Sermon for March 24, 2019

When a tragedy happens in the country or world, you often see on TV the news media chasing important government leaders with a microphone in hand asking about their thoughts and feelings about the incident. I picture something similar in the Gospel lesson: people came up to Jesus and told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. The actual historical incident is lost to us, but we do know that the Roman governor Pilate, whose name we remember in the Apostles’ Creed, had a reputation for brutality. Apparently some Galilean worshippers, Jesus’ countrymen, were cut down by Pilate while at worship. The people expected Jesus to comment, and he did: “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.” Then Jesus added a tragedy of his own hearing: “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell ou, but unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did.” We hear Jesus deny in no uncertain terms the idea that people’s tragic deaths were punishment for sins. The idea that God directly targets people for hurt because God is angry is terrible theology, totally false. Do people still believe that God targets people for pain? We would say no, that is really an outlandish, outrageous, and outmoded thinking. But it is still common to hear the saying “Things happen for a reason”. I remember years ago while serving as interim pastor at Siloa Lutheran Church in Ontonagon, MI, a young man in his mid-twenties was killed in an ATV accident. The parents were members of the congregation, and it was difficult to visit them. I did not feel welcome by the mother of the dead young man. She was looking for reasons and I wasn’t providing any to her satisfaction. She felt God must have had something to do with the accident: if not directly God permitted the tragedy to happen and she wanted a reason for it. If that was true about God we would all cry out like Job in the Bible who pleaded with God, in his pain and loss, to leave him alone. The mother came up with her own explanation for her son’s death, thinking “it must have been his time.”

So we all struggle with such questions of ‘why?’ Lately in the news we heard of two tragedies similar in nature to the ones in the text. Think if New Zealand, fifty Moslem worshiping peacefully at their mosque gunned down by a cruel and brutal terrorist. Were these Moslems worse sinners for this to happen to them? Jesus would answer disquietly, ‘No, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Or what about all who died in two plane crashes involving Boeing  jets with software issues, do you think those 300 or so who died were worse sinners than others flying safely to their destinations? Jesus would say, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Jesus’ words are troubling and perplexing. Jesus rapidly changed the subject. He changed the focus to you and me and our spiritual condition: you must repent or face death. We don’t like it when Jesus sounded like that. On the one hand Jesus was warning about the final judgment, and by death he meant spiritual death or being separated from God forever. To not repent, to turn away from God, to have no time for Jesus and be lost for all eternity would be a terrible tragedy. On the other hand Jesus was talking about today: now is the time to repent, everyday Jesus offers freely forgiveness, steadfast love and salvation from him. To repent is to turn away from a life-style that ignores God and is ignorant to God’s will for life.

The preceding chapter for today’s gospel lesson, chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel is long chapter of warning. For example Jesus said “whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.” Jesus warned two brothers feuding over an inheritance to beware against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. …beware of storing up treasure on earth and not rich toward God.” Jesus spoke two parables of servants awaiting the return of their Master. Blessed are the ones the Master finds at work when he returns. So be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” In the second lesson today, the apostle Paul spoke of Israel’s journey under Moses to the Promised Land as an example for us. They all passed through the Red Sea, a kind of baptism Paul wrote. But in spite of this, many did not make it to the Promised Land and Paul spoke of the people’s idolatry, sexual immorality, testing God with ingratitude and lack of trust, and their propensity to grumble and complain. So the apostle warned “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall”.

An important theme of Lent is repentance. We may not like to hear of warnings about how we are living our lives, but warnings save lives, and warnings save souls. Repentance is not the growl of a grumpy God. Repentance is to open our lives to the working of the Holy Spirit; repentance is to pray “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me, cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me.” To help us get a handle on repentance Jesus told the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. Although a fig tree, it wasn’t producing any fruit. It was unproductive for years so the common sense solution was to cut it down. But the gardener interceded and you could say, pleaded for the life of the tree. Give me another year, and I will intensify efforts to get the tree to produce fruit: I will dig around it and apply fertilizer, aerate and enrich the soil. But after a year, if it doesn’t produce fruit, it will be cut down.”  My father was an insurance agent, and he set up life insurance policies for me, and I would pay the premiums. But sometimes I would be late with a payment. I would be sent a notice informing me that no payment was received, but that it was now a grace period—time given for me to pay the premium.

The call to repentance in Lent is a grace period. It is a time to not to take the church and faith for granted, but a time to examine our priorities so we don’t become rich in things and poor in soul, or that we don’t become idolaters, in love with social media instead of God and neighbor, so we take care not to grieve the Holy Spirit with hurtful words against brothers and sisters in Christ, and truthfully seeking what we do need to bear the fruit of discipleship. As Christians we are expected to be productive, recalling Jesus’ words “I am the vine, and you are the branches, and apart from me you can do nothing.”  Repentance is not only feeling bad about sins of thought, word, and deed. Repentance finally figures it out that peace comes from trusting God, ever connected to Christ. Repentance is listening intently to the gospel word. Think of the stress in the first lesson which asked the question: “why do you labor for that which does not ultimately satisfy: “Listen carefully and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food. Incline your ear, come to God, listen so that you may live….seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near, let the wicked forsake their ways…return to the Lord for God will abundantly pardon and have mercy on you.”

Think again of the beautiful psalm today: beneath the frantic rush of our days, or the worries that burden us, is our soul crying out, “my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Do you sometimes feel you are living in a weary land where there is no refreshment? Therefore the psalmist gazed upon God in God’s holy place, to behold God’s power and glory.” What did the psalmist mean “gaze upon God?” God has no image to see; but the psalmist meant the holy place of the sanctuary. For there God promised his name would dwell, his presence, and a name you call upon in need. Through prayer and worship the psalmist found the greatest refreshment: God’s steadfast love better than life itself. The psalmist felt full of God’s loving presence, as if satisfied with the best food. As we come to this sanctuary we behold the cross, and listen carefully to the gospel, which all direct us to God’s steadfast love in the flesh, Jesus. So as the psalmist taught repentance is to cling to the Savior who holds us fast, who guides our way, who provides the nourishment of steadfast love. At the communion table we listen to Jesus’ invitation to come, really an invitation to repentance, repentance that begins by receiving Jesus, his body and blood, the nourishment of his giving up his life for you and me.

Repentance is not just confined to Lent, but as Luther famously wrote in thesis number 1 of the 95 theses, “when our Lord Jesus said “repent”, he meant our entire lives be one of repentance.” Our baptism is never to be forgotten or placed in some hidden closet of the mind, but brought out front and center every day. Baptism calls us to repentance, the waters of baptism serve both to drown our sins, but also refresh with the Spirit’s grace so we grow in faith, and produce the fruits of the Spirit, which can be summarized as deeds of love.

Yes, I will not deny that today’s text is somewhat somber with warnings of eternal consequence if one does not repent. But remember, behind such words of judgment, is Jesus. Cling to Jesus in faith, and allow his steadfast love to keep us alive, so we bear the good fruit of compassion and care for one another.

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