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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 03/03/2013

Do you ever remember trying to get a teacher off track, changing the subject, getting them to talk about something else, so you could hopefully avoid doing something you didn’t want to do?  It’s a time honored practice I think.  What students don’t know is that sometimes teachers will let it happen because they didn’t really feel like teaching that day anyway (or was that just me?).  I think you know what I’m talking about and that may be what’s going on in today’s gospel. 

Jesus wanted to talk about repentance, but repentance has never been a real popular topic, except to talk about someone else’s need for repentance. So those Jesus was talking with tried to change the subject wanting to know about those Galileans Pilate had murdered as they offered their sacrifices with the implication being, they must have done something pretty bad for that to have happened to them; God wouldn’t let it happen otherwise, right?  So what they’re going for is the old, “I may be bad, but surely I’m not that bad.”

But Jesus wasn’t having it.  “Do you really think they were worse than anyone else?” he asks, and then to show that whose sin is worse is pretty much a question that  leads nowhere, he poses his own question about eighteen people who were killed when a tower fell on them. “Do you think they were worse than anyone else,” he asks, his implication being that no, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The crowds wanted to talk about something else and somebody else, but Jesus kept coming back to them, “Unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.”  They wanted to get Jesus off track, but for him, repentance was too important, too urgent; he wouldn’t let them off the hook.

Jesus said a lot of things that the crowds liked to hear; that’s why there were crowds.  They especially liked things that seemed to turn the tables on the rich and powerful; but it wasn’t so much fun when it felt like they were in the spotlight; so they tried that time honored practice of changing the subject, but the spotlight kept finding them. 

Because Jesus did feel like teaching that day, what comes next is the little parable about the fig tree.  The landowner sees this fig tree that hasn’t produced any fruit for three years; it’s just taking up space.  So he says to the gardener, “Cut it down!”  The gardener however, isn’t ready to give up.  “Give it another year,” he says.  “Let me work with it, try some more manure and see if it bears fruit.  If not, then I’ll cut it down.”

That’s where it ends.  Typical of many of Jesus’ parables, it’s open ended; it leaves room for interpretation.  But put yourself in the place of these people as they try to avoid the topic of repentance.  How do they hear this parable?   Is it grace or is it judgment?  As Jesus moves on and as they return to their homes or wherever, are they thinking that Jesus has let them off the hook, that they’ve dodged a bullet, or is the spotlight still on them?

Is it grace, or is it judgment, for them, for us?  It’s both; it’s another example of the tension that is part of our faith.  As Lutherans we are steeped in grace so we have to hear that: the tree is given another year and with that there certainly is hope. But if that’s all we hear, we miss the urgency of what Jesus was talking about, the urgency he wanted the crowd to hear that day.  There was grace for that fig tree, but there was also a timeline; one more year.  That part of it needs to be heard too.  Repentance is called for and it’s urgent and it’s not too late.  But…it’s a can that you can’t just keep kicking down the road.  At some point you have to pick it up because time will run out.

One of the temptations we face is that of making Jesus so nice that he loses his judgmental edge.  But, as has been said before by me and many others, that warm, fuzzy Jesus would never have been crucified.  It’s one of the reasons it’s hard to talk to Sunday School students about Good Friday and the crucifixion because in Sunday School Jesus is so nice, how could anyone not like him?  But Jesus shook things up!  He shocked people!  He made demands of people; he warned people of consequences!  When all that comes up though, like the crowd Jesus talked to, we just as soon change the subject and go back to warm fuzzies.

Unless you repent, you will perish as they did.  Unless you repent.  Repent is one of those church words; we hear it from John the Baptist every year during Advent and then of course it’s associated with Lent.  When we hear repentance, we do shy away from it; we don’t really want to do it.  But if we knew what Jesus meant by repentance, we’d probably shy away even more because for Jesus repentance isn’t just feeling bad that we’re not as good as he would like us to be.

In Jesus the kingdom of God was breaking in; the prophecies of the Old Testament were no longer just about the future, they were happening: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.  It was happening and that meant that action was called for, now!  For Jesus, repentance was action; it was turning toward the kingdom he proclaimed and represented, turning away from the kingdom of this world and it was urgent!  It wasn’t something to be put off.  It was surrendering to the will of God, now!

And of course that’s the problem for all of us, that surrender.  We want to negotiate the terms of surrender.  We have a God given identity that we receive in baptism, but there’s that part of us that tells us that we can do better than that; we convince ourselves that the world around us has more to offer.  At Bible study a couple of weeks ago someone said when her little granddaughter prays the Lord’s prayer, “thy” is a word that she doesn’t really know what to do with, so instead of “thy will be done” she prays “my will be done.”  I don’t think it’s just little first graders that do that.  A lot of us may say “thy”, but we’re thinking “my.”

Repentance really can’t start until we admit that there’s a difference between thy will and my will.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  The situation at the time of Isaiah, from where those words come, wasn’t all that different than it was at the time of Jesus or than what it is now.  The people of Israel were in captivity in Babylon, but it wasn’t so bad.  It wasn’t like their ancestors in slavery back in Egypt, working Pharaoh’s brickyard.  In Babylon the situation was more subtle.  If the people compromised their identity as people of the Lord, they could do pretty well; they could live well and be well.  They could even still be Jewish, as long as they didn’t take it too seriously.  It’s like the line from the skit the other night when the real estate agent said to the couple, “So, you people are religious?” and the husband responds, “Well, not really; we’re Lutheran.”

It’s funny, but with things like that, the reason it’s funny is because there’s a degree of truth in it.  The urgency that Jesus felt about the kingdom of God is largely missing.  What we’ve become real good at is hearing the grace part of Jesus’ parable of the fig tree without hearing the judgment part or if we do hear judgment, like I said, we kick it way into the future so we  don’t have to worry too much about it.  We’ve taken the tension out of the parable and out of our faith and when we do that we’re just left with the warm fuzzy Jesus who probably no one would have remembered or cared about for very long.

But Jesus created tension, tension that demanded repentance in the form of acts that revealed the kingdom, acts of peace and justice, kindness and compassion, the kinds of things that have never really been the way to get ahead in this world.  The repentance Jesus called for did have an “or else” component to it, one that we ought not gloss over, because Jesus didn’t gloss it over.  We can’t let our Lutheran focus on grace cause us to miss the call to repent, to do something, now!

Beyond the tension though, beyond the or else, is Isaiah’s vision of the banquet of rich food and wine and milk, the gifts of God for the people of God.  It’s imagery that Jesus himself picks up on in other parables.  He does create tension, but not without the promise of the banquet, and it’s one that is not just about the heavenly hereafter, it’s a banquet that is available now.

In Jesus the kingdom has broken into this world.  The time is now.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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