Sunday, March 01, 2015

Sermon: Luke 12:54 - 13:9 Repent or Perish

Whenever we were growing up, the Sunday School trip went to the same place - Newcastle on the County Down coast. One particular year sticks out in my memory - a summer’s day that rained so hard, we spent the whole day in the leisure centre watching children at birthday parties playing on bouncy castles and trampolines. Newcastle has a very simple weather forecasting system. If you can’t see the Mourne mountains, then it is raining; and if you can see them, then it’s just about to rain. It never fails!

In a farming community, the weather predictions are often discussed, and never far wrong. When your work depends on getting the right weather, then you become an expert in what’s going on and coming down (or not). Jesus makes the same point to the crowds that were following him in Luke 12. They knew that a cloud in the west meant rain; and a south wind blowing warm air from the desert would bring scorching heat. They were experts in interpreting the earth and sky, the weather system. They could see what was coming, and adapted their schedule based on it.

The problem comes, though, when they can’t see what is really happening all around them. ‘You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’ That’s the question that drives today’s passage (and it might be good to have it open in front of you), but let’s remind ourselves of where the present time is with Jesus.

Back at the start of January we launched in at Luke 9:51. ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ Jesus is on the road up to Jerusalem. He has an appointment with the cross, and through the cross to his resurrection and ascension. The Countdown clock has begun. He is on the way.

Around him are his disciples, both the 12 and the 70 at least, as well as a big crowd. They’re undecided, coming along the for ride while it’s fun and Jesus is doing miracles. But the countdown clock is on for them too. The opposition to Jesus is increasing. He said last week that he has come to bring division - are you for him or against him?

In the US TV drama House of Cards, the lead character Frank Underwood is seeking to rise to power in the American political scene. We follow his story, see him dealing with politicians, journalists and the public. But every so often, he speaks directly into the camera. The audience hear his secrets and are told the full story. As Jesus goes along, it’s a bit like that. Sometimes (like last week 12:22) he addresses the disciples. But now in 12:54 he’s saying to the crowds, to everyone, the big group of people following him.

Here’s what he says: You know how to read the weather. Why don’t you know how to read what is happening here and now, and what is about to happen? They can’t see the events of the cross. They’ll be shocked. But more than that, they don’t grasp that their time is short.

He says that if you’re on your way to court and you’re at fault, it’s better to try to settle the case before you get to court. If you are found guilty by the judge, then you’ll be thrown into prison and not get out until you have paid every penny. Now is Jesus giving some free legal advice? Of course not. ‘Why do you not’ comes in verse 56 and 57. There’s a link between the two.

He’s saying that the crowds might not even realise that they have been summonsed to the court. Their accuser is preparing his case and the judge is waiting to pass sentence. The storm clouds are gathering, the time is short, so settle your case now. Be reconciled now with the judge, rather than landing in the dock and then in prison.

So next time you observe the weather, remember that Jesus challenges us if we can read the times as well as the skies. With his crucifixion, the storm clouds are rising. The court date is set - so get sorted soon!

With all this talk of guilt and the present times, some people in the crowd get the equivalent of the Impartial Reporter out and show him the headlines. What does he think of the shocking news that’s trending on Twitter? Pilate, the Roman governor seems to be a nasty piece of work. Some Galileans (people from the same region as Jesus) had been offering sacrifices at the temple. Pilate had sent his soldiers to slaughter them, so that their blood ran mingled with the blood of the sacrifices. The unspoken point behind their question is - huh, they must have been really bad people for that to happen to them.

It’s a common idea. We heard it in the accusation of Job’s friend earlier (Job 4). If you suffer, you must have sinned really badly to deserve it. We can often think the same. Maybe you hear of something happening and you think, what did they do to deserve that? It must have been something juicy! But Jesus refuses to allow us to draw those direct connections between suffering and sin. Sometimes it may be true (for example, some in the Corinthian church had fallen ill and died because of their disrespect for Communion), but it’s not always true.

Rather, the point Jesus makes - both of deliberate suffering and accidental disaster (the collapse of the tower killing 18) isn’t they got what they deserved, no, the point is: ‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.‘ Or in other words - don’t watch the news and think, they must be really bad. See the news or the death notices as another warning to repent before you too perish. Get sorted before the court date. Read the storm warning and take action. Understand the times.

The Galileans were in the middle of their religious duties when they died. The people were going about their business when the tower fell on them. There is a danger of dying suddenly and unrepentant. It might be especially so of young people who think, I’ve got another 60-70 years yet, I’ll convert on my deathbed aged 99. But the time is short. None of us knows how long we have left. So get sorted sooner, rather than too late. We don’t know when will be our last chance to repent - which simply means to turn around, to turn from sin and turn to God.

That’s the point of the parable. A vineyard was a fertile place. The fig tree had everything going for it, but it produced no fruit. A fig tree without figs is useless. How could you make some fig roll biscuits without any figs? So the owner says that time’s up. No figs for three years equals the chop. But the gardener persuades him to give it one more chance. One final opportunity.

Jesus was saying to the crowds that day that they were on their final chance. The people of Israel were being given another opportunity to follow Jesus. As the story continues, they reject Jesus. Within forty years, Jerusalem will be destroyed. Time had run out.

The disciples were among the crowd. One of the twelve heard these words, and went on to betray Jesus. So we need to hear them too. Understand the time - the storm is forecast. Understand the news - a call to repent. Understand the parable - we could have just one more chance to turn from sin and turn to God. As we come to the table, may it be the demonstration of our turning to God and trusting in his salvation in Christ our Lord. And so now, we turn back to the confession, as we come to God our Father.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st March 2015.

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