FIRST READING Ezekiel 33:7-20
7 So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8 If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. 9 But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life. 10 Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” 11 Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? 12 And you, mortal, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not save them when they transgress; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, it shall not make them stumble when they turn from their wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by their righteousness when they sin. 13 Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 14 Again, though I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” yet if they turn from their sin and do what is lawful and right — 15 if the wicked restore the pledge, give back what they have taken by robbery, and walk in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity — they shall surely live, they shall not die. 16 None of the sins that they have committed shall be remembered against them; they have done what is lawful and right, they shall surely live. 17 Yet your people say, “The way of the LORD is not just,” when it is their own way that is not just. 18 When the righteous turn from their righteousness, and commit iniquity, they shall die for it. 19 And when the wicked turn from their wickedness, and do what is lawful and right, they shall live by it. 20 Yet you say, “The way of the LORD is not just.” O house of Israel, I will judge all of you according to your ways!
PSALM Psalm 85
1 You have been gracious to your land, O Lord; you have restored the good fortune of Jacob. 2 You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins. 3 You have withdrawn all your fury and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation. 4 Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. 5 Will you be displeased with us forever? Will you prolong your anger from age to age? 6 Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you? 7 Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. 8 I will listen to what the Lord God is saying; for you speak peace to your faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to you. 9 Truly, your salvation is very near to those who fear you, that your glory may dwell in our land. 10 Steadfast love and faithfulness have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. 11 Faithfulness shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. 12 The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase. 13 Righteousness shall go before the Lord and shall prepare for God a pathway.
SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
1 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. 6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written,
“The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.”
8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10 And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
GOSPEL Luke 13:1-9
1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
I read a hilarious story the other day about a farmer who had three sons: Ron, Don and Little John. The farmer and all three of the boys had their names on the church roll but none ever attended church or had time for God. Then one day, Don was bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor was called and he did all he could to help Don, but the outlook for his recovery was pretty dim. So the pastor was called to evaluate the situation.
When the pastor arrived, he listened to what the doctor had to say then he began to pray: “O wise and righteous Father, we thank you that in your wisdom you chose to send this rattlesnake to bite Don. He hasn’t been inside the church in years and has shown little interest in You. We trust that this experience will be a valuable lesson to him and will lead him to genuine repentance. And now, O Father, we pray for you to send another rattlesnake to bite Ron, and another to bite Little John, and another really big one to bite the old man. For years we have done everything we know to get them to get serious with you. Thank you God for rattlesnakes. Amen.” Some prayer, isn’t it?
We aren’t told the result of the prayer, nor if Don recovered, but if he did, I would hope that he decided that he’d been given him a second chance and was in church the next Sunday. One thing many of us know firsthand, is that second chances are good. I may have told you about Alan Simpson, a US senator from Wyoming.
Senator Simpson served with distinction as a Republican member of the United States Senate from 1979 to 1997. However, in his younger years, Alan Simpson’s life was not so circumspect. A few years ago, Simpson was involved in a Supreme Court case, Graham v. Florida. In a brief in support of the claimant in the case, Simpson admitted that as a juvenile he was–in his own words–“a monster.” At one time he was on federal probation for shooting mailboxes and punching a cop.
One day when Simpson was in high school, he and some friends “went out to do damage.” They went to an abandoned war relocation structure and decided to “torch” it. They committed arson on federal property, a crime now punishable by up to twenty years in prison if no one is hurt, and punishable by up to life in prison if the arson causes a person’s death. Luckily for Simpson, no one was injured in the blaze. Sadly, his crimes weren’t limited to destroying mailboxes and national monuments.
Simpson not only played with fire, he also played with guns. He played a game with his friends in which they shot at rocks. These were rocks situated close to the other participants, at times using bullets they stole from the local hardware store. The goal of the game was to come as close as possible to striking someone without actually doing so. Again, Simpson was lucky: no one was killed or seriously injured. Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there.
Simpson and his friends went on shooting sprees throughout their community. They shot up mailboxes, blowing holes in several and even killed a cow. They took pot shots at a road grader which resulted in Federal authorities charging Simpson with destroying government property. To this he pleaded guilty. He received two years of probation and was required to make restitution from his own funds—funds that he was supposed to obtain by holding down a job. As all this was unfolding, Alan saw his parents look at each other in total disbelief, and he saw his father cry. Fortunately, Alan Simpson got a second chance, and he became one of the most respected senators of his generation.
The question we need to ask ourselves is, how willing are we to give second chances? Unfortunately, not everyone is so willing. But the good news is, God is One who stands ready to give second chances, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. Jesus told a parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’”
The owner’s assessment of the situation, to this point in the parable, seems reasonable. What good is a fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit? For three years the owner had the fig tree growing in his vineyard and in that time it yielded nothing. I’m told that three years is the length of time it takes for a fig tree to become an established, fruit-bearing tree. The fact that it wasn’t bearing fruit at this point means that it was highly unlikely that it would ever bear fruit. So the owner of the vineyard was making a practical business-like decision. The tree is taking up room. It’s using fertile soil and precious water with which another tree might prosper. “Cut it down!” he says to the man who cared for his vineyard. But the man who cared for the vineyard tries to intervene.
“Sir,” the caretaker replies, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” Obviously the man who cared for the vineyard saw possibilities in the tree that the owner could not. The owner simply saw a tree that wasn’t pulling its weight. But the man who looked after the tree was more familiar with it and believed the tree deserved another chance. Thank God for second chances.
Some of you may have seen a movie a few years ago titled Catch Me if You Can. It was an exciting film based on the true story of Frank W. Abagnale, played in the movie by Leonardo DiCaprio. Frank’s dad, Frank, Sr. played by Christopher Walken was, for a time, in serious trouble with the I.R.S. His self-indulgent wife divorced him. The resulting break-up of his family had a profound effect on young Frank, aged sixteen. He began acting out his frustration by impersonating adults engaged in several vocations. For example, he becomes a substitute teacher even though he was only a high-schooler himself at the time. Then he successfully impersonated a Pan Am copilot. After that, he impersonated a physician. Now remember this is based on a true story. How would you like a high school kid operating on you? He also impersonated a lawyer.
He funded all these adventures by passing hundreds of fake checks. He succeeded partly because he was careful to dress right–after all, clothes make the man they say, and more importantly because he possessed a convincing charm–enough charm to acquire information, hotel rooms, flights around the world, and oodles of cash.
In the film a determined FBI agent, played by Tom Hanks, tracks Frank across several continents. Arrested and sentenced to 12 years in jail, 26-year-old Frank is given a second chance by the government. He’s given early release in return for his skill and expertise. As a consultant to the FBI and thousands of corporations around the world, he’s now known as one of the world’s leading experts on fraud. Additionally, he’s also a polished public speaker addressing corporations about how to protect themselves from people like him. Again this is based on a true story and Frank Abagnale, like Alan Simpson, is one person who could testify, “Thank God for second chances.”
This brings us to something very important that we need to recognize. Getting a second chance implies that something we’ve done is wrong. We need to consider this truth for a few moments while we still have the word “sin” in our vocabulary. And sin is something we need to take serious. It’s alarming, but satan has convinced people that the whole concept that God would ever pass judgment on human beings is false and this fact is rapidly disappearing from American religion.
Writer David Brooks in his recent best-selling book The Road to Character says that we’ve done our young people a great disservice by letting this ancient word sin slip from our modern lexicon. In doing so we’ve made it very difficult for our young people to even talk about right and wrong. I have to whole heartedly agree. We’ve allowed situational ethics and flexible morals creep into our teaching and society and it’s the root cause of much of society’s problems. We’ve watered down the understanding of sin to being nothing more than acceptable human nature. We’ve allowed the notion of cheap grace to become a core part of our mainstream teaching. And worse yet, we’ve embraced and supported the idea that we’re not responsible for our own actions. It’s become commonplace to blame everyone and everything else for our bad decisions and indiscretions.
Let’s face it, it’s so much easier to teach and preach about God’s grace and love. But we need to face facts. There’s also the law, God’s law. This is the part of God’s teachings that identifies our sin and shortcomings. It’s also the part of God’s word that deals with the result of our sin. It’s an absurd notion to think that a Creator God has no expectations from those whom He has created. The Rev. Dr. Tom Long tells a story about one of his students who hailed him one day as he walked across campus. “Dr. Long,” she said, “could I speak to you for a minute?” Long said, “I’m going to get a cup of coffee, you want to go?” The student agreed, and as they were sharing coffee, she told him what was on her mind.
She said that she was serving as a field education student in a local church and that her supervising pastor was requiring her to preach next Sunday. To this Long replied, “Good.” She said, “No. It’s not good. He’s making me preach on the lectionary.” Once again Dr. Long replied, “Good.” Again she complained, “It’s not good. Have you read the lectionary texts for this week? They’re all about judgment. I don’t believe in judgment. I believe in grace. I believe in mercy. I believe . . . it took me three years of therapy to get over judgment. I’m not going to preach judgment.” They talked about it for a while and then they moved on to other things including her current home situation.
She and her husband have several children, only the youngest of whom–a teenage boy–was still at home and he was driving them crazy. He was into drugs, possibly dealing them, and was in trouble with the police. She said, “like last night we were sitting at supper, we had no idea where our son was. In the middle of supper, he comes in the back door and I said would you like some supper and he practically spit at us. He just stomped down the hall to his room and slammed the door.” She said, “My husband got up and turned on ESPN. That’s always his response to this.”
She continued, “I don’t know, something got into me.” She said, “I’m afraid of my son physically. Yet despite my fear, something got into me and I got up from the table and I went down to his room and I pushed open the door and I said to him, ‘You listen to me. I love you so much I am not going to put up with this.’” Dr. Long paused a moment to allow the student some time to reflect.
“Caroline, I think you just preached a sermon on judgment. God loves us so much that God will not put up with the foolishness in our lives. We have foolishly hungered for success and power and status, and God says through Jesus, ‘That’s foolish. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. That’s what makes life free and good . . . Jesus says that’s foolish [to hunger for success and power and status]. I love you so much I’m not going to put up with that.’”
To say that God gives us second chances is to imply the fact of God’s judgment on our sometimes foolish lives. God created us to bear fruit–the fruit of love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). To think that God would forever put up with our lack of fruit . . . and even the bearing of wrong fruit . . . simply defies logic. We don’t know what form God’s judgment may take, whether in this world or the next, but God does judge. He is a righteous judge. If nothing else, we need to acknowledge the various ways that foolishness takes its toll on our bodies, our relationships, our reputations, on our witness to others.
The late humorist Lewis Grizzard once said that thinking about God’s final judgment over our lives scared the “you-know-what” out of him. One day he received a questionnaire in the mail titled “Heaven: Are You Eligible?” Grizzard said he took the test and scored “too close to call.” I suspect that many of us would score “too close to call” if we took that test. I thank God for second chances. But we have to accept the fact that being given a second chance implies that we’re not living our lives at the highest level and we need to do something about it. That’s called contrition; that’s called repentance.
Jesus began His parable by saying: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’” How many here today, if you were really being honest, would argue that the owner had the right to cut down the nonbearing tree? Afterall, it’s taking up precious resources that another tree could use to bear fruit. Look around, isn’t that how all of life is ordered. It’s part of the law of sowing and reaping.
Paul tells us in Galatians 6:7; “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” Sow all the wild oats you want to, but eventually there will be a harvest. What kind of harvest can you expect under such circumstances–certainly not a good one? The response to a lack of fruit? “Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” The need for a second chance implies that something we’ve done is wrong, and we need to do something about it. However, the good news is, anytime we hear the Law, there’s also the Gospel.
Life’s second chance is what the cross is all about. “So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’” “But the man who cared for the vineyard replied, ‘Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” The man who cared for the vineyard obviously represents Christ. Someone once called Christ “the forgiving side of God.” That’s not a perfect statement theologically, but for the moment, that’s close enough. We read in Hebrews 7:24-25, “But because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Second chances are what the cross is all about. Christ lives with God to make intercession in our behalf. The question is, what will we do in response to the second chance God gives us? Do we continue to make the same foolish mistakes?
Paul in Romans chapter 6 wrote; “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Today we continue our pilgrimage through the Lenten season. It’s also a time for us to remember that second chances are designed to help us learn and grow stronger as we make our pilgrimage through life so that we might bear more and better fruit. I love the way Louisa Tarkington once put it. She wrote: “I wish there were some wonderful place called the Land of Beginning Again, Where all of our past mistakes and heartaches, And all of our poor selfish grief, Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door And never be put on again.” The good news is, there is such a place. It’s at the foot of the cross.
The Law we hear in the Lenten season is a reminder that we’ve all missed the mark. However, the gospel proclaimed in the season of Lent is that Christ offers us a second chance. We just have to accept the fact that we must, in contrition, acknowledge our sin and its consequences. Then and only then can we, with joy, receive God’s boundless grace offered so freely in Jesus Christ. Amen