Repent or Perish
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.”
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
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. ’”
A cheerful gospel reading today - about disasters and judgement and sin and repentance. But also about second chances.
I don't know about you but, when I get the opportunity to catch the evening news, I usually wish I hadn't. It is so depressing and upsetting.
So full of disaster and suffering, of cruelty and injustice.
Well it seems that those people who were talking to Jesus in today's gospel were giving him the latest news bulletin, the latest current affairs.
And their news wasn't any brighter than is our news today.
There had been a massacre:
Roman troops had killed a group of pilgrims - desecrating the temple, mingling the victims blood with the blood of the temple sacrifices.
And then, a terrible accident when a tower fell and killed all those who were bystanders.
News that, just like in our time, was shocking and depressing and about which folk speculated.
So, whose fault was it?
Could it have been avoided?
And, even, did the folk involved deserve to come to such a terrible end?
Questions that we ask when confronted with today's news bulletins.
Questions that spring naturally to our minds.
What did they do wrong?
However much we'd prefer to deny that we approach disaster with any notion of judgement, often we do - we wonder what folk did or didn't do to be victims of such terrible circumstance.
Jesus knows well the speculation in which folk were indulging.
And he names it:
He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
Not only does Jesus name their speculation about the victims' morality, Jesus, clearly not in the mood to bring comfort on this occasion, points out to his questioners: it could have been you!
While we might have expected Jesus to get started on explaining the meaning of life and the workings of the universe when confronted with such disturbing news that has clearly disturbed and shaken his followers.
While we might have expected him to try to defend an omnipotent God, who allows such things to happen to innocent people, Jesus refuses to be caught up in ontological or philosophical discussion.
Instead, he confronts his listeners with the stark reality that it could just as easily have been them caught up in disaster.
And then where would they be?
Apart from dead, that is!
Jesus uses the people's questions about the awful news of the day to confront them with their own mortality (not morality) but their own mortality.
In effect, Jesus is saying - sort your own lives.
He uses the disasters to encourage people to repent.
A seemingly harsh reaction to a crowd looking, perhaps, for sympathy or for some kind of explanation.
Jesus confronts the people instead with their need for repentance.
Now I don't know about you - but I have never been very comfortable with talk of repentance in the church - at least not the way repentance is usually touted.
Often, talk of repentance comes across as some guilt inducing attack on personal morality.
A prompt to change behaviour because of the possible consequences rather than because of a conviction that we might live differently.
A prompt to make a one off decision.
Repentance is often rolled out as the last great tool for social control.
But THAT is not the kind of repentance to which Jesus is directing his hearers here.
Jesus, throughout his ministry, invites people to repentance, he doesn't drive them to it or scare them into it.
Because Jesus knows that repentance is not the once in a lifetime event that it is so often portrayed in the church today.
It's not that moment of conversion that lasts a lifetime.
In fact it is not momentary at all.
Repentance, once embarked on, may take the rest of our lives - and more to achieve.
Because the repentance of which Jesus speaks is a repentance that gets to the heart of the matter.
A repentance that involves a wholesale change in thinking and in perception, in how we see things.
And while, this kind of change might well result in a change in behaviour, that is not its primary purpose.
The primary purpose of the kind of repentance to which Jesus points is a re-aligning ourselves with God and with the purposes of God.
And that does take a lifetime.
That kind of re-alignment, gaining a new perspective on God, might sound a relatively easy and painless shift.
But it is far from it!
If we were to truly repent!
To truly realign how we think about God, about Gods world, about the children of God, is not painless and is not easy but involves a drastic re-orientation of ourselves in relation to God.
And affects the way we approach all of life - and death.
It brings the ability, in the face of disaster, to know confidence in God as the source and the sustainer of all life.
To accept the randomness and cruelty that life sometimes brings.
In repentance we gain a new awareness of the presence of God - in ALL of life.
Even in the face of disaster we are upheld by the calm assurance that God is present - not averting disaster, not protecting Gods own, but bringing hope into the most desperate situations.
Bringing hope that, though we live in such turmoil, though disaster might strike at any moment, our hope is in God - the God who ensures that there is more - the God who calls us to be instruments of that hope that persists even in the bleakness of today's world and today's news.
Repentance involves not just a change of heart and of mind, a changed awareness and perspective but also a change in how we live, how we act with that changed perspective.
Repentance brings not fatalism, not calmness, but the call to join in Gods mission to bring justice and peace to all the world.
To change the bad news by living the good news.
So, as we reflect on all the bad news that we have heard this week, on all the images we have seen on TV, on all that we have read in newspapers, our question is not: Why, God, Why? But, How, God, How?
How can we bring change?
How can we relieve suffering?
How can we work for justice in our time?
So our repentance arises, not out of fear or guilt but out of the awareness of God at work, even in the midst of suffering.
And the difference that repentance brings is the ability to see how God might use us to change the story - from bad news to good news.
That story that Jesus tells, after speaking of repentance, the story of the fig tree that won't bear fruit, that the owner wants to cut down.
The fig tree that is saved because the gardener pleads for it, promising to pay it special attention.
That story speaks to me of second chances.
Second chances that come, not by simply letting fate takes its course, but by intervention.
If the fig tree is to survive the next visit of the owner, it is going to take a lot of hard work on the part of the gardener to ensure that it does bear fruit.
God calls us to hard work.
To the hard work of second chances.
To the hard work of intervention, changing what we can- to make a difference for others.
To give others their second chance.
It is to a ministry of second chances that God calls us.
To a ministry that bears fruit.
Being so convinced of God' s presence in our world that we will work to reveal that presence to others so that they too might repent,so that they too will have that joy of a whole new perspective, of the Good News getting the better of all the bad news.
May we all discover true repentance and in that discovery be called to be bringers of justice for all God's world.
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