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Unless You Repent...

March 5th, 2009


Unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:3)

 repent
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the sixty-six people murdered in the Bangladesh border guard mutiny. Jesus answered, “Do you think these people were worse sinners than all the others because they suffered in this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those nine who died in the Turkish Airlines crash in Amsterdam – do you think they were more guilty than all the others flying into Amsterdam that day? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
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That’s what that conversation might have sounded like if it had gone on today, using a couple of today’s headlines, instead of two thousand years ago. You can take a look at Luke 13:1-5 for the original version, but I think my hypothetical one captures the spirit well enough. It’s a hard conversation to hear, really. At least it is for me. I think it’s hard because it connects sin and death in no uncertain terms.

We know they’re connected, of course. We just don’t like to hear it said so urgently and clearly.

It’s not that we have a big problem, necessarily, with the concept of sin being punished. We would all probably feel differently about the death of a person killed while committing a crime than we would feel about the death of a victim of that crime. Some of us, at least, would allow or even welcome the idea of the murderer of a child being executed. If we’re honest, some of us might even admit to feeling some satisfaction.

Some of Jesus’ first-century hearers probably believed in too direct a connection between calamity and sin. A common theological understanding of the time was that if something really bad happened to you, it meant that God was punishing you for some sin. They came by that idea honestly enough; they read the stories in the Scriptures of God punishing people in exactly that way, and they extrapolated backward from there. Since God did things that way sometimes, they reasoned that he always did it that way. And so if something bad happened to someone, they reasoned that God must have been punishing that person for something.

We definitely incline in the opposite direction. I don’t see news reports of catastrophes and immediately wonder what the people who died did to make God angry. I may say a prayer about the victims and their families. I might wonder what can be done to ease suffering. But I don’t think about what happened in terms of sin and judgment, and on the rare occasions when I hear people do so I tend to think how heartless and wrong it sounds, and how arbitrary it makes God seem.

“After all,” I reason, “If God were going to start killing off sinners, I’m not sure where exactly he could stop.”

Jesus doesn’t really endorse either understanding. His point in connecting tragedies in his world with the urgency of repentance was not so much to take a theological position as to urge a theological imperative: Sin is real, guilt is universal, judgment in one form or another is sure, and so repentance is required of every person on earth. Unless we repent, then in one way or another we will have to face the inevitably fatal consequences of our sins.

Jesus isn’t saying that those particular events in his world were or were not divine judgment. He’s saying that every person – even those who seem to avoid tragedy and make it relatively unscathed through life – is subject to God’s judgment. That, of course, is the message we don’t care to think much about.

Unless we repent, we too will all perish. The problem is that we don’t know when, whether unexpectedly in an accident or an act of violence or peacefully and quietly at a ripe old age.

Christians in particular probably need to hear this. Some of us tend to think of repentance as something we do once, when we accept Jesus as Lord and are baptized into him. Repentance, though, is less a once-for-all act than a lifestyle. Over time, the church developed the practice of Lent to program a time of self-examination and repentance into each year. We’re right to rely on the grace of God and the work of Jesus Christ to save us. But we’re also right to recognize the power of sin to become habitual over time and interfere with our ability to hear the call of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know where the tipping point is where we fall away from God, but that’s the point. None of us are sure where it is. Repentance is the way we shake ourselves awake and change the areas in our lives that are inconsistent with who Jesus has called us to be long before we ever reach that point.
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A business owner visited his business and was alarmed to find one of his key employees wasting company money and shirking his responsibilities. He called the employee’s manager into his office. “This man’s been working for the company for three years,” he said to the manager, “and he’s never done anything for this company. Get rid of him. Why should we keep paying his salary and benefits?”

“Sir,” the manager replied, “Give me one more year with him. I’ll retrain him and make your expectations clear, and I think he can become a productive employee. If he hasn’t improved in a year, then fire him.”
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In Luke the parable’s about a fig tree, of course, but the point’s the same. In Jesus, there is forgiveness for the past and hope for the future. Despite the universality of human sin, in Jesus God has elected to show grace and delay judgment. But we’re in the “last year,” the final opportunity to change things for the better. Whenever God so chooses, the next step is judgment.

So maybe it’s time to face up to the harsh truth that there are things in our lives that God doesn’t want there. May we see those things and truly resolve to turn from them. May we take steps to dislodge them from the places in our lives and hearts where they’ve taken root. And may we rediscover in doing so the joy and hope of the gospel.

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