Beloved in Christ, we are in Lent because we need another chance. As we learned two weeks ago, if someone like the holy Son of God can be tempted, so can we—and we will not be as successful as He was. And so we need another chance. We need another chance to take on temptation and this time get it right. As we learned last week, if the high priests and religious leaders in the holiest of cities, Jerusalem, could fall into hypocrisy, formalism, and other sin, so much so that they ended up clamoring for Christ’s death, so can we. And so we need another chance. We need another chance to repent of our mediocre Christianity and to embrace the life that God has given us.
But what shall we do with another chance? The problem with second chances is that we will simply do what we did the first time around. We will make the same errors and end up in the same place. Or we will compound the old errors with new ones and make things even more of a mess.
That is what some people in the crowd did in today’s Gospel. They had come to our Lord Jesus Christ because they knew that He offered forgiveness and new life. But what did they do when they had a chance to live and think better than they had in the past? They pointed to some people who had suffered horribly and thought themselves better. They assumed that those Galileans who had been butchered mercilessly and in a sacrilegious manner were worse people than themselves. Because they had escaped such a fate, they assumed that everything was all right with them. But, of course, such an attitude was a very foolish one to take. After all, the Galileans who were butchered could also have reasonably thought themselves superior to their peers until Pilate killed them. Don’t boast about the downfall of others when you don’t know your own outcome.
It is tempting to look at the manifest sins of other people and the consequences they suffer rather than to look at our own. It doesn’t help that we live in a society that is dead set against God and His Word. Just when you think it cannot get any crazier, it does. Our culture long ago decided that it was going to deify every person’s desires. Whatever you feel in your heart has to be right, it decided. At first, it simply meant that you should pursue your dreams, even if it meant shirking your responsibilities. Then it meant that you should marry someone you had fallen madly in love with, even if it was just five minutes ago and you were already married. Then people started saying that since marriage ought to be all about following your heart as it feels right now, then it doesn’t matter if it is a marriage between a man and a woman, two men, two women, or three or more partners. More recently, men have said that if they feel more like a woman (or vice versa), they must be called one by the rest of society. Even more recently, a woman has declared herself to be a cat trapped in a human body and has demanded to be treated accordingly. The Crazy Train has definitely left the station and is not turning back. And I fear that this is simply the first act of a long play in the Theater of the Absurd.
We religious people are tempted to shake our heads and mutter about the world going to hell in a handbasket. We look to see people getting their comeuppance for this crazy behavior. Indeed, we might well point out that one craziness has grown out of earlier forms of craziness, and that there is no worse punishment than when God allows people to follow their hearts’ desires all the way to the bitter end. We expect our pastors to preach long and hard about the wickedness in this world and the folly it has unleashed. We expect our pastors to proclaim how God smote the Galileans and the people upon whom the Tower of Siloam fell in Jerusalem.
It feels good to see people get their just deserts—or failing that, to know that those just deserts will soon be meted out. But it is not spiritual helpful for us. It takes the focus off of ourselves and problems, where it needs to be. For we ourselves are also a boiling cauldron of wicked desires. We too often live more by how we feel than by what God has to say. And so while we think of how God might smite the wicked who serve their flesh or their belly, we might easily overlook how the same fate might await us.
A far more sensible approach would be to realize that we have been given a second chance. The Galileans didn’t have such an opportunity. They might have wanted to amend their lives in several different ways and even resolved to do so once they got back home after making their sacrifices. But they never had the chance to follow through. The people who were crushed by the collapsing Tower of Siloam were even less lucky. At least the Galileans could see the swords coming and steel themselves for the moment of death. But by the time those eighteen unfortunate souls realized that the tower was collapsing upon them, they would have been dead. But we are still alive. We still have the chance to hear the call to repent, to turn from evil, and to turn to God—and live.
We are like the fig tree that should have borne some kind of fruit by now, but hadn’t. We have been given another chance. We may still have another chance tomorrow and the day after that and next week and in the decades to come. Maybe, but then maybe not. We don’t know when the ax will finally be laid against the tree. But we have been given another chance today. Let us avail ourselves of it.
But why do we have another chance at all? Is it simply because God doesn’t really care whether we repent or not? Of course not. He just has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but [desires] that the wicked turn from his way and live.” He wants us to use our opportunity to hear His Word at long last and to stop thinking that indulging ourselves is the best way to live. He wants us to take seriously the fact that He has sent Christ into the world.
For it is in Christ Jesus that we have all been given another chance. That second chance wasn’t an easy thing for Him to acquire on our behalf. Like the vinedresser in today’s parable, He had a lot of work to do if that second chance was going to hold. We are tempted to look at people who give second chances to people as lazy. The vinedresser didn’t want to wield an ax and that is why he talked his way out of that task. But actually the vinedresser signed up for more work. It would have taken just a few whacks with a stout ax to chop down that relatively young fig tree. But the vinedresser signed up for a more ambitious project. He would dig all around the tree and mix manure into the soil. That would take much longer to do than simply chopping down the tree, and it might even have had to be repeated more than once. And it must have stunk when he brought the manure over to the tree, and the vinedresser himself must have stunk at the end of the day. So, no, this second chance did not come cheaply to the one who gave it.
Neither did it come cheaply for our Lord Jesus Christ. It required Him to live a completely holy life for us and then to go to the cross. It stank to have to do such a thing, especially when not everybody would welcome what Christ was doing or avail themselves of the second chance that He was winning for people. And yet He enthusiastically threw Himself into this effort.
Because He did so, we still have another chance. In fact, we have another chance each and every day. He gave us that second chance resolutely when He baptized us and called us to faith. That was what began the good work in us and began to produce the fruit of faith—things such as trusting in God, loving Him and our neighbors, doing good works that please Him, and the like. But, of course, we realize that we do not do as much of those things as we should. It isn’t that we bear no fruit, for we are true Christians and not utterly unbelieving heathen, but we recognize that we still need more chances, for our life is not as God would have it be.
That is why God is not just a God of second chances, but third chances and fourth chances and so on. Yes, there will ultimately be a day when we will not have any more chances to amend our sinful lives further. But until our Lord calls us home, He will greet us each day with the forgiveness of our sins. That is why we gather as Christians here every week, so that we can hear His holy words of absolution, listen to the sweet gospel being preached here, and receive Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. We not only hear about a second chance through these gifts, but we actually receive another chance through them.
And so, beloved in Christ, let us not focus all our attention on the way that the heathen are living. Yes, they need to be admonished, for God wants them too to have another chance. But let us take seriously the call to repent and then even more seriously enjoy the forgiveness of sins that gives us another fresh start. If we do that, if we take seriously the additional chances we have been given, then others will perk up and take notice. But the rest of society only will be moved to consider the Christian way of thinking and living when God’s own people take His Word seriously.