Jeremiah 31:27-34 Romans 11:25-36 John 11:28-44 I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. [Jeremiah 31:34c] There’s a hymn in our Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymnal [ELW #792] that I’ve most often used at funerals for those departed souls who have suffered from Alzheimer’s or dementia. It is titled “When Memory Fades,”…
December 4, 2016
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
What is repentance?
That question would get a wide variety of answers. I would also maintain that most of us have suppressed that word in our vocabulary.
But we can’t just ignore it.
The great theologian Paul Tillich said years ago, that the great words of the Christian tradition cannot be replaced. And when we try to talk around them, we find our language diminished.
I know I am not breaking any new ground here, but the Greek word used in the Bible is metanoia. In classical Greek, it meant changing one’s mind about someone or something.
Every Second Sunday of Advent, we are reintroduced to the odd character of John the Baptist. Our Gospel reading for this Second Sunday of Advent tells us that he appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Back in John the Baptist’s day, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan.” [verse 5] I would imagine that their main inspiration was the hope of something better, more than just being spared from the “unquenchable fire,” but being gathered into the granary. [verse 12.]
Today, however, in most church contexts, people stay away in droves. What’s the difference?
It may be because repentance is associated with guilt. It brings up images of facing an angry parent, or a disappointed teacher.
Many of those who do attend church regularly, hear the word “repentance” and think of a formula, a religious routine. We stand, we tell God we’re sorry for what we’ve done, the Pastor proclaims God’s forgiveness and then we resume our lives as before, with no appreciable transformation.
To quote the blessed Martin Luther, such repentance is, “worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.”*
Repentance is not moaning and groaning or feeling sorry for yourself, it is letting God’s Spirit wipe away our sinfulness, thus giving us insight into the limitlessness of God’s love!
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, has a chapter on “Recovering Repentance.
In that chapter, she proposes a new kind of church; one that will genuinely support transformation, where members are expected and supported to be about the business of new life – a life filled with meaning and purpose.
In my feeble attempt to do that, I can’t recall where I got the idea; but when I was in the parish, one Sunday during Lent we gave each member in attendance a little card which said:
I repent of all my sins, known and unknown. I am truly sorry, and I pray for forgiveness. I firmly intend to amend my life, and to seek help in mending what is broken. I ask for strength to turn from sin and to serve you in newness of life.
We then collected those cards and burned them in the Easter Vigil fire as a visible show of God’s forgiveness. Of course, many of those who wrote on those cards weren’t at the Vigil to see this act of grace. So, I’m not sure how much of an impact the experiment had on them. I simply had to trust that they took some measure of comfort.
To quote Taylor again: “God’s grace is not simply the infinite supply of divine forgiveness upon which hopeless sinners depend. Grace is also the mysterious strength God lends human beings who commit themselves to the work of transformation. To repent is both to act from that grace and to ask for more of it, in order to follow Christ into the starting freedom of new life.”
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Amen
* Thesis number three of the 95 Theses
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
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.’”
[Luke 13:6-9 NRSV]
Jesus’ parable of the fig tree is one of those unique to Luke’s gospel. The fig tree is not producing fruit. It is not serving the purpose for which it was planted. The care given to it seems wasted. The owner understandably intends to put the soil to better use. The gardener intervenes.
“Give it one more year,” he pleads. One more season to nurture the plant to growth before it will either produce or be cut down.
The “sin” of the fig tree is not that it was doing something bad, but that it was doing nothing – just taking up space in the vineyard.
The Gardener is more than a caretaker, but one who invests himself in fruitless trees so that they might not only look good, but bear fruit-good for people to eat and be nourished. That Gardener in our parable is our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us another year to yield fruit.
God’s fruit trees (us) were not planted merely to look good, but to be good for something. We were not planted in the orchard just to take up space, drawing the good out of the ground so we can shape out with an impressive profile. No. The purpose of a fig tree is to bear fruit. Without the fruit fig trees will cease to exist. Not just this fig tree that is you or me or someone else. All fig trees, the whole orchard. No fruit. No next generation.
The cure that Jesus the patient gardener offers is radical horticulture: he will give his own life, his crucified body, as the fertilizer, the compost that will bring new life and growth. Repentance–a turning away from death toward life and wholeness–is part of this process.
We come here this morning into the presence of the God who made us and loves and has sacrificed so much for us; God understands what it means to live in a world where so much is all wrong; and God “will abundantly pardon” to use the words of the prophet Isaiah. Because God has set things right between God and us through Jesus’ death on the cross.
The parable of the fig tree invites us to consider the gift of another year of life as an act of God’s mercy. The gardener pleads for and is granted one more year. A year of forgiveness, restoration, and second chances.
Lent is a season of looking at our lives, of honest self-examination, and of reflection on the suffering, bleeding and dying that Jesus endured to be our Savior.
Because God cares for each of us, we are free to trust in God’s love for us and God’s never-ending grace.
Every Sunday when we come to worship we come before God acknowledging our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness. We may want to make excuses and give explanations for our bad behavior but we know that God can see right through them all.
So with confidence we confess the wrong that is in our lives, and approach God’s throne of Grace with honesty, and we are assured and refreshed with the joy of knowing that because of Jesus our wrong is not held against us.
So I would invite you to consider the litany of our shortcomings as spelled out in the order for confession and forgiveness in this morning’s bulletin:
- For self-centered living, and for failing to walk with humility and gentleness:
- For longing to have what is not ours, and for hearts that are not at rest with ourselves:
- For misuse of human relationships, and for unwillingness to see the image of God in others
- For jealousies that divide families and nations, and for rivalries that create strife and warfare
- For reluctance in sharing the gifts of God, and for carelessness with the fruits of creation:
- For hurtful words that condemn, and for angry deeds that harm:
- For idleness in witnessing to Jesus Christ, and for squandering the gifts of love and grace:
And I leave you with another question to ponder. Put yourself in the place of the fig tree.
What would you do if you had only a year left to live, only a short time in which to make up for wrongs done and opportunities missed? How important might that year be?
In our troubled accident-prone, disaster-ridden world, what can we do to become trees that bear good fruit, samples of produce good for something, good for people in bad times?!
It bears repeating that Jesus does not explain the causes of violence that nature and human beings regularly inflict upon unsuspecting people. He does not blame victims. He does not attempt to defend creation or the Creator when “why?” questions seem warranted. He offers no theological speculation and inflicts no emotional abuse. He simply asks: What about you? How will you live the life you get to live?
The lesson of the fig tree is a challenge to live each day as a gift from God.
Live each day in such a way that you will have no fear of living out the gospel and live lives of service.
Live each day using God’s gifts to heal the brokenness of the world.