleasure in you. God has planted you. God has provided for you. God has protected you. And God has been patient with you. And yet you continuously fail to live up to God’s holy standards.
· And so rather than asking why other people have died, you should ask why are you still here.
· Rather than asking why those people died in the temple, you should ask why your life was spared.
· Rather than asking why the tower Siloam fell on those eighteen people, you should be asking why a tower hasn’t fallen on your head.
· Rather than asking why those thousands of people died on 9/11, you should be asking why you weren’t cut down with them.

Let me give you a hard word here. Here me out. One of the reasons why we are so shocked, angry, and frightened by the events of 9/11 is because we have low or no reverence for the holiness of God. Think about it. We rightfully mourn the deaths of those who were killed. However, we sinfully use their deaths as sufficient reason to bomb and kill those who we deem responsible. And we view this as acceptable behavior because we have this godless idea that those who died were “innocent.” Now, from a human standpoint, those who were killed did not deserve to die as they did. They were minding their own business. They were just going to work. They were just flying home. However, from a divine standpoint, they were all guilty sinners who got what they deserved. Now I know that’s heard to hear. Believe me, it’s even harder for me to say. But that’s exactly what the Bible says in Romans 6:23a: “For the wages of sin is death…” And the fact that you would be offended by me saying that those who died on 9/11 got what they deserved indicates that you fail to recognize the fact that what they received is also what you deserved. If we are sensitive to the holiness of God, when we think about those who died we’ll ask ourselves, “Why am I still here?” R.C. Sproul, in his book “The Holiness of God,” writes: “In two decades of teaching theology I have had countless students ask me why God doesn’t save everybody. Only once did a student come to me and say, “There is something I just can’t figure out. Why did God redeem me?”

Mark it down: Until Jesus comes again; everyone dies. Guilty sinners die. And forgiven sinners die. In fact, this sinful world is so offensive to God that not even his own Son, who was holy, perfect, sinless, could live through it without dying. That’s life. People die. But Jesus is teaching us here that the issue is not how you die. The issue is if you die right now, would you be ready to meet God with the assurance that all is well with your soul. I declare that our nation’s tragedy should lead us to repent in light of the holy justice of God. We should remember that with our first sins we have forfeited the right to the gift of life. In fact, that we woke up this morning is an act of divine mercy. God owes us nothing. We owe him everything. If he allows a tower to fall on our heads this today, we cannot claim injustice. Romans 3:10-12 puts it bluntly: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.”

II. The Undeserved Mercy of God

In this parable, the landowner orders the fruitless fig tree to be cut down. It’s his vineyard. It’s his tree. It’s his right to cut it down. And the tree deserves to be destroyed. So he gives the order. But there’s something standing in the way. The keeper of the vineyard, though just a mere underling, steps in on the behalf of the useless tree. And in response to the landowner’s order, this vinedresser issues his own order. Respectfully yet firmly, he says, “Sir, let it alone this year also.” Notice the audacity of the vinedresser. He requests that the landowner’s judgment be overturned. And he makes this request without denying the guilt of the useless tree. They tree had failed to bear fruit. Yet, the vinedresser seems to expect the landowner to give the tree another chance, just because he asked him to. And just in case that didn’t work, the vinedresser promised his personal involvement and investment in the tree: “Let it alone this year, also, until I dig around it and fertilize it.” And notice how the defiant concern of the vinedresser is expressed in 13:9: “And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.” Get that. The vinedresser seems to suggest that if the tree fails to bear fruit in the coming year, he would let the landowner cut the tree down. But he himself wouldn’t do it.

Here’s the point: The fact that you are still alive has nothing to do with any goodness, holiness, or righteousness on your part. You are a sinner who deserves to perish. But there has been something standing in the way, restraining the wrath of God that your life may be spared. The biblical word for it is mercy. Mercy is when God chooses to withhold the trouble, judgment, or evil that you rightly deserve. Yes. Not only should we repent because of the holy justice of God, but we should also repent because of the undeserved mercy of God. Think about it. It should have been us who died on 9/11. And, it could have been us who died on 9/11. And yet here we are today. That’s mercy. The only reason we are here today is because God is a God of mercy, grace, and longsuffering. Psalm 100:4-5 says, “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Bt thankful to Him, and bless His name. For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations.” Lamentations 3:22-23 says, “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” Ephesians 2:4-5 says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”

One more thing. The vinedresser is the Christ-figure in this parable. And it is because of his intervention alone that the landowner chooses to be merciful. Think about that. The landowner is not at a conference table where a group of his workers give him agricultural advice.
· Only the vinedresser is in the presence of the landowner.
· Only the word of the vinedresser carries any weight with the landowner.
· Only the intervention of the vinedresser saves the tree.
· Only the ministry of the vinedresser can change the hopeless situation.

And as Christ-figure, the vinedresser is a reminder of the exclusivity and sufficiency of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is, only repentance of sin and faith in Christ can make us right with God. This is a significant reminder in light of the pluralistic religiosity we have been exposed to during these days of crisis. Mark it down: Our times of national prayer are nothing more than empty rituals and sentimental therapy, if we do not approach God based on his self-revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. Yes. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam can be grouped together in that they are the three great monotheistic religions of the world. That is, all three religions claim that there is only one God. But the connection stops there because Christians, unlike Jews and Muslims, believe that this one true God is rightly named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we believe that the only way to get this one God is to receive his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus only is heaven’s wonder, hell’s worry, and humanity’s way out of sin, death, and hell. And so don’t let anyone deceive you. Remember that terrorism is not Islam. Indeed, true Islam is a religion of peace. And terrorism is nothing but a wicked perversion of the Islamic faith. But don’t let that reality lead you to give Islam a level of legitimacy it does not deserve. Yes. Terrorism is not true Islam. However, we must also remember that Islam is not the truth.
John 14:6 – “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No once comes to the Father except through Me.”
Acts 4:12 – “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
1 Timothy 2:5 – “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Jesus Christ.”

III. The Sovereign Timing of God

Acts 17 records Paul’s message in the pagan academic setting of Athens. He began by telling them. You are some very religious people. Everywhere I look, you have an altar to every conceivable God. You even have an altar ascribed to “An unknown God,” just in case you missed one.” And he went on to tell them, “I come to tell you about this “unknown God.” He created us all. And it is in him we live, move and have our being.” And Acts 17:29-31 records the climax of the message. Paul says, “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”

Mark it down: God has appointed a day of judgment. Every one of us will one day have to stand before God and answer to him for we have lived our lives. Hebrews 9:27 puts it this way: “And it is appointed for me to die once, but after this the judgment.” Yes. We each have a date with death and judgment. The day is coming. And, worse than that, we don’t when the day is. Some of us will get old or sick and be able to anticipate the day of death. But others of us will die unexpectedly like those people who died in the temple, like those people who died under that tower, or like those people who died on 9/11. God orchestrates our times and seasons according to his sovereign schedule. And he does not always give us a warning before death. And so since we cannot bank on tomorrow, you should get right with God now. That’s what Jesus is saying in this parable: “Repent, while you still have a chance!”

Notice how Jesus illustrates the urgency of repentance in this parable. He leaves it open-ended. The vinedresser intercedes on the behalf of the tree with a request for mercy, forbearance, and longsuffering. But immediately after the request is made, the lights come on. The actors disappear from the stage. And the curtain falls. That’s it. Jesus goes no further than that in the parable. And he leaves us hanging in the suspense of our unanswered questions. Did the barren fig tree ever bear fruit? Did the special care of the vinedresser accomplish anything? Was the tree cut down or spared? We are not given the answers to any of these questions. This is not the way you end a story, but that’s exactly what Jesus does. He never tells us what happens to the tree. And here’s why: The story is not about the tree! It’s about you. Only you can fill in the blanks. You must answer for yourself:
· Why am I still here?
· Am I just taking up space?
· Am I bearing fruit to God’s glory?
· Am I right with God?
· Do I need to get right with God?

Listen. God is patient. But his patience does not last forever. Grace is not infinite. God is infinite and gracious. We experience the grace of an infinite God, but grace itself is not infinite. God sets limits to his mercy, patience, and forbearance. This grace period will not last forever. The God of the second chance is also the God of the last chance. And you don’t know how must time you have to get it right. Yes. God is slow to anger. But if you are slow to repent, that slow anger will catch up with you. One day – and God alone knows when that day will be – the opportunity to be saved will be withdrawn. And the procrastinator will die in his sins and be lost forever. Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” 2 Corinthians 6:2 says, “For He says: ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” And Hebrews 3:13 says, “But exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”

You’ve probably heard that the legend about Satan plotting with his demons, hosts, and imps on how to take as many people to hell with them as possible. Someone recommended, “Let’s convince them that there is no God.” But they ultimately concluded that wouldn’t work. Only a fool would say in his heart there is no God. Someone else recommended that we should sell them on evolution. Make them believe that they came from monkeys… that there is no creation. But they concluded that wouldn’t work either. They heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament his handiwork. Then someone said, “Let’s convince them that Jesus is a fraud.” But they concluded that wouldn’t work. For in him dwells are the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And believers are complete in him, for he is the head of every principality and power.” And so they debated, argued, and wrestled with the issue for some time. Finally, someone gave the perfect recommendation. “Let’s not deny any biblical truth. In fact, let’s affirm all the truth that is essential to man’s salvation. But, let tell them that they don’t have to be in a hurry to make a decision. Let’s make them think that they have more time than they really have.”

Indeed, the story is make-believe. But the point is absolutely true. And countless souls have died and gone to hell, because they bought the lie that they said, “You don’t have to get repent right now. You can wait until later.” And I plead with you; don’t be one of them. James 4:14 is the truth: “Whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” The call to repentance is urgent. You should get right with God now. For Jesus says, “But unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
· Come to Jesus, right now.
· Only trust him, right now.
· He will save you, right now.
· He is willing, right now.
· He is able, right now.

There was a time I know, when in the book of heaven
An old account was standing, for sins yet unforgiven
My name was at the top, and may things below,
But I went to the Keeper, and settled it long ago.

So now –

When at the judgment bar, I stand before the king
And He the book will open, He cannot find a thing
Then will my heart be glad, while tears of joy will flow;
Because I had it settled, and settled it long ago.

Long ago, I settled it all –
Down on my knees, I settled it all
Yes, the old account was settled long ago
And the record’s clear today, for He washed my sins away
When the old account was settled long ago.