If the season of Lent could be summed up in just one word, that word would be…REPENT. In Hebrew it’s “shuv” – which has the basic idea of turning back or turning around. In Greek it’s “metanoia” – literally “change your mind.” Throughout the Bible repentance refers to a change; a change of heart and mind and a changing of ways…from sin to holiness, from unbelief to faith, from death to life. And today, Jesus weaves this Lenten theme of repentance into current events as he interprets the news for us.
Why are we so fascinated by the news? Why do our lives revolve around the morning newspaper, the news feed on our phones? One reason is that it allows us to “play God” – to sit in the safety of our homes and judge the thoughts, words and actions of others. We are invited to join similarly innocent news anchors in assigning blame or shame or criticism or praise as we see fit. It’s an ego boost to see all these “evil” people paraded before our eyes and think: “I may not be perfect…but I’m certainly better than that guy!”
One of Israel’s biggest and perennial mistakes was their “entitlement” complex, they felt they had an automatic “in” with God. They knew they were God’s chosen people, his treasured possession. They had the Law, the temple, the prophets, priests and kings chosen by God himself. They had the heritage: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…Moses, Elijah, and David. They had proof that God was on their side: he had rescued them from Egypt, led them through the Red Sea and the wilderness, and planted them in a land that didn’t belong to them. And so they figured: “we’re in no matter what…we’ve got the golden ticket.” And yet, what message did God give Ezekiel for Israel? Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)
The Christians in Corinth had the same kind of “entitlement” complex. They were strong, they were spiritual, they were filled with knowledge and the Spirit, they enjoyed liberty from the Law through the Gospel. They prophesied and saw visions and spoke in tongues. They were young and hip and growing and…they were the congregation Paul had the most trouble with. They were divided. They abused the gift of the Lord’s Supper and each other. They boasted of their tolerance of sin and failed to carry out proper Christian discipline. They were sexually immoral and doubted the resurrection. Which is why Paul issued one of the sternest warnings in the NT: if you think that you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12) That’s why he reminded them of Israel’s history; that they were baptized into Moses and drank from the spiritual rock that was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:2,4) – that Israel too had all the benefits of God’s grace – and yet God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. (1 Corinthians 10:5) Remember the lessons of the past, Paul was telling them; don’t take God’s grace for granted. He will eventually reject those who reject him, even if they are his chosen people.
We need to hear this warning too because we still have a tendency to have an “entitlement” complex, to take God’s grace to us for granted. Don’t we tend to believe that bad things happen to bad people? Every time there is a disaster, some act of war or violence or abuse of power…a tornado, earthquake, or flood – we are inundated with 24/7 streams of speculation attempting to explain what God is trying to tell us. Why did this happen? And the usual answer is: “Well, that’s what happens when you’re gay, addicted to drugs, pro-choice, Islamic – or whatever.” (To be clear, sometimes that is the case. When a drug addict dies from an overdose or a woman dies as the result of a failed abortion, that tragedy is clearly a result of their sin. But these are exceptions, not the rule.) But the one thing that never changes, no matter what has happened in the news, is the comfort that it has nothing at all to do with me. But Jesus challenges that theory in our text.
One day, some people came to Jesus with news about a sacrilegious and barbaric act committed by Pontius Pilate. He had slaughtered some Galileans as they were offering their sacrifices in Jerusalem. It was probably no coincidence that this happened to Galileans. Galilee was the wild west of Israel; a hotbed of insurrection, messianic wannabes, political anarchists and terrorists. Pilate was probably hoping to make an example out of them. Saying in no uncertain terms: “If you even think about plotting against my government, this is what will happen to you, too.” Incidentally, crucifixions were political statements too. They were the worst form of punishment the Romans could think of, intended to intimidate, subjugate, and terrify anyone who might even think about questioning or overthrowing the Roman government.
So how were Jesus’ disciples to interpret this? From Jesus’ response, it appears that they were expecting him to agree with their own judgment: that God was punishing these Galileans for their sins. But Jesus gets right to the heart of the issue: do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? And then he does the one thing we never want him to do when we come to him for answers: he turns the question back on the questioners: I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
And then to drive the point home even deeper, Jesus adds a headline of his own: a construction accident which didn’t have any political or religious overtones. A tower fell in Siloam killing 18 people. Just a freak accident like those that happen all the time. How was this to be interpreted? Were they more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? Was God paying those people back for some secret sins they had committed? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. And you could substitute any manmade or natural disaster, any tragedy you want; those with political and religious overtones – like 9/11 or the shooting in the mosques in New Zealand, or those without, like the sudden crashes of those Boeing airplanes. How should you interpret that news? Is God punishing these people? Are they getting what they had coming? Jesus says simply: no – meaning that’s the wrong question. When tragedies happen we shouldn’t be asking “why did God allow this to happen?” But “what is God trying to tell me?” Is God trying to tell us something in the daily news? Yes! What ? Repent! No matter what happened to who, every tragedy is a reminder that this entire world is under God’s curse and sooner or later he is going to bring everyone under judgment. So go ahead and watch the news, but remember that the news isn’t about what God is doing to others, it’s about what he’s telling you. And his message to you is clear: repent, otherwise you, too, will perish.
But the simple fact that we are still readers of the news and not reduced to 2 ½ inches in the obituary section of the newspaper is evidence of God’s grace to us. Jesus illustrates this with a parable. A man had a fruitless fig tree that failed to produce for three years. He wanted to cut it down. It was taking up space, wasting land and sunlight. But the gardener intervened. Be patient. Give it one more year. He’ll work on it: aerate its roots, fertilize it. If it bears fruit, great. If not, go ahead: cut it down. This parable was clearly spoken against Israel. She was the fig tree God had planted in the Promised Land and when the Son of God came, looking for fruit, he didn’t find any. For three years Jesus had left his footprints on Israel’s highways and byways. For three years he had worked to seek and save the lost. For three years he had preached and taught and performed miracles. For three years he had searched for repentance and faith in Israel. Israel’s time was running out. But still Jesus was patient, he put up with their unbelief, their hostility, their rejection – because he didn’t want any of them to perish but to return to their God and be saved. (1 Timothy 2:4)
And that’s also why God puts up with the world at large today. That’s why he doesn’t seem to be on any big campaign to clean this world up. That’s why he doesn’t give this world what its sin deserves. That’s why in most cases it seems likes he doesn’t interfere or intervene when evil people do evil things and tragedies happen; why he lets planes fall out of the sky and white supremacists shoot up mosques and floods wipe out people’s homes. Each and every disaster is a megaphone through which God is telling the world: Repent. Turn around. Change your mind and your ways. Return to the God who created you. (Which is why it was no coincidence that churches around the country were packed the Sunday after 9/11!)
Most importantly, Jesus’ intercession is the only reason that God has put up with us to this day. His pleading with the Father for “one more year” is the only reason we are still alive, still watching the news and not tragic subjects of the news. It’s why we refer to our lifetimes as our “time of grace.” It is the time Jesus has graciously purchased for us to repent, to return to him and be saved from the destruction that is coming. Both parts are important: repenting and returning. Why? Because we are incapable, by ourselves of producing the good fruit God demands from us. Jesus makes this clear in John’s Gospel: I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) That Jesus is the one who produces good fruit in our lives is clear even in this parable: ‘sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.’
This is the real reason we are still alive, still breathing, still walking and talking in this world – so that Jesus would have one more day to work on our hearts, to dig around our roots with his call to repentance, to fertilize us by pouring his life-giving, fruit-producing power into us through Word and sacrament. To make us the fruitful trees God always intended. What does a fruitful tree look like? Paul says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Are those fruits present in your life? If God is watching the newsreel of your life – and he is – is he pleased with what he sees? If you have to confess with me that many days we’ve been fruitless trees just taking up space in God’s kingdom – then remember this: the call to return to Jesus isn’t primarily a call to come here to be fertilized and energized so that you can go out and prove your fruitfulness, your worthiness to God in your life. If that were true, we’d be better off giving up now. No, the call to return to Jesus – especially in this season of Lent – is to trust that he came to live the life we have not, to bear the fruit we cannot, to be cut down on the cross in our place and to rise to life to justify us, make us worthy and righteous in God’s sight. We need to return to Jesus urgently because every day the one thing we need most is the forgiveness and righteousness only he can offer. Because while full and free forgiveness is no guarantee that we won’t be on a plan that will suddenly malfunction or that some accident will happen that gets us into the daily news cycle – it does guarantee that we will be shielded from God’s wrath on Judgment Day. And in the end, that’s the real tragedy we need to avoid.
So…how should we interpret the news – the daily and hourly report of tragic events from all over the world? Jesus says that we can’t, that we shouldn’t try – at least not in the way we’d like to. I hope Jesus has changed the way you consume the news forever. That instead of asking “why did God allow this to happen to those people?” you ask “what is God trying to tell me?” Because now we know the answer to that question: repent! Turn around. Change your mind and your ways. Recognize that every tragedy is a shadow of the far worse tragedy that will befall every impenitent sinner on Judgment Day. And then return. Return to Jesus in faith – the one who shed his blood to shield you from the punishment of eternal death so that you might instead have the gift of eternal life. Amen.