Text: Luke 13:1-9
When you look at the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent, it first appears a bit grim and gory: “There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” We’ve got murder, but what makes it worse is that the murder of these Galileans was even more shocking because it happened while they were making sacrifices to God. That’s bad news, to be sure. Why would this have happened to them? Did they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time? Had they committed some grievous sin to cause Pilate to kill them? Or was it something totally different?
In response to the thoughts or words of some in the crowd, Jesus asked if this ugly crime took place because these Galileans were worse sinners than other people. This might be our thought too when we see some great tragedy happen to someone else. It is very easy to suppose that the tragedy is a punishment for some great sin. Jesus answered His own question with a strong negative statement, something along the lines of “absolutely not” in today’s language. These people were not killed because of some great, particular sin which they had committed. None of the Galileans who remained alive were any better than those who were killed. All sinners, Jesus warned, unless they would repent, would meet with a terrible end. The death of every unrepentant sinner Jesus pointed out as the great tragedy.
The answer to their thought wasn’t whether or not they were worse sinners than others; it was the fact that they all were sinners. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
There’s another of those nasty words, a word that we don’t like to say – repent. You want to know why it’s such a nasty word? Because it requires us to do something that we don’t like to do. The Oxford Dictionary defines repent as a verb which means to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin. For the moment, let’s side aside whether or not you actually regret or you are remorseful of your sins. The great problem comes in that you actually have to admit that you have sinned, even if just once. What’s worse, what if you say that you are a sinner, that you have an ongoing problem with sin? What does that mean? That’s not something that we want to admit to ourselves, let alone anyone else, and certainly not to God. But God already knows that you are a sinner. It’s the whole reason why God sent Jesus in the first place, because you are a sinner, because you are separated from Him, because He wants to restore you to the rightful position He has for you.
Repenting sounds nasty because we don’t want to admit that we are sinners. But it doesn’t matter if we want to admit it or not because God already knows we are sinners. We are “same-saying” what God already has said about us and what He already knows to be true. It’s true we don’t like to admit the fact that we are sinners, but just because we don’t like to do something doesn’t mean that we don’t need to do it. We don’t want to admit that we are sinners because if we do, people might look at us differently, judge us in a way that we don’t want to be judged. But it doesn’t matter what others say about us or how they judge us; it only matters how God judges us. And in our current state, we’re not going to like His verdict.
In our sinful state, the verdict will always be guilty, each and every time. Our sin is what makes us guilty and there is nothing that you or I can do about that. But there is something that God can do about it and something that He does do about it. He sends Jesus for you, for your sin, for that deep and dark secret sin that no one knows about because if they did, they would never see you the same again. But God does know that deep, dark secret sin. And He sends Jesus to die for that deep, dark secret sin, to take that sin and remove it from you so you can stand before a holy God and He can look upon you and see you as you once were so long ago – perfect, holy, blameless. God only sees you perfect and holy and blameless because of Jesus and His doing what you could not do – keep His Word perfectly.
There’s a reason why He does this. He wants you. He wants you to be a part of Him, now and for all eternity. That’s why Jesus tells of two accounts of people dying and what can happen to others: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Remember, God is the one who created you. Do you think that He wants to see His creation perish? Do you think He wants to see what He made in His image fall from perfection and never be restored? Absolutely not. For you, He sends Jesus in order that your death is not a permanent death. Death is one way God calls people to repentance, lest they perish eternally. Some falsely conclude that if nothing really bad happens to them in life, it is a sign that they have been living good lives. Jesus is teaching that not only certain very wicked people need to repent but repentance is necessary for everyone.
What a shocking statement for Jesus to make, that everyone needs to repent or perish. Who does He think He is to make such a bold, sweeping statement like that, the Son of God? Oh wait, that’s exactly who He is. He knows exactly what will happen to the unrepentant sinner and that is why He is here. He comes to urge the people to repent of their sins. He comes as the means of their repentance. He comes as the one who will give His life for the lives of the repentant. He comes and will be our Judge on the last day.
To reinforce His message, he tells a parable of the fig tree. Looking at Jesus’ parable, it’s straight talk. It’s not pleasant. It’s not comforting, and it’s nobody’s favorite. But there it is, straight and to the point. The terms are established by God, not us. Our excusing and rationalizing, our complaining and postponing, our good intentions and sincerity of purpose all evaporate into the air and the voice that speaks inquires about the fruits of our lives.
If you are uncomfortable with that, then that is the way it should be. God is very patient, not willing that any should perish but that all would come to repentance. However, the delay in judgment should not cause people to put off repentance. The time will finally come when the unfruitful tree is cut down. The opportunity for repentance does finally come to an end.
As patient and long suffering as God is, there is a deadline for our repentance. The writer to the Hebrews says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” The tree in the parable has a year to bear fruit. In a similar way, those who refuse to repent in this life will be removed from the Kingdom of God in the next.
Why do we need to repent? Have we really done that bad that we need to repent? If we take stock of ourselves I think we’ll often find that we’ve been careless at some point or other in our lives—that we’ve lived as if God doesn’t matter, or allowed a cynical attitude to develop, or conformed to the mood and mindset of the age in which we live. In short, instead of living our lives according to God’s commandments and His ways, we live our lives in the way which makes us happy, regardless if it’s contrary to the Word of God.
How do we live then? The standard is too high, and we don’t even measure up to the “not good enough” of which Paul and Ezekiel speak of in our other readings for today. But God is on your side and wants you to live! The answer is and has always been and will always be Jesus. Jesus goes to the cross in order to buy you back and to restore you to your rightful place as God’s heir. He gives His life in order that your life will not be taken. He dies so that you will never die that final death.
Maybe the word “repent” isn’t so bad of a word at all. Maybe the parable of the barren fig tree isn’t so bad either, for it reminds us that life is to be lived on God’s terms, it also reminds us that life and can be good and full and productive. Once again, Jesus gives to us the words that are most needed – words that remind us what our heavenly Father desires of us and the gift of forgiveness that comes through repentance. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.