Lent 3C Sermon (2013)

3rd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 13:1-9;
Isaiah 55:1-9


A surprising fruit of modern medicine has been the increase in near-death experiences — people whose hearts stop, but then are revived. As a pastor, I’ve been privileged through the years that more than a few parishioners have shared their stories with me. But those who have had such experiences are by no means just church folks. And interviews with those who have experienced death and come back create an unusual witness for the church: the God who meets us on the other side of death appears to be a God eager to embrace us with loving mercy, and not one who is quick to punish or condemn. The population of those experiencing near-death is hugely diverse — by no means a majority of orthodox believers in Jesus. And the experiences shared by this diverse group of folks are remarkably similar.

Since Dr. Raymond Moody’s original research, (1) there has been a growing acceptance that approximately half of those who return from clinical death remember a near-death experience that is similar, despite varying religious and cultural backgrounds. Listen to this typical account:

A dying woman hears her doctor pronounce her dead while feeling herself sucked rapidly through a long, dark tunnel. She then finds herself outside her physical body, looking down on the doctors still trying to resuscitate her. She experiences herself as having a spiritual body which is very different from her physical body, like a floating amorphous cloud that communicates by thought. Relatives and friends who have already died come to meet her and bring her to a “Being of Light” who accepts and loves her more deeply than she has ever experienced. Like a magnet drawn to iron, she is drawn to the personal acceptance and compassion of this dazzling Being of Light.

Shortly after appearing, the Being of Light asks the question, “What have you done with your life to show me?” This question isn’t accusing or threatening, but rather is pervaded with total love and acceptance, no matter what the answer. The non-judgmental Being of Light helps the dying person answer the question by presenting a panoramic review that is like a film of the individual’s whole life. This review is meant to provoke reflection. The Being seems to know all and is displaying the review so that the dying person can understand two things: how she loved others and how she learned through her experiences and mistakes. Only when a person learns how she has loved, and how she can deepen her love, does the Being ask her if she would like to stay or return to earth. Although many would like to stay in the next world, all who have returned to tell of their experience have finally decided with the Being of Light that they still have a mission to fulfill on earth, such as raising their young children or giving others the total acceptance radiated by the Being of Light.

Those who return from such experiences bring a new and enduring desire to love others and to grow in self-knowledge. They also have less fear of death because they no longer fear God’s judgment. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross reports that meeting such a non-judgmental God helps these people to live non-judgmentally. For instance, after a near-death experience a minister could not continue as pastor of his church. He was enveloped in such a total love upon encountering the Being of Light that he could no longer teach condemnation in the way his denomination demanded.

Here’s the thing: becoming peaceful about the nature and meaning of our deaths helps us to live our lives with greater meaning and peace. That’s what I think today’s Gospel is about. People are confused! The crowd seeks out Jesus, because they want to hear what he has to say about Pilate killing Galileans in the temple while they were making sacrificial offerings. The crowd seems to see these deaths as somehow justified because they believe in a god who punishes sinners with such violence. Jesus disagrees and even ups the ante. He shares the news of eighteen people who were accidentally killed when a tower collapsed on them, and asks the crowd if they were worse offenders than others. In other words, were the 18 killed in the tower collapse more sinful than other people living in Jerusalem? Were the Galileans killed in the temple more sinful than other Galileans? In both cases, Jesus answers, ‘No, it’s not about the sin or the offense. And unless you change your way of thinking, you’ll die the same way.’ A strange answer, right?

I think Jesus is pointing to the kind of God we expect to meet when we die. The crowd that comes to Jesus seems to expect to meet a wrathful God who punishes sin. But Jesus tells them, No — change your way of thinking, or you’ll die expecting to meet the same punishing God.

People who’ve gone through near-death experiences tell us the same thing Jesus came to tell us about God — that God is merciful. And the sooner we learn this the better. It’s not just about that moment of death. It’s about how you live your life leading up to that moment. If you expect to meet a judgmental god, you may live your entire life judging yourself and others. But if you expect to be met by a gracious and merciful God who helps you live with grace and mercy toward others, you will probably live your life being gracious and merciful to others. And which kind of life bears the fruit that Jesus came to nurture?

Jesus tries to help us understand this through the parable of the fig tree. There’s an owner who seems anxious to cut down the trees that don’t bear fruit. If this owner is meant to represent God, then it’s the god who’s anxious to punish sin. Jesus himself is the gardener who graciously buys more time for the tree and then nurtures it with his gracious mercy. Will the tree now bear fruit? Jesus doesn’t give us the ending. As he so often does, he leaves the ending up to us. Will we bear fruit? And if we do bear fruit, will it be in response to threats of the owner to cut us down? Or in response to the gracious and loving care of the gardener? How is it that you and I will bear the fruit Jesus came nurture? We can answer that question again this week with our lives, after we are fed at Jesus’ table. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 3, 2013

1. Citing Raymond Moody and the next several paragraphs are based on Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn, pp. 63-65.

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