Repent! (March 24, 2019)
Does it strike you as much as it should? When you hear about a death that should not have happened. When you hear about a church shooting, a person taking the life of another. It seems they are occurring more and more frequently. They are occurring close to home. Does it strike you with a punch to the gut as you think, “This should not be”? It shouldn’t happen this way. What do you turn to? How do you explain such things?
In Jesus’ day, they had a way to cope with such tragedy – a way to explain away, or justify, such things. They reasoned that this person must have been a worse sinner than others. They must have done something really terrible that God would punish them in this way. Most people in Jesus day had this mentality. So they approached Jesus with a recent event, Pilate killing some Galileans offering sacrifices in worship. They came to Jesus looking for an explanation, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” (Lk 3:2). But Jesus says, “I tell you no” (Lk 13:3). The sad fact is that sometimes bad things happen to good people. In fact, by going contrary to the thinking of his day, by saying it’s not because of some special sin, Jesus was emphasizing the tragedy of this event – that Pilate would enter a place of worship and slaughter those there like animals. It’s tragic. It’s shocking. It’s the pungent stench of the persecution in their time. It should sting the nostrils and knock the wind out of you.
To emphasize his point even further, Jesus brings up another, perhaps more familiar event. A tower fell and killed 18 people. Was this because they were worse sinners than all the rest in Jerusalem? In that case this disaster could at least have been justified. In that case we could find some semblance of solace. But once again Jesus says, “I tell you no” (Lk 13:5). There’s no justification for it, no reason. It’s tragic. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes bad things just happen.
In fact, won’t we all meet a similar fate one day? Maybe it won’t be at the hands of evil people or the result of a tragic disaster, but won’t we all die one day? And whether it’s due to violence, an accident, or natural causes the underlying reason, the actual reason, is because of sin. Not this person more than this person. Or that person was really bad. It’s sin in every single one of us and sin in the world around us. It’s not supposed to be this way. God didn’t create a bad world. Sin did. We did, because of our own sin. Yes, it’s sad. Yes, it’s tragic. There is no reason except the sin that infects every one of us. Sin, no matter how great or small leads to tragedy in this world and will one day lead to our very own tragic death.
Just because it’s bad and tragic, however, doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything good from it. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of our own mortal state. Every death we encounter should be like a punch to the gut or a slap in the face reminding us to wake up! Reminding us of our need to be rescued, our need to be saved… our need to repent. Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Lk 13:3,5). Repent, or you too will meet a terrible end. Because it’s not just the physicality of death that makes it a terrible end. No, what is even more tragic than death itself is the eternal separation from God that any sin earns us – that any sin deserves. Is it a little lie to spare yourself? Is it gossip to ruin someone else? Is it unbridled hatred or the consuming fire of lust? No matter the sin, “unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Lk 13:3,5). What is truly tragic is the death of any unrepentant sinner. The tragic events of this life should serve as a sobering reminder to us every time it happens for the need to repent. Repentance is the only escape from an even worse fate that these. Worse than becoming the victim of a tragic accident. Worse than being slaughtered by a mad man.
There is good news, though. And that good news takes the form of a parable – a story that Jesus tells to teach a lesson. “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Lk 13:6-9). Good news? Where’s the good news in that?! They’re talking about cutting down a tree and I know the tree is me! The good news is that the tree is still there. After the first harvest, and seeing no fruit, the owner did not just cut it down. Even after the second year, he did not cut it down!
The good news is, you are still here. You still have time. You are alive today. The decision of the fig tree owner wasn’t a hasty one. God is patient. He is longsuffering. He wants to see you turn to him so that you can bear fruit! You are alive today. You can repent today. You can turn to God today and be spared from that truly tragic fate of dying in unbelief and condemnation for sin. That’s what repentance actually means. It simply means turning – turning to God as the source of your salvation.
“God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor 10:13), so that you can stand up under it. And isn’t one of those ways we stand after temptation in turning to God in repentance? Turning to God so that he can take away the burden of guilt and forgive the debt of sin? A beautiful picture of how merciful God is, is found in the first reading (Ex 3:1-15), in the burning bush. “Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up” (Ex 3:2). The fire of God’s blazing holiness surrounded the bush, yet did not consume it. God then commanded, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Ex 3:5). Flames of fire that did not consume. Ground too holy for sandals, but not for sinful flesh. God appearing in power, but calling himself the LORD, a name which means “free and faithful love.” This is your God. A patient and loving God, not wanting anyone to perish.
Notice also that even when it is clear there will be no change, even after the owner gives the command to cut down the tree, you have one who steps in on your behalf! You have one who intercedes for you and gives you more time and a fighting chance! This intercessor digs around you, churning up the soil and adding nutrients, water and fertilizer. He wants to see you thrive in faith. He does everything it takes to give you the best possible chance of coming alive and turning to God. Christ, your mediator, by the Holy Spirit working through Word and sacrament brings faith to life in your heart, so that you may be pleasing in God’s eyes. It’s a sobering warning that there is a time limit. Everyone dies one day – some even unexpectedly. But God is patient, long beyond what we deserve, and gives you more time. More time for faith to grow. More time to come to him. More time to be saved.
In fact, he gives you more in his own death than you could ever imagine. When considering tragic deaths – by accident, by Pilate’s hand, or even the tragedy of natural death – don’t overlook Jesus’ death too quickly. Don’t skip over it and jump right to Easter. If any death needs an explanation, it’s the death of Jesus. Sinless and holy. Son of God – eternal God in the flesh! Why did he have to die? It certainly isn’t because of sin. That wouldn’t make sense for Jesus. And yet, he did die because of sin. Not his own. But for every single one of yours. And for every single one of mine. And for every single sin of the entire world. In fact, when considering the terrors of Jesus’ crucifixion – that terrible way to die – “do you think that he was a worse sinner than all others?” In a sense you could say yes. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). His is the most tragic death, and yet at the same time the most beautiful for those who know their sins – for those who know that all their sins were laid on him – for those who were rescued from a tragic death, by his loving death.
He died, so that you could live. “If it bears fruit next year, good!” (Lk 13:9). Jesus did what it takes to bring your dead branches to life. Your heavenly Father looks for that fruit of faith – that fruit which is evidence of a connection to Christ. And this looking isn’t just a glance out the livingroom window. It’s a searching for – going out to the tree, letting his fingertips touch the leaves, combing through each branch for the tiniest hint of a bud. That’s the idea packed into this word for “looking for fruit.” It’s a careful and patient searching – a searching with hopeful expectation. And it’s what your God does for you. He made you alive through Christ. He eagerly searches your life for the fruits of repentance. He looks for that love and patience, learned from him, put into action in your life. Not because these fruits of faith are what save you, but because these fruits are evidence of living faith, true faith in the Living One who died and rose for you.