Human tragedy happens every day. I’m sure if I asked you, you could tell me about someone you know who is dealing with tragic illness or recovery from an accident. Or you probably know someone who died an untimely tragic death. We live in a world where bad things happen to good people every day. Planes crash. Terrorists attack movie theaters and schools. Hurricanes devastate coastlands. We turn to God and we ask: why? Why don’t you intervene? Why do you save some people and not save others?
Countless books have been written about this topic: why do people suffer? I would not begin to try to answer that question today. But our scripture starts with suffering. There are two accounts of suffering. In this first, we learn that Pontius Pilate had killed some Galileans who had made their way to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage. This is brutality at its worst. We see Pontius Pilate as a ruthless political leader. We are not surprised later on when he is used as an instrument to bring about the death of Jesus. Then, in this scripture we hear about a Tower that collapsed in Jerusalem, killing eighteen people. The first event was caused by an evil man; the second was probably just a tragic accident.
Jesus does not use these stories to talk about the reason for suffering in the world. Note that he does not say these people were evil and that is why they died. He makes a point to say, “Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all.” And he says: “And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? Not at all.” He will not make a connection between people’s worth and their suffering.
He does say this: “Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.” Jesus makes a call to repentance for everyone. He uses these two events to show the fragility of life. He reminds us that none of us knows how much time we have left on this earth. We don’t know when a tower might fall on us, or we might contract a fatal disease, or get hit by a bus. We don’t have to be morbid about these things, but it’s a good idea to take stock of our lives.
We need to ask ourselves: are we living the lives that God calls us to live? Unless we repent, and turn toward God, we will die and not be able to turn back time. There will be no time left to make things right. I don’t want to die separated from God, and I don’t think you do either.
And so this scripture invites us to make a turn toward God. Matt Skinner writes that repentance here “refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective…. It can be more about being found than about finding oneself (see Luke 15:1-10). It refers to an entirely reoriented self, to a new consciousness of one's shortcomings and one's dire circumstances.” (Source: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2789). So repentance is more than just making good moral decisions. Repentance is a complete realignment of oneself with the ways of God. Repentance is to see the world through the eyes of God. Repentance is to be fully aware of one’s shortcomings and to make a sincere effort to change.
There is a second part to the scripture. In it Jesus tells them a parable, a story that teaches a lesson.
“A man had an apple tree planted in his front yard. He came to it expecting to find apples, but there weren’t any. He said to his gardener, ‘What’s going on here? For three years now I’ve come to this tree expecting apples and not one apple have I found. Chop it down! Why waste good ground with it any longer?’
8-9 “The gardener said, ‘Let’s give it another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize, and maybe it will produce next year; if it doesn’t, then chop it down.’”
The command to chop down the tree represents judgement on someone who has not repented. If there is no fruit in your life, no sign that you are a follower of Jesus, then you will die and be separated from God.
But did you hear what the gardener said? “Let’s give it another year? I’ll dig around and fertilize it and maybe it will produce next year.” That is the way it is with God. God does not want to give up on us. God always wants to give us another chance. God always wants to give us a little more fertilizer, in the hopes that in next year we will come around.
What does that fertilizer look like? It might be an invitation to participate in our outreach ministries to feed the hungry; or an invitation to give someone a ride to someone or visit someone in the hospital. It might be an invitation to pray daily or fast during the season of Lent or to come to worship more regularly. Perhaps your fertilizer will be a nudge to be more patient with a particular person or more compassionate or more generous. It could be any of these things. Any of these things could produce fruit in the life of a follower of Jesus.
The big question for today is this: will we repent? Will you admit that you are not all that God wants you to be? And if so, will you undergo a changed mind, a new way of seeing things? Will you be persuaded to adopt a different perspective…. It can be more about being found than about finding yourself (see Luke 15:1-10). It refers to an entirely reoriented self, to a new consciousness of one's shortcomings and one's dire circumstances. (ibid.)
The place to start is where you are. Are you content? Do you feel connected to God? Do you believe you are living in the Way God would have you live? I mean the Way with a capital “W.” Or do you need to make a change? Do you have a sense that there is a separation, some kind of wall between you and God? That God is distant from your life? We all go through times of feeling disconnected from God. This is when we need to repent and turn toward God. We need to allow ourselves to be found by God again.
Are you willing to make an honest inventory of yourself and your shortcomings so that you might confess those shortcomings to God and ask for help? God always stands ready to forgive us and God will give us the strength to make changes.
Do you see fruit in your life? This means, do you see evidence that the Holy Spirit lives in you and is working through you? In the book of Galatians there is a list of what we call the fruits of the Spirit. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23.) It’s hard to live out all of these things all the time. But this is the goal. If we are lacking any of these fruit then we need to repent, and turn toward God and ask God to help us live in these ways.
So let’s start with the first one. Do you have a loving spirit? Do you treat every person you encounter with a sense of love? Do you live with joy? Do you have a sense of light-heartedness? This is evidence that you are living in line with God. Do you have peace? This means peace deep in your soul. Are you not in conflict with anyone? If you are in conflict, can you start today to work to make amends? Are you patient? This is a hard one for me. When someone tries your patience, can you take a deep breath and ask God to give you patience? Can you try to put yourself in the place of the other person? Do you live with kindness in your heart toward every other human being? This is what it means to live in the way of Jesus. We have an attitude of kindness in our dealings with others. Are you generous? Do you give yourself away or do you hold on to what is yours in the fear that you might not have enough. Everything we have comes from God and God wants us to share with those who have less. Are you faithful? Are you someone that others can trust? Do you put your trust in God without reservation? Are you gentle? This means that you are not harsh but you practice gentleness in your dealings with others. You treat others with care and concern for their well-being. And finally do you practice self-control? Do you refrain from self-destructive habits and practices? Do you hold your temper and hold your tongue so as not to harm your relationships with others?
This list, the fruits of the Spirit, is a good one to consider when we want to ask ourselves if we are living in line with God’s desires for us. And in the places where we are not, we need to repent. We need to undergo a changed mind and a changed spirit so we might be faithful followers of Jesus.
Of what do you need to repent today? What is holding you back from being the person God created you to be? Let’s confess our sins to God now, and ask God to make us new people. Will you pray with me?
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Holy God, have mercy on us. We repent of our old ways and turn to you to make us new. We know that we are not all that you want us to be. We want to undergo a changed mind and have a new way of seeing things. We want adopt a different perspective, your perspective. We want to be found by you. We see our shortcomings and we confess them to you now. Forgive us, we pray, and make us new people. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.