Lent 3—Year C
February 28, 2016
Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
The people ask Jesus if those murdered by Pilate in the Temple were really bad people who deserved their fate. Jesus says, No, but unless you repent you will likewise perish. And then Jesus brings up a natural disaster of a falling tower in Jerusalem that killed 18: Were they worse offenders? “No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.” Fortunately I don’t remember most of my sermons but I clearly remember one Sunday years ago in North Carolina preaching on this passage and a mother said her two teenage daughters were disturbed by the thought that if they didn’t repent, they might die in a plane crash on their way to Colorado for winter break.
Of course this sounds like Jesus is saying bad things will happen to unrepentant people. Yet this interpretation makes no sense given that Jesus has just said those who died in those two events where not worse than anybody else and weren’t selected for death because of they were sinful.
In John’s gospel the disciples see a man born blind and they ask Jesus, is this man blind because of his own sins or the sins of his parents? It makes the universe a bit less unpredictable if we can identify why bad things happen: Old Joe died of lung cancer, but you know he smoked three packs of Camels a day for 40 years. Susy died in a car wreck on Prom Night, but you know her blood alcohol was through the roof and she was going 90.
But Jesus says the man’s blindness has nothing to do with sin—his or his parents, just as those killed by Pilate and the collapsed tower were not singled out for their sinful lives either. Life is filled with random acts of violence and destruction that can’t always be laid at the feet of those who die.
A couple in my parish vacationed in December 2004 at Phucket Beach in Thailand– they had a great time in that magical place. A week after they got home an epic Tsunami came ashore on that same beach and swept away more than a 100,000 people—rich and poor, sinners and saints, all washed away.
Of course, we want life to be predictable and secure so bad things don’t happen to us. We stay alert and work extraordinarily hard to protect ourselves—but then some bureaucrat tries to save a little money and gives a whole city lead poisoning.
So when Jesus says “Unless you repent you will likewise perish” he doesn’t mean unless you become a moral church going person who is sorry for their sins the hammer is going to fall on you—no, that is precisely what he is not saying.
Our confusion comes from the fact that we don’t understand what Jesus means by the word “repent”. When we hear someone tell us to repent we think it means we have to feel sorry for our sins and then stop doing them so that…so that…God will love us.
In this interpretation repentance comes first and the love of God comes second, as a result of our repentance.
But this is backwards: Paul writes in Romans 2:4 “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” First comes grace and mercy and then comes our response. Or as we said as kids: first comes love, then come marriage, then comes the baby carriage.
Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God is here and now, therefore repent and believe the good news: the Kingdom comes first, and only then comes our response, because it is the God’s arrival in Jesus Christ that makes any response possible. Until Christ shows up we are dead in our sins.
Moses is a murderer and fugitive, wandering around in the wilderness working for his father in law, when the Living God bursts into his life.
For Jesus, and the biblical tradition, repentance is not first of all about changing our behavior. It is about changing our minds about God and the nature of life.
We need to change our minds about the nature of life: life is inherently fragile, unpredictable, and deadly no matter how much time, money, and energy we use to control it to protect ourselves. No matter what kind of health insurance we have.
in the end God means to kill us all—as Will Willimon says, it’s not personal; it’s just the way things are: everyone will die. To build our lives around making sure nothing bad happens is to build our lives on a lie. Spending my life to protect my life is to turn myself into an idol, a false god.
I heard on NPR this week about a series of psychological studies that show that when a person is given $10 she will feel much happier if she spends that money on someone else, than if she spends it on herself.
But most importantly, of course, is that we need to change our minds about who God is. God is creator and redeemer who meets us, not after we repent of our sins, but before, while we are wandering around lost in the desert.
This is the God revealed in Jesus. In Jesus, Paul says, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
So we need to pay close attention to Jesus: as Willimon says, “he lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly”, therefore he’s still showing up in the places we least expect, with a love we don’t deserve.
Jesus says: This certain fig tree is big and beautiful, with enormous leaves, yet year after year it doesn’t do what it is created to do, which is to produce figs. God thought up fig trees and told them to be fruitful and multiply, in order to beautify the world and keep the cycle of life going by providing birds, squirrels, bugs and humans something very good to eat!
This fig tree is not fulfilling its destiny if it doesn’t produce fruit for others. This sad tree is a dumpster fire that should be destroyed. But in the midst of this truthful judgment comes a voice proclaiming mercy. Yes, absolutely right, it’s a waste of space, but give me a year to work on it, dig around it and spread manure and let’s see if we can’t get this thing into the flow of creation.
This poor tree can try all it wants to produce figs but it can’t fix itself. So where is repentance in this story?
Repentance doesn’t mean trying in its own power to produce good fruit. Repentance means surrendering to the One who is already loving it and healing the roots of the problem so it can fulfill its creation.
Steve McVey in his interesting book, 52 Lies Heard in Church Every Sunday: …And Why the Truth Is So Much Better, says, “We need to change the way we understand the love the Father has for us….Repentance isn’t turning over a new leaf in your lifestyle. It’s having your mind turn in the opposite direction….Don’t believe the lie that you must repent in order to experience God’s goodness. Your Father’s loving goodness toward you is unconditional and independent of anything you do or don’t do.”
The greatest tragedy is not when people die, as sad as that always is! The greatest tragedy is when people live without connecting to and surrendering to the One who made us and wants to live through us, bringing the fruit of mercy, creativity, justice, and healing into the world.
Like if Moses spent his life working for his father in law, instead of working for God and the freedom of God’s people.
This Lent Jesus says, “Wake up and smell the uncertainty of life and face the most important question of all, which is not “why do bad things happen to good people” but rather “how do I respond to Jesus who is loose in my life, bringing forth fruit I never knew I had in me?”