Make a U-Turn, If Possible (Isa. 55:1-9; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Lk. 13:1-9)
This is the third Sunday in Lent, and I have tried to think of ways to reflect on the quality of our lives as disciples of Jesus without being depressing, morose, bitter or morbid, and walking around like we’d lost our last friend on earth. And yet, when we do consider some of the things we need to, we can get on kind of a “downer” can’t we? Today’s passages all touch one another in speaking in some way about what we call “repentance.” If you’ve been around the Baptist patch for a while (and some other nearby “patches” are similar), the baggage we carry when we pick up the idea of repentance can be a heavy load. “Repentance” conjures up memories of evangelists preaching at the top of their lungs about God’s anger at us, and our need to “repent” lest God punish us forever, as if that was what God was really eager to do. Being a Baptist, through the years I’ve thought about whether God’s really like that? Is repentance about responding to God’s anger in fear to avoid punishment, or, long term, to get a reward? If the answer is “yes,” we have to understand the word love as applied to God in a way that is unique because it would be unacceptable in anyone else in the world to claim to love us and then consign us to suffer for eternity – even though we’re said to do it ourselves by our stubborn refusal to, you guessed it, “repent.” Any parent who did this to his or her children would probably have them taken away in court, and might even be declared insane rather than being sent to jail. Is God like that?
On the other hand, if the answer is “no,” as a Baptist, I have to ask why the Bible spends so much time talking about “repentance” and such things? There’s a good deal there about it. Can we safely just ignore all that? As most of you know, I would rather talk about God’s love than almost anything else. And, from time to time, I have to think about whether we can afford simply to jettison all this “other” kind stuff as if we had outgrown it. Can we just forget about sin and repentance in the 21st century? While I must say that I share many (or all) of the objections to seeing God and life as responding in fear to anger, I have concluded that simply to write off such things as repentance causes more problems than it solves, at least for me. We have to write out vast tracts of the Bible’s story, both Old and New Testaments. We take only the parts of the Bible’s story of God that we like, and this makes very little sense of the God of the Bible, or even the Jesus of the Gospels, so we have to reinvent them both in our image. So what do we do? The real question is whether repentance is really about responding in fear to God’s anger? Is life simply a series of punishments or rewards that issue from our responding in fear to the anger or pleasure of God and is repentance simply a “fire escape”? By saying we’re sorry (which is what many seem to make of “repenting”) do we hope to escape divine punishment and/or get a reward? The next question is, “Of what do we repent? The answer is sometimes a very general “of our sins.” But what sins? What specifically have we done that has tipped the scales? Is it one thing, is it everything? How do we know? Some might say that ministers shouldn’t even raise these questions, but, maybe we should. For one thing, they’re the ones I have. I’ve concluded that to think of repentance as responding in fear to God’s anger to escape punishment or get a reward devalues both a great biblical word and the whole Christian life. How do we go to work on this?
To make a start on this we need to go back to the biblical text itself. I have said these things to you before, but they bear repeating. The word “repent” in the Old Testament simply means “turning around” (often 180 degrees), in typical Hebraic action-language. In the New Testament “repentance” means “changing one’s mind,” and, likewise, involves a transformation of orientation, but in typical Greek reflective-language. Combining the ideas together, repentance is a new way of going (or living) and a new way of thinking. It is inner-conviction of new values working itself out in a life that is appropriate to those values. Paul wrote: “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.” We see things differently, as if the world were new, and, indeed, it is new for us. Even though we’re seeing the same things, we see them differently because our hearts and lives have been transformed by the renewing of our minds. The Bible also uses the word repent for those corrective changes that we make all the time some of them small, some larger. Whether it’s the language we grew up with or not, the Bible does not limit repentance to the beginning of our pilgrimage.
In the light of these basic concepts, how can our lessons for today help us to think about repentance in a more helpful way? Our car, like many now, has a GPS, and ours has a feminine voice we’ve named “Carlotta.” Unlike some GPS voices that I’ve heard that get a little impatient, cheeky or rude, Carlotta is always calm and polite. If I go the wrong way, and she can’t figure a way to go around the block to get me going back the right way, she says, “Make a U-Turn, If Possible.” If I ignore her, she’ll plot the next road and say, “In 1000 feet (or whatever) make a U-Turn, if Possible.” I suppose the “if possible” part is to keep literalists from turning in front of oncoming traffic to obey. I think Carlotta’s got the basic idea of biblical repentance down better than some folks I know – and she’s a computer program.
Let’s look at our Scripture Lessons to see this work out. In the Gospel, we find two unknown disasters in which two groups of “innocent” people (both Galileans from the North, and Judeans from the South) were killed. It was a common belief in Jesus’ day, (and still is), that sin and punishment are intimately connected in this world, and I don’t know whether Jesus was told about these folk to get him into a theological debate to affirm that connection of sin and punishment. Jesus turned the question on these same people and said to them. “Do you really think that these people died because God was punishing them for being worse than anyone else? It’s not true.” Then he turned to those who had brought the report and said, “But the same fate will be yours if you don’t repent (turn around and change your orientation).” Luke then sets a little parable here to underline the message. Fig trees take three years to bear fruit. This one hadn’t. The owner wanted to cut his losses and get out. The gardener wanted to give it one more chance. Then he would cut it down. What did he mean? Did Jesus mean that God not only kills people because they’re bad, or in the wrong place and the wrong time, but also because they’re useless? How does one repent of being useless, exactly?
My response is that Jesus didn’t mean any of those things and wasn’t even addressing people’s eternal destiny. He was addressing some religious leaders who thought they could play both sides against the middle, being God’s people at the same time they played politics with Rome. Jesus said, “Change your course or pretty soon Rome will come and end it all.” In fact, that had already happened 15-10 years before Luke wrote his Gospel. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 CE. To make a long story short: people who are both innocent and guilty suffer in this world. No matter what we do, no matter what we are, we are not protected from the end when it comes. In his parable Jesus even indicated that some people can be “uprooted” for not deciding to do what they can, when they can. One day it will be too late to correct the course. One day the ship will sail without us if we’re not on board. I’m not talking about eternal destiny any more than Jesus was, I’m talking about practical decisions of how to live life. It won’t matter how important we are when the end comes. Living a good or a bad life isn’t going to get us out of the way of the falling tower or the evil plan. That’s life on planet earth. Always has been.
Well, if having an important position or power in the world won’t get you out of the way of the end, what about position or power in the church? The Epistle lesson was written to a group who thought that way. The Corinthian congregation seemed to believe that if they did all the right “spiritual” things in church, nothing else mattered. They didn’t think much of repentance in terms of finding new orientation of God in Christ, but they would repent “a ton” of false beliefs and practices in church. They wanted things, petty much, done their way. If people did the spiritual things they did, it was OK, if not it wasn’t, so, needless to say, they fought a good deal in church.
Paul made bold to suggest that none of their spiritual practices made them immune to dangers in the world or guaranteed them a carefree life. He gave them an Bible study. If anybody ought to have been able to be “in good with God” because of jumping through the right hoops, it was old Israel. 1 Corinthians 10 is a quick thumbnail of the way in which Israel failed (taken mostly from the Book of Numbers). Paul ended by saying that trials happen to everyone (good or bad), nobody gets special trials, and that these trials may be approached not as punishments but as training exercises that make us stronger. At the very end of the passage Paul said that, in these testing times, God will give us an emergency exit (that’s almost exactly the Greek word here) so that we won’t be overwhelmed. And he didn’t elaborate. These two passages combine to teach us that repentance is not a way to avoid punishment, nor a way to assure rewards. So, then, what is repentance about?
Here is where we come to words from our Old Testament Lesson, which touches on the core of repentance. Isaiah 55 sums up the previous 15 chapters full of poems written to Israel in Babylon, when they were cut off from home and came to understand how dangerous a place the world was for them. Their lives weren’t much valued in their culture. So, the poet began by asking the question, “What is of value for hungry, thirsty people”? On what are you spending your money, yourself, or your effort? Is it for things that don’t satisfy? Why are you not spending it on that which does satisfy your real needs? While there was probably no lack of physical hunger and thirst among these exiles, there was an even greater spiritual hunger and thirst. What satisfies that hunger and thirst is God’s grace and God’s presence, and living congruently with that. Money buys Babylonian “junk food, but not that.
As we read on, we discover that this grace and divine presence lead to becoming a covenant people that seeks to allow the world and God to get together. I can imagine one of these small-visioned exiles who were ingrown, suspicious of others perhaps, saying “I can’t even imagine what you’re talking about.”
The text says “Get another vision.” Change direction. Change your mind, change your orientation. Make a U-Turn, if possible. Let God place your feet on another path. Let God flood your spirit with different motives. Turn around and see God, and God will help you see the world in a new way. God will surely feed you and empower you. And forgive you. And restore you. And uphold you. And deliver you. And transform you. And love you. Forever. It’s not what we do, though, it’s what God does, growing out of who God is, that answers our deepest needs. What the Bible calls sin is that which keeps us on the wrong path. I might use a word with less baggage, but as I said, it’s what keeps us from being who we really are, and growing outward in our ministry orientation.
Christians believe that we see God’s way and think God’s thoughts most fully by being united with Jesus Christ. We make a U-Turn, change our orientation (or repent), not to avoid anything, but to be what we were created and called to be: children of God Most High and the family of Christ. It’s by identifying with this God and this people of God that we find life, and are transformed by the renewing of our path and our minds.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.