Third Sunday in Lent
Preached by Madison Johnston– Field Education Intern at Saint Bartholomew and student at Princeton Theological Seminary
Our Stump the Pastor question this morning is, “If Jesus forgives us all, why do people still go to hell?” Guys, I know we agreed that we wouldn’t be afraid to ask the tough questions, but wow…I don’t think they get any tougher than this. “If Jesus forgives us all, why do people still go to hell?”
To understand what this question implies, and maybe even to answer it, we’re going to have to take a closer look at today’s gospel text. In our very first verse, Jesus is in Jerusalem. By now, Luke has already shown us a lot of important parts of Jesus’ life–the buildup to his miraculous birth, his teaching in the Temple when he was little, his Baptism by the Holy Spirit and his being tempted by Satan that Pastor Daniel explained to us just a little while ago. We see Jesus commissioning disciples, preaching and performing healing miracles in Galilee, we see his face glowing at the Transfiguration, and we see him teaching crowds how to pray the Lord’s Prayer. At this point, we’ve already seen a lot of Jesus. We’re beginning to get a sense of what Jesus is about. But in Chapter 13, we see Jesus doing something different; something that probably makes a lot of us uncomfortable–we see Jesus judging and condemning. We see Jesus making threats.
So let’s break this thing down a little bit more. A crowd that has gathered around Jesus starts telling him what sounds to us like horrible news: that the Roman governor of Judea named Pontius Pilate killed a group of Galilean worshipers in the Jerusalem Temple. Pilate had a very long, bloody history of attacks on Jewish people in his day. Plus, a lot of Jews in Jerusalem were skeptical of Galileans at the time, and some even thought that Galilean Jews were less devout or less worthy than Jews in Jerusalem. So it’s pretty likely that this news isn’t surprising, or maybe even that upsetting, to this crowd–they probably didn’t like it, but it’s something they might have been relatively used to. What is surprising here is Jesus’ response. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge what they’re saying. He answers to the crowd by comparing the victims of this attack to the victims of a separate event–an accident, actually–where a crumbling guard tower finally crashed down and killed 18 innocent Jerusalemites who were standing nearby.
Then Jesus pulls out a scary line: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Then he says it again. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” I don’t know about all of you, but if I were one of the people in that crowd, I would just freeze. I would be thinking, “Jesus, where did that come from? What do we have to do with this? Why are you threatening us?”
The crazy thing is, Jesus uses this kind of threat a lot throughout the Bible. In Matthew 7, we hear him say, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.” Later in Matthew 23, he says, “So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He’s talking about Gehenna, which Pastor Daniel has touched on before, and which we usually translate as “hell.” In Mark, Jesus tells the crowds around him that “if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off–or your eye? Pluck it out. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to be cast into Gehenna–hell–with your body maintained.” And these are just a few of the quotes! What are we supposed to do with all that, here, in this place, today? What is this crowd in Luke supposed to do with all that 2000-some years ago? With this cause-and-effect kind of Jesus? He sounds like a fundamentalist billboard on the highway telling you to call a cheesy 1-800 number so that you can finally understand some great, religious secret. “REPENT OR PERISH! Call 1-800-HE SAVES NOW and know!”
But, my friends, that’s not what this story is about. We don’t have a billboard Jesus in our holy scriptures. I think that Jesus speaks to these people, and to us, in this dramatic way so that he can emphasize that neither group of victims, the Galileans or the Jerusalemites, was more guilty or more deserving of punishment than the other, no matter what the prejudices of the time might have been. Jesus isn’t threatening these people with literal death here. What he’s really talking about is imminent judgment–the very same imminent judgment that he mentioned in Matthew and in Mark. It’s like our First Corinthians reading tells us today: Because we are human, we are “all under a cloud. We are all baptized into Moses, we all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink.” We are all subject to sin, and therefore subject to judgment, simply because we are human.
But the important thing to remember is that Jesus doesn’t just stop at that. God isn’t satisfied with that. Luke smashes another strange little story onto the end of this strange little story to remind us that, as much as God is judgmental, God is, ultimately, merciful. One minute we’re sitting here listening to these reports of violence and death, and to threats about repentance, and all of the sudden, we’re talking about a fig tree. There’s a very brief argument between the vineyard owner and the gardener that, if you noticed, never actually gets resolved, and we never find out whether or not the tree turned itself around! We never hear about it or its fruit again.
At our Feast of Faith last month, the adult class got to take part in a curriculum that was put together by an incredible woman and an even more incredible pastor out in Denver. Her name is Nadia Bolz-Weber. I will never be as punk rock as she is. I can’t pull off her tattoos or ride everywhere on a motorcycle or compete in crazy weight lifting competitions like she does, or any of that. So I’m sorry, St. Barth. I’m pretty boring compared to her. But I can use her words! She explains this parable of the barren fig tree using the idea of the gardener’s plea for one more year. “One more year,” she says, “to do what needs to be done. One more year to trust in God more than money. One more year to forgive others. One more year to forgive yourself. One more year to be enchanted by the story of Jesus. One more year to help someone else. One more year to learn that God is the one telling your vineyard owner to back off, because you are a beloved child of God who God has named and claimed and forgiven and loved as God’s very own so that you can bear fruit. So to all of you God again says…one more year.”
Nadia is trying to drive home a point here, and that point is that God always gives us that little bit of extra time to grow in grace.
Now, Lutherans are really good at talking about grace. We love grace. We think God is all about grace, which means we’re all about grace, and we want everybody else to know it! We find grace in every corner of every scripture, and we have a lot of theological words and ideas to explain why grace is so obviously important. But one thing that I think we struggle a little bit more to explain is what grace looks like in an everyday sense of the word. What it means to actually live right here, right now, as St. Barth, in a state of grace–what it means to grow in grace, like I just said.
My friends, to grow in grace means to grow in the awareness of how much we need God’s forgiveness. To grow in grace means to accept the fact that we’re a bunch of fig trees. Because when we do that over and over and over again, our awareness of our need grows, and so does our trust that God will provide us with whatever we need to bear good fruit. That God will be the gardener who steps in to protect us and water us and dig around us and give us one more shot, no matter what the owner of the vineyard is saying. That God will be the Lorax, speaking for the trees because the trees have no tongues (and no figs). To grow in grace, my friends, is to repent. To return, time and time again, and for any variety of reasons, to the foot of the cross where Christ perished for us. To grow in grace is to repent.
And the good news this morning is that repentance is exactly what God has promised to us from the beginning of time. God speaks to us through Isaiah this morning, saying “Come to the waters, incline your ear, listen so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant–my steadfast, sure love. I will glorify you. I will abundantly pardon.” Paul writes to us this morning in the same Spirit, saying that “we’re all under a cloud. No testing has overtaken any of us that is not common to everyone but we do not despair because God is faithful. God will not let you be tested beyond your strength. God will provide endurance–provide the way out.”
So is the idea of eternal punishment–something we might call hell–real? Yes. It lies in the very fact that all of us are human beings. Does Jesus say that it’s possible that some people will end up there? Yeah, he does. But not to scare us into good behavior or to prove that he knows more about the universe than we do. Jesus talks about Hell so that what we take away from the conversation is an understanding of repentance. And an understanding that it will always be there for us.
God offers us an escape from the power of hell–and even more than that, God empowers us to take that escape. God will never stop offering us grace through repentance, and God will never stop nurturing us as we grow in that grace, one more year at a time. Amen.