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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Repent while there's still a time of grace
Text:Luke 13:6-9 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 3:1,2

Hymn 3:5 (after the law of God)

Psalm 95:1,4,5

Hymn 69

Psalm 68:1,8,12

Scripture reading: Luke 13

Text: Luke 13:6-9

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Just about everyone who was alive at the time remembers September 11, 2001.  I was supposed to be flying from Winnipeg to Edmonton that day.  I arrived at the airport and all the flights were cancelled.  I soon found out why.  On that day, 9/11, terrorists hijacked four airliners, intending to crash them into several American targets.  Three succeeded, including two which crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. 

In the days following, many Christians struggled with the meaning of it.  Some said the 9/11 attacks were God’s judgment on America.  These attacks happened because America had become so wicked and godless.  Those who said this claimed to know the mind of God on the matter, as if he had spoken directly to them about it. 

Something similar happened with the Jews of Jesus’ day.  As they were listening to Jesus, they recalled two horrible events.  One was the massacre of some Galileans by Roman soldiers.  The other was the fall of the Tower of Siloam where 18 people were killed.  The Jews reasoned that the people who died in these horrible events must have been under God’s judgment.

But our Lord Jesus says, “You don’t know that.  But what you can know for certain is that you’re a sinner yourself, and if you don’t turn from your sin, you’re going to face God’s judgment.”  What was the sin the people were committing?  They were rejecting Christ’s ministry, rejecting the Son of God.  In the face of that rejection, Christ calls them to repent, to turn before they burn.  To drive the point home, he tells this parable in our text, the parable of the barren fig tree.  This parable teaches that God’s people are to repent while there’s still a time of grace.  That’s the theme of the sermon and we’ll consider:

  1. The problem posed by the parable
  2. The solutions given in the parable
  3. The missing conclusion of the parable       

Whenever we look at parables, we have to be careful.  Not every detail is equally important.  What we have to look for is the main point that Christ was driving at.  Context helps us determine what’s important for supporting the main point and what isn’t.

Jesus begins his parable by speaking about a man with a fig tree in his vineyard.  Nothing strange about that.  But who is this man supposed to represent?  In the last parable we looked at, the parable of the tenants, God was the owner of the vineyard.  It’s the same here. 

So this man representing God has a fig tree in his vineyard.  But this fig tree isn’t producing any fruit.  Years earlier the tree had been planted and there should be some delicious figs ripe for picking.  Now at this point the problem doesn’t appear too serious.  It can happen that a fig tree goes dormant for a year or even two years.  Maybe that’s what happened here.

You also need to remember that fig trees without fruit are usually fig trees without leaves.  So this tree would have appeared dead and bare.  It should be a picture of life, but instead it’s a picture of death. 

Who is this fig tree supposed to represent?  In the Old Testament, Micah 7 described Israel as a fruitless fig tree.  Christ seems to be alluding to that passage.  The fig tree symbolizes God’s covenant people, the Old Testament church. 

As for the vineyard, it was a place with rich soil and a protective wall around it.  The fig tree had been planted in an ideal location, in a place it could flourish.  God had done the same with his people.  He’d placed a wall around her.  Planted her in the richest soil.  All that’s to say that God had blessed them so richly.   There were the promises made to the patriarchs; there was the Promised Land; there was the temple and its sacrifices; there was the Word of God in the law and the prophets.  Finally, at the right time, God sent his beloved Son to them.  The vineyard represents the context of God’s provision and care for his people, his love in giving them everything they needed to flourish. 

What about the missing fruit of the fig tree?  As is often the case in Scripture, this fruit represents repentance.  Repentance means to have a change of mind and heart.  It means rejecting wickedness and rebellion, and instead turning to Christ and following him.  The person who has repented is aiming for a life that’s right in God’s eyes.  That’s what the audience in front of Jesus hadn’t done.  Most of those Jews had rejected Christ and his teaching.  They weren’t bringing forth fruits of repentance – and that disappointed the owner of the vineyard, that disappointed God. 

But we still haven’t really seen how serious this problem was.  One or maybe two years of fruitlessness could happen with a fig tree.  But in verse 7 we learn that the owner has been coming for three years looking for fruit.  That’s what he says to the vinedresser.  This is a serious problem because a fig tree without fruit for three years is likely a dead tree.  It’ll probably never produce fruit.  It’s a good-for-nothing tree, or maybe only good for firewood.

Moreover, the way this tree is wasting the ground in the vineyard is also a serious problem.  We read that at the end of verse 7.  That land could be put to better use.  The implication is that God could remove unrepentant ethnic Israel and put something else in her place. 

The real problem portrayed in this parable is fruitless Israel.  We have God’s people and they’ve been given a reasonable amount of time and they haven’t repented.  God hasn’t found the fruit he was looking for.  The overall picture is of a people living in sin and not caring.  And rather than look down on them in self-righteousness, we should pause and consider what God finds among us.  Does he find the fruit of repentance with us?  Does God find people here who hate their sin and turn to Christ?  Does God find people who are pursuing the “holiness without which no one will see the Lord”?  What does he find with you and the way you speak, the way you think, the way you live? 

Now if you look carefully at this parable, you’ll see how there are two solutions given to the problem of the fruitless fig tree.  We read about the owner’s solution in verse 7:  “Cut it down.”  After three years, that’s not an unreasonable solution.  The crowds listening to this parable as Jesus told it were probably nodding their heads.  The tree was useless, counter-productive, and ugly too.  So it’s a perfectly natural solution.

That pictures God in his justice.  In his love, God had been so patient with his people.  He had been entirely reasonable.  God gave them plenty of time to repent.  But they consciously slapped him in the face and rebelled against him.  They deserve to be cut out of God’s vineyard.  It’s a reasonable and just solution.  God would have done no wrong if he would have sent judgment upon Israel right then and there.  God’s loving patience is abundant, but there is a limit.  God will eventually send his judgment on those who choose to go on living in sin, never turning from it, never repenting.              

The vinedresser offers an alternative to cutting down the tree.  He says, “Instead of chopping it down right now, just leave it for one more year and let me work with it.”  The vinedresser intercedes.  While he knows the owner is reasonable in wanting to chop it down, he wants to give the fig tree just a little more time. 

Who is this vinedresser?  It’s Christ.  At the end of Luke 13, we hear him lamenting over Jerusalem.  He cares for God’s people and doesn’t want them to perish.  Because of his great love he’d rather that they turn, repent, and be saved from the coming judgment.  Christ Jesus is the Mediator of the covenant of grace.  So he pleads for his people, steps in on their behalf, just like Moses did during the time of the Exodus from Egypt. 

During that extra year of grace, the vinedresser will dig around the tree.  That would aerate the soil, loosen it up, allow more water and air to reach the roots.  He’d put manure on the soil.  That would bring extra nutrients for growth.  Because he cares, he’d do everything he could.  If the tree were still alive, all of this would make it more likely that it would bear fruit and be spared the owner’s axe.

That’s a picture of the loving and gracious work of Christ in his earthly ministry.  Because he cared so much, he did everything possible to try and coax the fruits of repentance from Israel.  He taught them, he preached to them, he performed miracles for them.  Healed their sick.  Raised their dead.  He even gave his own life.  What was the response?  Little to no fruit.  Only a few repented and believed.  And Christ’s all-out effort didn’t end when he ascended into heaven.  He continued to work through his apostles, continued to bring the gospel to the Jews.  Just like the vinedresser, Christ did everything he could.

But what if the tree still won’t produce fruit?  Then, says the vinedresser, then you can cut it down.  But first an extra year, a year of grace.  The Jews were so near judgment, but God in his mercy put it off.  But now the time is running out.  Christ was teaching that the Israelites had to repent at that moment.  We too, as God’s people living today, we too are called to repentance.  Today.  Don’t put it off.  Tomorrow may be too late.  If you’re living in your sins, don’t presume upon the patience of God.  You must repent today.  The years of this parable aren’t meant to be taken literally.  That means judgment could happen at any moment.  At any moment, you could be brought before God and if you haven’t repented and believed in Christ, you’re appearing before God for judgment, for condemnation.   As it says in Psalm 95, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…”

The parable of the barren fig tree is unusual because it doesn’t have a conclusion.  Most parables do.  We find out what happens in the end.  But not with this one.  Why not? 

The people listening to this parable were to supply their own conclusion.  What’s going to happen to that fig tree?  Will it produce fruit and remain standing?  The conclusion was to the supplied with their lives.  Were they going to turn from sin and turn to Christ?  Or would they be chopped down with God’s imminent judgment? 

Christ was confronting God’s people with those questions.  They were being confronted as a people, but also as individuals.  Would they repent? 

Loved ones, that message comes to us today through God’s Word too.  Will we, after all the coaxing of Christ through the Word and sacraments, will we bring forth fruits of repentance?  Loved ones, each day as you survey the way you’ve lived, you’ll know how you’ve fallen short of God’s standards.  This is part what it means to repent every day.  It doesn’t matter how old you are.  You kids and young people should be doing this too.  At the end of each day, look back and think about the way you’ve lived.  Think about the different ways you’ve fallen short of God’s standards.  Haven’t we failed time and again to reflect Christ and to show ourselves as his disciples?  God’s call is to confess our sins in prayer as specifically as we can, and look to Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins.  We can’t go on living in sin.  The time we have today is a time of grace.  In his loving grace, God gives us time to time to turn from sin and turn to him in faith. 

We don’t know when Christ will return – it could be this week or next, or even today.  But when he returns, the time is up.  There’s no time for repenting after he appears.  The time to repent is now. 

Perhaps we could suddenly be taken from this life like the 18 people under the Tower of Siloam, or like the 2,977 victims of the 9/11 attacks.  None of those people had expected to be taken from this life so suddenly.  They woke up in the morning and were prepared for another day and they thought there would be another day after that.  Life is frail and uncertain; we could be taken at any moment.  Therefore, if anyone here is living in sin, now is the time to stop and turn to God.  Ask him from your heart to forgive you because of Christ and his cross.  He promises to forgive you because of the cross.  Then resolve to hate sin and start fighting it.  The missing conclusion is our responsibility. 

As it happens, we know the conclusion of the parable with respect to Israel.  Within 50 years, Israel was in shambles and Jerusalem had been sacked by the Romans.  It happened in AD 70.  The temple was destroyed and many Jews were killed.  The Romans crucified so many Jews that the region surrounding Jerusalem was deforested – they cut down all the trees for crosses.  God’s judgment came down hard.  While there were some Jews who believed, the general result was definitely negative.  So Israel was cut down.  That was an earthly picture of what would happen to them in the hereafter under God’s wrath.

Loved ones, none of us should ever presume upon the patience of God.  Scripture tells us in 2 Peter 3:9 that God is patient because he wants us to come to repentance.  Romans 2:4 says something similar, but it adds a warning against showing contempt for God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience.  Contempt can be shown by saying “Whatever” when God is addressing you with his call to repentance.  Contempt can also be shown by just being indifferent or ignoring God – not giving him any response.  Someone once said that the final form of hatred is indifference.  It’s the ultimate way to show someone you hate them – be indifferent, ignore them.  The ultimate form of contempt.  But Romans 2:4 warns that if you’re like that, showing contempt in any way, if you’re stubborn and unrepentant, then the Holy Spirit says you’re storing up wrath for yourself.  That wrath will confront you on the Day of Judgment.  Rather than have that happen, God would have you turn from your sin. 

There’s a biblical principle we need to keep in mind here:  from those who’ve been given much, far more will be required.  Jesus taught that in Luke 12.  Think of how much the Jews had been given up until the days of Jesus.  Think of how much more we’ve been given as Christians living after Christ’s ministry on earth.  For example, think of how much more written revelation God has blessed us with.  Or think of how the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the church.  From those who have been given much – that’s you – far more will be be required.  What’s required is your repentance, today and everyday.

As we turn to Christ and hate our sins and flee from them, we can be confident that God will have mercy on us.  The gospel promises us that because of Christ, we’re safe.  Only in Christ can we be sure that God won’t cut us out of his vineyard.  When you’re in Christ by faith, then you have much to look forward to.  We can look forward to a day when the call for urgent repentance will fall silent.  In the age to come, there’ll be nothing to repent from.  Sin will no longer be part of our story.  Loved ones, let’s eagerly look forward to that glorious day.  Let’s heed Christ’s urgent call for repentance today.  AMEN.  


O God in heaven,

Thank you for your great patience and love.  Thank you for your mercy.  In the days when Jesus walked on this earth, you went the extra mile with your people – you gave them grace in abundance.  You gave them so much opportunity to repent and believe, before finally sending judgment.  Father, you’ve been so patient and loving with us too.  In your mercy, you have given us time.  Today you’ve again called us to repent from our sins and look to Christ.  Please help each one of us with your Holy Spirit to do exactly that, to keep on doing that every day.  We pray that no one here this morning would be contemptuous of your call.  We pray that no one would say “Whatever” in their hearts or ignore you.  If there’s anyone here living in sin and doesn’t care, we pray that you would convict that person.  Please work with your Holy Spirit so that we all hate sin, pursue holiness, and look to Christ alone for the forgiveness of all our sins. 


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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