Year of Repentance … Year of Grace

Barren-TreeA sermon offered at
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church, North Port, FL
March 3, 2013
Lent III C
Exodus 3:1-15, From Psalm 63:1-8,
1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

O God, you are our God; eagerly we seek you . . .

Our souls thirst for you, our flesh faints for you . . . as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. You have been our helper, and under the shadow of your wings we will rejoice.

Our souls cling to you; your right hand holds us fast.

. . . . . AMEN


This prayer is taken from verses of today’s Psalm. I often find that when I don’t quite know how to get into a sermon, praying the Psalm for the day usually helps. And so often when I find I don’t quite know how to begin to pray – when I want to talk with God and I don’t know what to say – again, sitting down with the Psalms – most any Psalm — gets me started. It usually opens up the door and shows me how to get around to whatever is weighing heavy on my heart.

The Psalm today is one of those that is very comforting – it’s a clinging-to-God kind of Psalm – it’s saying to God that we know and remember how he helps us and protects us. It’s one of the sweetest “feel-good” Psalms.

This Psalm is very consoling – which is interesting because the Gospel today isn’t exactly a “feel-good” kind of gospel reading. It’s one of those gospel readings that are known as the hard sayings of Jesus.

Jesus is listening to the news, the current events – like when we watch a news program on TV in the evening. The usual grim stuff:

“Imperial troops massacre peasants while they’re worshipping at the temple.”

“Tower collapses and kills 18 bystanders.”

Both are tragedies – one a political atrocity, the other a natural disaster. And the question is why?

Why do bad things happen to good people? After all, the people killed by Pilate while they were worshipping – they were Galileans – Jews – Jesus’ fellow countrymen – good people . . .

And why do bad things happen to innocent bystanders? Why did it happen to these particular people? The fallen tower fatalities could happen to any of us if we just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Why does God let these things happen?

In the Gospel story, Jesus anticipates the innately human answer to why: It’s God’s punishment. Those victims of the tragedies must be doing something wrong – they must be living in sin somehow. And so it comes down to the fact that it’s their own fault.

One way to make sense of senseless tragedy is to conclude that suffering is a payment for sin. And further, if we find ourselves as observers of someone else’s devastation, we might be lead to believe that we must be living right! That by living a good life, obeying God and living out His expectations, then God will reward us. We’re entitled to God’s reward. The human heart wants to take responsibility – the human heart wants to take credit.

It couldn’t be God’s grace!! When things are going well the very idea of grace – the reality of grace often totally eludes us. And besides, when we’re in this mindset, the idea of God’s grace makes absolutely no sense. When we’re in this mindset, we’re simply unable to accept God’s grace!

So this conclusion – the conclusion that tragedy is God’s punishment – this means that sinful people are to blame for their own trouble.

On the other hand, logic might lead us to believe that God is to blame: Either God is powerless to stop the tragedies – and if that’s the case, how can an Almighty, Creator God be powerless? Or else – God just doesn’t care. . . Doesn’t line up with the idea of a loving, caring God – does it?

Even those of us who claim to know better can tend to react the same way. When calamity strikes, we tend to wonder what we did wrong. We look for some cause to explain the suffering – perhaps hoping that we can stop causing it – and hoping it will go away. What we’re grasping for is control over the chaos that invades out lives. We struggle to make sense of senseless tragedies . . . and search for reasons even when there are none.

Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And then he immediately answers his own question. . . NO! And the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? Again Jesus says absolutely – NO! But then Jesus continues: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

So the good news is there’s no connection between the suffering and sin . . . but the disturbing news is that unless we repent we’re headed for devastation anyway.

It almost seems like Jesus is contradicting himself here. But when we come to understand the call to repentance in a new light, I think we will discover Jesus’ message:

Repentance is not just asking forgiveness for the times when we break the rules . . . when we do stupid, harmful things. Repentance is about turning around – changing our direction and thinking – turning our attention toward our own inner lives. And through this inner examination we find that: repentance is about discovering that we’re not capable of our own salvation.

When things are going well for us, we tend to take credit for the good life as something we’ve earned. But in honest self-examination we uncover the essence of sin –that sin is substituting ourselves for God – putting ourselves or something else in the place God should have.

The good times in our lives are actually the most spiritually dangerous.

Repentance is about acknowledging that every good thing in our lives comes through God’s grace. . . And, as Martin Luther said “ The proper preparation for the grace and goodness of Christ is the awareness that we need them.”

Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to illuminate his point about God’s grace. The owner of the fig tree came looking for fruit on the tree and found none. In fact he had been looking for fruit from the tree for three years. His patience is wearing thin so he tells the gardener to cut it down – it’s wasting space and resources.

But the gardener makes the plea for giving the tree another chance. He argues for giving the tree some TLC and a bit more time before the final judgment is made. Then if there’s still no fruit after another year – cut it down then . . .

In the parable the tree represents us. When we fail to produce the expected fruit – when we fail to grow in love for God — we deserve to be cut down.

Jesus is the gardener in the parable – Jesus is the one who says “I’ll do everything I can to bring this tree back to life” . . .

… And maybe – just maybe – this will be our year for repentance – this will be our year for fruit. Maybe this will be the year when God’s Grace finds it’s home in our hearts!

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