Unless You Repent
Third Sunday in Lent
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” 6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Dear Friends in Christ,
We live in a culture that has mastered the art of being outraged. We hear of yet another gunman in Hesston, Kansas being served with a protection order barring him from contact with his girl friend, that 90 minutes later he goes on a shooting spree wounding 14 and killing 3 or 4, and we say to one another, “that’s outrageous!” What’s the matter with people nowadays?” As if something is really wrong with him and not so much with us. And then Jesus looks us in the eyes and says, “Let me tell you something, unless you repent you’re going to die.”
We hear of Black Lives Matter protesting violence against blacks by stopping traffic on busy freeways or we hear of swarms of Bernie Sanders fans crying out for free college education or $15 minimum wage for everybody and we say to ourselves, “That’s outrageous! Why don’t those people get their attitudes straightened out and see life the way we see it? As if something is really wrong with them and not so much with us? To which Jesus replies, “Unless you repent, you’re going to die.”
Or we hear of Syrian Muslims beheading Christians just because they are Christians and we shake our heads and wonder what’s the matter with those people, and we maybe even take it a step further and yearn for the day when they will get what they have coming to them all the way into eternity, as if something is really the matter with them, and not so much for us. Jesus looks us in the eyes today and declares, “Unless you repent, you’re going to die.”
Also in our text for today, there were some people who were absolutely outraged that Pontius Pilate would send his Gentile soldiers into the sanctuary where only priests were normally allowed and murder Galilean laypeople who were engaged in sacrifices to the one true God. They assumed that the Galileans who were murdered must have committed some great sin for which God sent this particular punishment through Pilate. They assumed that these Galileans must have been worse sinners than the average sinner. They assumed that the evidence was in this terrible tragedy. Jesus tells them they are assuming wrong. That unless they repent, they also will die. Another way of saying that all we like sheep have gone astray, that the soul that sinneth it shall die, that the wages of sins is death, that the need for repentance is universal, and that the time for repentance is today.
To drive the point home with a second example, a recent news item that would have been known to the crowds engaging with Jesus in conversation. He asks them whether those 18 who were killed by a collapsing tower were worse sinners than all the other men living in Jerusalem? Jesus makes the same emphatic denial and uses the same words that form our sermon theme for today, “ No I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish the same way.”
Two truths the Spirit of God would teach us today. First of all, we learn of God’s great desire to have mercy on sinners, and secondly, we learn of God’s strong expectation that we bear fruit and that we do so sooner rather than later.
First, we see in today’s lesson God’s great desire to have mercy on sinners. The section in Luke from which our text is taken is part of a larger conversation in which Jesus has just been discussing how crucial it is to interpret the present time. Just as we act accordingly when we see storm clouds gathering on the horizon, so also we should act accordingly by recognizing that the time for repentance is now. The message of this larger section of Luke is that no knows the day or hour of his or her own death, much less when the world will end, so don’t be putting off until tomorrow the forgiveness you need today.
On the subject of suffering, we do well to remember that there are at least three kinds. There is self inflicted suffering, there is suffering inflicted by others, and there is suffering that comes our way through no fault of our own. While the presence of suffering in an individual’s life should not be interpreted as punishment for a specific sin, the presence of suffering in general is indeed a consequence of the fall. Therefore, whenever we hear yet another gunman shooting up a town or a school, whenever we hear yet another political candidate saying things that make us shake our heads and want us to run for cover, whenever we hear of Palestinians training their four year old children to strap bombs on their bodies and be suicide bombers, our response should not be to assign blame, but rather to see in the tragedy further evidence of our own sin and need for repentance.
Repentance is being sorry for our sins and trusting in Jesus as the forgiver of those sins. It is admitting our own failures and shortcomings and nasty habits and looking in faith to Him who was beaten bloody and murdered on a cross on account of every one of those failures and shortcomings and nasty habits. Repentance is getting the log out of our own eye before we start commenting on the speck in the eye of some angry gunman in Kansas. It’s crying out for mercy for my own soul before I start wringing my hands in despair over how much everybody else needs to get a life.
The good news today, of course, is that Jesus came that we may have life and that we may have it abundantly. This is the reason for which Jesus Christ came, lived, suffered, died, and rose up again – that the logs in our eyes could be removed, that the debts we have accumulated could be forgiven, that our mansion in heaven would be on reserve.
Listen carefully dear friends, when Jesus warns us to repent or we’re going to die, He is at the same time promising that as often as we repent, we live. The kingdom of God is like a mom who disciplines her toddler for playing in the street so that he can live. It’s like a family that intervenes in the life of a loved one whose drinking problems are ruining family life so that this family can have a new beginning. It’s like the hearers of God’s Word on a third Sunday in Lent decide to be outraged at their own faults rather than the faults of their neighbors. Outraged at their own failures to be light of the world and salt of the earth kinds of people instead of aiming their outrage at those Washington DC in general and this year’s crop of presidential candidates in particular. Outraged at their own lack of fruit rather than the bad fruit of others.
You see, as often as we are outraged at our own lack of fruit, that often the vinedresser has a chance to dig around us and apply a bit of fertilizer. First of all we would learn again today of God’s great desire to have mercy on repentant hearts, and secondly of His great desire that we bear the fruits of repentance. Fruits like love and joy and peace. Fruits like patience and kindness and goodness. Fruits like faithfulness and gentleness and self control. Paul writes to the Galatians that against such fruits there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
Jesus’ parable of the fig tree supports his call to repentance by illustrating how God’s great desire to have mercy on us is always paired up with His strong expectation for us to bear fruit. To bear fruit today and not some day in the future. As a vineyard owner plants and cultivates and prunes and protects and cares for and takes great pride in his vines with an eye towards harvest, so has God planted and cultivated and pruned and protected and cared for and loved this congregation in the past with an eye towards a harvest in the present and multiplying out into the future.
The kingdom of God is like a man who has developed a habit of being embarrassed by his own sinful habits, but outraged at the nasty habits of those whose messed up lives make the news. In this very sanctuary, in this very moment, his God is opening his eyes. Opening his eyes to see that he is chief of sinners and not somebody else. Opening his eyes to see how beautiful life is as often as he throws himself on the mercy of his God, how beautiful life is as often as He receives all that His God is wanting him to have, how beautiful life is as often as he goes looking for people to forgive, to love, and to serve. Amen.
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