'Tis the season to be sorry, right? Lent. Just so, those who select the Scripture for the weekly lections chose Luke 13:1-9 for this past Sunday (3/11/2007):
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.’”
Repentance conjures up a cartoon of a wild-eyed street-corner preacher, with robe and beard, holding a placard with the one word summons, "Repent." And, of course, no one pays any attention to him. Sort of like those noon day gatherings at the corner opposite the bank and the post office in my hometown of twenty-nine years, where members of the Plymouth Brethren shouted to the heavens and passersby the impending judgment of God on a wicked and perverse generation. Barbara and I would occasionally watch, if not listen to, them with acoustic immunity through the window of a seafood restaurant across the street.
Maybe they are part of the reason I have been loathe to broach the subject (repentance) in sermons throughout half a century of preaching.
More likely, I just didn't get it, the meaning of repentance... of Gospel dimensions.
Mostly, I bought into the common misunderstanding that repentance is principally about personal morality. You know, like the preaching of John the Baptist (see Luke 3:10-14). Righting wrongs. Mending fences. Going second miles. Turning the other cheek. That sort of thing, fixing our connections with others.
And, as I heard another preacher recently expound, fixing our connection with God. More Bible study. Deeper prayer. Fasting wouldn't hurt either. Focusing on the vertical dimension of our life on earth.
Repentance, in these terms, belongs in the category of putting our house in order. While the aforementioned rigors are admirable, even spiritual, and to be encouraged, they are not repentance. Repentance of gospel proportions isn't setting one's house in order as much as it is building a whole new house (on rock? see Matthew 7:24).
In the Gospel according to Mark (1:15) Jesus appears, almost as if out of nowhere, preaching the theme for his entire ministry: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
What on earth is the good news to believe in? That something incredibly transforming, a revolution like no revolution that has ever or will ever roil this planet, has taken place... on earth... by God. At just the right moment, the moment for which a broken world had been pining since Eden, that same moment which prophets of old had described in visions of justice, peace, and harmony, that momentous moment has arrived. A baby cradled in mother Mary's arms in a stable in Bethlehem. A peripatetic preacher captivating the imaginations of the poor of all the earth. A human sacrifice offered on a barren hillside outside of Jerusalem, where three crosses are raised, one of them burdened and soaring with the promise of new life. Yes, Jesus. In him the time is fulfilled and the kingdom draws near. So, repent; that is, get with it, see it, believe it, trust it, live your life from it, make it your abiding hope.
Repentance, I have come to understand, means leaving behind the ways of the world and living one's life out of the certainty of God's grace, manifest in Jesus Christ.
Hell, yes, I know the old world still lingers, struts, convulses, postures, and kills. I know that I live in that world too. I worry like everyone else, about, say, the grandchildren's college tuition or global warming. I also get depressed with the news from Baghdad. I watch Bloomberg TV and track the downward spiral of the S & P. I get up on the wrong side of the bed and blame the dog. I file my IRS return looking for all the legal ways to minimize my taxes. The world is ever with me.
But my loyalty lies elsewhere. My orders come not from the White House but the Father's house. My measure of prosperity is not mine to do with what I please; I hold it in trust for Another. When the world and certain fifteen year olds insist we should do to others as others do to us, I remind them and me too that there's a better rule and it's golden. When death intrudes and shadows fall on the family circle, I cry, sure I do, but cling more fervently yet to the promise that this life, by God, is the prelude to another.
I was once asked by the bishop at the time of my ordination a question out of John Wesley's rule book: "Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?" At the time, I demurred. Now I am convinced it is impossible. The most I can hope for me is repentance... and betting my soul on the conviction that God has not left us alone here to fend for ourselves, but has put beneath the surface of things a new and gracious order... by Jesus!... where even I, among the least likely, may yet be made perfect in love.