[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during worship today.]
Two weeks ago, we first showed the congregation what we call a “video postcard,” displaying the pathway to the destination of full maturity as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Now, why are we making such a big deal about growing as Christ’s disciples?
In Luke 13:6-9, Jesus tells one of His parables. He says, “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?’ ‘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.’”
Here, Jesus paints a picture of a vineyard-owner upset that one of his fig vines hasn’t grown. Impatient, the owner tells the caretaker to cut the tree down. The way he sees it, the tree is just taking up space, using water, nutrients, sun, and life that might more productively be used by a new tree that will actually produce figs. But the caretaker wants to give the fig tree more time to do what fig trees are supposed to do, to show the result of all that’s been put into it. He says that he wants to put more manure on it, water it, and dig some space around it to give it the chance to grow. If, after all of that effort, the tree won’t bear fruit, then it will be time to cut it down.
The point Jesus is making is clear. Through His Word, which we can read and hear proclaimed, as well as taste and see in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, we can know Jesus Christ and the new life that He brings to all who believe in Him; we can grow in Christ, as we mature as followers who daily die to self and rise to the new life God has in mind for us; and we can show that Christ lives in us and so, bear fruit.
Some see the caretaker in Jesus’ parable as being Jesus Himself. Jesus shields us from the condemnation for sin and hard-heartedness that we deserve and keeps pouring His Word into our lives with one aim in mind: that Christ will so fill us that we will show Christ to the world. We will be people who live for Christ, serve in Christ’s name, share the good news of new and everlasting life through faith in Jesus. The people around us will know that we follow Jesus. That’s what it means to show Christ.
Let’s be honest, taken together, most people in the churches of North America and Europe are like the dormant fig tree in Jesus’ parable. Despite being able to freely receive the Word of God, the word of new and everlasting life that when embraced and trusted, fills a person with the very life of God, most church-goers are indistinguishable from the rest of the world. They’re dead stumps. They’re “go through the motion Christians.”
And one day, such lukewarm Christians may be cut down, eternally separated from God, because they refuse to let Jesus take up residence in their lives, refuse to let the Word they repeatedly received from the crucified and risen Jesus fill them and impel them to lives of love, service, and witness to the dying world around them.
In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” But something miraculous happens to us when we let Jesus, the blazing, luminescent Author of all life, get to us, to enter into us, when we open the door and let Him into the center of our lives.
We become lights that show others Jesus so that He can change their lives the way He’s changing ours. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:14-15) Are we giving light to the whole house? The whole world? The whole community?
God’s grace given in Christ is not our private possession and faith is not a private matter. We’re to show it, not with arrogance, but humility; not with pride, but with love.
1 Peter 2:9 tells you and me as baptized believers in Jesus, “...you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” In other words, God has poured all of this grace and life made available to us through faith in Jesus not just for our own personal assurance, but so that we can let others know and grow in Jesus too. That’s our purpose in life! There is no other!
This message up to this point is apt to engender two main responses.
One is indifference.
The other is an anxious desire to know how we can show Christ, as though showing Christ to others was an item on a holy checklist, the successful completion of which will earn us a place in eternity with God.
Both reactions are human and understandable. And both of them are completely wrong.
Nothing I’ve said today alters the truth that we are saved by God’s charitable grace through our faith in Jesus Christ alone. But what I am saying is that if you have been saved by Christ and your faith in Him, you will want to show others how you, although a sinner worthy of eternal condemnation, have been made a saint in God’s kingdom because of the death of Jesus on a cross and the faith in Jesus created in you by the Holy Spirit. In other words, what we should be asking is, How can we get out of God’s way so that Christ is shown through us? Here are a few thoughts on how that happens.
First: We consciously, daily invite Jesus into every part of our lives. The New Testament book of Revelation begins with the resurrected Jesus interacting with seven ancient Christian congregations, one of them Laodicea, a church filled with people indifferent to Jesus. “Here I am!” Jesus tells them. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:20) We show Christ to others when we let Jesus in.
Second: We spend time in God’s Word so that Christ can take root in our lives. Psalm 1:1-2 uses the term law in the Old Testament sense, meaning God’s Word or the way of life God reveals to His people in His Word when it says, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” We need to let God’s Word go deeply into our lives each day if Christ will be shown by our lives.
Third: We worship and receive the sacrament every time we can. I’m so happy to be part of a church that offers Holy Communion every Sunday. And to be part of a church that take God’s Word so seriously. We need God and we need God’s people if we’re to bear fruit for the kingdom.
Fourth: We build listening into our prayer lives. It’s a noisy, busy world. If you can, take time to let God speak to you, to assure you of His presence and His love for you, to guide you, and to challenge you each day. Psalm 46:10 famously tells us, “Be still, and know that I am God…”
Fifth: We don't ignore what God tells us. Some people spend their lives wringing their hands, wondering what God wants them to do. But there’s really no need to wonder! God calls those who trust in Jesus to love God, love neighbor, and make disciples. This is God’s will for our lives, which Jesus expressed in the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. When we’re not sure what to do in situations in our lives, Martin Luther tells us to “sin boldly,” meaning seek God’s guidance, ask wise Christian friends, and then do what we think shows God’s love or helps us share Christ with others. We can’t show Christ to others if we get mired in what’s been called “the paralysis of analysis.” Think and plan, of course. But “Do not quench the Spirit,” 1 Thessalonians 5:19 tells us. In other words, be bold about sharing Jesus in your family, among your friends, and in the world.
These are steps of faith we can take in order to get out of God’s way to show the world the Savior Jesus we want everyone to know.
At Living Water, we’re committed to creating opportunities for everyone touched by the life of this congregation to know Christ, to grow in Christ, to show Christ and so, bear fruit for God’s kingdom. This is the entire reason for our being. Let’s continue to seek to follow Christ faithfully so that together we can fulfill our purpose as a church. We conclude our series next week.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]