First Sunday after Trinity June 14, 1998
20, 347, 334, 457
He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. Here ends our text.
In Christ Jesus, who said, “He who abides in Me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit,” Dear Fellow-Redeemed,
Think of someone who chopped down a tree—who comes to mind? Probably, the first person you think of is George Washington. Every child learns the story of honest George, who as a boy chopped down a cherry tree in his family’s back yard. When his father asked him about it, he said he couldn’t tell a lie, and frankly confessed that he was guilty. He had destroyed the tree just for fun, to try out his new hatchet.
Usually, though, when somebody chops down a tree they have a pretty good reason for it. A number of years ago we removed a large Chinese elm from the church grounds in White River, South Dakota. We did it because it was almost completely dead, and because it was becoming something of a hazard. Every time we got a good storm, dead branches would break off and fall, endangering parked cars and even people. We sort of hated to cut down the old landmark, but it had to be done. Our text for today is a parable Jesus told about a man who threatened to chop down a tree. In this case it was a fig tree, and here too there seemed to be a good reason for removing it: it wasn’t bearing any fruit. What does this parable have to do with us? Plenty! The meaning behind the parable is a rather frightening message about unfruitfulness and lack of repentance in the lives of God’s people. Pay attention, then, as we consider:
When Jesus told this parable of the fig tree, he was not speaking to a well-established congregation of believers, like you here at Peace Lutheran Church. He was speaking to the Jews. There were probably many Pharisees and Sadducees among the crowd, and you know what they were like. They were skeptical of Jesus even as a teacher, and they sure didn’t believe that this lowly carpenter’s son from Nazareth was the promised Messiah. Jesus begins the parable like this, A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. The man, of course, is God. And in the whole wide world, which is God’s vineyard, He had one separate tree, which He paid special attention to. This special tree was the nation of Israel, the chosen seed, God’s own separate people. God had promised Abraham, “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you, and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” Gen 17:7-8. God promised the Israelites every blessing imaginable—victory over their enemies, a pleasant country to live in, long life, wealth and prosperity. Imagine how happy we would be if God came down to us and said, “From now on, the United States will never lose any wars. There will never be a single crop failure, and every single American will be rich.” That would be pretty good news, needless to say!
The Israelites didn’t have a thing to complain about! And yet, if you know anything about Old Testament history, you know that complaining got to be the Children of Israel’s favorite pastime. They did nothing but murmur against the Lord. They turned away from God at every opportunity. They complained when they were freed from slavery to the Egyptians. They complained when God gave them manna in the wilderness. They complained when they didn’t have a king, so God gave them kings, and they complained about that. Time and time again they turned away from the mercy and the protection of Jehovah. They made themselves idols of wood and stone, and they bowed down before these false gods and worshipped, as though they could provide them with more wealth and blessings than the Lord. No one knew these stubborn, sinful Israelites better than Moses, and he said of them, “I know how rebellious and stiff necked you are. If you have been rebellious against the Lord while I am still alive and with you, how much more will you rebel after I die! I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In the days to come, disaster will fall upon you because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord and provoke him to anger by what your hands have made.” Dt 31:27, 29.
God’s selected people, His special tree in the middle of His vineyard, was a total loss. The tree wasn’t bearing any fruit. Time and time again, God urged the Children of Israel to turn from their sinful ways and serve the Lord; but down through the ages, they kept falling deeper and deeper into sin and unbelief. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God said, “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!“ Ez 18:31-32. God was hefting that ax in His hands. He was saying to Israel, “I don’t want to use this thing on you, but I will if I have to!” But Israel wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t repent!
Well, this process went on for about two thousand years. God’s warning, and Israel’s disobedience. God is patient, Israel rebels. God gives them another chance, and another chance, and another chance; but the Jews refuse to serve Jehovah with a pure heart. By the time Jesus came, the Israelites had just about run out of time. The Lord had been waiting a long time for His special tree to bear fruit, but there was none to be seen. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? Swing the ax! This tree has had it!
God, in His everlasting justice, had every right to demand that the tree be chopped down, that the unbelieving Jews be rejected and destroyed. After all, they had rejected the Messiah, Jesus, the very Christ of God! The salvation that had been promised to them so long ago had been handed to them on a silver platter, and they just sniffed at it, and turned back to their petty traditions and self-righteous good deeds.
But what about us? You say, “We’re different than those rotten Pharisees. We certainly don’t have to worry about God’s ax falling upon us!” Is that really true, though? That we’re perfect servants of God, and have no need of repentance? People of Ascension Lutheran Church—beware the frightening fate of the unfruitful fig tree! After all, a lot of things that were true about the nation of Israel are true about us, too. As Christians, we are now the chosen people of God; we are the modern sons of Abraham. We are in the same danger of losing the true faith, of taking the pure Word of God for granted, of becoming lazy, unfruitful trees in God’s vineyard. John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” I Jn 1:8. If you ever fall into the trap of saying to yourself, “Hmmm—I can’t remember doing much of anything wrong today!” I suggest you start running down the list of commandments, to see how well you’ve kept them. You won’t get very far. In fact, you won’t get past the first one! “We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.” Take a good long look at yourself; God’s law demands perfect righteousness, perfect obedience—have you given it?
You parents, you know what you do when one of your kids misbehaves: you correct him, sometimes with the paddle or the back of a brush. And if the child keeps on doing what’s wrong, you keep on trying your best to get him back on the right track. You won’t ever give up on him, of course you won’t—he’s your own child, and you love him. And the love between parents and their children is one of the strongest bonds known to man. God’s love toward us, His earthly children, is even more powerful than that! “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Jn 3:16.
God wouldn’t give up on His people Israel. When the time was full, He sent His Son to earth to live a perfect life in place of His wayward children, and to pay the tremendous price of their sin. Jesus came to bring them the Word of God in person, to fertilize that fruitless tree with the good news of redemption. And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. It was the Jews’ last chance. They had despised the promise of a Savior, so, finally, God sent the Savior Himself. In His great love for His ancient people, God stretched out His hand to save them, sending them His only Son. What was their reply to God’s offer of salvation? You can hear their reply in the cries that echoed in the marble courts of Pontius Pilate: “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”
The Children of Israel threw away their last chance. God’s chosen tree would never bear fruit. The guests who were originally invited to the wedding feast refused to come, and the invitation was sent to others, to the Gentiles—to you and me. Now the message of redemption is to us. We are now God’s special people; we Christians are God’s chosen tree. Will God find fruit on this tree when He comes to look for it? He has given us His Word, Law and Gospel, to insure that we can know His will, and live a sanctified life of repentance and forgiveness. The Bible is like a blueprint for salvation. The Law of God shows us the things we’ve don wrong, so we can recognize our sin and turn from it, in true repentance. St. Paul described the value of the Law when he wrote, “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” Rom 3:20. It’s easy for us to repeat with the catechism, “We daily sin much, and indeed deserve nothing but punishment,” but do you ever stop to think about how true that really is, and how damning all our daily sins are? God invites us to turn from these little and big sins every day; to repent of them. Don’t nourish any “pet” sins, don’t keep doing the things you know are wrong. God, in His love, asks us to get rid of these sins every day—to throw off the “spotted garment of the flesh” and put on the pure white robe of Christ’s righteousness. We read in Colossians, “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator… Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Col 3:9-10, 12-13.
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