Sunday, March 3, 2013

Exercising Good Judgement

Text:  Luke 12:54-13:9

WE ALL FACE DEADLINES IN life.  In school or at work, the time comes when the project or assignment is due and it's time for it to be assessed.  Someone's going to come and judge your work, and will you pass the test?

But what if you don't know when the deadline is?  Or maybe, what if you claim you don't know when the deadline is?  Is that any excuse?  Or will the judge come and tell you you had all the information you needed; you should have been ready, you should have known?

Most Christians know that Jesus Christ is returning at the end of time to judge the living and the dead and to inaugurate His heavenly kingdom.  But we may not know that one of His most important roles during His time on earth was that of Old Covenant judge.  He came to wind up the old way of relating to God, based on works, and to bring in the new way, based on faith in Him.

The sayings of Christ in our Luke reading today are primarily addressed to the Jews of Jesus' time.  But we, too, can take warning from what He says, and be ready.

Our Lord is teaching the crowd.  He draws an analogy with the weather.  "When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It's going to rain,' and it does."  The people of the day are really good at interpreting the appearance of the earth and sky.  So why don't they know how to interpret the present time?

What is Jesus referring to?   It goes back to the days of Moses.  God called His people Israel out of the land of Egypt and chose them as His own nation.  At Mount Sinai God gave the Law.  The Law, beginning with the Ten Commandments, was more than just a list of dos and don'ts; it was the Covenant between God and His people.  It drew a picture of what they were to be like in order to please Him and to be worthy to call Him their God.

We know what happened, don't we?  The Covenant of Sinai was broken more than it was kept.  God's people frequently behaved worse that the pagan nations around them.  But the prophets of God always foretold the time when a new and more perfect covenant would be made between God and Israel.  A time was coming when the Promised One would appear, the Messiah, and He would perfectly keep the Covenant.  He would be the perfect Israel, and would embody the obedience that God demanded.  But this would be a time of cataclysm and change.  When He came He would put to judgement the disobedience of the people, and prove who was worthy to enter into the kingdom of God and who was not.  John the Baptist said what this one would be like.    He predicted, "One more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

We know that when Jesus came He did not carry the program of God's covenant judgement as far as John the Baptist expected.  This was due to God's mercy, to give the full number of God's elect among the Gentiles the chance to come in.  But Jesus by His coming did exercise covenant judgement upon Israel.  And as He speaks to the crowd, He judges their tendency to fool themselves about God's times and seasons.  They knew the prophets, they knew what was to happen when Messiah came.  It was as clear and certain as the rain clouds rising in the west and the wind blowing from the south.  But they wanted to deceive themselves about the implications of what was happening.

They should stop deceiving themselves and exercise right judgement.  For the time was coming when the sin of the people would be judged.  Jesus gives the analogy of someone going before a magistrate.  The scenario is that of a civil lawsuit, and the idea is that you, whom Jesus is addressing, really are guilty of harming your adversary.  The point is clear-- Israel has broken God's covenant and He has the right to satisfaction.  So don't deceive yourself and think that when judgement comes it'll be all right.  No, repent now, be reconciled now, for when the day of judgement comes it will be too late and there will be no help for you.

Jesus wants His fellow-Jews to understand that judgement is coming, it's imminent, and they deserve it.  But there are always people who want to concern themselves with other people's sins and other people's judgement, in an attempt to make themselves feel better about their own situation. So we hear that at that time, as Jesus was teaching these things, there were some who mentioned to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  This was a famous incident involving a power play ruthlessly executed by Pontius Pilate.  You have to wonder if this situation was brought up so the people present with Jesus could comfort themselves with the idea that  well, at least they hadn't done whatever those men did!  Jesus knows this is exactly where they're coming from, which is why He asks then if they thought those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because this horror had come upon them.  Yes, of course they thought that.  At least, they hoped so?  But no!  They were no worse!  "But unless you repent, you too will all perish."  Not necessarily by the hand of the Romans, but in whatever way God will in His judgement ordain.

And if people are going to bring up cases, what, Jesus says, about those eighteen people who died when the tower in the Siloam district of Jerusalem fell on them?  Was their guilt greater than that of anyone else in Jerusalem?  Absolutely not!  "But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

Why?  Because the time of judgement is at hand.  The time is coming soon when God will settle His scores with disobedient Israel, and the only escape will be to repent of their sins and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

To drive home the point, Jesus tells a parable regarding a fig tree planted in a vineyard.  Both the vineyard and the fig tree were well-known Scriptural images for Israel, and the expectation of fruit was a standard analogy for God's expectation of righteousness and good works from His people.

And now the One who has the right to look for those good works has come, but doesn't find any fruit.  For three years He's been coming and hasn't found any.

It's tempting to think the three years mentioned in the parable might refer to the fact that it's now towards the end of His three-year ministry.  But God had been looking for good fruit from Israel; that is, covenant faithfulness, for a whole lot longer than that.  The crowd listening to Jesus knew that if a fig tree was going to bear fruit, it'd do it in three years.  The owner of the vineyard has the right to expect fruit from this tree, but where is it?  All it's doing is taking up room in the vineyard.  Why not cut it down?  But the gardener asks for more time for the failing fig tree.  Jesus doesn't want us to go overboard with identifying the people in the parable with particular members of the Holy Trinity.  The point is that the fig tree, that is, God's Old Covenant people, are being given another chance to bring forth righteousness before God.  It's one more year in the parable; in real life the time may be even shorter.  Jesus' hearers had better not take any chances when it comes to themselves.

We know from history that judgement came upon the Jewish nation in A.D. 70, when the Roman legions under Titus marched in and destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple and its walls.  Judgement was complete and terrible.

But what about us?  Is it good judgement on our part to ignore the will of God and behave however we want, because we're covered by the grace of Christ?  Not at all!  It's true that our new covenant in Him is sealed by His blood and righteousness and not by sacrifices we might offer or deeds we might do.  But we, too, are called upon to repent, to exercise good judgement and depends on Jesus utterly.  For as the writer to the Hebrews says,

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  For if the message spoken by angels was binding [that is, the covenant of the Law given on Mount Sinai], and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?

The cross of Christ brings us mercy that covers the sins of all who believe.  But we cannot expect our Lord to overlook the sins of anyone who takes His mercy for granted and presumes upon His righteous judgement.

Not only in this season of Lent but all year round, let us flee to Christ for forgiveness and safety in the day of reckoning.  For the day is coming when Christ surely will return.  Can we stand with confidence in that day?  Let us do the deeds that belong to repentance, not because we think we can put God in our debt, but because we are humbly grateful for what Jesus our Savior has done for us.  For He is the righteous Judge who surely will come, but He is also the Lamb of God on whom judgement fell that we might escape the judgement we deserved.  He has paid the uttermost penny for us; He is the fruitful fig tree that national Israel could never be.  So exercise good judgement and trust in Him and Him alone.  For then, when He, the Good Judge, comes to judge the living and the dead, you will be able to stand before God in confidence and joy, trusting in Chris and His merits, and giving Him praise and thanksgiving throughout all eternity.