Sermon for Martyr Worthy, March 24th, 2019. Luke 13; 1-9.
Whenever Pontius Pilate ‘s name come up, whether when we are reciting one of the Creeds in Church, or in our Bible reading, or particularly once again in Holy Week in a few weeks’ time, we probably shudder as we think of the totally unjust trial to which Jesus was subjected in front of Pontius Pilate, and the brutal flogging the Roman soldiers gave Him on Pilate’s orders, followed by His crucifixion.
Pilate was indeed a very unpleasant and unpopular Roman Governor of Judea. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us of some of the ways in which he upset and irritated the local Jewish population. Sometimes he seemed to be deliberately trying to make them angry. He trampled on their religious sensibilities. On one occasion he tried to bring Roman military emblems,with their pagan symbols, into Jerusalem. He flouted Jewish laws and conventions. He once used money taken from the Temple Treasury to build an aqueduct and then brutally crushed the rebellion that resulted.
On another occasion while some people on pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Galilee had been offering sacrifices in the Temple, Pilate sent the troops in, perhaps fearing a riot, and they slaughtered them. Luke speaks in chapter 13 v 1 in our gospel reading about this, showing how the victims’ blood had been mingled in the Temple courtyard with the blood of their animal sacrifices, thus polluting the area , quite apart from the human horror and tragedy of such an event. It was as though an occupying army was to invade a church and kill the worshippers on Christmas Day.
As I reflected on this I inevitably thought of the recent tragic shootings in 2 Mosques in Christ Church , New Zealand, and of the increase in knife crime reported recently in our country. Such violence is nothing new but sadly such tragic events often reflect an underlying anger, bitterness , resentment and sense of deprivation and loss in those who commit these crimes.
Jesus had decided to go to Jerusalem at the head of a party of his disciples, who were also Galilean pilgrims. No wonder some of his followers were alarmed and reminded Him of Pilate’s recent acts of brutality. If I was planning to go to a country under enemy occupation where the local governor often killed visiting English clergymen, I guess I would call my travel agent and book a flight to somewhere less dangerous !
The people who expressed their concern to Jesus want to know , first, does He really intend to continue with His journey to Jerusalem? Isn’t He afraid of what may happen to Him there ? And secondly, what does all this mean? Is it the beginning of something worse? Jesus had been warning His disciples about the judgement and disaster coming on those who reject His message. Are these brutal murders in Jerusalem on the orders of Pontius Pilate just a foretaste of something much worse to come ?
King Herod had wanted to kill Jesus in Galilee but in spite of this Jesus knew that He must go to |Jerusalem, even though He knew what lay ahead for Him there. We read elsewhere in the gospels that Jesus set His face deliberately towards Jerusalem . There was a grim determination to fulfil His Mission, Yes, Pilate had killed Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem, but they were no more sinful than any other Galilean pilgrims . said Jesus. To those who were expressing their concern about going up to Jerusalem Jesus said that unless they repent they will all likewise perish in the same way , v 5.
Some people have seen this verse as simply a warning about going to hell after death. But some commentators suggest that there is more to it than that. Jesus is making it clear that those who take to the sword will perish by the sword. If the people persist in pursuing a course of national rebellion against Rome and refuse to change direction they will suffer the consequences, as happened in AD 70 when the Roman army sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and many people were scattered abroad. Jesus was saying that if the nation kept on seeking an earthly kingdom and rejecting the kingdom of God they could only come to one end.
But this was not the only sign of God’s judgement. Siloam is a small area of Jerusalem close to the centre of the ancient city and just south of the Temple itself. The pool there was used by sick people and others to wash. We are not told when the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed 18 people there, but it was probably a recent event and was fresh in people’s minds. Jesus said that this tragic event was not an act of divine judgement on them for being more sinful than other people, for these tragic incidents can happen to anyone. Nevertheless, said Jesus, it is a solemn reminder of the reality of God’s judgement on all who do not turn to Him in penitence and faith. Unless you repent you will all likewise perish, said Jesus. ( v 5)
In sumarizing verses 1 to 5 of this chapter, William Barclay suggests that we cannot say that individual suffering and sin are inevitably connected, although sometimes it is . Job was a godly man and he suffered greatly. But we can say that if a nation chooses the wrong way and ignores the Lord and His will and purposes it will in the end suffer for it.
Whatever our views are about Brexit, I believe we need to pray for greater unity in our government, parliament and country, and for God’s guidance in this very important matter.
The parable of the fig tree which follows in verses 6- 9.also contains a warning about the coming judgement. We can interpret this parable in 2 ways. One way is to see Jesus as the owner of the vineyard. Jesus spent 3 years in public ministry before He was crucified. In this parable the owner of the vineyard has been coming to his garden for the past 3 years, verse 7, looking for fruit . The people of Israel had received so much blessing and revelation of truth from God as we see in the Old Testament and had experienced frequent divine deliverances from their enemies. They had been promised that a Messiah would come. Now He is here fulfilling His ministry but alas the land is spiritually unfruitful. Many still ignored or rejected Him. He has only a limited number of followers who are often themselves still quite muddled and confused about it all.
Or perhaps Jesus is the gardener, the one who is now trying, as the owner’s patience wears thin, to dig around and put on manure, to inject some life and health in the old plant before sentence is passed and it is cut down, v 9.
Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 70 by the Roman army and he saw it as a result of the nation’s refusal to follow the way of peace, peace with God and with others, which Jesus had urged upon them hroughout His ministry. A way of peace and reconciliation which He was going to make available to all believers by His death for our sins on the cross and His glorious resurrection.
So this passage of scripture is full of challenges, of which I only have time to mention two as I finish First, it begins with the solemn warning that there is a judgement to come for those who refuse to repent and turn to Christ as their Saviour and Lord. This is always unpopular teaching but Jesus had more to say about it than anyone else in the New Testament.
Secondly, for those who have repented and believed in Jesus, there is the reminder in the parable of the fig tree that Jesus looks for spiritual fruitfulness. Are we growing in our faith and discipleship? Are we serving Him faithfully in whatever ways He guides us in our lives, using the gifts He has given us ? We can only do so with His strength and help. The fig-tree draws strength and sustenance from the soil. We too often need to go deeper with God in worship, the Holy Communion, prayer and Bible reading, and in fellowship with other Christians . Lent is of course a particularly good time for doing this.
But although this parable of the fig tree is a challenging one, it also reminds us that while we are still alive there is a second chance. I understand that a fig-tree normally takes 3 years to reach maturity . If it is not bearing fruit by then it is not likely to do so. When the owner came to look at the fig tree 3 years after it had been planted and found no fruit he wanted to cut it down. But we see that on this occasion it was given a second chance.. In v 8 the gardener said to the owner, ” Sir, let it alone for one more year until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
God was giving the nation of Israel a second chance ,as it were. They had often rebelled against Him in the past and gone their own way. But now their Messiah had come . This was their second chance, their opportunity, through His death and resurrection , which would happen very shortly, to receive forgiveness, salvation and new life and to bear fruit spiritually. But if not , they would be cut down, as happened ( as I have mentioned ) with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
All this raises challenging thoughts for us today. What is happening now in our lives? In our country ? In our church ? What is God saying to us individually and as a nation at this critical time in our history ? Are we bearing fruit for God’s kingdom ? These are just some of the urgent questions which I believe this teaching of Jesus requires us to consider.
Luke 13:1-9 Repent or Perish
13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
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. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 13:1–9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.