“Repentance or Death”
28 February 2016
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, pastor
East Rochester & West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Pilate had a way with words.
He was even more persuasive with a sword.
As the Roman governor in charge of Palestine
he didn’t suffer fools gladly
(as the Apostle Paul was known to say)
and he certainly didn’t tolerate any shenanigans that threatened the peace.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, is ripe with reports of Pilate
marching his legions of troops across Palestine
to quell this uprising
or that protest.
It was well known
And is well documented that Pilate had slaughtered Jews
On three different occasions
As they practiced their faith.
Reports come to Jesus in our Gospel today
about yet another instance where Pilate authorized a violent use of force:
Galilean Jews were killed by Roman soldiers
right in the Temple courtyard where they had taken animals for sacrifice.
Oh, the outrage!
The population at that time would have been fuming by the occupier’s brutality.
Jews would have been offended at the violence done to their own people,
especially at the site of the Holy of Holies.
Deep thinkers would have been left scratching their heads, asking
“Did these Galileans suffer in this way because of their sin?”
To reinforce and broaden his message,
Jesus turns to the headlines.
“Remember that terrible construction accident a while ago?
You know; when the tower being built on the Southern wall
suddenly fell and killed 18 innocent people?
Were their sins worse off than anyone else’s offenses?”
Jesus answers both his rhetorical questions with the same exact words:
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
( - Luke 13:3, 5)
These two brief antidotes and the response of Jesus
reveals significant information about how Jesus viewed the world.
First, Jesus flatly proclaims that not everything that is bad is caused by sin.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason at all.
Jesus rejects divine retribution
As popularly promoted by Job:
“Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?
“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.”
( - Job 4:6-9)
No! Jesus replies.
Suffering can happen to anyone.
Suffering is not a sign of a deeper sin.
It can happen to anybody.
In other words, don’t blame the victim.
Whether the cause of trouble is
or simply the act of the physical properties of nature,
there is no merit in assessing blame to the victim.
This is not the way of God’s judgment,
and neither should it be the ways of human judgment.
Just because a child is killed riding their bicycle doesn’t mean their parents sinned.
Just because a person develops cancer,
it doesn’t mean they brought it upon themselves
because of something they’ve done or allowed to remain undone.
Just because death strikes like a heart attack,
it doesn’t mean that it is God’s judgment to
strike one down, or
to take one home.
That would be the work of a God of retribution,
not the work of our loving and benevolent God.
This, then, is the teachable moment:
Because sin, suffering, and death are universal,
Expect it to happen to you.
We’re all guilty of sin.
We have all plunged over that waterfall.
We all suffer in this life and can expect our body to die:
“From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return,”
We are reminded on Ash Wednesday.
There is no free pass.
There are no shortcuts.
Suffering, sin, and death are the consequence of health, wellness, and life.
Secondly, allow me to flip this observation on its side:
It is important to recognize that sin
Always causes bad things to happen.
Human behavior that is outside the parameters of God’s Laws
always results in broken relationships,
and failed lives.
God wants the best for us;
this is why we’ve been given the Law;
the protective fence
inside which we can lead lives of health and wellness.
Stray outside the boundaries God has given us
for some short term satisfaction
and know for certain
there are long term, negative consequences for unfaithful behavior.
Yes, we may be saved by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,
As the Apostle Paul so eloquently teaches in Galatians.
At the same time,
Unfaithful behavior deeply, deeply disappoints our God.
Jesus teaches time and again,
“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”
( - Luke 11:28)
The One who created us,
Who loves us,
Is the same One who wants the very best for us.
God’s longing desire for our wellness is so great
That He was willing to send us his Son to wash our sins away;
Justify us, once and for all.
When we take advantage
Of this free, justifying grace of God,
By leading sinful and shameful lifestyles,
We become the embarrassment of God.
Grace is free, but it isn’t cheap.
Sin has its consequences.
Jesus clearly states the consequences of sin:
The wages of sin is death.
Thirdly, allow me to flip this narrative yet another way:
Not everything that is good is the result of God’s blessings.
Winning the lottery or cashing in on a successful investment
may, or may not, have any interest to God,
let alone, be the result of God’s blessing.
This is why I find it so silly for athletes to
Join in a pregame prayer for victory
Or in a post game boast of Divine favor.
Likewise I find it just as silly for fans to criticize such behavior.
Landing that great, high salaried job may or may not be in God’s favor.
Growing rich and retiring to a tropical island
may be nothing more than hard work and a lifetime of luck.
God’s blessings always brings good things,
but not all good things are the result of God’s blessings.
A dangerous trend has taken hold of the Church in recent years:
A Gospel of Prosperity.
A Gospel of Prosperity is a false gospel.
It is the mistaken belief that my prosperity is the result of God’s blessing.
This mistaken belief runs completely opposed to Jesus teaching
“Blessed are you who are poor,”
And “Woe to you who are rich.”
( - Luke 6:20, 24)
Prosperity leads to tomfoolery:
Building more barns.
Building bigger barns.
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
( - Luke 12:20)
The demand of prosperity is generosity,
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
( - Matthew 19:21)
God’s blessing isn’t found in the accumulation of treasure.
God’s blessing is always found in giving it all away.
Lastly, allow me to get to the heart of today’s Gospel:
Repent, or die!
Jesus repeats this message twice to make it memorable
and supports it with a parable
to hammer it home.
“Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
( - Luke 13:5)
The parable of the fig tree is not an allegory;
that is, one cannot transpose God onto the land owner,
any of us onto the gardener,
or any of our efforts onto the fig tree.
This parable is a metaphor that communicates the message
that we should not presume the time to repent is infinite.
Take a little time before repentance at your own peril.
I don’t know.
You don’t know.
But know this: you’re skating on thin ice.
Our time for repentance is limited.
It may be limited by God
or it may be limited by our lifespan.
But know that it is limited,
and it can suddenly snap closed like a steel trap before we are ready.
The season of Lent is all about
Cleansing ourselves of the sin and bad practices we’ve accumulated throughout the year.
This is a time for introspection that leads to repentance;
turning our back to sin
while moving forward towards God
and embracing God’s will for our lives.
Life without repentance leads to death.
Life is found by always looking to God
Especially in the midst of suffering.
Jesus tells us we’ve been mercifully given one last chance.
Time is short.
“Even now the axe is laid at the root.”
Just as sin, suffering and death are universal,
So too is God’s judgment.
God’s judgment will come sooner or later to us all.
Bad things are going to happen to us throughout life.
We face dangers, toils, and snares.
Opportunities present themselves,
then disappear in the next fleeting second.
We lose loved ones, face health crisis, and grow old.
We are reminded today that
by God’s grace,
and have come to this moment for a purpose.
If there is any time to pay attention to the words of Jesus,
it is today:
Do it now.