Even the vinedresser acknowledged that there would have to be a cut off point. The same vinedresser who asked for an extra year knew that the fruitlessness of the fig tree could not continue forever. In one year, after the tree had received care and attention from the vinedresser, the owner would return: this time if there was no fruit, the tree would be uprooted. There would be no more chances.
That was Jesus’ message to the people who had asked him about the victims of Pilate’s atrocity.
… unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
The Galileans who had been at the temple had come to a sudden end. One minute they had been offering sacrifices and the next their own blood was mixed with the blood of those sacrifices.
In the same way the end had come suddenly for the eighteen who died when the tower collapsed. Their lives were over.
Think of the span of your life as a 24 hour day. For the sake of convenience, let’s take average life expectancy as 72 (the Bible talks about “three score years and ten”; in the UK the last 50 years have seen it climb from 70 to 80). That means that every three years means one more hour goes by on the clock.
- When you are 18, it is 6 a.m.
- When you are 24, it is 8 a.m.
- When you reach 30, it is 10 a.m.
- Noon is when you are 36.
- When you are 51, the clock has reached 5 p.m.
- At 60, it is 8 p.m.
What time is it according to your clock?
God is gracious. His grace accepts and loves us as we are; it calls and invites us to change. Every instance of renewed grace is an opportunity for renewed repentance. But eventually the clock will reach midnight and time will be up. There will be no further opportunities to repent.
It’s probably a lot less fashionable in the 21st century for preachers to preach what used to be thought of as “turn or burn” sermons. Many people who don’t know much about Jonathan Edwards, the great American thinker, have heard of his famous sermon on the theme of “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”, where people cried out during the sermon, wanting to be saved. There is probably not much of an appetite among many of today’s congregations (or among many of today’s preachers) for a style of preaching that, at least on the surface, seems to be based on the idea of dangling people over the flames of hell in order to get them to call out for mercy.
Christianity that has been reduced to being a fire escape from hell becomes somewhat one dimensional. However, we must not miss the way Jesus took contemporary stories of tragedy, using them to drive home a call to repentance. His listeners are aware of some terrible things that have happened where people’s lives have ended suddenly and unexpectedly. Instead of speculating on the relative guilt of those who perished, Jesus’ listeners need to repent.
There is such a thing as time running out. There is such a thing as a missed opportunity. We only have so much time and we only have so many opportunities.
You notice that the story does not quite end. Jesus doesn’t tell us about the next twelve months. Did anything change? It may well that the owner was proved right in his assessment and the vinedresser had to reluctantly uproot the tree one year later. It certainly looks as though it would have required a miracle for a tree that had been fruitless for three years to suddenly start bearing fruit.
But the story itself doesn’t tell us. Just as the story of the two sons doesn’t tell us what the elder brother decided to do with his father’s invitation.
However in terms of the application of the story to Jesus’ immediate listeners, we know what happened. It would not be long until they would have Jesus removed from the city and put to death on a cross. In terms of another vineyard parable – in Luke 20 – the tenants took their chance to kill the owner’s son.
In other words, for these people, nothing changed. Neither the warning nor the renewed opportunity changed them. And time ran out. Not only did they reject their King, but in A.D. 70 the Romans destroyed their city.
That was their story. What about ours?
God wants to see fruit in our lives. Fruit is the evidence of his work in us and through us. It is a sign that there is spiritual life and that we have responded to all that God has invested in us; we have responded to opportunity of grace.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. The first thesis said this:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.
Repentance is not simply something we do once for all time. There is certainly a call to a decisive change of mind and direction. Paul talked about some of the early believers who had turned to God from idols: that was a radical change. But there is a sense in which that first step should set the tone for the rest of life. As God shines his light, through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, on dark parts of our hearts, where bad fruit lurks, we are once again called to repentance.
As we become aware of the ways in which we have yet to be changed, we hear the call to repent: repent of the bitter fruits of things like rage, jealousy, gossip and self-righteousness.
For sin is not just what other people do. And time will not always be on our side: the clock is ticking. And repentance is the proper response to all that God has done for us and to the grace that he offers us.
Each time we harden our hearts, we make it harder to open them tomorrow. As Hebrews puts it, quoting from Psalm 95:
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.