Open Our Eyes
This Third Sunday in Lent is all about eyes. Before we dropped the Latin names in the Church Year this Sunday was called "Occuli" from the first word in the Latin Introit, "Eyes of me are ever on the Lord." In the early Church, this was the Sunday when people to be confirmed at Easter were preliminarily examined, publicly renounced the devil, and had the formula of exorcism pronounced over them. The eyes of those about to be confirmed were beginning to open, hence the name "Occuli" or "Eyes."
Our eyes too need to be opened on this Occuli Sunday. The first thing we need to see is that judgement is sure upon impenitent sinners. The world only sees this dimly if at all. As our text shows, human reason links great tragedy with great sin. The reason some worshipers had their own blood spilled while offering sacrificial blood is because they were serious sinners. The reason the tower in Siloam fell on 18 people was because they were worse sinners than the rest of the people living in Jerusalem. The world thinks you can tell who the big time sinners are by the tragedy that happens to them. Tornados, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, car accidents, disease, or trouble are all indications from God that the people they happen to are worse sinners than others.
Jesus says, "No! Tragedy, disaster, calamity, and tribulation do not mean those upon whom they fall are worse sinners." They are calls from God that WE need to repent. Such judgements of God are to strike fear in our hearts. We are missing God's point when we conclude that a disaster calls those upon whom it falls, "Worse sinners than we are." "NO," Jesus says forcefully! "What it calls is for us to repent. When you see that bad traffic accident, hear about this tragedy, read about that disaster, you should conclude, "This will certainly happen to me unless I repent."
That makes some of you uncomfortable. Well, it gets worse. St. Paul testifies to us that mere outward attachment to the Church is no refuge for the sexually immoral, the testers of God, the grumblers. Membership in the Church, even being baptized and taking Communion are not replacements for repentance. Isn't this what St. Paul plainly says? In the Old Testament Church, all were baptized when they passed through the Red Sea. All ate and drank the same spiritual food and drink from Christ as we eat and drink Holy Communion. "Nevertheless," says St. Paul, "God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert."
Be warned says St. Paul of believing you can hide your sexually immoral mind, mouth or body in a baptismal font or at a Communion table. God will find you out and strike you down by means of disaster or tragedy. Beware of testing the Lord by speaking against the ministers of the Lord and thinking you are safe in the congregation. God can send fiery serpents in to slay you as easily as He did the people in the Old Testament Church who dared to do that. Be forewarned; you are not safe inside these 4 walls from the destroying angel that God sends against grumblers. There is no substitute for repentance. Repent or you face judgment not just in eternity but now.
Our eyes need to be opened by the damning Law to see that God's judgment falls upon impenitent sinners no matter where they might be trying to hide, but that is not all our eyes need to be opened to. The Gospel needs to open our eyes to see that God's grace is over sinners today, even upon sinners who have languished long in impenitence. This is the point of the parable that Jesus tells in our text.
Jesus shows us a fig tree that a man had planted in his vineyard. Of course, the man is no man but God the Father, and the fig tree is no fig tree but us. What is a fig tree doing in a vineyard? For that matter, what is a sinner like me doing in the holy Christian Church? I don't fit in. I don't deserve to be here. What but God's grace could have put me here?
In the parable, the man comes to the fig tree looking for fruit for 3 years in a row. Each year it should have had fruit. Each year it did not. Each year the owner gave it another. God the Father sent His Son looking for the fruit of repentance from Israel. For three years, He preached "Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand." Each year, the Father hoped for repentance. Each year He was disappointed. Each year, sinners were granted another.
This is how it has been with us too, hasn't it? How many years has the Lord given you, sinner? How long has He rightfully been able to expect repentance from us? Yet, there we stand making our lame excuses: "I'm not really that bad." "I try my best." "I will do better." Well enough is enough. "Cut it down, "says God. "Why should it waste My good soil?" Send the disaster upon him. Send the snakes. Send the destroying angel into her life; that's what he or she deserves! Why should impenitent sinners like us be allowed to waste His baptismal Waters or His Body and His Blood any longer?
Your eyes will not be able to see God's grace here unless they are open to the fact that He is absolutely right. God has had the right to expect the fruit of repentance from us for years. The fact that we actually think our repentance is adequate, is enough shows how hardhearted we are and why judgment should strike us down swiftly. Yet, what happens? The Man who takes care of the vineyard who is a Man but also God, our Lord Jesus, steps in and says, "Leave it alone." Actually, what He says can be translated, "Forgive it. Hold back the poisonous snakes; don't let loose the destroying angel on them. Forgive them."
Can you see the grace? We don't deserve another chance. Yet, God for Christ's sake gives us to it. But that's not the only grace your eyes should be open to. The Lord Jesus doesn't just plead for our forgiveness, He promises to provide all that is needed for us to bear the fruit of repentance. With the Law, He will dig about our roots. With the Gospel, He will fertilize us. Contrast what Jesus says He will do with a common Arab story about a barren tree. The owner goes to the tree and gives it 3 whacks with the back of a hatchet. Someone else restrains him saying, "Be patient with it." Our Lord doesn't just ask for patience, but forgiveness. He doesn't just wait longer, but nurtures and feeds us while He waits.
Okay, so our eyes have been open to the judgement we deserve for our imperfect repentance and to the grace God gives us in Christ to repent. But the sermon can't end here. If it does, we would be left wondering about next year. Will our repentance be fruitful enough? Our eyes need to be all the way opened so we can see that the only way for us to be saved is by God's grace not by our repentance. This, the Collect for today can help us to see.
In the Collect we confess that we have NO strength. "We of ourselves have no strength," we say. We don't say we have "some," or even "not enough," but NO strength. We don't have the strength to repent, to cease from sinning, or to believe. And note, we don't just say that we don't have any strength, but that GOD knows we don't. We pray, "Almighty God because YOU know that we of ourselves have no strength." It's not just that we admit we have no strength, but we admit God sees that we don't have it. God sees that we are but dust, according to Psalm 103, and no one expects anything from dust, do they?
So, if we are going to be fruitful, if we are going to be saved, if we are going to avoid the due penalty for our sins, God must keep us. That's what we pray in the Collect. God must keep us outwardly and inwardly, before and behind, today and tomorrow and for all the tomorrows He gives us. If we focus our eyes on ourselves, all we will be able to see is that we fail miserably and often. Our repentance, our faith, our fruits are woefully inadequate. What God does, however, is always adequate, always fruitful. God's keeping cannot fail. Our trying to keep ourselves in the true faith, our trying to keep ourselves from sins, our trying to keep ourselves in the vineyard will fail. As Psalm 127 says, "Unless the Lord KEEPS the city the watchman stays awake in vain." But as another Psalm says, "He who keeps Israel neither slumbers or sleeps."
Our doing our best to keep ourselves close to God, in God, in the faith will always come up short. Therefore, in the Divine Service we hear a lot about God's keeping. In the Baptismal liturgy the pastor prays for the newly baptized child, "We humbly beseech You, as he has now become Your child, You would keep him in his baptismal grace." And what is Holy Absolution but a keeping out of hell? Is not Absolution the key that opens heaven and locks hell? If hell is locked, can you fall into it?
In the offertory, after the sermon, we also sing about God's keeping. Quoting Psalm 51 we pray for the Lord to, Create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us. We beg Him not to cast us away from His presence and not to take His Holy Spirit from us. We go on to ask Him to restore unto us the joy of His salvation, and we close by pleading for Him to "uphold us with Thy free Spirit." Look in the dictionary; a definition of "uphold" is "to keep." After we have partaken of the Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ given and shed for us sinners, we are told, "May this Body and this Blood strengthen and preserve you in the true faith. Preserve is a synonym of "keep." Finally, how does the service end? By the pastor putting on us the Name of God as the high priest Aaron was first commanded to do on Israel some 3,500 years ago. The pastor says, "The Lord bless thee and keep thee.
What is the goal of all this keeping that we ask the Lord to do? In the Collect it is, "that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul." The Latin original is more succinct. It simply says the goal of the Lord's keeping of us is that we be "defended in body and cleansed in mind." If our bodies are going to be defended, the almighty God must do it. All of our eating right, taking medicine, wearing seat belts, and setting burglar alarms are in vain, unless the Lord defends our bodies. Likewise, the Lord by Word and Sacrament must cleanse our minds. All of our repenting, believing, and struggling against sin are in vain, unless the Lord cleanses our minds.
We need the Lord to open our eyes to see that we can only be saved, we can only stay in His vineyard by His grace. Our repentance, flawed and sinful as it is, can't do these things. God's grace is what saves. God's keeping is what saves. But get this: The gracious keeping of God is what brings sinners to repentance. St. Paul tells us that saying, "Know you not that the kindness of God leads you to repentance." Yes, our eyes need to be opened to the judgments the Law threatens, but unless they are also opened to His grace we will not repent. But once our eyes are opened there will be no end to our repentance. That's what Luther said, "The life of the Christian is one of constant repentance." A life of constant repentance means a life of constantly relying on God's grace and mercy in Christ. A life lived with eyes wide-open and ever on the Lord. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent III (3-18-01) Luke 13: 1-9