Scripture: Luke 13:1-9
Everyone has a theory about how things should be. If we were to spend this afternoon we would have probably fifty different ideas of how best to proceed into the future as a community, church, or nation. Wait did I say fifty…that might be a little low, even though we have less than fifty here. Each of us have so many ideas about how best to do things we are not even in unity in our own minds. It is actually quite humorous if you think about it.
The good thing about most ideologies is that it makes discerning what ideas you agree with easier. You do not have to think about it, and to be honest most of us don’t think about it. We go through life latched onto some ideology that we think suits us best and we hold onto it. It doesn’t really matter to us that at times that ideology and our actions do not actually reflect each other. We like the labels because it is easy. We like the label of Christian, spiritualist, Democrat, Republican, capitalist, or socialist because these labels seem to allow us to sit back and let our lives be defined for us. If I say I’m something then I do not have to prove it.
This is a problem because of the six ideologies I mentioned I strongly doubt there is one person in this room that is one hundred percent any of them. I say this because we each have this independent streak in us that does not want to be fully conformed into a group, yet we want to be accepted by it. Yes I even include Christian in that list.
Today’s passage is a passage about what it means to be a follower of God. Just as a warning you may not like what I have to say. I give this warning because each of us, even in our journey in faith, tends to get in our own way.
“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” What a way to begin. This section of scripture is unique to the book written by Luke. It is unique not only in scriptures but in historical documentation as well. No one really knows what specific moment in history Luke is referring to. The do not even know if it is an actual even or just some hypothetical scenario used to test Jesus. I want us to consider it as an actual historical event because it very well could have been. I say this because the northern area of Palestine in the Roman era is similar to the American South. They have a nationalistic fervor that is almost annoying to people outside their culture, and a skewed view of what the nation is supposed to be. Galilee is filled with a bunch of good old boys that think they know what is best for everyone else and they tend to want to push the rest of the nation into their line of thinking. There were several groups among the Galileans that built up enough support amongst themselves that they tried to lead revolts several times. They had a reputation as being rebels, nonconformists, and trouble to the outsider.
Pilate is the Roman appointed Governor over Jerusalem. He is not directly involved with ruling the rowdy Galileans but he does have to deal with them on occasion since everyone must make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to worship in the temple and offer sacrifices. Pilate’s number one concern is to stop any uprising that would attract the attention of Rome, and history has proven that he did this with a firm hand. It was not uncommon for Pilate to send in the troops to settle things quickly, and he was not opposed to killing anyone that stood in the way of restoring order.
So we have a scene of civil war. Rome is stopping an uprising. A tyrant is being opposed. Terrorists are being vanquished. Depending on one’s perspective. There is much that could be said about this event. We could focus on the mingling of blood, which would not only have left their sacrifices ceremonially unfit, but also rendering the temple unclean. We could focus on the rebellion of the Galileans. Jesus takes a different route. It was a common understanding at that time that bad things happen to bad people. If something happened to you it is your fault because you lacked the faith. I say that as if it is a school of thought that passed away in antiquity but it is still present to this very day. It is probably one of the most widely accepted ideas in pretty much every religious culture. If you have a problem its your fault. Jesus asks those he’s talking to “did this happen because these guys were worse sinners?”
It is an odd question. It almost leads us to believe that maybe Jesus was talking to people that supported Roman rule. It could also be that these Galilean men acted independently without unifying the group so they sinned because they acted rashly. What we do know is that Jesus knew the hearts of those in this conversation. They were judging these Galileans. Some may have judged them as heroes to the cause or righteous martyrs. Some may have seen the men as the problem of the world they lived in, and others may have been more concerned with the sacrifices in what ever case Jesus is saying each judgment is wrong.
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Harsh! This is where it gets personal. We judge. We use judgment to try to make sense of the world around us. We judge people to determine their worth to a company, or if they should be a member of committees. It is difficult to keep from judging. The issue with judging is that we often do it from a skewed perspective. We judge based on how something or someone will affect us personally or how they will affect our ideology. This manner of judgment has its place in some areas but not in the kingdom of God.
Jesus is telling them that they need to change their perspective. Repent, or stop and turn the other direction. Everyone talking that day was throwing out their ideas of why this tragedy happened. Jesus tossed in the idea, “what should you be doing.” If we fail to stop and turn the other direction, if we fail to stop and turn to God we run a risk. None of them were focused on what really mattered, not one person in that conversation was focused on what the true Kingdom of God was. Is the kingdom a nation devoted to religious structures, worthy to fight to the death over?
Jesus then shares another tragic event, the falling of a tower in Jerusalem. What causes towers to fall? Structures fall because those put in charge of them neglect them in some way. They fail to maintain the structure, to defend the structure against various attacks, or maybe they failed to build it properly to begin with. We do not know how or why this structure fell, but it did, and in the process it killed eighteen people. Tragic. Who is to blame? The people who died? A tower, in ancient times, was a defensive structure so when it falls it means that there was a break down in the government that failed to maintain something. It very well could have been that those eighteen people were supposed to keep the tower structurally sound but instead used funding for other purposes. They could have also been a victim of inadequate funding or rebellion. The same answer comes from Jesus, they were not worse sinners but if you do not repent then you will perish just as they did. Again the crowd looked to blame someone and again Jesus turns the blame not on one person but on all of them.
Repent! Stop and turn around go the other direction. The problem in our world is that everyone is going around thinking that they know the best way and they want to force everyone else to comply. Repent. That is not the Kingdom of God, no matter how benevolent or righteous it is, but the kingdoms of man. In the kingdoms of man, we want to see results and if the results are lacking we slash and burn and take down anyone and everyone that was associated with it. Repent. The Kingdom of God is not like that. The Kingdom of God does not look to place the blame on whom caused the tower to fall and why people were killed. We already know why that happened. Towers fall because people fail. People are killed because people kill. Repent. Stop focusing on answer those questions and start going a different direction. The Kingdom of God is focused elsewhere.
Jesus finishes this discussion with a cryptic story. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 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?’ He replied, ‘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.’” (Luke 13:6-9, NRSV)
What does it mean to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God? What does it mean to be a Friend of God, or a disciple of Christ? The answer is right in this story. The full gospel is presented in this short cryptic parable. It actually is not very cryptic. The world is the vineyard. Each of us is a tree or a creature of this earth, the adversary or the accuser has been given charge over the vineyard and it looks at us with judgment. The ruler of the air the kingdoms of man judge the tree as being fruitless and a waste of soil. In comes the gardener, with a very different perspective. Let us nurture and encourage the tree. Dig around it putting fertilizer in the soil to encourage growth. Then look at it.
The people in the conversation with Jesus were not looking to encourage or nurture growth, they offering judgment from a skewed perspective. Jesus says repent. Stop looking to accuse, stop becoming a hindrance, and start encouraging growth. This takes work. Repentance is not just the saying of a few words and magically you become a citizen of Heaven. It is work. It is the turning and the changing of one’s life to focus on the things important to God. The gardener worked with the tree. He dug down around the roots. If you have ever used a shovel you know that digging is work, but like most things if you keep working you will develop skills.
The digging around the roots is like the discipline of prayer. Prayer is not something that comes easy to many people. I would venture to say that a life style of prayer is probably one of the hardest things to develop because it takes time. It is more than speaking our requests to heaven; it is studying scripture, meditating on the scripture, examining our lives against the testimony of scripture, it is crying over our failures, and celebrating our liberation from bondage. Prayer is where we being our relationship with God and where we begin to Love God. Prayer is work but if we develop skills a lifestyle of prayer it opens up our lives for something more.
After the gardener digs, he adds manure or fertilizer. This is a catalyst for growth and change. As we pray we will often find areas of our lives that we cannot overcome. We may resent others, an addiction, a grudge, or something that is holding us from fully turning our lives to God. We may also find a calling to a ministry, or a correction in an attitude we need to make. We need something to encourage growth, because many of these things seem bigger than we can handle. Embracing the Holy Spirit is that catalyst for change; the Spirit is the fertilizer that encourages growth. If you know plants you would know that they grow to nutrients and water. Roots will always grow toward the things they need. Prayer opens our lives so that God can add the Spirit to our lives. As we embrace the Spirit more fully our roots spread, we begin to release more of our live into that realm of God reaching for more and more Spirit. This growth beneath the surface has a mirrored affect above the surface. As the roots grow the branches grow. As the branches grow more leaves emerge. As more leaves emerge more flowers bloom, and as flowers bloom fruit is produced.
This is all provided through the one that stood against the adversary or the accuser. We are not the Gardener. The Gardener is Jesus who provides the way for us to enter into a relationship with God by taking on all of our failures, and all of the judgment from the kingdom of man, and hanging them on a cross of shame. It is through Jesus that the Spirit flows into our lives from the Father. It is Jesus that stands between judgment and us and says give it some time, let me work with them, let me stand between life and death for them, and I take on the responsibility.
Repent or you will perish. Repent stop doing what you are doing and examine your life according to the Kingdom of God. God does not want us to rebel against a tyrant He wants us to love our enemy. God does not want us to let our structures to fall but He wants us to be stewards of the blessings He has given us. God does not want us to judge others according to strict codes, but He wants us to provide an environment where His creation can flourish and be fruitful. Without repentance we are just root bound dying trees. Dying trees are only fit to cut down and tossed in a fire. With repentance with we can turn our lives toward the Light of God and we can grow and His Kingdom can come to Earth just as it is in Heaven. You see it is not about what we can do ourselves but it is about what we can do with the help of our gardener.
We all have ideals and ideologies. We have them for reasons, but as we enter this time of open worship and holy expectancy let us all toss those away, because many of those ideologies are based on the kingdoms of man and not the Kingdom of God. Let us become a people of repentance, a people of turning. Let us become a people of Prayer, Worship, and Ministry. Let our lives be about loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others.
Scripture: Mark 4:26-34
What if you were to visit a country living in extreme poverty and oppression and were asked to give an account of what life is like in the United State. Would you be able to explain or inform that group of people enough that they would be able to make an accurate judgment of our nation? How exactly would you explain the foreign concepts of a constitution, elections, three branches of government to people who live under the rule of a dictator who has been in power for their entire life? How would you explain the concept of a volunteer military, or market economics, and educational systems to people who are ignorant of all these concepts? To make the issue even worse they do not understand the words you are saying to them so they begin twisting what you say into concepts that they are more familiar with.
The frustration you would feel I am sure is he frustration that Jesus had and continues to have as we debate the teachings of God. When you try to teach to explain something new to someone who is ignorant, you must first meet them where they have knowledge and begin to work your way up together until the understanding is complete. It is a process taking time. For some it is a quick study and for others it may take longer because of obstacles mentally or even physically. It would be completely wrong to describe anyone without knowledge as unintelligent, because their ignorance is not their fault. Ignorance is not a term of intelligence but of access to knowledge.
Imagine yourself explaining our lifestyle and culture to a tribe in the jungles of the Amazon. How would you explain not only your culture but your clothing. Where would you even begin, it is hard to consider because in that case we ourselves are as ignorant of their culture as they are of ours.
This is the uniqueness of Jesus, and the redemptive story we teach as Followers of Christ. How would God the creator of the universe and everything in it explain to His creatures, what life with Him looks like, feels like, and is? For generations He would speak to and through people, He set up a nation among nations to be the beacon of hope and redemption. The problem with prophets and priests is that we speak of heavenly things from human experience.
Jesus is different. Jesus, the Word of God, brought the knowledge and understanding of God to mankind. Yet even Jesus had use human language to teach about things beyond human understanding. What is the Kingdom of God or Heaven? It is like this: “a man goes out and scatters seed.” If you were to speak about America you may begin by saying something to the effect of America is like…
It is easiest to speak of unknown things, is to take a commonly known point and using it to build the teaching. For Jesus the commonly know topics are concepts of agriculture and horticulture. someone scatters seed. That is like the kingdom? No that is the start. As a farmer I know what happens with seeds. We have seeds scattered out in the Willow Creek Garden, something amazing happens. Something begins to happen, something a first century person could not explain. The seed grows.
Today we have observed and recorded what happens to a seed, we have studied the life cycle of them. We know the seed size does not determine anything of true value, but what is of value is what is inside. Inside there is a spark of life, when the conditions are right the correct temperature and moisture, a sprout emerges. It pushes up and always up, because it knows that it must go the opposite direction of the pull of gravity. It pushes through the soil as the rocks tear away the lays of the outer shell until its leave open up into the light.
It is a miraculous story, a story of passion and trial and all we see is a little tufts of green. The kingdom of God is like scattered seeds. These seed grow, they continue to push against gravity reaching higher into the sky while just below the surface roots push through the soils anchoring the plant into the ground while at the same time seeking out the smallest deposits of water. These roots can bore into the hardest mountain face, and find water in the driest of deserts. A plant begins as a little seed yet it dwells in not one but two very different worlds. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed
As these men and women listen to the words of Jesus they begin to see something new. They did not realize the kingdom of God is not just one-sided. Their concept of heaven and hell, life and death were not exactly well-defined. They had heard about the kingdom but in their mind the kingdom was one that was earthly. Yet here Jesus says the kingdom of God is like scattered seeds. There is more to a seed the seed is a mystery. It dwells in the heavens and in the depths of the earth. The kingdom of God is like a seed.
The purpose of a seed is to grow. It grows up from the ground rises toward the sun for one purpose, to bear fruit. Some plants cycle of life is short, only for a single season, it quickly rises reproduces and dies. Wheat is one of these seeds. These plants provide the staples of life. it Produces such an abundance that not only will it produce new plants but will feed birds and provide bread, potatoes, and tomatoes for humans to eat. One seed is the beginning of the food chain. This seed can begin to feed the world. Then there are other seeds that grow for a long period of time, they can continuously produce fruit season after season, year after year. They branch out providing shelter for the birds and animals that the minor seeds fed, and when they die their bodies can be used to house and furnish the homes of many. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a seed.
One seed, a simple seed a piece of life that we may consider insignificant yet this one seed holds the answer to the meaning of life. We have a purpose, we are meant to exist in two worlds, we are to grow and produce fruit while at the same time anchoring our lives deep into the earth to withstand the trials of life. we are to take pleasure in the light of the day, and seek out food and drink in the dark dirt. The Kingdom of God is like a seed.
There is more to life than just the here and now, there is more to our existence than the distant future. We were designed to grow, reach out and up, to bear fruit. We were made to dig in get dirty, shelter, clothe, and feed the world. We were made to reach our branches high into the sky to praise the God who set the universe in motion. The kingdom of God is like scattered seeds.
We are made to grow, reproduce, and to pass what we have on to others. I do not know if you have noticed but there are many types of seeds, many types of reasons for those seeds to grow. Just the other day I heard a news report that was speaking of the wonders of one type of plant that has been used to heal illness for centuries. It has cure sore muscles, headaches, it can help prevent a heart attack or stroke, and recently can prevent some forms of cancer. This seed grows into a tree and from its bark the medicine know as aspirin is found. One tree, one seed, and the kingdom of God is like scattered seeds.
We are each unique, we have different passions and desires. Different strengths and weaknesses. But we each have a vital place in the kingdom. Some of us are doctors providing relieve and healing like the willow tree, while others of us may have a more common role like wheat, feeding the masses. Some of us were made to create beautiful works of art like the countless varieties of wildflowers. Some of us bring pleasure and happiness to others like a cherry on top of a sundae. Some are hearty, sound, and strong like an oak to protect others from the storms of life, but none of us are all things. We need all types of seeds scattered throughout our communities each to grow into their own selves and produce what the are meant to produce.
One seed, can do the miraculous just by doing what they are meant to do. Each seed growing out of their purpose can sustain the world. Jesus came to tell us this. The Kingdom of God is like a scattered seed doing what it was designed to do. Growing deep in the earth and reaching up into the heavens. If a seed only reaches down into the earth it dies of starvation, if it only reaches up it dies because there is no root system. We were made to exist in two realms the earth and the heavens. But we are like seeds blindly sprouting in the darkness of the dirt. Jesus came to Give us the way to heavens. He is the light we desire and reach for, He is also the water and nourishment we seek in the soil. He came not only to save our souls but to restore our purpose. to connect heaven and earth, to connect creation to the creator, to bridge the temporal and the spiritual.
The kingdom of God is like scattered seeds. As we enter this time of open worship and holy expectancy consider the world around you, are we connecting it to God or are we focused too much on ourselves? Consider the world around you are you focusing too much on God and neglecting the world that is suffering around you? We are seeds here to feed, beautify, protect, heal, and bring pleasure to the world and to encourage those around us to lift up their arms in praise. What kind of seed are you, and are you growing?
Scripture: John 3:14-21
It seems that every culture has fear of some kind of the dark. As we grew up we just knew that there were monsters in our closets or under our beds. These monsters only came out at night. The legends of werewolves and vampires all revolve around darkness. Our dreams have us running through the woods tripping over roots and falling…at night when it is dark. It seems that if anything terrible happens, it will happen at night. There is something about the darkness that attracts the deviant elements of our humanity. We believe that if it is hard to see that maybe we can get away with something, or maybe someone else can get away.
If we even consider the beginnings of our nation, the Tea party protest that many of us consider to be the beginnings of the revolution happened at night and in disguise. The planning of schemes happen in the dark corners of taverns instead of in a brightly lit park at midday. Darkness is a cloak we clothe ourselves in to hide from trouble.
Night is a time of vandals, robberies, and various crimes. Our civic governments try to keep crime at a minimum so they install lights along the streets. Businesses try to detour crime by installing security lighting. Light dispels the darkness; as a result the fears in dark flee as well.
Light and dark concepts are found in nearly every religious teaching. Light is always seen as the bearer of godliness where the darkness is the instrument of evil. Jesus’ teaching of light and dark are not necessarily a unique concept needing an understanding of Hebrew cultural history to understand, it crosses the cultural barriers and speaks volumes to those in every nation. There are some understandings in the symbolism that may differ across the cultures though. In the Hebrew culture light symbolizes the presence of God. The greatest and most well known symbol of the Jewish faith is a candelabra with seven branches known as a menorah. We tend to only think of this symbol around the festival of light or Chanukah, but this candle stand was used every day it was burned every day in the holiest areas of the temple as a sign that God was present. To the Hebrew people the light represented God, and the wisdom of God. When there was darkness it was seen as a curse or the possibility of the adversary to enter into the home or sacred spaces.
This is why John the gospel writer begins his Gospel using terms like light, and word to describe Jesus. To him and to those that follow the ways of Christ, Jesus was and still is the presence of God among us and the knowledge of God in our midst.
This passage begins in a different way. It speaks about a specific moment in the history of Israel. Early in the Exodus of Israel from captivity in Egypt when they wondered through the desert the people began to complain about the journey. They went to Moses accusing him of bringing them out into the desert to starve them to death. They also turned from God, they took their eyes off of the one that took them out of bondage, who parted the sea so they could cross and escape the pursuing army, and they complained. They turned from God who led them across the desert in a pillar of fire at night and a cloud shading them from the harsh desert sun during the day. Claiming that God did not care for them. They rejected God and God allowed them to part from Him. As a result snakes came from all around, snakes whose bites were full of venom, and people began to die from the poison. The desert is full of poisonous creatures especially the desert they were crossing. There are deadly snakes all around, as well as some of the deadliest scorpions. They rejected God and as a result of them pulling away from Him they walked away from His protection.
When people began to die they had something else to complain about. They began to ask Moses where is God why is He not protecting us from these snakes. So God told Moses to fashion a likeness of a snake and lift it up on a pole so when the people turned their eyes on it they the affects of the venom would not harm them. The venom still entered their bodies but when they turned back to God they had redemption.
Jesus uses this story to begin his teaching of his own purpose. The gospel, the good news, is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. I speak of this often because it is still the good news. The kingdom of, or the influence of, God is all around us. We wonder about this when we hear news reports of parents beating up coaches when they discipline their children for poor behavior, we wonder where is God when we hear pretty much any news program involving crimes of many types. And your pastor says God’s influence is all around us. It is present everywhere.
Where is this influence? Where is God when the snakes of life are slithering around us and striking at our heels? Where was He when the children of Israel were wondering in the desert? It is not a question about where God is but where we are. God was with the wondering Israelites, and He is with us. Jesus said for the tribes to find hope in the snake pit all they had to do was look up to the raised serpent lifted there by Moses. He was there on the pole in the wilderness. His ministry his purpose of life was to provide redemption for all of creation. And he was telling these people that to do this He must be lifted up on a pole so that when we turn our eyes on to Him we will have life.
The hardest questions that I have ever been asked is why someone had to endure abuse as a child. They have asked me where was God when my parents did these things? The answer is that he was right there with them in their pain. This doesn’t give much comfort to those that have these wounds; in fact I want to punch myself for even wanting to say these things to someone who has such deep wounds. I can say it with full knowledge that I am right but my rightness doesn’t take away their pain. Where was God when people were dying from snakebites, where was God when tornadoes were blowing across places like Branson? He was there with them.
This brings us back to light and dark, and where we are. Jesus says, “God so loved the world that He sent his only son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” He continues to say, that he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but those that refuse to believe are condemned already because they love the darkness instead of light for their deeds are evil.
Where is God? He is lifted up on the Cross raised up on the pole for us to turn to have redemption. He was put there by human hands, killed by evil and for evil, so that he could conquer evil with love and grace. Where is God when we are struggling with the wounds and bites of life? He is hanging on a tree providing relief from those bites. These are still empty words to the wounded heart, to the one that was injured by those supposed to love them yet endured trauma. Those that cause pain are people living in darkness. Their deeds are evil they are under the influence of evil. They reject the light of God because they know in some way that they are wrong but they don’t want to admit it. Our pain is caused not by God but because those around us refuse to come to the light.
We have an opportunity to change. Our pains, our wounds, the bites from the snakes of life do not have to suck life from us. We can live. God can ease our pains, he can heal the wounds, and He can suck the venom from the bites if we turn to Him. This is why the resurrection has such power. Evil and darkness put Jesus on the cross; he was hung there not by Jews but by all mankind. Evil thought that if they could only suck the life out of Jesus then maybe God would leave them alone and they could live as they wanted free from judgment. But that is not the case. Immediately after the crucifixion they started on a new mission, a mission to assure themselves that the body stayed right where they put it, dead and buried. They put armed guards at the tomb. They sealed it with an official seal, which was bound by the threat of death. Why would they go to so much trouble for a dead man? Because Jesus said that the light had come to the world that the light would reveal the evil deeds done in the darkness. Evil put him on the cross evil caused the snakes to enter the camp of the Israelites; evil causes much of the pain we struggle with every day. Darkness however can’t overtake light. When light enters a room the darkness leaves. Those caught in the evil of the cross were afraid that the story wasn’t over. Death could not hold him. He rose from the grave, showed himself to over 500 people and empowered those that follow him with the very spirit of God that has that same power.
We may be wounded people, but the power that raised Jesus from the grave can be present in our lives to heal our wounds and release us from bondage. We may be infected with deadly venoms of sin but the Risen Christ can suck that poison from our bodies and create in us a new creation. He came not to bring in death and judgment, but life and power. He came to free us from the bondage of sin and death, so that we can have life eternally. We may struggle with our pasts; we may struggle in areas of our lives. Areas that we may like to keep hidden in the dark places. All this is doing is keeping us from the true freedom in the Kingdom of God.
Turn to the light. Look up to the cross where your savior died, remember what it was in your own life that put him there, remember that he endured the pain with you and for you. In Him you can have something new if you only believe, and in Him we can walk in light and carry His influence and presence to the lives of other.
Let us now enter into a time of Holy expectancy, a time where we can commune with God our Creator, Savior, and ever-present Teacher. Let us remember where he has helped us and acknowledge where we still need His help. And if we feel lead to share please do so that we all can be encouraged by how the Light of God has been working in you.