Is repentance good insurance?
A sermon on Luke 13:1-9, Isaiah 55:1-9 & 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 by Nathan Nettleton, 14 March 2004
Repenting of our past ways and following Jesus does not guarantee us safety from disaster, but it certainly opens the way to an abundance of life that is beyond what any disaster can destroy.
At that time there were some people present who came to Jesus and told him about the hundreds of Spaniards who had just been blown to pieces when terrorists detonated a series of bombs on crowded trains in Madrid. Jesus asked them, Do you think that because these Spaniards suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Spaniards? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Suffering whether our own or other peoples, and whether from natural causes or human atrocities always makes it much harder to believe that God is good. It makes it harder to believe that life is beautiful, and that all will be well, because the world rests in the hands of a loving and caring creator. In the face of the obscenity of innocent suffering, we are plagued with doubts, fears and uncertainties. Too many questions come up, complex questions, questions we find hard to face and even harder to answer. Simple cliche answers seem both appealing and hollow, and as one wise philosopher once said, to every complex question there is a simple answer, and its wrong.
Jesus was faced with just such a wrong simple answer in the story we just heard read. People came to him telling him about some Galileans killed by a government backed death squad, and about some Jerusalemites who were killed in the collapse of a building. And in the reports Jesus hears the witnesses groping for simple answers to the Why questions. Perhaps this happened to punish them. Perhaps they were evil people and God is purging the world of them. You all know the way the argument goes. Youve all heard it. AIDS is Gods punishment on sexual immorality; famine occurs to those who are lazy; that sort of thing. You will even hear it in the face of terrorist attacks: every affluent westerner is living a comfortable lifestyle that is built on the oppression of the worlds poor, and we have long been forewarned of the inevitable violent explosion of anger from the poor. And theres enough truth in that that we need to take it seriously at the level of our global response even while rejecting it as an explanation for why disaster strikes some and not others. The desire for a simple explanation doesnt go away though, and it is still strangely seductive when it is someone we do see as evil who cops it. With each new victim of Melbournes underworld war we all tend to think, Well he probably got what he deserved. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. And while that might be true, it is a false comfort, because those who live by the handshake die by the sword nearly as often.
The view that health, wealth and security were evidence of the blessing of God and that disaster was evidence of Gods punishment was even more prevalent in Jesus day than it is now. It was the major motivation offered to people to inspire repentance and faithfulness to God. If you are good, you will be able to relax and enjoy the good life. If you sin, beware of falling rocks and men with swords. But Jesus would have none of it. Do you think that this disaster proves that they were worse sinners than everyone else? No. Not at all.
But Jesus doesnt turn around and say they were actually very good people who didnt deserve it. Instead he turns around and says, And youd better repent because you actually deserve it just as much as they do. The injustice if you like is not that they copped it, but that you got let off, so make the most of the extra chance youve been given. Jesus is making it very clear that our own safety is not evidence that were up to scratch. Hes saying, as he says so often when people seek reassurance that theyre better then someone else, If you think that someone else is more evil than you, you just havent faced up to yourself yet. In the immortal words of the Coodabeens, You need to take a good hard look at yourself.
Now dont worry if youre somewhat confused - this is quite a paradox. Jesus is telling us to take warning from these disasters, that we should allow them to make us look at how we are living and whether we are on the right path, but he is also saying that being on the right path is no guarantee of safety. Hes not saying Repent and youll be safe, hes saying Youre not safe,full stop. And maybe that will give you cause to think about your life.
So if repentance is no insurance policy, whats it all about? The reading we heard from Isaiah 55:1-9 gives us a much clearer picture. But before we look at the reasons for it, lets look at the description of it so that we know what we are talking about. Isaiah calls us to leave our way of life and change our way of thinking. A change of mind and a change of life. But it is not just a case of giving something up. We turn from something and to something. Turn to the Lord our God, says Isaiah, he is merciful and quick to forgive.
And then in case we missed the point he reminds us that Gods ways and thoughts are nothing like our ways and thoughts. This is no small change, not tinkering with the fine tuning. This is a radical reorientation. This is facing up to the fact that everyone of us has dragged the image of God through the mud, and mostly deluded ourselves into thinking that we were basically OK while we did it.
And if you think that thats not you, just listen for the voices inside yourself. Some of them are echoed here by Isaiah. Why are you spending all your wages and youre still hungry? Why commit your resources to what does not satisfy? Why is there still this nagging hunger, this unquenchable thirst that you just cant quite silence? Why is it that the harder you run the more you seem to be getting nowhere? Why is it that the more you put into place the pieces of the postcard pictures of happiness, the more fragile and hollow your happiness feels? Why is it that you always feel like theres something not quite right but you cant put your finger on it?
If thats you, there are those here who can tell you better than me that when you really start taking those questions seriously and look at yourself hard enough to start seeing what it is that cuts you off from that which your heart yearns for, then you will start to recognise the brokenness within you. You will start to see that you are no better, just different, than those people whose character most disgusts you. You will recognise that if buildings only fell on those who deserved it the ceiling would crash in right now and take us all out.
But Isaiah doesnt use this to hit us all over the head and beat us up over how evil we all are. Because Isaiah knows that God is not like that. The Lord is merciful and quick to forgive.
Instead the call is to hear and respond to the extravagant generosity of Gods offer. To hear God saying Do you hunger, then come and eat. Do you thirst, come and drink. Come and enjoy the best of food and wine, of milk and honey. It will cost you nothing. Come to me and you will have life. Life, overflowing, abundant, extravagant life. Come.
If you stop still long enough to hear those voices from within you, those yearnings and hungers and deep longings, then you will also hear the voice of God saying Come, I long to satisfy those longings. Come, eat and drink and have your fill.
There is still no neat insurance policy against sickness or disaster, but there is an offer of a way into life, into a depth of experience and fulfilment that sickness and disaster cannot take from you. Weve seen something of what this looks like. Weve seen it in a man who was so free, so deeply at peace that they could drag him outside the city naked and bleeding and spat on, and hang him from steel spikes driven through his wrists into a wooden beam, and instead of cursing them in bitterness and terror, he prays to his God for mercy to be shown to them, for their opportunity to turn around and join him at the overflowing table of grace.
You know that within you there is the capacity for that kind of freedom, that kind of love. But it doesnt show itself too often does it? I know it is within me because I was created in the image of that same man of peace. But that capacity in me gets very easily swamped by my own insecurities, my selfishness, my fears. Im not saying that Jesus experienced no fear, we know he did, but he befriended his fear so that the fear no longer dictated his actions.
As Paul said in our other reading, no matter how close to the end of your resources you are pushed, and beyond, God will not allow you to be tested beyond what you can stand, but will give you strength to endure it, and so provide you with a way out. Of course, whether you take the way out is your choice. God is not going to make you take it or do it for you - but God will protect you from being done over without a chance.
The table will remain open to you. Are you at the end of your tether? Come and I will give you rest. Are you drained, running on empty? Why spend the last of your energy on one last scream of abuse when it will only make you feel worse. Come, drink and I will replenish you. Are you feeling trapped, stuck on a treadmill that goes faster and faster but never gets anywhere? Come to me, listen to my words, and you will enjoy peace and freedom beyond anything you could imagine.
We are not offered an escape from the world of death squads, bombed trains, killer viruses and car crashes. But in the midst of that world, the table of the Lord is set, the place where we are nourished and strengthened for whatever we will have to face. The place where the broken body of our Lord is placed into our hands, giving meaning and hope in every brokenness. The place where the cup of life is held high, and just as it ensures that not a drop is lost, so too it promises that we will be held secure and never lost.