A couple of Sundays ago, Lesley Shatwell preached at St Mark’s on repentance and what it means.
The Gospel reading that day was from Luke, chapter 13, v 1-9. You can read the whole extract here but, basically, Jesus says: “unless you repent, you will all perish”. He then told the parable of the barren fig tree which was given a reprieve.
This is what Lesley had to say about this uncompromising message:
When I first read the reading, I couldn’t quite make sense of what was happening. I had to read through a few times. It starts when Jesus has been told about an atrocity which Pilate has committed. He slaughtered some Jews when they were offering sacrifices to God. My goodness, that has strong resonance for us today doesn’t it? Muslims being gunned down when they were at prayer in New Zealand. Perhaps Jesus overheard people trying to make their own kind of sense to a barbaric act because he tells us that those who died were no more sinners than anyone else. They weren’t slaughtered because of their sin.
But then there’s his comment, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”. That’s worrying, it doesn’t seem to make sense does it? And it’s frightening. On the one hand, people died in a horrible atrocity and they no more deserved it than anyone else does. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But on the other hand, that could be our fate unless we repent. Can repentance really ensure that we will avoid perishing, even in random acts of terror?
Same goes for the disaster when the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed 18 people. A “natural” disaster, no one’s deliberate fault. And “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”. Those people who died weren’t extra wicked sinners, they were just like you and me. Oh Jesus, help me, I don’t even know how to repent? What is repentance?
OK, time out! Let’s press the pause button before we all disappear into the fiery furnaces of hell.
What does “perish” mean? That’s straightforward at least, isn’t it? It means “die”. We are human, we do all die eventually. We don’t know when, but it comes to all of us. Some might have an untimely death, some may slip away peacefully after a long and happy life. So I don’t think Jesus is saying, “repent and you will have a human life here on earth for ever”. There’s something else going on. Hum. One of the reasons why people were flocking to be baptised by John the Baptist was because they thought the end of the world was imminent. And tomorrow could be the last day. It tends to focus the mind: better get ready quick before it’s too late.
But equally, who knows exactly what Jesus meant? He might have been talking about perishing to this world so that we might rise to glory in the next. I’m afraid you will have to consider that for yourselves because we could be here till Christmas with this sermon if I start tackling the idea of everlasting life with God in heaven.
Right, I’m ready to press the “play” button again. Repent! Repent! Yes all right!
Repent or else fire and brimstone, perishing in eternal hell. Yes, but how?
What is repentance?
Repentance is the translation of the Greek word “metanoia”, which means “a change of mind”.
Oh, so it’s that easy? I just have to change my mind? It can’t be so hard – particularly if I will avoid eternal damnation. But you have to mean it.
Change your mind and do something to show that you have truly changed your mind.
Change your mind and turn to Jesus – now there’s an invitation. Yes, an invitation, not a threat. Change your mind and turn to Jesus.
What if all those things which have been holding me back, all those things which stop me from being truly me, all those things which I am ashamed of in my life, which worry me, which upset me … what if all that rubbish in my life perished?
Now: imagine, for a moment, you are living a reasonably contented life. Things are ok, you get by most days. There are some good things, maybe a lot of bad things. But generally you find life is worth living. It’s like you are a tree, growing in a vineyard. Some days it’s quite pleasant, the sun shines, the birds sing. And nobody bothers you. Nobody asks anything of you. You are just a tree after all and there are plenty of trees around in the world aren’t there. Yes, there are days when the storms come and you are buffeted by wind and rain, but nobody pays much attention to you.
And then, out of the blue one day, the owner of the vineyard comes by. Where are the figs?
Figs? Who said anything about figs? I didn’t know I was meant to be giving you figs. I’m just a tree, leave me alone. Don’t chop me down, that’s not fair. Look, give me a chance – now I know I could give you figs, I will, but I can’t make them overnight. I will give you the figs, especially if I get help from the gardener.
It’s one view of the parable. Do you see what Jesus is offering us? Repentance. It’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity, an invitation to try something in a different way. Of course, it could be tough, even if it’s in your nature to produce fruit, you will have to put some effort in.
But, what is it about your life that you would change? Do you have any regrets? Any sadness? Any cherished hopes? Within each one of us there is potential. The potential to bear good fruit. But we need the right encouragement and we need to want to unlock the potential. Within each one of us there is something, a gift, and it would be a huge loss if we let it perish. Maybe you have found the gift, the potential within you, maybe you are still searching. But we do have the gardener on our side. Jesus is ready to give us all the love and nurture we need to flourish and bear good fruit.
Repent! Turn to those true things which bring life in all its goodness. But be kind to yourself, all things in their own time. Gently does it, fruit takes a while to ripen. And remember, Jesus, the gardener is always ready to nurture and care for you.