Text: Ezekiel 33:7-20, Luke 13:1-9†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††Oculi (3rd Sunday in Lent)
The Lordís Business
††††††††††† In the name of him who loved us and gave himself for us, dear friends in Christ: As I mentioned before the service, this Sunday, the third in Lent, is traditionally called ďOculiĒ, which is Latin for ďmy eyesĒ.† Itís taken from the psalm verse that says, ďMy eyes are ever on the Lord, because only he can deliver me.Ē† Itís a reminder that we ought to be looking to the Lord and to the Lord alone for salvation Ė and indeed for all good things.† And itís a necessary reminder because in our fallen state, the tendency is for us to look to everything but to the Lord.† Itís as if we are blind to the simple truth that our hope and trust ought to remain always only in him.
This idea is reinforced by the traditional Gospel reading for today, which is the story of Jesus healing a man who was born blind.† In his incapacity to see even from birth, this man represents all of us. Because of sin we are all born spiritually blind.† Itís like Jesus told Nicodemus, ďNo one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.Ē† The things of the Spirit, the truths of God Ė not one of us can properly see or understand them until such time as we are spiritually enlightened. And even then, this enlightenment comes by degrees; we donít see everything all at once.† Itís only as we continue in Godís Word and rely on his Spirit that more becomes clear over time.
And itís here that we can sometimes be led astray, because even before we are spiritually enlightened, we still imagine that we can see and understand the things of God.† We think we get it.† We think we know how the Lord operates in the world.† Thatís the problem Nicodemus had.† He was a Bible scholar.† He thought he knew it all.† And this is why Jesus was such a puzzle to him.† The miracles Jesus did proved that he was from God, and yet the message Jesus taught was completely different than what Nicodemus expected to hear from a man of God.† The two werenít matching up.† Jesus had to tell Nicodemus that his confusion was due his spiritual blindness. †You think you see how the Lord works.† You think you understand the Lordís way of doing business; but you donít.
Sadly, Nicodemus is not the only person to suffer from this problem.† We all do to varying degrees Ė even we who have been enlightened and come to faith in Christ.† The problem is that we still have a sin nature, and on account of it, weíre still partially blind.† The result is that in some ways we see true and right, and in other ways we only think we see true. †And what this can lead to is an unholy mixture in the Church in which we do some things according to the Lordís way of doing business, and other things according to a worldly way of doing business without being aware of our error.† But itís always a mistake to use worldly solutions to spiritual problems.
A good example is the way some churches try to attract new members by using modern marketing techniques.† Make no mistake:† the goal is good.† We want people to come to faith in Christ.† But according to such strategies, the most important thing is to give the customer what he wants.† Youíve got to find that special niche that will make people feel that youíre the right church for them. †And so, as Iíve mentioned before, some places now have pet church to attract those who love their dogs and cats so much that they canít bear to be separated from them even for an hour or two on a Sunday morning.† They also have clown churches, where pastors wear white face paint, wigs of fluorescent orange, and big red noses.† They fold balloons into animal shapes and squirt people with water propelled from plastic flowers on their lapels. These are designed to attract families with young children.† Some Catholic churches are experimenting with what theyíre calling a guaranteed fifteen minute Mass.† No Scripture readings, no sermon, no hymns.† Whoís got time for any of that?† People today are just too busy.† So, letís have them just show up, do a bit of the Communion Liturgy, give them all a wafer, and send them on their way with a blessing.† And why not?† Itís a formula that works great for McDonaldís.† Why shouldnít it work in the Church of Jesus Christ?† I suppose the next step will be to install a drive-in window for those who canít spare even fifteen minutes and want to have their Communion to go. †And if that sounds improbable, trust me, thereís no limit to how far a church might go when marketing is whatís driving the train. I recently read of clothing optional church in Virginia thatís going all the way, as it were, to attract people from a nearby nudist colony.
The mistake here, the spiritual blindness, is to see the Gospel as a commodity that must be marketed to consumers instead of what it really is: †the saving truth that is foolishness to the world, but is the power of God for salvation to those who believe.
Another example is the way a lot of church growth consultants say that congregations should be organized.† The old (biblical) model says a church should have pastor who is the servant of the congregation to proclaim Godís Word and administer the Sacrament according to Christís commands. Itís his calling to build up the members of the congregation in the Christian faith so that they will be equipped to live the Christian life and show the love of Christ to the world in their various callings.† The new model borrowed from the business world says thatís all wrong. Itís inefficient and doesnít push people to realize their full potential as members of the body of Christ.† So now the pastor is supposed to be the CEO whose job it is to make sure everyone else does what he used to do.† Heís not to do any preaching, teaching, or biblical counseling.† No, no; heís to be above all that.† Heís supposed to assign these tasks to others and supervise them to make sure they do it right. (Sounds good to me.† Iíll send around a around a sheet so all of you can sign up for your turn preaching for the rest of the year.)†
No. Besides being a complete confusion of our doctrine of vocation and contrary to what the Bible teaches about the office of the public ministry, what really should strike us as arrogant is the way these folks have no problem saying that the church has had it all wrong for past 2000 years; but fear not:† weíre here to fix it.
It would be a mistake, however, for us to imagine that this is a new problem. Importing worldly business models and ways of thinking into the Church is as old as the Church itself.† Itís what Jesus is dealing with in todayís Gospel lesson.† There we read about people who are thinking that the Lord operates according to the principle that says you get what you pay for, or you get what you deserve. And itís generally true in the world. If you work hard, scrimp and save, make the proper investments, and try to succeed, you will; if you donít, if you goof off, cut corners, waste your resources, and cheat, well, youíll most likely fail. Taken into the Church and spiritualized a bit, this idea appears as the law of Karma.† Itís says that the Lord is just and operates according to a strict system of rewards and punishments.† If you behave, play nice, and follow his commands, then he rewards you.† If you misbehave, then bad things will happen to you.
Usually this is interpreted retroactively.† That is to say, if things are turning up roses for you, it must be that God is rewarding you for being such a fine Christian.† But if bad things happen to you, it means that the Lord is angry with you.† I heard this repeatedly following the recent earthquake in Haiti.† A number of well known Christian personalities were saying, ďSee, see, itís all that voodoo and black magic they do down there.† The Lord is punishing them for their sins.Ē† They said the same thing following Hurricane Katrina and the devastation New Orleans suffered a few years back.† ďItís because of all that drunken Mardi Gras revelry that goes on down there every year.Ē
Jesus flatly denies this interpretation of such events.† Some people had come to him with the news a recent disaster.† Roman soldiers had slaughtered a group of Galileans who came to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple.† Apparently they were in the very act of making their sacrifice when they were cut down.† People understood this to mean that the Lord had refused to accept their sacrifice because they were such terrible sinners.† For a modern equivalent, what would you naturally conclude about someone who was kneeling here at the altar, and just as I handed him the host Ė the very body of the Christ Ė he was struck by a bolt of lightning, or a light fixture fell on him, or he had a massive heart attack, and he died on the spot?† You might be inclined to think, ďIt must be that the Lord didnít want him to take communion and have the assurance of the forgiveness of sin.† He must have been a complete hypocrite, somebody who did something awful.† Thatís why the Lord struck him down.Ē
Jesus asked the people who told him about the Galileans, ďIs that what you think?† Then you missed the point entirely.† There is a message from the Lord here.† Youíre right about that; but itís not about those who died so horribly and unexpectedly.† It has nothing to do with them.† The message is for those who live. Itís about you.† What you should come away with from this episode is the certainty that your life might end just as quickly and unexpectedly.† It could happen at any moment.† So ask yourself:† Are you ready to meet your maker?† Are you ready to stand before the Judge at this very moment?† To be more specific:† Are you living in sin?† Or are you turning from your sin and producing the fruit of repentance?Ē
To hammer the point home, Jesus follows up with the parable of the unproductive fig tree. The thing to understand is that you are the tree. You are the one not doing what the Master wants; namely, youíre not producing the fruit of repentance.† And now youíve been given a clear warning and because of the Vinedresserís gracious intercession, a bit more time to come around. Heís trying to work with you. Heís stirring up your soil and applying the means to make you productive.† Heís doing all he can.† But the big question is left hanging:† will you repent or not?† Will you turn from your sin and come under the protection of Christís forgiveness? Or will you die in your sin and be damned?
Itís repentance that the Lord is looking for from his people Ė repentance from sin and a turning to the righteousness that the Lord provides through faith in Jesus.† Thatís his goal.† This is made clear in todayís Old Testament lesson where another worldly way of doing business is shown to be contrary to the Lordís way.† And here the misconception is the one that assumes that the way the Lord judges people is the same way a basic banking operation works. The belief is this:† when you do good, you make deposits.† When you sin, you make withdrawals.† And obviously some deposits and withdrawals are bigger than others.† Really good things you do stash a lot of credit away, and really big sins draw the account way down.† So your goal in life is to ensure that you keep a positive balance in your account. That way youíll be ready to face the Judge when youíre called to stand before him.† In the eyes of the world, it makes perfect sense.
But the prophet Ezekiel makes it clear to his astonished hearers that thatís not how it works in the kingdom of God.† The mistake is to think that anything good you do is worthy to be counted to your credit. Ah, but the blind sin nature in us is a natural accountant, always happily adding up the score when we do something that seems outwardly to be good. †Itís not so good at making deductions, though.† It usually has excuses and alibis for why when I commit this sin or that, it isnít so bad.† Funny, it works exactly the other way around when it keeps score on other people.† For some strange reason your good deeds donít earn so much credit as mine; even when we do exactly the same thing.† And your sins?† Somehow theyíre always worse and more inexcusable than mine.† Isnít that the way we think?
Sure it is. And one of the worst things that happens is when people who feel that theyíve built up a lot of credit in their account think that it entitles them safely to make a big withdrawal.† Too many times Iíve spoken with people who have been lifelong members of the church and who have fallen into sin say to me, ďI donít get it, Pastor.† All my life Iíve done what is good and right.† Iíve tried my best to live as a Christian.† Iíve given my time and money to the church.† And now youíre telling me that it doesnít count for anything?† That just because Iíve fallen into this sin and refuse to repent, that the Lord takes none of what Iíve done before into consideration?† Thatís not fair!† If thatís the way the Lord is going to deal with me, then I donít want anything to do with him.Ē† Itís truly frightening, but I have heard it.† And in reply Iíve shown people these very passages from Ezekiel and said, ďItís not what Iím telling you.† This is the Word of the Lord.Ē
The flip side of this wrongheaded thinking is the offense we take when we hear of a deathbed conversion story Ė especially when itís somebody whoís lived a particularly notorious life.† Then the tendency is to think ďYou mean after all those terrible things he did, all he had to do was repent and come to faith in Christ, and heís in the same heaven as the rest of us?† Thatís not fair.† He didnít even begin to pay his dues.Ē
The truth of God is that no one pays their dues.† Not one of us.† And not one of us is able to put any credit into some imaginary goodness account.† In the Lordís eyes, all we do is sin.† Our imagined righteous deeds, the best we can offer, the things of which we are most proud, he counts as worse than garbage. And thatís why his message to all of us is the same.† From the most outwardly righteous to the most notorious sinner his Word never changes: Repent of your sin and turn your trust to my Son Jesus Christ who lived the perfect life for you, and who died in your place.† Thatís the Lordís way of doing business.
And since we see that, letís make it our goal always to be about the Lordís business, and to help others see it too.† In Jesusí name.† Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!