Dear friends in Christ! From Times Square to the smallest homes, 2011 was ushered in with great fanfare. The old year is gone, never to return and 2011 comes in with all sorts of hope, promise and revelry. Many gathered together or quietly in their homes welcomed in the New Year. Many spent yesterday relaxing and enjoying the first day of what they hope will be a great year that’s just beginning; some spent the day recovering from the revelry and frivolity of the previous night. Although the world around us spent the change in the year with revelry and frivolity, it is good for us to see the change in the year also as a time for great introspection. Yes, we welcome the New Year, but we do so not with frivolity but in all seriousness. This year and each day in it is a gift and grace from God and is to be recognized as such. Therefore we enter the New Year with both seriousness and joy.
1. Here’s where our text comes in to help us in welcoming in 2011 in the right way—with seriousness and joy. There were present at that time some who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans showed themselves to be worse sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered such things?” Here, right at the beginning of our New Year, we are confronted with the reality, the unpleasant reality, that we are sinners in a sinful world. Current examples, like this of Pilate’s brutality, will come soon enough to us via the newspaper or television.
Because we are sinners living in a sinful world, we will enter the New Year soberly. We will not enter it with the expectation thinking that this will be the best year ever. It may be better in some regards than other years; but it may also be worse in some regards than others. Just as we read of Pilate’s brutality in our text, so we also read: Or those 18 on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them. The simple point is that in the New Year, there will be brutality and there will be very sad disasters; we are sinners living in a sinful world. We cannot expect anything new or different until Christ comes on the Last Day; then it will be different. Until then, it is as Paul writes [Rm 8.19 AAT]: For the created world is waiting on tip toe to see the unveiling of God’s sons.
Perhaps some will claim that it is a discouraging/depressing thought to think that as much as things change, they stay the same. But that’s the result of us sinners living in a sinful world. Because we are sinners living in a sinful world is why we enter the New Year with great seriousness; that’s why we don’t get caught up in all the frivolity of the world; that’s why we don’t get caught up in the various “isms”--communism, materialism, environmentalism, etc-- that come about where people try to make this world their heaven, try to restore paradise to this world. Ultimately, they all have, and they all will end in utter failure. Yet, grounded in the reality that we are sinners in a sinful world, keeps us from getting all worked up when we see all the foolishness and sin around us.
When those people told Jesus about Pilate’s brutality against the Galileans, perhaps they were trying to get Jesus riled up—after all, the Galileans were His own countrymen; perhaps they were trying to incite Jesus to join the nationalists in opposing the hated Roman rule. Does Jesus get worked up over this? No, instead He gives them a new admonition to repent of their sin.
It’s not that the cutesy saying on the foil wrapper of the Dove chocolate stating: A pessimist is an optimist with experience should be our motto entering the year. Instead we enter the New Year with all seriousness certain of the Scriptural truth that we are sinners in a sinful world. That will help us keep our bearings, lest we get rocked to and fro, hearing as we will the bad things that will happen this New Year. When we hear of tragedy, we will see what we can to do help those in need and suffering; we will see that as an opportunity to do good works pointing to the Lord. In all the steadiness of faith we will carry on, not trying to do the impossible of making heaven on earth; but by our works of love and mercy flowing from faith we will try to bring a bit of heaven to earth.
B. As we enter the New Year with all seriousness, we will recognize that yes there will be suffering—both in the world and in my life personally. Again notice Jesus’ question: Or those 18 on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will likewise perish. Notice: Jesus doesn’t answer the question why. Instead, he calls on those who hear of it to repent.
When we meet suffering and hardship, when we hear of disasters and sufferings of others, let us be reminded that the suffering in the world is the result of sin. Such events are sermons warning all people that because we are sinners, we will die. The punishments God allows us to be afflicted with must serve His gracious purposes; the ravages are used by God in the interest of His saving goodness. In the case of unbelievers, God allows these sufferings, these punishments for sin with the intent of bringing the people to Him. The Christian endures the suffering, this correction from God Who disciplines and trains us now so that we may be spared His wrath and punishment in eternity. In the midst of suffering, we Christians recognize that we are sinners; we recognize that our sins have earned us an even greater and more severe punishment or discipline than we are enduring; we never ask what we did to deserve it—because we know: we are sinners who have rebelled against and broken God’s holy and righteous law. So when suffering, discipline God intends for our good comes upon us, we will not be shook; we will not be surprised; but we will see God’s gracious hand working for our spiritual good. We will not enter the New Year frivolously thinking that it will be all happy and care-free, but instead with all seriousness, knowing that the Lord will be working in it, even disciplining us, for our spiritual good.
C. Jesus twice says in our text: But unless you repent you will all likewise perish. All people need to repent. The people Jesus meets in our text seem to have suffered from the notion that those Galileans killed by Pilate in the temple or those on whom the tower fell showed themselves to be worse sinners than the others. Jesus’ response is a definite: no! On top of that, by saying: But unless you repent you will all likewise perish, Jesus makes it personal and makes it clear—all people need to repent. These people were not necessarily worse than others, so instead of looking at others and speculating about their sins, Jesus tells us to focus on our own spiritual condition and to hear these sermons preached by these tragedies and apply them to self. With this in mind, what better time than the beginning of the year to do what Christ here says in our text –to look over our life and repent?
The New Year is a new beginning. We enter it in all seriousness as we look back over the last year/s and see our sin and are sorry for our sin. We are sorry over our sin as we realize that it is rebellion against the Lord and His holy will, that by it we have grieved the Lord, that by it we have angered Him and shut heaven to us.
But the second, and main, part of repentance is faith—faith in God’s promise to forgive us all our sin for Jesus’ sake; trust that Jesus kept all of God’s holy Law for us; trust in Him that He paid the price for our sin by His suffering and death on the cross; trust that He rose from the dead victorious over our spiritual enemies and ascended into heaven to open it for us. Repentance—sorrow over sin and trust in Jesus and His work—a glorious way to enter the New Year!
2. Precisely as we enter the New Year with repentance, we then enter it with true joy. Will the New Year be like the others? Absolutely, in so many ways! Will there be more of the same old, same old? Yes! Will sorrow and hardship come this year? Most likely. But entering the New Year with repentance, we begin it in the greatest possible joy because we know that in Christ Jesus we are reconciled to God, that things are right between us and God, that we are His dear children and He our dear heavenly Father Who is working all things for our good!
So then, dear Christian, let this New Year be a near year of God’s grace to us that we enjoy and make use of! Our text: "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, 'Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it make the ground idle?' 8 But he answered and said to him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. 9 And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.' " Let each of us see ourselves as that fig tree in the vineyard. In His grace, the Lord came to us and in holy baptism planted us in the vineyard of His Church. There He has all these many years fed us by His holy Word and Sacrament that we might have the fruit of faith and the good works that flow from faith. But very often, we sin and rebel against the Lord. We reject Him and His way and seek to do our own thing, following the devil and our old sinful nature. By our many sins, we have indeed earned nothing but His wrath and punishment. But instead of giving us what we deserve, He forgives us and shows us grace upon grace. Yes, rightly, God could come and say of each of us: Cut it down? Why should it make the ground idle? But Christ speaks for, interceded for each of His dear Christians: let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. That’s what this year is for us, another year of Christ coming to us in His holy Word and Sacrament, working in them by His Holy Spirit to create and strengthen faith. By His holy word of Law, He works in us a recognition of and a sorrow over our sin; by His holy word of Gospel He assures us and gives us the forgiveness of sins and peace and reconciliation with God. Each time we read, study, hear Scripture that is Christ, by His Holy Spirit, working on our hearts. Each time we receive the Sacrament that is Jesus giving us His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins; giving us the assurance that yes our sins are forgiven—here’s the proof: the very body that bore our sins and was cursed; the very blood that was shed to reconcile God.
That means that 2011 is also a year of God’s grace to us. Each year that passes for us is another year showing that God is patient and long-suffering with us, that His justice is tempered with mercy and patience. That’s why we can enter 2011 with joy—God will show us grace in it. With the ball dropping in Times Square, let us not just see the revelry and frivolity but let us also hear Christ interceding for us: Let it alone this year also until I dig around it and fertilize it; that is, show more grace again this New Year! So yes, come what may this New Year, be 2011 a year of great blessing for us or great suffering and sorrow, it is a year in which we again enjoy all of our Lord’s grace. It is a year in which Jesus will continue to work on us strengthening, deepening our faith; leading us into a life full of good works.
Let us then make full use of this time of grace in which Christ continues His saving work on us. Let His great grace so humble us that we cannot remain indifferent to it and so frustrate His patient working on our soul; instead, let us recognize and repent of our sin and cling all the more to Jesus’ work to save us. We enter this New Year with all seriousness knowing that we are sinners living in a sinful world who need repentance; but we also enter it with all joy knowing we have a gracious God who for Christ’s sake is patient with us; and we enter it with the joy that Jesus will continue to work on our hearts. INJ Amen.