Premonition of Doom


Luke 12:54-13:9

In our reading this morning, we are continuing the theme of some of the other specimens of the Lord’s teaching that make up this section of the Gospel. We have heard the Lord warn his hearers that those who refuse to acknowledge him before men, he will refuse to acknowledge before the angels of God; we read his parable of the rich fool who acted as if his life would continue forever but found that his soul was required of him; we have been urged to lay up our treasure in heaven where it cannot be lost as earthly treasure must be; and we have read of the great mistake they make who live as if the Master were not returning and as if he would not punish them for dereliction of duty. The four short paragraphs we read this morning continue this general theme of the seriousness of life in view of the impending judgment of God.

Given the location of this material in the other synoptic Gospels — Matthew and Mark — it appears that Luke has collected material that was delivered on other occasions or that was delivered a number of times and placed it together here. In other words, Luke is treating a theme in this part of his Gospel.

Text Comment

v.55     Rain typically came from the direction of the Sea (the west) and heat came from the deserts to the south.

v.56     In other words, the Lord’s contemporaries could read the weather, but were blind to the signs of their future condition. They were savvy about indications of coming weather but they could not see the storm clouds that were gathering over them because of their rebellion against God and their refusal to accept his Messiah. Their religious externalism blinded them to the significance of Jesus.

v.59     The Lord was not talking about your debts and legal problems. He was talking about the Last Judgment. The point is that, as in earthly matters people get the best settlement they can out of court to avoid the far greater disaster of imprisonment — nothing has changed much in two thousand years has it? — so, if they are wise, men will settle their accounts with God, the Judge of all the earth by acknowledging their spiritual bankruptcy and casting themselves on God’s mercy. [Caird, 169]

13:1     We know nothing about this specific incident, but there is nothing unlikely about it. It fits Pilate’s character to a “T.” That the blood of the temple worshippers whom Pilate’s soldiers had killed for some perceived offense had mingled with the blood of the sacrifices was a particularly gruesome detail.

v.4       Here is the Lord, as it were, using the newspaper to make his point. We have no specific knowledge of this particular disaster either, though such events were common enough in the ancient world, as they are today. Witness the deaths from Hurricane Sandy this past week.

v.5       Many people still today assume that disaster is the punishment of sin and that those who suffer disaster must have been particularly guilty sinners. The Lord, however, denies that inference and turns the tragedy into a warning. Such tragedies are reminders that mankind is heading for a much more comprehensive disaster. Disaster on an unprecedented scale looms over all human beings because all must come to God’s judgment. That disaster can be averted only by repentance toward God. Few realized it at the time but the Lord’s contemporaries had set themselves on a course that meant certain disaster eventually. These are urgent warnings because the greater disaster that is coming is unprecedented in degree and eternal in its effects.

Next follows a little parable that repeats the lesson of the previous paragraphs — the need for repentance — but adds the encouragement that God is slow to punish and has granted time to repent.

v.7       Three years without fruit in the fertile soil of a vineyard usually means that the tree will never bear fruit. Hence the farmer’s command to his foreman to cut the tree down.

v.9       The foreman counsels patience. Give it another year and let me see if I can’t coax the tree into bearing fruit. But he also recognizes that the tree either will or will not bear fruit. If after another year it has not borne fruit it must be cut down. God is patient and merciful, but there is a limit to God’s patience. All of this teaching takes on added solemnity from the fact that, unbeknownst to the Lord’s contemporaries, the Jews were but 40 years away from catastrophe, visited upon them explicitly as the Lord’s judgment for their pride and unbelief, revealed supremely in their rejection and crucifixion of the Son of God. Even that calamity was but a foretaste of a still greater judgment to come that only true faith and repentance can avert.

I read an interesting piece on preaching by John R. de Witt in a recent number of the Banner of Truth magazine. I am a great admirer of de Witt’s preaching. For a generation he has been one of the American Reformed Church’s best preachers. Some of you may know him as the son-in-law of Herman Ridderbos, the Dutch Reformed scholar of Amsterdam whose great work on the Apostle Paul (which de Witt translated into English) is surely one of the most valuable books written in the twentieth century. In this article de Witt warns against what is called the lectio continua approach to preaching. Lectio continua happens to be my approach so I was particularly interested in what de Witt had to say. Lectio continua refers to preaching as the consecutive exposition of a book of the Bible. These morning sermons through the Gospel of Luke and our evening sermons through Paul’s letter to the Colossians are examples of lectio continuo. Dr. de Witt realizes, of course, that this approach to preaching has an impressive pedigree and has been followed by many great preachers, but he doubts that it is wise as a regular approach.

He gives some useful warnings about what can go wrong with such an approach, but, in my view, most of those warnings apply with still greater force to the kind of preaching that he recommends instead, viz. sermons on texts chosen by the minister now from this part of the Bible and now from that. He never says so explicitly, but he implies that it is easier to be interesting when choosing texts that are easier to preach, as when he says,

“How lamentable it is that, for the sake of the lectio continua, he so much burdens [his congregation] and himself when he could be opening up the soaring passages of both Testaments!” [“A Few Thoughts on Preaching,” BOT 589 (Oct 2012) 17-18]

But what Dr. de Witt doesn’t address is the reason why so many great preachers from Chrysostom to Calvin to Lloyd-Jones have favored the lectio continua. And the reason is this: it is only in this way that you get the teaching of the Bible — all of its teaching — in the Bible’s own proportion. Nothing is more obvious and nothing has been so widely confirmed in studies of preaching that ministers, like everyone else, have their favorite subjects and are also sorely tempted to preach the subjects people like most to hear. They do this even when they imagine that they do not, so subtle and powerful is the temptation to please. But in lectio continua, if the Lord chooses to speak to the impending judgment of the world again and again, the preacher is required to preach that theme again and again. Surely one reason the lectio continua has been abandoned by so many preachers is precisely the difficulty it poses for a preacher who, according to the text before him that week, must once again preach a theme he has already preached a number of times. What is he going to say this time that is different from what he has said in the previous weeks? But if that is not his duty, why is the Bible written as it is and why is the Lord’s own preaching organized as it is in the Gospels. There was a massive amount of repetition in the Lord’s preaching as it is reported to us in the Gospels and the lectio continua forces the preacher to do justice to that fact. And when he does, it is the Lord himself, not the preacher, who is determining what his people will hear and how often they will hear it.

So here we are once again, listening to the Lord’s ominous warnings of impending doom, listening in on him as he urges his hearers to repent before it is too late: “Beware! Beware!” How little of this is heard in the Christian pulpit today, no matter how often we find it in the Word of God. Sometimes it is systematically removed from a so-called evangelical pulpit; removed on purpose. I remember hearing a prominent television minister tell Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline program some years ago that he did not preach divine judgment because he felt that if anyone heard that message and did not believe and turn to God as a result, he or she might be damaged by the negative feelings such a message might create in them. Imagine saying that to the few shattered and despairing survivors of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as they tramp off to finish their lives in hopeless despair. More important, imagine a preacher saying that to the damned on the Judgment Day: “I didn’t warn you about this because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Sometimes the warning note disappears from Christian preaching more subtly and, perhaps, with less intention. Preachers too are men of their times and influenced by contemporary climates of opinion. This is not a time in which people take kindly to the preaching of doom. Indeed, the very idea seems out-of-date, old fashioned, unconvincing, even irrelevant 9-11, Katrina, and Sandy notwithstanding. And so months pass with no mention of the Last Judgment or the reality of Hell and the longer the silence extends, the more difficult it becomes to break it. Churches, even Bible-believing churches, are now full of people who are completely unused to this message; no matter how often Jesus made it a subject of his own preaching.

It has sometimes been said that the preaching of divine wrath and judgment has been compromised by the over-enthusiastic, almost lascivious preoccupation with the torments of the damned in former generations of Christian preaching. There was to be sure, perhaps even is today, some foolish preaching about eternal judgment, the kind that turns hell into burlesque; what Gary Larsen often mocked in his Far Side panels; but there was less, much less of this than people imagine and, in any case, it has been a long time since anyone heard a sermon remotely like Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. We are today a very long way from an excessive preoccupation with damnation. So we all can stand to hear, we all need to hear, and to repeat to others, the Lord’s urgent warning, so impressively stated and repeated in these brief paragraphs: “Unless you repent, you will all perish.” To repeat those words to you is one of my solemn responsibilities as a preacher of the Word of God. It was the worst crime of the false prophets of Israel’s history that they proclaimed peace with God and peace from God when they should have warned their congregations of the coming wrath of God.

It is not, after all, all that difficult to read the signs of the times. We are now even better at reading the weather, with satellites and Doppler radar and the like. But no matter how dark and looming the storm clouds that gather over our world, most people in our time cannot seem to see them. The Lord reminds us here that the world is full of premonitions of divine judgment. Among other things that is what Sandy was, as Jesus tells us here in 13:1-5. They may have been no more guilty than others in our land, but the devastation wrought by that storm is an anticipation of something much worse, something that all the preparation in the world cannot prevent and cannot withstand.

Everywhere we look the pattern of human experience confirms the reality of retribution. It is woven inextricably into the fabric of human life. Eat too much and you pay for it with indigestion or extra weight. Engage in promiscuous sex and you find yourself pregnant when you ought not to be or find that you have a venereal disease. Prove yourself an indifferent, lazy, or harsh and selfish parent and your children grow up to disappoint you. Fail to study and your grades suffer and with them your prospects decline. Be irresponsible as a worker and you get fired.

If the truth be told, every day we do things or refrain from doing them for fear of retribution. Men, who might otherwise indulge themselves, refrain from a sexual adventure for fear of disease, divorce, or arrest. We lower our speed on the Interstate for fear of a ticket. We study for an exam for fear of a lower grade. We quit smoking for fear of lung cancer. We pay our taxes for fear of an audit.

So much is the principle of judgment and retribution built into us and our view of life that we practice this judgment ourselves every day, hardly without notice. It would be very daring for anyone to claim that he can conceive of a universe without judgment when he or she practices judgment all the time. We pour scorn and opprobrium over the head of the unethical politician, the cheating athlete, anyone who suffers just punishment for his crimes. How easily the words come to our mouth: “Well, he had it coming.” Or, “I could have told you it would end badly.” Or, “He has no one to blame but himself.” Indeed, for everyone, no matter his ostensible religious of philosophical worldview, a world without retribution would be the ultimate obscenity: vicious evil never punished, its perpetrators treated in exactly the same way as the righteous and the faithful. It is impossible for us to conceive of a future in which Adolf Hitler and Maximilian Kolbe — the priest in Auschwitz who surrendered his life to death by starvation to take the place of a married man with children who had been chosen at random for punishment by the prison guards – it is impossible to think that Hitler and Kolbe are the same. It is the ultimately blasphemy: Christ and Satan are the same. No one deserves anything or receives anything because to deserve punishment there must be such a thing as punishment.

A great deal of evil is committed in this world, hearts are broken, lives are ruined, hopes are dashed. Little children endure terrible mistreatment at the hands of adults. And a great many so-called moral, upstanding people, live lives of genuine pettiness, indifferent to the human woe all around them, self-centered and entirely comfortable with their self-centeredness. When they die they will leave no hole behind them whatsoever. We were made to be better than that, so much better. Everyone knows it.

So, says Jesus to us in these solemn paragraphs, “Explain to me if you can your indifference and your unconcern about the Last Judgment and the reckoning of your life that God will make in due time.” Why do you expect judgment of everyone else except God, the God who made you with the principle of judgment so deeply fixed in your heart? Where did the idea and the expectation and the practice of just retribution come from, if not from God himself?

And all around us, all the time are intimations, premonitions, and anticipations of sudden and catastrophic judgment. Why would we ever suppose that a world so full of catastrophe is not preparing us for catastrophe? We believe in heaven, virtually everyone does, because there are so many intimations of Paradise in our lives in this world. We know we were made for happiness and beauty and goodness and friendship because we have so much experience of these things. Our experience of life prepares us for heaven! Heaven is the inevitable culmination of those experiences and those longings that are so great a part of our lives now. But, if so, why would we not also fear hell as the inevitable consummation of so much pain, alienation, disappointment, dislike, and moral failure in human life in this world? As much of heaven as there is in the world, there is as much of hell.

This is the point that the Dutch theologian, Klaas Schilder, made with special power in his book on Hell. All the arguments that we typically hear or read against the reality of divine judgment, Schilder reminds us, fall before the facts of our own life and our own world. We hear men say that God would not punish men and women in the world to come or that it would be unworthy of God to overwhelm them with his power and justice, for God is love. But, Schilder reminds us, hell is already with us in this world. There is so much in life that never reaches its true goal, that comes to nothing. There is so much misery, despair, loneliness, disappointment, and hatred, whether we are talking about benighted citizens suffering under some tyrannical government or some mother struggling to raise her children in the home of her alcoholic and violent husband. There is already here so much of the worm that does not die and the fire that does not go out and the outer darkness so thick one can cut it with a knife. There is already a world chock full of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Who can possibly argue that there is no place for such things in God’s universe when we already have more of them than we can bear? This is the Lord’s point about the massacre in the Jerusalem temple, about the falling tower, and about the useless fig tree. Why are you not seeking peace with God? Why are you not more concerned about your soul and what God thinks about your life? Why do you find it so easy to concentrate on virtually anything else but the judgment of God when there are so many intimations of that judgment around you everyday?

Don’t think crudely of the metaphors used in Holy Scripture to describe divine judgment, but consider the judgment they are intended to describe: not fire searing flesh but the fruitless dwelling on wasted opportunities; not the lash of the whip but alienation from other human beings and especially from God himself.

In his very fine book on heaven and hell, Harry Blamires, first a student of C.S. Lewis and later a colleague, used a then recent newspaper account to depict the nature of punishment in the world to come: what Jesus referred to here as being cast into prison never to be released, as violent death, and as being cut down.

The story he tells is of a British physician who was found guilty of murder and attempted murder. Blamires calls him simply Dr. X. He had begun to tire of his first wife, Alice, when a woman doctor, Jean, joined his medical practice. Jean was attractive and Dr. X fell for her. But Jean resisted his advances because he was a married man. So Dr. X took his wife Alice on a holiday to Spain, gave her a lethal injection, and convinced a local doctor that she had died of a heart attack and had her buried there. Dr. X returned to England and soon married Jean. He was able to set up a new, larger home with her on the proceeds of Alice’s substantial insurance policy. It was not long before Dr. X frightened his new wife by confiding to her that he had sacrificed Alice to his love for Jean, apparently thinking that she would want to know this. Fact is, strange to say, she didn’t immediately run to the police. Shortly thereafter he took out a large life insurance policy on Jean.

His ambitions for greater things soon put to death his love for Jean and he planned a second murder. He carefully orchestrated events to make it the “perfect” crime. He gave her an injection to render her unconscious, drove her far from home, hid her body in a remote place in dense undergrowth, then slit her throat with sufficient surgical skill to ensure that her death would come only after many hours had elapsed, giving him an opportunity to get home and establish an alibi for himself. It would appear that his wife had been abducted and murdered by person or persons unknown.

But then things began to go wrong. There was a heavy frost which dried up the flow of blood from Jean’s throat. By a remarkable fluke a naturalist came along examining the undergrowth as part of a project to track the badger population. He found Jean and called the police. She was taken to hospital and eventually recovered. When she told her story to the police, they had Alice’s body exhumed and determined that the actual cause of her death had been a lethal injection of morphine. We have only to imagine Dr. X in prison, his deeds recoiling on him, not from a sense of guilt or remorse for what he had done but from his agonized reflection on how it was that his careful planning had so terribly unraveled. What after all is wailing and gnashing of teeth if not fruitless dwelling on wasted opportunities? If only there had been no frost; if only that stupid naturalist hadn’t happened by that particular spot at that very time; if only… Fool that he was, he should have finished Jean off and left no chance of her living to tell the tale. Why had he told her of his murdering Alice? Why hadn’t he had his first wife cremated instead of buried? If only… If only… How terrible the past must be to those who are compelled to relive it as one failure, one stupid mistake after another. How did I land myself in this everlasting sorrow? How terrible the past can be to relive even if one has no sense of his or her own real guilt and even if there is no real remorse for evil done.

There he sits, year after year; bitterly resenting the fact that he hadn’t seen this coming as he should have. Well, you see, the spectacular case helps us see the point. That’s why the Lord uses a massacre in Jerusalem and a public catastrophe in Samaria. But, of course, he wasn’t speaking only about murderers and notorious criminals. He was speaking about and speaking to every man, every woman. For we have all wasted our lives, we have all lived for ourselves and not for either God or our neighbor, we have all both done what God forbids and failed to do what he commands and that every day we have lived in this world. And we have equally ignored all the signs the Lord gave us of what is to come.

Listen carefully to the Judge himself say to us that not a one of us can excuse himself on that great day by claiming that he had no idea that he would have to answer for his sins. No idea? The world we live in rings with judgment and with premonitions of judgment to come. The world we live in every day is the best evidence there is of the necessity of our repentance and our faith in God lest we too perish.

But it would be useless to know this unless there were some way to escape this judgment. The reason Jesus spoke of it as much and as solemnly as it did was precisely because he is the means, the only means, of our rescue, of our reconciliation with the One who will someday pass judgment on our lives.

It is only the man or woman who knows there is a way to stand in God’s judgment who can face squarely the reality of that judgment.  No matter your sins, if the judge is determined to acquit you because he has himself already paid your debt, you have nothing to fear from the fact that you, as all mankind, must appear before the judgment seat of God.

If the Master is giving you another year before you are cut down, don’t delay bearing fruit. And what is that fruit? Repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ.