Lent 3, Year C, March 24, 2019
Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 62:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the passage just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told his followers they should recognize the signs so they could tell what was really going on. Unfortunately, they prove immediately that even when the signs are clear (such as major disasters and acts of evil), they don’t understand the message they’re supposed to. And I’m not sure if we’re any better than they are. In fact, I think all too often we make the same mistake they did.
There had been two major tragedies in the area. In one of them, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later order Jesus crucified to appease the crowd and the religious elite, had sent his soldiers in to the Temple and killed those who had gathered there to worship. Why, we don’t know; Pilate was a cruel man, and not terribly bright, from what records we have of him; he was prone to violent overreactions. Then there had also been another great tragedy: a tower had fallen and killed a lot of people. Not an unusual event in a land with regular earthquakes and relatively poor building materials and techniques. But still, a tragedy, one that would have been big news. And the people had looked at these two tragedies, and heard Jesus telling them they should be alert for signs to tell them what sort of age they lived in, and they had concluded that those people had died because of their sins.
Which sort of misses the point, because the thing is, we’re all sinners. Every single human being ever born, except Jesus Christ, is a sinner who cannot save themselves from their sins, or the consequences of them. We don’t like to remember that. We’re fine with noticing the sinfulness of people we don’t like, or don’t care about; but unless we have a mental illness like depression or anxiety, we will do a great deal to avoid noticing our own sinfulness. As a pastor, one of the most frustrating things is how people with mental illnesses often fixate on their own sins, real or imagined, to such a degree that they cannot accept God’s steadfast love and forgiveness, while most people convince themselves that they’re not sinners—or, at least, not bad sinners, even if they give lip service to acknowledging their sins—and thus don’t think they need much forgiving. It’s either feast or famine: we either fixate on our sinfulness to the exclusion of all else, or try to ignore it and excuse it. We rarely have a realistic appraisal that might lead us to change our behavior.
The other thing humans love doing, besides ignoring our own sinfulness, is control things. We crave control. We want to feel like we are in charge of our own destiny even when it is perfectly obvious that we are not. We want the world to fit into nice, simple categories with nice, simple reasons for things happening. Then, all we have to do is figure things out and take the appropriate steps to ensure that bad things don’t happen to us. Put these two factors together, and you get the common human response to tragedy: figure out why those who suffered or died deserved what happened to them. Then reassure yourself that since you don’t deserve it, it could never happen to you. Is someone you know sick? Well, they didn’t exercise enough or eat the right foods. But you do, so you won’t get sick. Did somebody slide on an icy road and crash their car? Well, they were a bad driver, but you’re a good driver, so you won’t have an accident. Is someone poor? Well, they must just be lazy, but you’re not lazy, so you’ll never be poor. Did someone get raped or assaulted? Well, they must have led their attacker on, but you‘d never do that, so you’ll never be assaulted. Did some big tragedy happen? Well, it must have been a punishment from God because of their sin, but you’re not a sinner, or not as bad a sinner as they were, so it can’t happen to you. It’s very reassuring.
You can judge the person suffering, and give them all sorts of advice, and never have to grapple with the fact that sometimes bad things just happen and we can’t control it. Sometimes tornadoes and floods just come. Sometimes people get sick because of things outside their control. Sometimes accidents just happen. These and other tragedies are manifestations of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, but they are not caused by any one person’s actions or inactions. And even when a tragedy is caused by the sinfulness of one person in particular, all too often, the consequences are not felt by the sinner. The Galileans that Pilate killed in the temple weren’t killed because they were particularly horrible sinners who deserved death more than any other group of people; they were killed because Pilate was a sinner, a cruel, stupid man, and he decided to have them killed. They died because of his sins, not their own.
Knowing the time and reading the signs is not about reassuring yourself by blaming the victim for their suffering. It’s about realizing that the whole world—including your and me!—is broken by sin and death. It’s about recognizing that the whole world and everything in it—including you and me!—desperately needs to be healed, made new, and reconciled to God. It’s about knowing that you and me and everyone in the world depend completely on the grace and mercy of God, and trusting that mercy, and letting it overflow in our lives. It’s about being transformed by Christ, instead of conforming to the ways of this broken, sinful world. It’s about knowing that we and everyone else deserves the judgment that is coming, and still trusting that God is at work to bring salvation and healing and new life. In other words, it’s about repentance.
But repentance is another thing we don’t understand. We tend to think of repentance as feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty. As if the thing God wants most out of us is that we feel bad. Sometimes our understanding of repentance broadens enough to include trying to atone or make up for specific sins we have done, but all too often it’s just about feeling bad about what we did. This is why a number of non-Christians of my acquaintance really don’t like Christian talk of sin and repentance. From what they’ve seen, either it’s shallow and doesn’t lead to real meaningful change, or it leads to depression and anxiety and still doesn’t lead to positive change.
But for Luke, repentance isn’t just about admitting your sin and feeling bad about it. Repentance is about bearing fruit. You may have heard sermons in the past that “repentance” literally means “turn,” and that true repentance is turning away from sinful behaviors. And that’s true. But the repentance God wants isn’t just any old change, any old turn. It’s not just about rejecting sin, it’s about turning towards something good. Towards the beginning of Luke, John the Baptist tells people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” And here, Jesus immediately connects talk of sin and punishment and repentance to the parable of the fig tree that doesn’t produce. It’s root-bound, in poor soil, and without enough water, and so it does not bear fruit. And the gardener says, instead of cutting it down, let’s fix the problems and heal it and see if it bears fruit then. And if it doesn’t bear fruit even after that … then comes the judgment. Repentance, here, is not about the tree apologizing for not bearing fruit; repentance is the gardener working to get the tree to bear fruit. The fruits of the Spirit, the fruits God is calling us to bear, are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the things that we need. These are the things the world so desperately needs. These are the things we are called to produce and bear into the world.
So what are the things we need to do to bear fruit? What are the ways that our soil needs to be prepared, and the soil of our community? Where are the places in us or our community that need fertilizer or water, or weeds removed? May God so garden in our souls that we may bear fruit worthy of repentance, and may we help others bear such fruit also.