1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
6Then 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. 7So 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?' 8He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
1Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
6Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Last week we talked about making peace with death and living fearlessly from that foundation. This week Jesus points us to death again, but in a different way. In a way it’s fitting that we would spend these two weeks talking about death; after all, Lent is a season lived in the shadow of the cross. Jesus points us to death today to jar us out of our complacency.
We spend most of our time taking care of everyday things. We go to work, we buy groceries, we cook dinner, put the kids to bed, maybe we read or watch some TV as we wind down our day. Our life is mostly made up of routine. Often that routine is comforting and comfortable; sometimes it’s boring or stressful, but the routine is a big part of our lives.
Routine is such a big part of our lives and the pressures of everyday life take up so much of our energy that we sometimes forget that life doesn’t go on forever. Shockingly, people die in the middle of their lives everyday. Those Galileans going to the temple to worship had no idea they wouldn’t come back. Those folks standing underneath the tower of Siloam had no reason to think that would be the day the tower came down.
But life is unpredictable. We pretend that things will go on as planned, and probably we have to do that most of the time to get on with life, but we honestly can’t be sure what tomorrow will bring or if we will have a tomorrow at all.
I’m not saying that to be morbid or depressing or to scare you; I’m saying that to be realistic. Jesus calls his audience to repent because we might not have another chance to do it. It’s important to plan some things. Patience is a virtue in buying a house or sticking with school because it’s the right long term decision. But we shouldn’t put off the truly important things in life. We shouldn’t put off telling someone we love them or reconciling with a loved one. We shouldn’t put off telling the truth or deciding to follow Jesus. Jesus calls us to repent, to turn around and seek God’s way instead of the useless ways of the world. And he calls us to do it now because later is uncertain.
I’m not here to preach fire and brimstone. I don’t think the main issue with repentance is whether God is going to send us to hell for not saying we’re sorry. I think the main issue with God, like the main issue with anyone we love is making that relationship right for its own sake.
Often when we think about repentance and death we think about the afterlife: the famous smoking or non-smoking question. That kind of thinking gets in the way of our relationship with God because it makes us think about that relationship in terms of fear or reward. There’s a certain logic to that and yet it’s all wrong because God is a parent to us, not just a judge.
When my parents die, I will probably inherit something from them, but that has no impact on my relationship with them now. I don’t talk to my parents on the phone to insure that they don’t change their will and I don’t apologize to them when I hurt their feelings because I’m afraid of some kind of punishment. I treat my parents with love because I love them and really it’s as simple with that. The knowledge that we will die sometime and we don’t know when gives a certain urgency to the relationship because I always want the connection between us to be one of good feelings and love, never anger or resentment. And I hate the thought of the regret I would feel if something happening to my parents and I had left something important between us unsaid.
We should hear Jesus’s call to repentance in the same way. God loves us and calls us to make that relationship right so we can enjoy a joyful relationship together instead of living with fear or resentment. We all turn away from God’s love for different reasons. We turn away because we get distracted by other things or because bad experiences in church or life get between us and God. We turn away because we loose ourselves in the complications and temptations of life. We turn away; so Jesus calls us to make it right. And Jesus calls us to make it right now because we don’t know if there will be a tomorrow.
Jesus stresses the urgency that comes with life’s unpredictability but Isaiah focuses on the fact that repentance is an amazing invitation more than a scary demand. We wander by accident and on purpose, but God always longs to take us back. “Let them return to our God, for he will abundantly pardon,” writes Isaiah. When we turn away from the wrong paths we’ve been following and seek the Lord again we don’t have to wonder if God will take us back; he will not only take us back, but will welcome us joyfully into his arms with a loving smile.
Repentance is an invitation to a full and rich life with God, a life that fills us with peace and joy and love. It’s a relationship that brings healing and beauty not only to us but also to the whole world. Listen to Isaiah’s words of safety and rejoicing; picture the image in your mind: “you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Life with God offers the richness of a life following our true calling instead of chasing the illusions of happiness the world offers. God asks the wandering people: “Why do you spend you money for that which isn’t bread and your labor for that which doesn’t satisfy?” Why do we spend our life chasing promotions and wealth and things? So often we keep striving because we want more but when we buy or work or achieve that “more” we still feel empty and anxious. We spend our labor and our money and our precious time for things that don’t satisfy us at the deepest level.
Instead of that illusion God offers us the true nourishment of his love, the true bread from heaven that is Christ, the rich milk and wine of leaning on the everlasting arms. God calls us, calls all of us to the abundant feast of his kingdom, the banquet of the people of God. It’s a banquet where everyone has enough to eat and more than enough. It doesn’t matter if you have money or not, if you have social status or not, if you have been in church all your life or if you’ve never opened a Bible. God calls everyone to the abundant feast of love.
God calls, and God renews us and all creation by his word. The word of God, the loving and challenging word of God, the word of repentance and forgiveness and welcome goes forth from the Lord. The word goes forth in scripture and in song, in proclamation and in discussion. The word goes forth in community life and in silent and solitary reflection. The word goes forth from God and it does not return empty but it accomplishes its mission.
Like rain falling on the arid desert of our selfish and isolated lives the word drips and pours down on us working its way slowly and sometimes imperceptibly down into the soil of our hearts. The word works its way in and little by little it stirs up new life, new hope, new faith. The seeds of repentance start to sprout and push up through the softening soil. Little by little the dry land is transformed into an oasis, the troubled heart is refreshed and calmed, the empty soul is filled with joy and peace, the tired church is nourished into new energy, new mission, the bare and violent city starts to see new hope peaking up from the ground.
Slowly, so slowly we sometimes miss it all together, those sprouts of hope and faith grow stronger, recharging and changing the landscape until the desert becomes a rich, green countryside. The briers give way to myrtles and the thorns transform into cypress trees. The hardness of distrust and fear soften into community and love, and the lonely life that feels like running on a treadmill we can’t stop becomes a joyful journey toward our true calling.
It doesn’t happen overnight, usually. Sometimes it takes years and we don’t know it’s happening until the process is well on its way, but God’s word doesn’t return empty. God’s word is working among us today. It’s working in our community to bring renewal and it’s working in each of our hearts to bring repentance and new, joyful life. Ultimately, repentance isn’t about guilt; it’s about new beginnings. Repentance opens the way for new things to happen, for new life to grow.
God always knocks at the door of our heart seeking to come in and eat with us. God calls persistently, asking us to leave behind the futile and isolated life we try to lead apart from him and take up the calling to be more than we are now. The calling is urgent because we don’t know what the future holds; the calling is joyful because God promises abundant pardon and an amazing new life of loving community and meaningful service.
Come, you who are thirsty, come to the waters, and you that have no money come buy and eat. Come to the table where there is bread and wine set out for us; come to the table where there is community and renewal and power; come to the table and bring your heart ready for God’s new direction and new life. Come and be healed, come and be loved, come and be made new.
Thanks be to God.