Another year…ends. Another year…begins. Another year…into a whole new decade (or not, depending on your affinity for Gregorian time-keeping or society’s norms). Another year…of work and school, projects and papers, grades and paychecks. Another year…of births and deaths, weddings and funerals, new relationships and broken ones, health scares and devastating realities, political changes, economic swings. Another year…of joy and sadness, expectation and fear, anticipation and dread. Another year…just like every other year. But what if you knew that there was only one more year? What if you knew that your life would end one year from today? That you had one more year of physical and spiritual life? For what would you use the time?
There’s an urgency to look at things in this way tonight as Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel. In chapters 11-13, Jesus is speaking with various groups and teaching various things – but there’s an emphasis on the end. He warns the Pharisees with “woes of judgment” to get them to pay attention to God’s Word. He warns the crowds to disregard the Pharisee-type of “outward” religion and encourages them to cultivate a real readiness for God. And finally here… In the five verse before ours tonight, Jesus basically says, “Repent or die!” And, as you heard, tonight his parable of the fig tree in the vineyard says the same but with this twist – “Repent NOW – for time is short.”
Jesus tells it by way of a brief story. The owner of a vineyard has been waiting, anticipating the fruit from a fig tree planted in his vineyard. When the man says he’s been coming for three years to find fruit, it probably means something like six years – for, you’d plant a fig tree and it would take a few years before it would bear fruit, usually three. And, assuming he’s not a crazy person, after those three years, he’d been visiting – during the time when fruit might be normally expected from a fruit tree – and kept finding nothing, nothing at all. So that it makes sense when he says, “Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” But, the one who takes care of the vineyard, who tends the vines and tills the soil and has tended this very tree…he says, “You’re right – it should produce fruit – that’s what fig trees do. So, if it doesn’t, I’ll cut it down…just, one more year.”
As you stand again at the threshold of a new year, tonight think of it that way – as one more year for us to repent. Because God expects fruit from the trees of faith he has planted. As John the Baptist said it to the Pharisees, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Perhaps Jesus’ call to you is, “Repent and believe,” if you do not – to turn away from unbelief and, by his Spirit’s working, to put your faith in him, to trust in him for salvation. But Jesus’ call to us most properly would be “Produce fruit that fits with such a name and claim.” Because you are the people of God, you are trees of faith, rooted in Christ, producing fruits… and Jesus’ call in this story is to produce fruit – it’s what God looks for from people of faith. Fruits like love and joy, peace and patience, endurance, kindness… When you look in the mirror, that you see not a banker first, first a nurse, brunette, silver, or bald – but child of God. When you smartphone over lunch, that you aren’t formed by Instagram memes but you are filled with the holy and living Word of God.
Jesus calls us to analyze our own lives and the sins that so easily entangle us and to ask whether we have a right relationship with God because there is other soil we’re tempted to root ourselves in. There are philosophies and values and attachments that we feel like will cause us to grow and flourish but in the end will leave us dead to God and prime wood for burning. And we’ve sunk our roots in them at times. Perhaps you are now. And the end is near. There is no “limitless” time, unending grace, and second chances – this is our time of grace, the time for us to live by faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and receive the glorious inheritance of his saints or to not and receive only God’s clearing fire.
It’s not just another new year. View it as one more year to repent – to turn to the Lord each day in confession, pleading for mercy; with intent to live according to his will and to love him over everything else. And view it this way, not in fear, but with great anticipation and confidence. For if God gives you and me only one more year, we can be sure it will be one in which we can grow in God’s grace.
Do you notice that piece of Jesus’ illustration? The two most striking things are the stark judgment of the master and the loving response of the caretaker. If we view this caretaker as the Son of God, he has done exactly what the caretaker says. Doesn’t he prune us – as in John 15, with a tender hand cut off whatever hinders and nurture us to blossom and fruit? Doesn’t he dig up the soil of our lives and till and turn it – put us in a place to see and adore him, where we can grow in his Word? Doesn’t he fertilize our growing trees of faith with his saving good news? That, for whatever sins you have, whatever poor fruits or no fruit-times you have had, he sacrificed himself – the green tree – to burn in the fire of God’s wrath in your place and in place of punishment to give you peace and a place to flourish? He has done these. And in this new year, Jesus your Savior will not leave you alone but will continue to supply you with salvation and joy, forgiveness and peace, encouragement and faith. Jesus himself will work on you, his precious trees, in this new year.
But even more than that… Pay attention to the picture. Even beyond the caretaker – where is this tree? It’s not out in the wild wastes. It’s right in the middle of God’s green vineyard. You’re planted in his church – among believers in Jesus Christ with you. I was reminded of it on Sunday again in the 10:30 service. When little Audrey was baptized and, again – for the 11th time in 2019 – we assented to this: “to assist in whatever manner possible so that Audrey may remain a child of God until death. If you are willing to carry out this responsibility, then answer: Yes, as God gives me strength.” And we did.
Think about that in 2020 – God has washed you in baptism and marked you as his own. You can wake up each day and know that you are a child of God – a tree of his planting. But you can also know that you are a child of God among children of God – among his green trees, in his vineyard. You are among ones whose joy and delight it is to help you remain a child of God. And you can wake up each day and bear fruit in this same way – with joy and delight to live and work and speak in such a way that will help your brothers and sisters in faith remain children of God until death. Having been helped by the Caretaker and moved to faith by his ever-living Word, love one another deeply from the heart, as Peter says. Be in God’s living and enduring Word yourself, by studying it and knowing it. Then you’ll be able to counsel with it and encourage with it. Strong in faith and trained by his Word, you’ll be repentant people who are examples to one another. Then with humility you can help to correct, rebuke, and encourage one another. You are God’s trees, never alone, but encouraged in his grace and growing by his work and filled with fruit that helps one another.
I don’t know if it reflects some theological thing, but I think it’s thought-provoking for our New Year’s Eve moment. Literally, the caretaker says at the end, “Master, leave [the tree] one more year, until I dig around it and fertilize it, and if indeed it should produce fruit in the coming [year]…” And then nothing – and I like to think it’s because the caretaker’s saying, “That will be just as it should be for a fruit tree – growing and green and heavy with produce – that should be what we expect.” Perhaps that gap is for our thoughtfulness and encouragement as we move into another year where we don’t know what will happen. We don’t know what temptations will come. We don’t know how you’ll grow. We don’t know when the end will come – for you or us. We do know this. This is how we think about things. 2020’s not going to be just another year. We’re God’s people: people who repent and rejoice in forgiveness and salvation; people who are tilled and fertilized by the loving hand of our Savior and moved by his mighty Word; people who are encouraged by the fruitful lives of those around us so that we bear great fruit too. And, by God’s grace, we’ve got one more year to do all that.