Sunday, February 28, 2016


Third Sunday in Lent – Year C
Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63.1-8; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9
Sunday, February 28, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

I grew up in a church that didn’t seem to place much emphasis on Lent. I’m sure it was probably mentioned in the run-up to Easter, but I certainly do not recall making a big deal about it. If there was much about Lent, I probably just tuned it out, since I didn’t particularly care for it. So, it wasn’t until I came to the Episcopal Church that I had a truly significant encounter with this thing called Lent. And to be honest, at first I hated Lent. It seemed so drab, so dreary. There seemed to be a lot of emphasis on confessing my sins, on how I have fallen short, on how I need to repent and turn back to God. Well, even in my sinfulness, I didn’t see that I had particularly turned away from God, thank you very much. So it was that Lent was just a dreary place between the joys of Christmas and Easter. Something to be endured until we got to the main event.

I no longer feel that way. Now, I actually like Lent. I even enjoy it. I’m not sure when my perspective changed. Perhaps it was a slow evolution. A conversion of sorts. Lent is undoubtedly a season of repentance. And somewhere along the line I repented of my mistaken image of what Lent is really about.

In our discussions of Lent, we can tend to get hung up on the implications of repentance. Or rather, on our preconceived notions of repentance. That it is about being sorry for our sins. And while that is part of it, that is not the whole picture of repentance. That is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel reading from Luke.

The first part of the story focuses on what we traditionally think Lent is about. Sin. Divine punishment. Repentance. Repentance to avoid, or minimize, divine punishment. Some people tell Jesus about some Galileans who were worshiping in the temple, performing their ritual sacrifices, when Pontius Pilate had them slaughtered. Jesus then voices the typical response to tragic events – certainly the prevailing view among the people of the time – that viewed disaster as being divine punishment for sin.

Now the massacre in the temple was suffering caused at the hands of other people. It might be easy to explain it away as a horrific act of evil as opposed to divine judgment. But to further bolster his overarching point, Jesus then expands the definition of suffering and of tragedy by referencing an event in which 18 people who were killed when the tower of Siloam in Jerusalem collapsed. He adds situations where humans are not to blame but suffering occurs nonetheless. Without human agency, could this possibly be divine punishment?

Jesus recognizes that the human tendency in times of tragedy, be it natural disaster or at the hands of others, is to cry out with the great religious question: “Why?” He anticipates his hearers who seek an answer to this question that involves sin, guilt, and divine punishment. He names it, but he chooses not to go there. Instead he takes the discussion in a different direction. We are reminded of the words of Isaiah that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus turns a lesson about whether suffering is deserved, about whether suffering is punishment for sin, into a call to obedience. Rather than focusing on God’s actions, God’s punishment, Jesus focuses instead on our response. He focuses on a call to repentance.

To do this, he tells a parable. In the parable, a man has a fig tree planted on his property. After three years, the tree still is not producing any figs. Now if he had been able to do a Google search, he would have found out fig trees take anywhere from three to six years to produce fruit. There’s still plenty of time, but the man is impatient and commands the gardener to cut down the tree. The gardener, knowing that it takes sufficient time and the right conditions for the tree to produce good fruit, begs the man to give it one more year. During that time, the gardener will tend it with loving care in hopes that the tree will produce some figs.

In this parable, we are like the tree. We do not always produce the good fruits that God would like us to. The fruits that are born when we live in right relationship with God. We do not always do what we should. Yes, we sin and fall short. Now according to some, like the man in the parable, those who sin are written off. Because they are not producing good fruit in their lives, they are condemned to being cut off, or worse. But God is not like the man in the parable. Rather, God is like the gardener. God forgives us when we fall short. God gives us another chance. If anything, when we fall short, God loves us and tends to our souls even more. Because he knows what we need is not threats and condemnation, but rather patience and love. And that in his patience, in his expression of love to us, we are more likely to recognize what we are missing. That we are more inclined to repent, to turn back to him. And in so doing, to ultimately live into the life that he desires for us.

This is what true repentance is. It is not just about being sorry for our sins, for feeling a sense of regret or remorse for how we have fallen short in living into our relationship with God. True repentance is about us actually doing something about it. For in its truest sense, repentance, or metanoia in the original Greek, is a spiritual conversion. A turning around in response to the recognition of our shortcomings. It is a turning back to right relationship with God.

In this, repentance does not address the question of why. It simply acknowledges that in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and sin, in the midst of our falling short, the only response we can make is to turn to God. It is an acknowledgment of our own weakness, of our own profound need. It is a cry for God’s love and mercy. It is an acknowledgment that God does not seek to punish us, but to offer us that which is life-giving – to offer himself, his love and mercy.

While Luke clearly rejects the question of suffering being equated with punishment, he does not negate the insistence on repentance. The purpose of repentance is not to avoid punishment. Rather repentance strengthens, is even necessary to, a right relationship with God. Repentance turns us toward a life-giving relationship which only God can provide.

We see this more clearly in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, in which the prophet provides a definitive sense of what repentance is more fully about – of the intentional turning toward God, of seeking the God who wants to be found by us. It is about a celebration of abundant life that God desires for us. Of the abundant life that God freely offers and freely gives to those who turn to him. It is about embracing what God freely offers.

Isaiah talks about God’s steadfast love. How he wishes us to repent in the fullest sense of the word – not just to be sorry for how we have fallen short in our relationship, but to do something about it. In our repentance, we place our trust in the one who fills us with good things. Isaiah outlines the goodness that we are to seek: “come to the waters,” “buy wine and milk without money,” “eat what is good,” and “listen, so that you may live.” God invites us to turn to him so that he can provide us with these, his blessings.

In this are echoes of those things that Christians recognize as being life-giving – baptism which brings us into new life; bread and wine being symbolic of our being fed at God’s table; and listening, implying the word of God which provides us with the knowledge of God’s life-giving purposes, showing that God is always faithful to his people.

Lent is our intentional journey toward relationship with God. A journey that is epitomized in the 40 day journey toward Jerusalem. But not just the journey between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. It is also the journey toward an Easter life. A life that recognizes that the tragedy of Christ death on the cross is turned into cause for celebration of Christ’s resurrection and of new life. Not just new life for Jesus, but new life for all. The parable of the fig tree is a message of hope – of the hope that comes with Easter. That through God’s love and mercy barren lives once again bear fruit.

The deadline given in the parable of the fig tree – of the gardener seeking just one more year in which to nurture the tree and to allow it to produce good fruit – gives a sense of urgency to the need for repentance. We have failed to bear good fruit for too long, we have failed in our relationship with God for too long, choosing instead to focus on those things that do not bring joy, that do not bring life. Now is the time to get our priorities straight. Not out of a fear that God wants to destroy us the way the landowner wanted to destroy the fig tree. But because Jesus knows how quickly we are destroying ourselves. And the only way to prevent that is to repent and to turn to God, who wants us to have new life.

The good news is that In Lent we are called to repentance. We are called by God to renew our life in him. Through prayer, which is nothing more than communications with God. Not as a means of gaining additional favor or of begging for forgiveness, but as a means of being with and in the presence of God. Through alms, acts of service. Not as a means of doing good works to gain God’s favor, to gain leniency for our sins, but as a means of being of service to God through that which is of greatest concern to God – helping the least and most vulnerable of God’s children. Through fasting. Not as an act of giving up something as a form of punishment, but as a means of eliminating those things that get in the way of our relationship with God. Removing the focus from our own wants and desires so as to be able to focus on God’s wants and desires. In this, Lent is not a dreary season, but a time to rejoice that our God is giving us another chance. It is a time to put things right in the most important relationship we have.

As we approach the midpoint of our Lenten journey, our readings for today give us an opportunity to check in and assess how we are doing in our repentance. How we are doing in turning our attention to God and working on that relationship.

How are you faring on your Lenten journey? On your journey toward renewed life with the One who loves you beyond all else, who only desires for you that which is truly life-giving?

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