Sunday, March 24, 2019
Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.
Let’s assume that everyone in this room today is a follower of Jesus Christ. So, let me ask an important question: what is the worst sin any of us can commit as a follower of Christ? Of course, I’m assuming that we’re not going to murder someone, or commit adultery, or rob a bank. What then is the worst thing we can do as a follower of Jesus Christ? Think about that for a moment.
I think we can look at the parable Jesus told today: A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So, he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil? The vine dresser said, let’s leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then I’ll cut it down.
Now let me ask you the question again listening to this parable. As a follower of Jesus Christ what’s the worst sin you can commit? Thinking in terms of the fig tree the answer is: doing nothing. Doing nothing, or in this case, not bearing fruit, is the quickest way to disqualify you from the kingdom of God.
You remember the story of the two men who were talking about their friendship. One of them said, we’ve been friends for 25 years and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for each other. And the other man said, and that’s what we’ve been doing for one another for 25 years. Absolutely nothing. And as a follower of Jesus that’s the worst thing you can do based on the parable of the fig tree? Nothing.
Remember Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats? What was the decisive factor between the sheep going into the kingdom of God and the goats being thrown into a lake of fire? What did the goats do that was so terrible? They did nothing. Absolutely nothing. In Matthew 25, the King says to the goats, I was hungry, and you gave me what? You gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me [what?]. Nothing to drink, sick and in prison and you did what? You didn’t visit me. In other words, you had a chance to minister to me when I was at my worst. And you did nothing. Then he speaks those devastating words, when you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me. What was the sin of those he called goats who went into the lake of fire? Doing nothing.
In Luke 16, there’s another of Jesus’ memorable stories. It was about a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury. At his gate lay a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side, in heaven. The rich man also died. But he didn’t go to heaven. Instead he found himself in hell, where he was in torment. He looked up and saw Abraham and Lazarus by his side. So, he called to him, Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.
Why did the rich man end up in hell? There’s no evidence that he ever did anything wrong except for one. He did nothing. There was a poor man lying literally at his gate, and he did nothing to help. Jesus is teaching that this is the sin that condemns people, not something they did bad, but something good that they didn’t do.
In Matthew 25, just before the parable of the sheep and goats, we find another well-known parable of a man going on a journey who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid the money.
The man returned and settled accounts with his servants. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. And was told, well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!
The same scenario played out with the servant who was given two bags and earned two bags more. But then the man who had received one bag of gold came. Master, I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you. What was his master’s reaction? Not so good. Throw him into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It’s easy to feel sorry for this poor guy. After all, he was probably a pretty nice guy. But being a nice guy or a nice lady isn’t as important as making your life count for something. And how do you make your life count? By using what you have for God’s glory and making the world a better place.
I could keep going on with this theme right through lunch and beyond. I can see that some of you are worried I’m going to do just that. For example, remember the story of the rich young ruler who turned away rather than giving up his wealth and follow Jesus. By his own admission he’d kept all the commandments from his youth. But when the opportunity came for him to make his life count, he turned away. He was a good man, but, pardon the slang, he was good for nothing (Mt 19:16-30).
Or the priest and the Levite on the road to Jericho who passed by on the other side and left the poor man who had been beaten and robbed lying there bleeding on the side of the road. What was their sin? They had an opportunity to help someone in need, and they did nothing (Luke 10:25-37).
I believe it’s the most consistent theme in Jesus’ teachings. Yes, there are sins. Yes, there are sins that fill our lives with guilt and shame. But the sin that most of us are guilty of, the sin that threatens to keep us out of heaven, is the sin of omission. It’s the sin of doing nothing when we have the opportunity for doing something productive, something that will help someone in need, something that will glorify God.
I’ve titled this sermon “The Greatest Sin.” And I know someone is going to say to me, but pastor, I thought that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was the greatest sin. And I would then ask you what greater blasphemy against the Holy Spirit could there be than to say you’re a follower of Jesus Christ and to never show anyone, that fact by living a Christ-like life?
But you ask, didn’t Paul warn us against depending on works righteousness for our salvation? He did, but you need to understand that Paul’s teachings to a great extent grew out of his struggle as a Pharisee to keep all the rules of his faith. He discovered that trying to keep all those rules only made him miserable. It didn’t save him. When he talked about the Law which weighed him down, he wasn’t talking about the Law of Christ which we call the Great Commandment. He never meant that we were to ignore the teachings of Christ concerning bearing the fruit of love.
He knew that this is what the Great Commandment is all about. You can’t love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself and sit idly by when a fellow human being, regardless of who they may be, needs help.
So, Jesus told this parable, and I can add that He was talking about us if we’re not bearing fruit. What kind of fruit? Paul in Galatians 5 talked about “the fruit of the Spirit”; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That’s a good beginning. But caring for the down-and-out tops the list, according to Jesus’ teachings. Caring for those who are sick, those who are troubled, those who are lonely, those who are in trouble.
Bearing fruit is something that all of us can do. We don’t have to have a university degree. We don’t have to be gifted in terms of leadership or technical abilities or gifted as speakers. All we need is Christ’s heart which gives us sensitivity to the needs of others and the willingness to serve.
But notice something quite interesting in this story of the fig tree. I realize that a sermon like this can be quite guilt-inducing if you take it seriously. I, myself, experience that guilt. But notice the grace in this story. The owner of the barren fig tree is told by the man who takes care of the vineyard, Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then I’ll cut it down. That’s interesting, don’t you think? The caretaker asks the master for one more year before he cuts it down. This act introduces grace into the story.
In the insurance industry, there’s something that’s known as a “grace period.” A grace period is defined as the additional period of time a lender or an insurance policy issuer provides for a borrower to make passed due payment on a debt without penalty. I believe that there are a number of Christians living in their spiritual grace period.
And that’s probably true of most of us. We can look over our lives and see plenty of opportunities we have had to do the right thing, the loving thing for others, things that would have brought God glory. Fortunately, Christ isn’t interested in cutting us down like a barren fig tree. What He wants, is for us to examine our hearts and ask ourselves during our grace period if we’re living our best life? Or are we just taking up room on this planet? Christ used His grace period to redeem us from sin and death. Are we using our grace period to reach out to others? May God help us so to do.