Till By Turning, Turning, We Come Round Right (Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9)
In Lent, we often think about the quality of our discipleship to Jesus. I keep saying that none of this needs be morose, but, as we find that our discipleship needs a tune-up, some of that can be a little depressing. Well, today’s passages all deal with “repentance,” which can continue such a trend. If you have a Baptist background (and some others, too), the picture that may come into your mind when repentance is mentioned may be old fashioned 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 just waiting to do, and right outside the door. For most of my life I’ve rejected that view. God loves us all. Period.
Nonetheless, there is this niggling sense that repentance is about responding to God’s anger in fear to avoid punishment, or, long term, to get a reward. If such be true, we have to understand the love of God in a unique way that would be totally unacceptable in anyone else we know. But, if such be false why does the Bible spend so much time talking about “repentance” and such things? Can we safely just ignore it? I’d rather talk about God’s love, but, from time to time, I do think about whether we just forget about sin and repentance in the 21st century because we know psychology better? WhileI say for the third time that I believe with every erg in my soul that God loves us all, period, and I share many of the objections to seeing God and life as responding in fear to anger, I have also concluded that it is not wise, simply to write off such things as repentance. For one thing to do so means writing out vast tracts of the Bible’s story, and having to reinvent both God and Jesus in our own image. Baptists, even weird ones like me, get nervous about such things.
So what do we do? Is repentance 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?
When we share our common prayers together in public worship each week we often remember before God people who are sick and suffering, lost and alone. I daresay that most of us don’t raise the issue (at least in prayer) of whether these people have done anything that is making God punish them with disease or familial disaster of one kind or another. On the other hand, I have found one of the most common thoughts we have when bad things happen to us (or our immediate loved ones) is “What did I (or they) do to deserve this?” We are, at least, tempted to think of life as a series of punishments or rewards that come as a result of what hoops I either jump through or don’t. If we live a good life, God will bless us, if we don’t then we deserve what we get. But you and I both know that isn’t how life usually works. Well, it’s a most wonderful discovery to find out that “repentance” in the Bible doesn’t meant any of that, or saying we’re sorry for anything. This misunderstanding is not new. Do you remember the story in the New Testament when his disciples asked him when they met a man born blind, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have been born blind?” Monstrous? But that’s where the constant “reward and punishment” idea leads. I don’t know what the disciples expected Jesus to say, but he said, “Neither.”
In the light of all this that we foist on a God of love, isn’t it good to remember that the word “repent” in the Old Testament simply means “turning around” (often, but not always, 180 degrees). In the New Testament it means “changing one’s mind,” and really involves a change of orientation in both cases.
In our Gospel lesson today the stories of two “innocent” groups of victims are told to Jesus. One died because a tower accidently fell on them, a second was killed by Pilate for political reasons. Again, I don’t know whether Jesus was told about these folk to get him into a theological debate to affirm the connection of sin with punishment, but, again, he didn’t play. He turned the question on these same people and said to them. “Do you really think that these people died were 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 set 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. The gardener wanted to give it just one more year. 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?
The answer is that Jesus wasn’t addressing any of that, or our eternal destiny, he was addressing the very “this worldly” behaviour of religious leaders who thought they could be simply balance ultimate commitment to God and to Rome. Jesus said, “Change your course or pretty soon Rome will come and end it all.” Luke knew it had happened when he published his Gospel after the destruction of the Temple by Titus in 70 CE. It’s a danger to think it’s possible to mix our loyalties. To make a long story short: People who are both innocent and guilty suffer in this world. Making it big in the world won’t protect you from the end when it comes. But don’t be stupid by trading loyalty to God for something else or you will simply reap what you sow.
To pass quickly to the Epistle lesson, Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth that 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 the orientation of God in Christ to the outward and inclusive way they lived life, but they would repent “a ton” of false beliefs and practices in church. The Corinthians always liked a good drama. They wanted things, petty much, done their way. If people did the spiritual things they did, it was OK, if not it surely wasn’t. Consequently they fought a good deal.
Paul makes bold to suggest that none of their doctrines and dances made them immune to dangers in the world or guaranteed them a good life. He gave them an Old Testament 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, but that these trials may be approached not as punishments but as that which makes us stronger, as training exercises. At the very end of the passage Paul says that, in times of testing, God will give us an emergency exit (that’s almost exactly the Greek word here) so that we won’t be overwhelmed. 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?
Isaiah 55 is the epilogue that summarizes the series of poems in chapters 40-55 addressed to God’s people as they experienced exile in Babylon. These poems address lonely, alienated people who felt beat up and punished. This chapter begins by addressing thirsty, hungry people, destitute people, broken people. Come to sustenance that counts. Don’t spend what you don’t have on what you don’t need and won’t satisfy you anyway. Good and lasting “food” and “drink” comes from God through covenant. Much, the poet says, as God once worked through David the great king, to unify the people, so now, God will work through these lonely exiles, if they will open up, to call not only those like them but those they’ve never seen or met. We often read of someone like David and make a hero of him. And think we’ve got to do it just like he did. And that’s just an example. What’s being said is don’t let God’s work in the past limit the way you dream of God’s work in the future, which will be different, because the times are different.
The exiles in Babylon had no right place to seek God since their temple was gone, so the poet has God say, “Then, find the right time to seek me, and that’s now, when you have all your questions and needs. Listen to God because God knows what you need and what the world needs better than you do. We have our great ways and means of doing things, but God’s are infinitely higher than ours.
At the end, let me draw it back to the beginning. The little song with which we called ourselves to worship this morning is sometimes called “Simple Gifts,” as was made famous by Aaron Copeland who included it in his work “Appalachian Spring.” It’s a song from the ecstatic sect of odd sort Christians called the Shakers who, though begun in England in the 18th century, flourished in the USA, from the 19th. There were only 2 known Shakers left in 2017. One of their tenets is celibacy and that, as you will understand reduces the population. Shakers would dance and march (with movements that meant something) which was called “turning.” I know all that, but I thought that we staid Baptist-y types could sort of retool the word “turn” into “turning around” that is, repentance. The Shakers saw turning to simplicity of life as a primary virtue. It meant purity of motive and purpose. Their art and music showed it. In the light of “repentance” meaning “turning around,” and with what I’ve said of “simplicity,” let us hear the words again as we close.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight
till by turning, turning we come round right.
When we get it, we find our greatest freedom in service, and we are neither too proud to bow to others and bend our wills to the will of the one who sent us.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.