"Repentance" is a fitting word for the penitential season of Lent, but is it something to focus our eyes on? This 3rd Sunday in Lent is called Occuli. Occuli is Latin for eyes. This Sunday takes it name from the first word in the Latin Introit: "My eyes are ever on the Lord." Did you catch that? The Introit for today as well as the Gradual for all of Lent bids our eyes be focused "ever on the Lord," "fixed on Jesus." So even when we look at the Lenten word "repentance," we still focus on Jesus.
Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to pay the final installment for the sins of the world. Jesus is traveling from Galilee with other Galileans to Jerusalem where the Roman governor Pontus Pilate rules. Some of His traveling companions tell Jesus of fellow Galileans who had been killed by Pilate while offering their sacrifices in Jerusalem. How horrible! Surely this must be a sign that God did not accept their sacrifices. Surely this must indicate that they were under the judgment of God! They must have been guilty before God the same way that Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, were. They were killed by God for offering strange fire to Him.
Tragedy calls for repentance. Tragedy connected to religious practices even more so. Surely God wouldn't let anything bad happen to worshippers of Him unless there was something wrong with their worship, would He? This is the error of Job's friends. Big suffering comes from big sins and calls for repentance on the part of the sufferer. Jesus turns this upside down saying, "No, the suffering of others calls for you to repent!"
Then Jesus ups the ante. They brought up the case of a man-made tragedy striking worshippers in church. Jesus brings up an act of God that killed 18 people. Who but God could've pushed over the tower of Siloam? In mysterious death, like when a tornado demolishes one house and leaves the two next to it untouched, or in chance death, like when lightening strikes, people are certain they see God's judgment. Jesus does too, but not the way we think. The mysterious, chance death of others calls for concrete repentance on our part. We are not to conclude anything about the people who died. We are only to conclude that we who are alive should repent.
Repent! Says Jesus. Repent today, now. See what your sins deserve. Your worship is so polluted by your sins it calls forth God's judgment. Your day to day life is too. Regardless of whom you are, how holy you are, how religious you are, how faithful you are, Jesus says, "Repent!" And yes, He's talking to us in the church first and foremost. In the parable Jesus tells, He places the fig tree where? In the vineyard. The Lord's vineyard in Old Testament language is the Church.
If that parable doesn't convince you that the call to repent goes out to the Church, then Paul's words in the Epistle should. Let me translate His Old Testament illustration into New Testament words. All those whom Moses rescued from Egypt were baptized in the Red Sea. They all ate and drank in Communion with Christ. They were not only baptized members of the Church, they were communicant members. "Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert."
Paul goes on to apply this directly to us, "These things happened to them as examples and warnings for us." Look at the tragedies that happen around us: killer tornadoes, tragic bus accidents, random shootings, deadly disease, and hear the call to repent. Don't let the waters of Baptism fill your ears, so you can't hear the call. Don't use the Body and Blood of Christ as a defense for your sins. Don't think the call to repent is only for people outside of the Church. The bell of repentance tolls for you.
The child caught red-handed wails how sorry he is trying to avoid the spanking. Is that repentance? A person hears a sermon on the sufferings of Christ for sinners; love so amazing, so divine breaks his heart and he recoils at his sins and says, "I'm sorry." Is that repentance? The Catholic catechism distinguishes between the 2 saying repentance out of fear of punishment is imperfect and repentance out of love for God is perfect. Don't do that. Don't weigh or sift motives. You'll end up despairing because your repentance isn't perfect, or even worse, you'll end up thinking it is.
No amount of repenting is enough to cause God to forgive your sins. Bemoan what a wretched sinner you are; put on sack cloth; punish yourself in little or big ways, and God will look at all that and say, "That's nothing." Your repentance doesn't move God to forgive. Christ's suffering and death, Christ's perfect living, and life do. When Christ cried out on the cross, "It is finished," He wasn't talking about His life but the payment for your sins. God the Father showed He accepted it by raising Jesus from the dead. You can't add anything to that payment. Your repentance, deep sorrow, or even love doesn't, can't add to Jesus' full payment.
So where does repentance come from? It comes from your heart, but it is worked by God's grace. In terms of the parable, God has made us fig trees, i.e. He has made us good trees by His grace. He came and got us where we were outside of His garden, mired in sin and filth. He came to us with the good news that though we were no different than the faithless, sinful people around us, for Jesus' sake He was gracious to us. Though our sins were as red as scarlet, for Jesus' sake He made them white as snow. Though our sins were as near to us as a mole on skin, for Jesus' sake He separated them from us as far as east is from west.
You're a fig tree in the Lord's garden; that doesn't mean you're done with repenting. It means you're just getting started. I don't mean by that you are to constantly punish yourself or belittle yourself. I mean what Luther said in his first of 95 Theses: The Christian life is one of constant repentance. I mean what the Lord's Prayer teaches: each day say, "Forgive us our sins." I mean what the liturgy teaches us to pray. Lord have mercy, create in us clean hearts. Every note of the Law is to produce the sound of repentance in our hearts. Every man-made or divine tragedy is to remind us of our sins not the sins of others.
God's grace leads us to repentance and keeps us there. As long as we are alive, the Lord is calling us to repent. As long as we are alive, the Lord is saying, "It's not too late for you." But you can see from the parable the day of grace does run out. Jesus says there comes a time where there is no room for repentance. There comes a time when God the Father will grow tired of looking for the fruit of repentance and command, "Cut it down." You can see this from the Epistle too. Paul threatens those who don't repent with disease, natural disaster, and a destroying angel right then and there. God speaks of instant punishment to offset Satan's ploy.
Satan constantly whispers in our ears, "You have lots of time to repent. There is no need to turn from your sin now. Go ahead enjoy it for a little while longer." There are many people who believe they can put off repenting until their deathbed. One thing you can be absolutely sure of, if you plan on repenting in the future, you never will. That is presuming on the grace of God that calls you and leads you to repent now.
You're about to go in a ditch here. The ditch I warned you about at the beginning of this sermon: focusing on repentance. In Lent our eyes are to fix ever on Jesus the author and perfecter of our repentance and faith. Jesus is the "man who took care of the vineyard."
The vineyard owner is God the Father. God the Father speaks the Law commanding that we be cut down and out of His vineyard as we deserve. After all in sheer grace He had taken us worthless plants and made us fig trees, us worthless sinners and made us saints in His Church. He washed us from our filth by the water of Baptism. He continually dusted us with Absolution to keep our sins from eating up our leaves, and He fed us with the Body and Blood of His Son. And yet we don't produce the fruit called repentance. We resort to defending our sins and excusing our sins saying, "I'll repent tomorrow."
"Cut it down," is the just judgment of the Father. Yet, Christ the Gardener intercedes. He says not "leave it alone," but "forgive it." The Greek word translated "leave it alone," is the same word translated, "forgive" many other places. The day of grace is to go on. And far from Christ speaking of what we fig trees are now going to do if we're forgiven, Jesus speaks of what He is going to do. "I will dig; I will fertilize."
Jesus promises to do more of what He has been doing. The Gardener doesn't promise new methods. He doesn't say, "I'll instruct them on what the fruitful Christian life looks like. I'll teach them how to be repentant fig trees." Nope; there's going to be more digging of the law and more fertilizing with the Gospel. There's going to be more watering with Baptism, dusting with Absolution, and feeding with Communion.
Then what? Here's the touching part of the parable. Remember Jesus is speaking to Galileans who think everyone else needs to repent more than they do. He's speaking to Galileans He had been watering, dusting, and feeding for 3 years, and they still thought more of other people's sins then they did their own. Yet Jesus can't bear the thought of them, or us, not repenting. In the parable, Jesus breaks off the words of the Gardener. He says, "If it bears fruit next year, fine! And if not uhhh." The Gardner stops in mid-sentence. One commentary says that a lump welled up in Jesus throat and the words trail off. Then the words pick up, and the Gardner doesn't say, "I will cut it down," though that command was given to Him by the Vineyard owner. The Gardner says, "You will cut it down."
God in Christ can't bear the thought of bringing even just judgment down upon impenitence. He doesn't relish the impenitent being stricken with disease, natural disaster, or destroying angels. Jesus doesn't think, "Yeah these arrogant, presumptuous, impenitent Galileans are going to get theirs if they don't repent." He can't bear that thought. That's how deep is His love, and that's why during Lent, a season of repentance, our eyes are ever on the Lord; fixed on Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Third Sunday in Lent (20070311); Luke 13: 1-9