Luke 13:1-9, Romans 7:15-25a
“A man borrowed a book from an acquaintance. As he read through it, he was intrigued to find parts of the book underlined with the letters YBH written in the margin. When he returned the book to the owner, he asked what the YBH meant. The owner replied that the underlined paragraphs were sections of the book that he basically agreed with. They gave him hints on how to improve himself and pointed out truths that he wished to incorporate into his life. However, the letters YBH stood for ‘Yes, but how?’”
When I was in seminary in Waterloo, Ontario, I took courses in homiletics. That’s just a fancy word for those classes that taught us future preachers how to preach. And we would take turns each week preaching our well-prepared sermons to the class, and then the class would critique the sermons.
And whenever we made statements in our sermons that talked about being disciples of Jesus Christ – or, I don’t know – loving one another – ultimately someone would say, “I agree with what you said – but you never said anything about how – and what I was waiting to hear – was how. You never told me how I am to do what you said I should do.”
We all have those “Yes, but how?” questions. For instance – I think we all know – at least I hope we know – that we need to care of ourselves body, mind and spirit. So it’s one thing to know that – but the question you might ask is, “Yes, but how?”
“I know I ought to eat right and exercise more. I know I ought to spend more time reading the Bible and praying; I know I ought to love my neighbor, treat my wife and kids with greater love and respect, be a more compassionate and understanding person. I know all that. The question is how.”
I want to talk to you today about the “Yes, but how?” question. And just one spoiler alert. I cannot promise that I will – by the end of this sermon – have answered all of your “Yes, but how?” questions. But I suspect that as Christians, we all know – to some extent or another – that we ought to be – and quite frankly, when I’m preaching I hate to say to you – you ought to be this or you should be doing that. But sometimes we do beat ourselves up – and we to ourselves – I know I ought to be – I know I should be –a better Christian. And I will tell you that I know that many of you – maybe even most of you –I know that you are doing the best you can.
And because – for the most part – most of us are doing the best we can – I’m not certain that we like to hear what Jesus is saying to us this [evening] [morning]. The story Jesus tells is called the Parable of the Fig Tree. And in it, the owner of the tree wants to cut the tree down, because it isn’t yet bearing any fruit. But the caretaker – the gardener – in essence asks for mercy for the tree. He asks for patience from the owner. “Let’s give it some time. Let me fertilize it, prune it a little, make sure it’s adequately watered. Give it another year. Give it more time.”
What I’m hearing in this lesson is that Jesus is asking two things of us. He’s saying, number one, that we ought to repent and, number two, that we should bear good fruit. Okay – there’s those two words again. Ought and should. And of course the question we might very well ask again at this juncture is: “Yes, but how?”
Our second reading today is from Romans 7. Now, again, I am so glad that this chapter is in the Bible. Paul is the author of this, and he’s wrestling with what I think so many of us wrestle with. “How? How can I be everything God wants me to be – when there is this war going on inside of me? I want to do God's will – I want to live the right kind of life now that I am a Christian – but there’s still something else going on inside of me that makes me a slave to sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Sound like anybody you know? Sound like you? “Repent,” Jesus says. “Acknowledge your sinfulness.” Yeah. When it comes to repentance – I think it is really helpful if we can acknowledge that there is this kind of war going on inside of us.
However, let me suggest that this is always the first step in answering the, “Yes, but how?” question – the first step in beginning to live the Christian life. And that is to repent of those things that you have done wrong. And then realize that as a Christian – as a disciple of Jesus Christ – you don’t have to be perfect.
Listen! I don’t expect any of you to be perfect. And having said that about my expectations for all of you – can somebody tell me why I often have perfectionist expectations of myself? Isn’t it enough to know that God loves me? That I am forgiven? And therefore – I don’t have to worry about being perfect – because I’m never going to be perfect? There. I said it.
And what’s more – moms – dads – can we let go of expecting perfection in those kiddos God gave us to love and to nurture? They’re no more perfect than you are – and we shouldn’t expect them to be. But they are just as forgiven – just as loved – just as treasured – by God as you are.
So let’s not fall into the trap of perfection. Because a perfect person doesn’t need God. A perfect person doesn’t need to repent. A perfect person doesn’t need Jesus Christ. But we know that we do need Jesus. We need Jesus because we know that – we’re not perfect. We really don’t always have it all together.
And therefore, Jesus says repent. Repentance is just another way of saying that I accept that I am not perfect – but that indeed I am need of forgiveness. And in that recognition, I turn to you God. For mercy, pardon, and forgiveness. How? Simply admit that you have failed. Don’t deny it, and don’t try to cover it up! God knows the truth. The Bible says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
Listen! We’re all in the same boat! Saint Augustine said, “Whatever we are, we are not what we ought to be.” And I love what that great theologian Mark Twain had to say about this when he wrote, “Man was made at the end of the week, when God was tired.”
So the first step – and the ongoing steps that Christians take – is to confess our sins before God. And you know what? Remember the Scripture I quoted to you just a few seconds ago? “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”? Well, that comes from I John chapter 1. The verse that follows says this: “But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Did you hear that? God forgives you! God cleanses you from all unrighteousness. God is faithful – God keeps His promise to forgive.
Let’s get back to the parable of the fig tree. The owner was willing to give it more time – give it another year. If Jesus is calling us to repent – His parable of the fig tree tells us something about who God is. God is patient with us. God is merciful. And yet – at the same time – God does expect that as followers of His Son Jesus Christ – God expects that we will bear good fruit. And that brings us to the second part of our lesson today – the call to us to bear good fruit.
Now – I’m going out on a limb here. I suspect that most of us have no trouble asking God for forgiveness – but just don’t ask me to change. However – the reality is is that God might very well have to do some reconstructive surgery – on our hearts – on our attitudes – on our wills – on our beliefs – when we admit that we are sinners.
You’ve heard it said, I’m sure, that God loves you just the way you are. And that is a true statement. However, it is also an incomplete statement. God loves you just the way you are – but God loves you too much to let you stay that way. There’s a reason why God wants to touch your heart and change your life. It’s so you might bear fruit.
Again, back to the parable. When Jesus tells the parable of the Fig Tree – he’s talking about you and me being fruitful for the Kingdom. He’s not asking us to produce apples when all that we are made for is to produce figs. Each one of us has different gifts. We were blessed in different ways with different talents and abilities and resources that we bring to the table. (Give examples of what that means.)
And here’s the wonderful thing. We CAN bear fruit. Through the gifts and talents that God has given us – we can use these for the glory of God – for the benefit of others – and for our own good.
So when you need an answer to the, “Yes, but how?” question – especially as we’re talking about the Christian life. Just remember that the Christian life begins with – and is characterized by – confession and forgiveness. And please know that God forgives. Because, remember what Paul said? “I do the very thing that I hate. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me – who will deliver me – who will free me – from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
So the Christian life begins with confession – and continues as we bear fruit for the Kingdom of God. And it’s all because of Jesus. Because in Jesus Christ we are set free from sin. Free from worry. Free from guilt. Free from despair. In Jesus Christ, you are set free to be the person God made you to be. Amen