(Originally preached at Alger First United Methodist Church on 2/28/2016)
Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
Can I admit something? I really hate change. Is anybody with me? I like routine, I like order, I like familiarity. I have a whole morning routine I go through every morning to start my day off right-Wake up, contemplate going back to sleep, brush my teeth, shave, shower, you get the idea. If part of it gets messed up, I might as well go back to bed and start the day over again!
I especially don’t like change when it comes to my opinions, beliefs, ideas. I believe what I believe, I think I have solid facts and reasoning backing my opinions. So I hate it when I’m proved wrong or someone has a better argument than me. It’s very hard for me when something happens or someone says something that shows that maybe my opinion or belief or idea isn’t right and maybe needs to change.
My fiance Lauren and I are both pretty opinionated people. Neither of us like being proved wrong. Neither of us want to change our opinion. This can obviously lead to bickering, right? And sometimes when we get to arguing about something little, we’ll get to this point where we look at each other and say “Well, you’re just…wrong!” And when that happens…she wins.
Now, I’m sure no one else has this problem, right?But for real, all of us have these deeply held convictions, beliefs, opinions, ways of life. We think “I’m right. Everyone else is wrong. And nobody can make me change that.” I think everyone has
But for real, all of us have these deeply held convictions, beliefs, opinions, ways of life. We think “I’m right. Everyone else is wrong. And nobody can make me change that.” I think everyone has something they’re attached to like this.
Now, strong convictions and strong beliefs are certainly not bad. But too often, what we’re holding onto so tightly is an old part of ourselves, a part that need to change if we’re going to grow, if God is ever going to do any kind of work in us.
I think Jesus would have us behave differently. We’re in week 3 of the season of Lent. During this season we’re journeying towards Jesus’ death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday. On Easter Sunday, we’re going to celebrate Christ’s resurrection by remembering and renewing our baptism. In baptism, we are claimed as God’s children, holy and dearly loved, and are claimed through Christ’s death and resurrection. There is no better time to be reminded of this than on Easter Sunday.
So for this season, we’re taking a deep look into the Baptismal Vows given to us by our denomination, the United Methodist Church. These vows are said at any United Methodist baptism and anytime we remember our baptisms. They remind us of what we signed up for when we became a follower of Christ, and they give us a glimpse of what a life as a Christ follower should look like.
This week, we’re focusing on a single word that shows up in these vows and relates to all of the Scriptures you’ve heard today and is probably pretty familiar to you. The word is…
This is such a widely used word that I’m sure a lot of us have our own definitions and understandings of it. But I think Jesus gives us an additional way to understand this word, repentance.
Could you all turn with me to Luke 13:1-9?
Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. 2 He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. 4 What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
6 Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ 8 The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.9 Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9, CEB)
This is one of those Gospel passages that I really wish wasn’t in the lectionary because this is complex. In many ways, it’s hard to know what Jesus meant in this passage. Since I introduced it like I did, you know that the passage is about repentance in some way. But this looks like a pretty bleak understanding of repentance. You might be able to sum it up by saying “Life is short, repent now!”
It makes sense, right? The text has people coming to Jesus and asking Jesus about a tragic incident that must have recently occurred. Pilate, the Roman ruler of the area, had killed several people from the region of Galilee while they were offering sacrifices, while they were worshiping. Remember the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC back in June? I understand that to be similar to this tragedy raised in our reading today, and probably just as well-known back then.
Jesus also mentions the tower of Siloam falling and killing 18 people. They’re talking about the tragic events of their time, just like we might discuss and worry about terrorist attacks or natural disasters of our time. And they’re looking to Jesus for answers, just like we do.
But Jesus doesn’t give any answers-he has that annoying habit.
Jesus just says “Unless you repent, you’ll die like them.”
What’s that all about?
Jesus then tells the parable about this barren fig tree. The owner comes down, sees that the fig tree is fruitless for the third year in a row, and tells the gardener to chop it down so that it wouldn’t keep wasting the soil’s nutrients. The gardener seems like he’s going to come to the rescue, keeping the owner from having it chopped down, saying that he’s going to dig around it, water it, fertilize the soil around it, take extra special care of this tree. But the gardener only gives the tree another year. Then it goes, if it still doesn’t have any fruit.
This is a tough, difficult, complex story, and we have to be careful with this. If we take just a surface-level look at it, we might end up with what I call turn-or-burn theology. I’m sure you’ve heard it. It’s the theology that tries to scare people into salvation, asking questions like “Repent, turn to God now, make your life right with God now, because you could die tonight! You could die on the car ride home, so don’t you want to know where your soul would end up? Repent now!” It’s the theology that uses these scare tactics to almost coerce salvation, focusing only on what happens after death, not worried at all about the here and now. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here.
Jesus isn’t talking here about what happens after you die. I think he wants the people, and us, to understand that God has a new life waiting for us right now. Transformation is available to us literally at this moment. God has a calling for us in this life, today, now. We just have to decide to follow it. We just have to turn away from our old life and turn toward the new life. We just have to change.
That’s what repentance really means. Remember, that’s our word for today-repentance. As I understand it, repentance is not about feeling really sorry or really bad. It’s not about feeling shame. It’s not even about changing behavior only.
There’s a Greek word that shows up a lot in the New Testament that’s normally translated into our word for today, “repent.” The Greek word is metanoia. In the Greek world outside of Christianity, this word referred to simply changing your mind. The early Christians took the word, kept the same basic meaning, but added depth. So for Christians, the word refers to a rigorous mental and spiritual reorientation of yourself.
In fact, the Common English Bible, the translation that I read for you and the one that’s in our red pew Bibles, the people who created the Common English Bible decided to translate the Greek word metanoia not to “repent,” but into the phrase “Change your heart and mind.” In a nutshell, that’s what repent really means-change your heart and mind.
The writer C.S. Lewis has some really great words about repentance out of his book Mere Christianity. Lewis said that “Repentance means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing a part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death.”
You see, repentance is not just about behaving better or being a nicer person. It’s not about coming to church more often or reading your Bible more. Repentance is a re-orientation and rearranging of your whole self, starting with your mind and turning outward. Repentance is a radical change of your heart and life.
And in this change are two actions: turning away from your old life and turning toward the new life that Christ offers us.
This understanding was really played out in the baptism ritual of the early church. In the early church, whenever there were people to be baptized, they would gather around a pool, because they did their baptism by dunking. The person to be baptized would start on one side of the pool. Before getting into the baptismal pool, they would take off their old clothes and throw them away on the first side of the pool. Sometimes the old clothes were burned or destroyed.
Then this person would get into the pool and get baptized. Naked. Aren’t you glad we don’t do it this way anymore?
Then they would come out on the other side and would be given new clothes. When they took off their old clothes on the other side of the baptism pool, they left their old life behind. And the idea was that they left it behind so well that they couldn’t go back to it, they couldn’t live their old life anymore.
This is huge change that Jesus is talking about, a huge change of turning away from our old, sinful, broken way of life and turning toward the new life that Christ has for us. It’s uncomfortable and difficult. But just think of what’s being offered out to us right now. We caught a glimpse of that in the passage from Isaiah that was read earlier [Isaiah 55:1-9]. Isaiah said “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. Listen and come to me; Listen, and you will live.” (Isaiah 55:1-3a, CEB)
Jesus offers us nothing short of a brand new, changed-for-the-better life.
But it’s not an instantaneous conversion. It’s not like one moment you’re an absolute sinner and the next moment, you’re an absolute saint. When you find Jesus, when you repent, it’s not a sudden, night and day transformation. Repentance is kind of like you’ve been wandering and starving in the wilderness. God has always offered us the chance to come home and sit at God’s table and feast with God on the richest foods. But we refuse to come home, instead surviving on whatever bits of food and trash we can scrounge up.
Finally, we give in and sit down at the feast. But we can’t go crazy and eat everything in sight, our digestive system won’t be able to take it.
I heard a story about a man who decided to fast for one week. He had a specific reason or focus for doing it, but I forget what it was. Sunday and Monday he ate bread a couple times a day and drank plenty of water and kind of eased into it, but then it was just liquids and vitamins for the rest of the week.
No food for 1 week.
He lasted the whole week, got to the end of the fast, and decided to break the fast by going to Taco Bell.
After no food, only liquids and vitamins, for 1 whole week this guy broke his fast by getting a meal at Taco Bell.
I think you can guess where he spent the next few days after that, right?
Not to be too graphic, but it’s the same kind of idea with repentance. Our body is physiologically not able to jump from starving to stuffed without negative repercussions. Our spiritual life is not really able to jump from starving to stuffed either. It takes time.
Repentance is a process. God has a whole brand new life full of meaning and purpose and blessing, all waiting for us. But because of who we are as humans, repentance has to be a slow but necessary process that gets us to that new life. Repentance is the process of changing. It’s the process of turning away from your old life and turning toward your new life.
In a big way, this is what happens at baptism. In baptism, you turn away from your old life and you turn toward your new life for the first, decisive, public time. But it’s not a once and done thing. Our pledge at baptism is not a one-time repentance from sin. Baptism does not take away our proclivity to sin. In the Middle Age, a lot of people would not be baptized until they were on their death bed so that they could avoid sinning after their baptism. Now we know that’s just bad theology. Now, at baptism we pledge to live a life of repentance. We pledge to live a life where our primary action is continually turning away, again and again, from our old way of life and turning toward the new life that Jesus has for us.
In the Middle Age, a lot of people would not be baptized until they were on their death bed so that they could avoid sinning after their baptism. Now we know that’s just bad theology.
At baptism we pledge to live a life of repentance. We pledge to live a life where our primary action is continually turning away, again and again, from our old way of life and turning toward the new life that Jesus has for us.
On Easter Sunday, we’re going to remember and renew our baptisms. We are going to restart this whole process of repentance, we’re going to step back into a life of repentance.
But this season of Lent, we’re preparing for that. So this week, I want you to question yourself and embark on a journey of self-discovery. What do you need to turn away from? We know that we turn toward Jesus and the new life he has for us, but what ways of life do you need to turn away and leave behind so that you can turn toward Jesus?
Maybe you spend your life chasing after success and advancement in your job. Maybe that rules your life and defines you in an unhealthy way.
Maybe your life is ruled by what others think of you. Maybe your thoughts constantly dwell on making yourself pretty enough, smart enough, successful enough, I have to behave in the right way.
Maybe you yourself are at the center of your life. Maybe all of your decisions are based on what you want, what makes you feel good, what makes you happy, what would be in your own best interest.
Maybe your life is ruled by addiction. Maybe it’s addiction to a substance, or maybe to something intangible-addiction to achievement, addiction to the approval of others, addiction to your job, addiction to money.
All of these are ways of life and ways of thinking and behaviors that Jesus calls us to turn away from, to repent from, and turn toward Christ. What is it that you need to turn away from?
At baptism, God calls all of us to repent, and through our baptism, God has already given us the freedom and the power to turn away from our old life and to turn toward our new life in Christ. This is the perennial call for Christians everywhere-to repent, to keep turning away. So we do this together as a community. Each of us is called to do this, and we are all together called to do this. Could you imagine the transformation that would occur if we would all grab hold of this idea and if we all committed to this?