(a sermon for March 24, 2019, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, based on Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)
“Pastor, I would like to have a talk with you about your sermon.”
Friends, let me just say from personal experience that there’s hardly ever anything good that follows a statement like that! And so it was on this particular morning when a parishioner from the church I was serving at the time came to confront me – in Christian love, of course (!) – as to her great displeasure with my message from the Sunday before. I do not think of myself as a Pharisee, she began; and I don’t appreciate your intimation that I am some sort of vain sinner! Furthermore, she went on, I don’t come to church so you can tell me what I’m doing wrong in my life; I want to know that I’m doing everything right! I want to leave worship on a Sunday feeling warm and fuzzy and as though in the midst of everything in this life I’ve done pretty well, and maybe even doing just a bit better than everybody else! I don’t want, nor do I really need you to tell me to repent!
Well… I thanked her for her feedback; told her how much I appreciated her honesty and that I was sorry she was upset; offered to give her a printed copy of the message so perhaps she could prayerfully reflect on it all a bit longer; and then I urged her to return next Sunday when perhaps the message would be, well… warmer, and fuzzier.
Honest; that’s what I actually said to her! Of course, if I am being honest, how I really wanted to respond to that – gently and yes, with all Christian love – was to say, have you read the bible? Do you even know Jesus? I mean, talk about the need for having ears to hear the gospel; it ain’t all about “the warm and fuzzy,” you know! There is more to our Christian faith, after all, than simply manger scenes and Easter eggs and sheep safely grazing in green pastures! There’s also the matter of redemption, about the fallen nature of humanity and of sin; you can’t just ignore that!
Well, at least that’s what I wanted to say (and thank you for letting me get that out!), and yet… I also have to confess, all these years later, that I do kind of understand where she was coming from! A lot of it comes from the nature of the word itself: repent! For a lot of us who’ve grown up in the church, this word repent immediately brings forth the image of some sharp-tongued preacher standing in a pulpit or from the television screen, shaking a judgmental finger and threatening that unless “unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!” (KJV) Never mind that this is not the tone by which we usually proclaim that portion of the gospel, at least not in our tradition of faith; but truth be told that’s the image of church and Christianity that a whole lot of folks carry with them! And I’ll grant you, the words do sound harsh, it feels utterly judgmental and in all honesty, that parishioner was correct in pointing out that it’s not what we want to hear when we come to worship on a Sunday morning (at least not when we feel like it’s been directed at us!).
But here’s the problem: biblically speaking and in terms of the meaning of our Christian faith, it’s not inaccurate.
Consider our gospel text for this morning, in which Jesus is asked about a recent event involving some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” which, though we don’t know the exact set of circumstances, appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman Governor. Moreover, at about the same time, there had been a structural collapse – without warning and wholly accidental, apparently – and this “tower of Siloam” fell and killed eighteen people. And so now, in the aftermath of all this and in the midst of their grief there’s people coming to Jesus and asking a perfectly legitimate question: why? Why would such a bad thing happen to good people; or rather, Jesus, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Did this happen, God forbid, because they… well, deserved it?
And Jesus answers them in a very interesting way: “Do [I] think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all.” [The Message] But, says Jesus, “unless you repent, you will all perish like they did.” Oh, and those eighteen people who died in the tower accident? They weren’t any better or worse than than your average Jerusalemite; but “I tell you… unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
And there it is, not once but twice in five verses: Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!
I love how Matthew Skinner at Lutheran Seminary reacts to these verses in Luke: “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling? Not here. This time it’s loudly and pointedly.” Suddenly it’s not about why bad things happen, nor about how “the godless will be struck by an asteroid,” and definitely not about how the fact that we haven’t yet been struck down is evidence of a special blessing. No, what Jesus is talking about here is the need for us to repent of our sins and to do it now… before it’s too late.
No wonder that woman was upset with me – or with Jesus, actually – because no matter how you hear it, there’s an admonition that cannot help but hit us right between the eyes. I mean, Jesus, is that really true? Am I really all that bad of a person that I am quite literally one misdeed away from a major catastrophe? What about forgiveness, Jesus? What about the love you have for all the little children, of which I am one? Surely, when you say that “unless you repent, you’ll die,” you’re not talking about… me?
Apparently, yes… and therein lies the challenge of this text, and indeed, of our very faith. But let me suggest to you, friends, that it’s also our good news.
You see, as Jesus often does, he follows this call to repentance with a parable: the story of a man, his vineyard and an utterly barren fig tree. In biblical times, and even to this day, fig trees were often planted in the midst of vineyard gardens for the sake of its always delicious and usually very abundant fruit. However, as Jesus tells the story, this particular fig tree had yet to produce any kind of fruit for three years now, and it’s not seeming likely that this is going to change anytime soon. All this tree is really doing is taking up space in the soil and sucking up valuable water in the vineyard! And so, as any wise gardener would suggest, the time had come to cut this barren fig down; to tear down its roots and perhaps start afresh with a new seedling, one that might actually grow to bear fruit. This tree’s done nothing, so hack it down!
But no… as Jesus tells the story, the vinedresser says otherwise: “’Sir,’” he says, “’let it alone for one more year, until I did around it and’” put…. [fertilizer!]… on it, and “’if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not you can cut it down.’”
A reprieve! And, might I add, an opportunity.
Turns out that Jesus’ story isn’t as much about judgment and punishment as it is mercy! That useless, withered fig tree could have easily and legitimately been destroyed, and yet it isn’t; it’s given another chance to grow and to become fruitful. Turns out that this is a story all about expectation, “the expectation,” writes James Lemler, an Episcopal priest and writer from Connecticut, “of a radical change and turning about of things.” Because make no mistake, it’s not simply that the barren fig tree is saved from destruction, it’s that now there’s an expectation that next year things will be different. “The tree must change. It must produce fruit by this time next year – or else.”
Same with you, says Jesus. You’ve got the opportunity here; you’ve been given that second, third, and fourth chance to grow and to finally bear the fruit of life and faith, but now what matters is what you do with that: and unless you repent, change, turn around and do what needs to be done to bear that fruit, just like any other barren, lifeless fig tree that’s taking up space in the garden, you’ll perish!
What’s interesting, you know, is that most often when we in the church talk about repentance, we’re kind of thinking apology! You know, referring to the deep regret we feel over our transgressions, about moving from egregious sin to moral uprightness, about making that 180-degree turn from where we’ve been to where we’re headed; which, actually, in some places in scripture is an accurate definition: it’s the Greek word metanoia, which translates as turning around completely. But here when Jesus talks about repentance, he’s not merely speaking of changing your direction but also, and primarily, changing your mind, and your heart, and your soul, and your life. James Lemler again: Jesus’ call to repentance was a plea “to turn to the God who loves and redeems his people. He wanted them to change their minds and their lives to reflect the compassion and care that God had given to them. And he wanted them to bear fruit: the fruits of repentance, of new life in God and God’s love – the fruits of grace, joy, hope, and peace.”
Friends, it’s about being on the journey of life and living, doing things the way you’ve always done them regardless of the consequence or even of its futility; but then, all at once, changing your mind and going another way that you know is going to be the better pathway. Repentance is simply, and not so simply, changing your mind; or, as Frederick Beuchner has beautifully said, it is “to come to your senses. It is not,” he writes, “so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”
Repent, says Jesus, or else you’ll perish. Change your mind, because if you don’t, very soon you’ll be headed in a direction you don’t want to go. Turn around, and take a different pathway, because right now you’re going nowhere fast. Come to your senses, otherwise you might well lose yourself, and you’ll miss everything that is to come and what, by God’s grace and infinite love, has been promised and is even now being set before you.
“Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!”
So… here’s Jesus, simply sitting there, quietly and patiently, waiting for us to respond to what’s he said to us. That’s the thing about Jesus, you know – and by extension, that’s the thing about preaching his gospel – he’s waiting for us to give an answer to what he’s said. Sometimes it’s not about the “warm and fuzzy,” with everything all tied up in a nice purple bow for Lent; sometimes Jesus’ words just hang in the air before us and we end up leaving this place today wondering… how we’re supposed to respond and what happens next.
I wonder as we’re sitting here this morning about the ways our minds and hearts need to change; I wonder about the fruit that we haven’t borne. Have we failed to acknowledge the reality of the living God even when we’ve known just how much we’ve yearned and hungered for that presence and power in our lives? Are there mistakes or transgressions – no, let’s call them exactly what they are – is there sin in our lives that has gone unconfessed? And by the same token, is there forgiveness that we’ve refused to accept… or to give? Is our behavior – our attitudes, our language, our treatment of others, our priorities, our practice of everyday life – is it less than it should be as one who has been named and claimed as a child of God? Has what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been living proven to unite those around us or is it divisive; does it make for peace or does it create injustice; is it about love or something else; but most importantly, does it honor God and model his son Jesus, and does it further the work of his kingdom?
If not, I would say that the time has come to consider changing our mind, and our hearts, and our lives; because, hard as it may be for us to hear, the time for that kind of change won’t last forever.
And besides, why wouldn’t you want to? In the words of Isaiah: “Why do you send your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy… incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live… seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”
The time and the opportunity for repentance is now, beloved. May it be for each of us time well spent and…
…may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.