Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent – March 20, 2022
There has been an image in my head this week that I wish wasn’t there. On Monday I saw a news report about the bombing of a maternity hospital in Ukraine. The image accompanying the story was of a young and very pregnant woman on a stretcher being carried away from the ruins. She was facing the camera, with one hand clutching her taut belly. She was splayed out in an awkward posture, her face ashen and grey. Sadly, this mother and her baby both died from their injuries.
Whether it was collateral damage or an intentional target, the bombing of that maternity hospital has sparked international outrage towards Vladimir Putin. There are countless tragedies unfolding in Ukraine, and indeed in other parts of the world as well, but this story, and that image of a young mother and the nascent life she was carrying being cut down by Putin’s bombs, just seems particularly wicked and evil.
We have Putin, while the people of Jesus’ time had Pilate. In our gospel reading we hear how some people came to Jesus with a news story which was current in their time. It was a story that was shockingly violent and deeply offensive. Pilate had massacred some Galileans and then went on to mock their religious practices by mingling the blood he had spilled with the blood of the sacrifices they had offered to God in worship. It was a horrible act of violence and desecration. It shook people up.
And as people often do, they tried to make sense of it. Just as we have pundits with their hot takes on Putin, the people of Jesus’ time tried to make sense of the evil Pilate had done. Jesus, perhaps hearing the chatter in the crowds about this horrible story, understood that some people believed these Galileans had brought this on themselves. They must have done something. Maybe they provoked Pilate. Maybe they even provoked God somehow!
Jesus soundly and swiftly rejects this kind of thinking. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus pointedly asked. “No, I tell you! But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Jesus then brought up a different news story. “You know those eighteen people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think they were worse offenders than everyone else in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
What is going on here? What does Jesus mean by this, and what does it mean for us?
Whether the latest tragedy in the headlines is due to wickedness or a freak accident, Jesus encourages us to respond in the same way. He calls us to repent. There is certainly a place for analyzing why bad things happen in order to stop them or prevent them from continuing. Sometimes it is indeed bad choices that bring on bad consequences – St. Paul has something to say about that in our second reading for today. But Jesus points to these tragedies as opportunities for us to not only look outward, but to look inward. They should prompt us, he says, to take a close look at our own lives. They should prompt us to repent.
To repent is to turn back to God. Whenever we see a news story that reminds us of the wickedness and evil of this world, it should drive us to God. Whenever we see a news story that reminds us of our mortality, our human frailty, it should move our hearts to repentance, to taking stock of our lives and recommitting ourselves to living lives of faith in God and love for one another.
This leads us to the second part of our reading for today, the little parable Jesus tells. Jesus tells the story of a man who had a fig tree in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit and found none. He was ready to cut it down, but the gardener pleaded for a little more time. “Let me put some manure on it. If it bears fruit, well and good. If not, you can cut it down.”
At first glance it is an odd juxtaposition – having these brutal news stories alongside this parable about gardening. But what Jesus is saying here is that we have something that the victims of the world’s tragedies do not. We have time. We have life yet in us. We’re still here. And Jesus is the gardener who has come along to coax some fruit out of us while we are here. What’s more, Jesus is going to use manure to grow that fruit.
St. Augustine writes that the manure represents the sinner’s sorrows. He writes that “the basket of dung is filthy, but it produces fruit.” I think this interpretive move by Augustine is the key to connecting the parable to those tragic news stories. Our Lord Jesus, the gracious gardener, is using the sorrows of life to draw us to himself. He is using the manure we see or smell or step in to help us become more deeply rooted in him. Christ Jesus, the savior of the vineyard, is using the filthy parts of life in this broken world to grow fruit in us, the fruits of repentance.
This is how God often works in the Bible. When Joseph’s brothers sold him off, God used that stinky move to save all of them from famine. “What you intended for evil,” Joseph would eventually tell his brothers, “God used for good.” When the Assyrians and then the Babylonians invaded and conquered Israel, God used those bloody situations to call his people back to the covenant. When the early church was violently persecuted, God used the dispersion it caused to spread the gospel out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. In each of these cases God used the wicked and evil dung scattered around by human beings to a greater purpose: to draw people to himself, to root people in him, and to grow the fruit he desires, the fruits of faith.
The best example of this, of course, is found in the cross. What Pilate did to those worshippers, spilling their blood and mingling it with their sacrifices, desecrating God’s beloved, was a foreshadowing of the desecration Pilate presided over in the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. And as wicked and evil as this certainly was, God used it as the very means of our salvation.
There isn’t anything remotely good about a young mother and her baby dying in Putin’s brutal war. But God can and does use the sorrows of the world to bring us to our knees and draw us to himself. The same dung that turns our stomachs also turns our hearts back to God.
As I looked at the picture on the BBC website of this young mother, heavy with child, I actually thought of Jesus on the cross. Maybe it was her odd posture, which wasn’t unlike the odd contortions you sometimes see in Jesus in medieval paintings of the crucifixion. Maybe it was her anguished, ashen face. Whatever it was, when I looked at her on that stretcher, for a moment, I saw Jesus.
I thought about the fig tree that is the cross. It is the fig tree of the cross that took a cruel death, barren of fruit at that point, thought to be cut down, and instead transformed that wickedness and evil into life and fruit in abundance.
I thought of Paul’s words in Romans: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
From sorrow came hope as I was repented. I was turned back to the wondrous Good News, which is at least part of what it means to repent.
So the next time you come to a bloody news story that turns your stomach, let it also turn your eyes and your heart to the cross.
And remember that there is nothing that Putin nor Pilate can take away from us that our Lord Jesus won’t give us back in greater measure by the power of his resurrection.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church