Repentance is Now

A sermon preached on Luke 13:1-9

We are in a season of grief. A season where the question: “how could things get worse” is quickly answered with another terrible event. 

  • Six days ago there was an act of terrorism in Las Vegas – a mass shooting that left more than 58 people dead and over 500 wounded.
  • Three weeks ago, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico just a few short weeks after Harvey devastated south Texas and Irma screamed through Florida. Even now, Nate is creating devastating flooding in Mississippi and Louisiana.
  • It was just 2 months ago, that Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist who backed his car at a high speed through a crowd of protestors on their way home.

And today we sit in the midst of these large and smaller scale devastations and wonder what it all means. 

It seems to me that this is the quintessential search – the search for meaning in the midst of suffering.  Our desire to make sense out of the pain of loss in a tragedy like the Las Vegas shooting, our fundamental need to bring order to the chaos of the devastation in Puerto Rico.  In moments like these, our grief and confusion are what bind us together.  But they also break open our lives in a way that both exposes us to the rawness of suffering and makes it possible for us share the light of God’s peace in the world.

Jesus speaks to that very thing, but not in the comforting way we expect our gentle savior to speak.  Just when we need Jesus to help us make sense out of random acts of violence, he seems to tell his followers to snap out of it.  The very thing we understand we are not under any circumstance to do to our friends in pain, we see Jesus doing exactly that.  Because we know that Jesus’ work was characterized by compassion and mercy, we know he didn’t say this because he didn’t understand their pain, or because he was somehow interested in stoicism as a way of life. So why would he respond to people’s grief and fear with challenging words:  Unless you repent, you will end up just like them?!

In the midst of the double tragedies, Jesus urged his followers to look beyond their knee-jerk response which connected the dots between disobedience and suffering, between repentance and deliverance.  He wanted his followers to know that the victims didn’t die because they were unrepentant. And his message is perfectly aligned with his whole ministry. Jesus was all about the work of caring, the work of offering hope, the work of bringing life out of disease and death. Yet in that moment of disaster, the people kept trying to figure out why things happened instead of simply taking up the work of caring for those touched by tragedy. 

Jesus isn’t concerned about the cause and effect nature of their unjust death.  What he is interested in is the wake-up call that such events provided. 

“You see these random acts of violence,” he said.  “You know they could occur at any moment. Why are you waiting to turn from your unjust way of life when at any moment, you could be facing judgment day?”

When Jesus’ followers asked: What did those people do? That was the wrong question. Instead of righteous indignation, Jesus called his followers to repentance. Rather than wasting energy trying to figure out WHY bad things happen, Jesus calls his followers to take a deeper look at how THEY might be participating in injustice and then to get busy fixing THAT – in other words, to repent.

It’s helpful to review what Jesus understood repentance to be.  Because it’s easy to get stuck in the thinking that simply confessing a sin means we’re OK with God.  When Jesus talks about repentance – he’s speaking of a fundamental change that begins inside us but that in its fullness, changes how we live, how we act.

For Jesus, this fundamental change was thoroughly rooted in his Jewish heritage which names five essentials of repentance:

  1. Recognition of sins – We should be able to know what God expects and when we fail to live up to those expectations – be willing to make different choices so that we can begin to live justly. At the same time, we need to recognize that we will often choose a path that takes us farther from justice. 
  2. Remorse – It’s not enough to recognize a sin when we see one.  The next requirement is that we would feel sorrowful about participating in the injustices that God names.
  3. Desisting from sin – Though showing remorse is important, it isn’t enough. Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell all he had in order to follow him and the ruler went away sad.  To be sure, he seems to have felt remorseful about his wealth when so many around him had so very little, but the story ends with him walking away.  Does he leave his comfortable and acquisition-oriented lifestyle?  We don’t know. For Jesus, repentance means we have to stop living/behaving in sinful ways if our remorse is to mean anything. Without ceasing sinful activity, we have only arrived at what the rabbis call the “preliminaries to teshuva.” It’s the actual desisting from sin where the proverbial rubber meets the road.
  4. Restitution where possible – This step is possibly the hardest. Restitution. Whenever the word restitution comes up, it makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s often heard in the context of racial justice – that people who have benefitted from their privilege, white privilege, male privilege, economic privilege need to divest of their power and make amends. The 8th and 9th steps in 12-step programs call for making a list of all persons we harmed and making direct amends to such people wherever possible. Jesus’ conversation with Zaccheus is the best example we have in scripture.  Zaccheus recognizes his sins, feels bad about it, promises to stop and makes amends by paying back what he’d taken. In fact, not only did Zaccheus pay restitution, he gave away more.
  5. Confession – This final step may seem like the easiest one of all – but in order to confess sin, we need to recognize it for what it is and be willing to stop and to make restitution. When Israel cries out their remorse, the prophets’ response is always:  what are you willing to do to make your confession real?

In the context of this week’s tragedy in Las Vegas, there has been an overabundance of thoughts and prayers, of angry pronouncements about bump stocks and background checks. If righteous indignation is what we need to make this a better world, we seem to have an ample supply of that. Jesus’ words echo through the ages reminding us that talk is cheap and that it isn’t enough to simply decry the unjust behavior of others. We have to take the costly step of confronting and changing injustice when we see it in ourselves.

There are many possible responses that Jesus could have given in the face of the terrible tragedy of Siloam: 

“Don’t worry, those Galileans have gone to a better place”,

“It must have been God’s will”

“God surely has a plan.”

Instead, he called those around him to engage the world’s suffering as if they were looking into a mirror and seeing the same fate.

For those who lost their lives in Puerto Rico or Las Vegas, for those long ago people of Siloam, time has run out. They stand in God’s eternal love and grace. But for us, the work lies ahead.  And every day, when we wake up and plant our feet on the floor next to our beds, we are stepping into a future filled with choices. How will we use the grace God has given us? How will we live out the peace that has been offered to us?  How will we work for the justice that God expects and which Jesus taught?

God’s call to us is that we would let these tragedies speak to us – and not in a “thank God that didn’t happen to me” way, nor in a way that somehow points to our own blessedness.  We are called to rearrange our lives, adjust our priorities, and repent and make changes while we’re still alive.  Long life is no guarantee of fruitfulness, and neither does death diminish a fruitful life  But the reality is that one way or another, the fig trees that are our lives will eventually be cut down.  The time to change the status quo is now.  The time to turn around is now.  The time to bear fruit is now.

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