The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Maybe it's just part of our sinful human nature, but people like answers to all their questions, and we tend to never be satisfied until we have those answers. We want answers; we demand answers, especially when our questions sound like this: "Why did this happen to me? Is God punishing me? What can be done to make God happy and prevent this from ever happening again?" Sadly, it's when these questions come up in life that a lot of faithful people begin to offer up some very unfaithful answers. So…what does an "unfaithful answers" sound like? "Pastor, that's easy! The unfaithful answer leaves God out of the answer. The unfaithful answer substitutes a false god for the one, true God. The unfaithful answer wrongly blames God." You know what? You're absolutely correct on all counts. However, if you remember, I said that it's truly sad when faithful people provide unfaithful answers to life's problems. So…what does that sound like? Turn your ears to the Gospel lesson for this morning and you will have your answer.
"Do you think that those Galileans who died were worse sinners than any of the other Galileans? Do you think that those eighteen Judeans who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell were worse debtors (that's what the Greek word is) than any of their fellow Judeans?" My friends: What Jesus is confronting here with this line of questioning is that false and unfaithful line of reasoning; that wrong and faithless answer called "karma." Karma, in a nutshell, says, "If you do good, good will be repaid to you. If you do bad, then bad will be repaid to you." This, my friends, is what Scripture calls works-righteousness, and it is deeply ingrained into every man, woman, and child descended in sin from Adam. This works-righteousness is the very backbone of all false religion in our world today. This is also why most Christians will not use the word "karma" to describe their beliefs, despite the fact that they do very much believe in karma.
Now, I'm not saying that this Christian notion of karma is the backbone and foundation of a Christian's faith, but it is often the "default setting" in the machinery. This is the place we often end up at when life hits turbulence. When life is cruising along and all is well, faith is also well. It's easy to be faithful when things are good, right? "Good things are obviously happening to me because God is so good and gracious to me; me an imperfect, but good and faithful person." However…when things take a turn for the worse, many a faithful Christian defaults to this false notion of karma. "What have I done to deserve this? What can I do to fix this? Why is God punishing me? How do I make things right?" Sound familiar? Still don't think karma has a foot in the door of your faith?
"But pastor, listen to what Jesus says to these people. 'Unless you repent you will likewise perish.' You have to admit that this does have a certain ring of karmic threat to it. Do good or else!" Folks: What does Jesus say? If you listen, He flat-out rejects any notion of karma. "Were those people who suffered and died worse sinners than anyone else? Did they get punished because they were worse sinners than any of you? NO!" It doesn't get any clearer than that! I've said it before and I'll say it again: God is fair and equal across the board. He doesn't play favorites or bend the rules for anyone. All have sinned—equally—and the wages of sin—across the board, fair and square—is death. All are also equally redeemed in the blood of Jesus. He died for everyone—across the board, not fair at all, but thankfully all squared up with our heavenly Father.
"Okay…but you still haven't addressed Jesus' conditional threat, which does sound a lot like karma." Again, what exactly does Jesus say here? "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." Guys: Use your heads here! Use the gift of reason that God gave you. This language of repentance and perishing…does this sound like a threat pertaining to physical suffering and death? If this were the case, the world would be a pretty empty place if everyone who didn't repent of their sins was immediately struck down and physically killed. You see, this is where the original Greek provides the answer we seek.
The Greek word we read as "perish" (apolumi) is used throughout Scripture to speak of eternal death [think John 3:16]. To perish—to apolumi—is to suffer the eternal pains of hell. It does not simply mean "legally dead" or "having no pulse or brain activity." In fact, when Christ speaks of faithful people passing away, He speaks of them "falling asleep" or "entering into rest." Believers rest in peace until Christ's second coming. Unbelievers perish—eternally. Big difference!
Think about that for a moment. Jesus is addressing the issue of faithlessness. There is divinity at work here. Jesus Christ knew those people's hearts. He knew their faith, or lack thereof, to be more specific. "If you do not repent; that is, turn back from your sin to the life and forgiveness that is known only through faith in Me—our heavenly Father's promise of redemption in the flesh—you will also perish—eternally—just like those other people who died without faith."
Believe it or not, but this is not Jesus issuing an angry threat. It's Jesus simply telling it like it is. In fact, if you think about it, it's Jesus acting, once again, out of unconditional love and compassion. He's warning these proud, thick-necked people of the eternal danger that awaits them if they continue in their proud, impenitent, works-righteous ways. Scripture tells us quite clearly that God desires the death—the apolumi—of no man. God desires that all men have life and have it abundantly in Christ. Look and listen to Christ here! His words and His actions are living out these Scripture truths! "Repent; turn away from your sin and turn back to Me. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."
This is why Jesus immediately launches into the parable about the fruitless tree. Many people often see this parable as a separate teaching. Jesus said what He had to say and now He's teaching on something else. That's not the case here! He's teaching these thick-skulled fools about the reality of their sinful, faithless and fruitless condition before their heavenly Father's eyes. Sure, they were sacrificing and building and doing all these wonderful things—wonderful in man's eyes. However, without saving faith, all these things amounted to nothing. In spite of all these man-pleasing works, without saving faith they perished.
With this little parable, Jesus is teaching about Himself and His ministry of reconciliation and life and redemption. These people—God's people—whom He chose and planted to bear abundant fruit, had basically failed. God looked to His vineyard of people for the fruits of faith and found none—again and again and again. Enough already. God's a good steward. If this tree won't bear fruit, tear it out and make room for another tree that will bear fruit. This is where the vinedresser—the master's servant—steps in and intercedes on behalf of the fruitless tree. "Give me a chance. Let me work with this tree. I'll give it everything it needs to bear fruit. If after all this it still refuses to bear fruit, then go ahead and chop it down and be rid of it. It's obviously dead already."
Right here in this parable, my friends, is where the whole notion of karma suffers yet another mortal wound from our Lord of Life. Why are good things happening to some people—especially rotten, sinful unbelieving people—while others continue on in pain and suffering and misery? Is it karma? No! In fact, if it weren't for God's long-suffering patience and mercy and compassion, there wouldn't be a vineyard at all. This world—God's vineyard—would be a desolate wasteland! "Sorry, you're not bearing fruit so down you go, into the eternal brush fire that is never quenched."
Understand: The fact that bad things happen to you doesn't mean that God is punishing you and you deserve them. I know it sounds strange, but it's not God's punishment you're feeling when things are bad. God judges and punishes no man until the day he passes without faith from this life into eternity. What you're feeling and seeing when things are bad on this side of eternity is the symptom of sin; the result of sin that has infected this entire fallen world. God is the cure; not the cause.
Understand, too, that the flip-side to this reality is also every bit as true. The fact that bad things happen to others while life is good for you doesn't mean that God is rewarding you and you're squeaky clean and without blemish. Don't mistake God's patience for His approval! Repent! While you still have air in your lungs and sky over your head, repent and turn back to the way of Christ's cross.
And in this way, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I'm going to end by simply pointing to Christ alone. No matter what you think your situation is—good, bad, or at least better than the other guy—make no mistakes: before God you are a sinner who deserves nothing but eternal death and punishment. That's not karma. That's the wage of sin. However, because of Jesus Christ, you are also completely redeemed and forgiven. You have life—abundant, eternal life—because of Him and His all-atoning death. That's not karma…that's grace—God's free and unmerited grace for you, for me, and for all mankind.
Faith alone in God's grace alone because of Jesus Christ alone.
Repent, turn, and bask in this glorious light and abundant life of Christ's all-redeeming, life-giving cross.
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
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