Repent: Re-turning and Re-cognizing

Luke 13:1-9 / Lent 3C / 04 March 2013 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

If the season of Lent could be summarized in a single word, that word would be “Repent.” In the Hebrew OT “shuv” – turn back, turn around. In the Greek NT, “metanoia” – rethink, re-cognize, come to a new mind. There is a sense of jumping tracks – from wickedness to righteousness, from death to life, from condemnation to forgiveness.

Usually, we think repentance is for everyone else. Those “sinners” out there. Those “godless” immoral and wicked people. But interestingly, all the calls of repentance in today’s reading are directed to the insiders, to God’s people, to Israel and the Church, to you and me. One of Israel’s big mistakes was to think they had an automatic in with God. They were God’s chosen people, His nation, His treasured possession. They had the Torah, the temple, prophet, priest and king. They had Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses and Elijah and David. God took them through the Sea and through the wilderness to take over a land that didn’t belong to them. He granted them victory over their enemies, set them up with a land, a nation, a law. They figured, “we’re in no matter what.” And the Lord says, “Guess what? Repent!”

The Corinthian congregation thought the same thing. They were strong, “spiritual,” filled with knowledge, imbued with freedom. They had prophets and visions and speaking in tongues. They were a lively congregation, no doubt I’m sure successful and perhaps even popular. But they were the apostle Paul’s most challenging congregation. Divided among themselves. Caught up in their own self-centered spiritualities that had little to no room for repentance. And the apostle had to warn them repeatedly, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” Remember the Israelites who were baptized into Moses and drank from the rock who was Christ and yet 23,000 were destroyed in the wilderness for their faithless idolatry.

We tend to think that bad things happen to bad people, and when bad things happen, bad people must be responsible. Every time there is a disaster, whether natural or manmade, whether some great atrocity of war or terrorism or abuse of political power, or a devastating natural disaster like a tidal wave or earthquake or hurricane, we get the streams of speculations attempting to explain what God is trying to tell us. Why did this happen? And the usual answer is, “Those sinners out there whether the gays, the addicts, the prostitutes, the abortionists, or whoever the scapegoat du jour happens to be, of course, all from the perspective that it has nothing whatsoever to do with “me.”

Some people came to Jesus one day with a pressing question about a political atrocity that had happened. An act of religious persecution and abuse of political power. Apparently Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans and commingled their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. Galilee was a hotbed of insurrection, messianic wannabes, political zealots and terrorists. Pilate probably wanted to make a strong statement and an example out of them to say in no uncertain terms, “Don’t you go and plot against the government, or this is what’s going to happen to you.” That’s basically what crucifixions were about. They were the worst form of capital punishment the Romans had, intended to intimidate, subjugate, and terrify anyone who might think about starting a riot or overthrowing the government.

So what did Jesus think about all this? His answer was rather surprising. You’d expect Him to comment one way or the other. Was their cause righteous or not? Did they die a martyr’s death or a deserved one? And what about the desecration of their sacrifice. Instead Jesus turns the whole question back on the questioners. “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than anyone else from Galilee? Do you think you can measure the size of the sinner by the size of the suffering? No. I tell you, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish in the same way.”

And then to drive the point home, Jesus sees their political atrocity and adds a construction accident that didn’t have any righteous cause attached to it. A tower fell in Siloam killing eighteen. It’s bad but it happens all the time. Were those people worse offenders than any other resident of Jerusalem? Again, no. “But I tell you, unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

And you can fill in the blank with whatever other things you can think of. Whether 9/11 or Katrina or Hurricane Sandy or the tidal wave the hit Indonesia or the earthquake that hit Japan or any other act of genocide or religious persecution you can dredge from the headlines. Is God punishing these people? Not necessarily. Is God trying to tell us something? Yes, definitely! Jesus gives us the authorized interpretation: Repent, lest you all likewise perish.

He told a parable. A man had a fruitless fig tree that failed to produce for three years. He wanted to cut it down. It was taking up space, wasting land. But the gardner intervened. Give it one more year. Aerate its roots, fertilize it. If it bears fruit great; if not then you can cut it down.

The parable was spoken against Israel. The time for repentance was growing short. Three years Jesus left His footprints all over Israel. Three years He came to seek and to save the lost. Three years of preaching, teaching, and miracles. Three years looking for repentance and faith in Israel. And time for Israel was running out. Still, God is patient. He puts up with unbelief, hostility, rejection. He is patient, not wishing anyone in this world to perish but that all would come to repentance.

That’s why God puts up with this world. That’s why He doesn’t seem to be on any big campaign to clean this world up. That’s why He doesn’t give the world what it’s sin deserves. That’s why He lets things be, doesn’t interfere or intervene, just lets towers fall and dictators dictate and everything we decry in the world just happen. He’s calling this world, His people, His church, you to repent. Turn, come to a new mind. “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

The call to repentance is a call to embrace the life of “being simul,” of being a justified sinner, at one and the same time a sinner born in Adam and a saint born in Christ. That was the deep insight of Luther who declared that the daily life of a Christian is one of repentance. Each day the old man in Adam dies, each day the new man in Christ rises, each day is a turn and return from death to life, from Self to Christ.

It means a life of testing, being tempted by the devil, the world, and your own sinful self waging war against the Spirit of Christ. It is competing wills of “flesh” and “spirit” in constant tension. It means not the victorious life but the faith-full life, a life of trusting the righteousness of another who loves you and who laid down His life to save you. In the terms of the parable, it means that you are that tree with a death sentence over your head, destined for the eternal compost heap, but the divine Vinedresser has interceded on your behalf and put you under an umbrella of grace. He has watered and fed you with His own death and life, allowing Himself to become your food. He has grafted you to Himself so that you might be fruitful in Him, like a branch that has been joined to a vine, drawing up its life from outside itself.

Some people imagine the Christian walk as the confident stride of an athlete, a sleek runner, with only occasional stumbles and hopefully not too many falls. And they think that with practice and perseverance they will be able to master this walk perfectly. But the reality of being “simul” is that you don’t master this walk in this life. The old Adam cannot dance the dance of life, at least willingly. The Christian walk is a clumsy one, hesitant, uncoordinated, painful to watch at times, because the old Adam, our selfish sinful flesh is not a willing dance partner with the mind and Spirit of Christ. Daily dying and rising is not pretty to watch. And it isn’t painless and without deep contradictions and sufferings.

In the introit on our way into service this morning, we prayed: “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness, evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.” And if you are able to pray that without so much as a hint of fear, then repent. You’re among them. Flesh and blood, your flesh and blood, cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Only death and resurrection will do it.

You sometimes hear “God hates sin but loves the sinner.” No, God hates sin and justifies the sinner. There’s a difference. God does not love the sinner in his sin. Ezekiel was plenty clear on that. God loves the sinner in His sinless Son. And only there.

Repentance is the way of life for the believer. It’s the end of judging others, of judging the self, of judging God. There is no “holier than thou” position, where one sinner may look down on another And there is no easy explanation for the suffering and tragedy in this world when towers fall on people or when despotic rulers lash out and kill or when children fall victim to gunfire. The response of the disciple of Jesus is repentance. Turn back. Turn away. Turn around. Re-think everything. Recognize who you are as a sinner, what this world is as a fallen world, who Christ is as the Savior of the world and of you.

In the name of Jesus,