"Unless you repent, you will likewise perish." Did you expect that coming over the radio waves at you today? But there it is, a statement, an admonition, an exhortation straight from Jesus' lips, from the very center of the Scripture reading for this third Sunday of Lent: "Repent!"
Jesus offers this exhortation not once but twice in this relatively short passage, and he enunciates the word and the call throughout his ministry. My heavens, the word hits me right between the eyes! What does this call to repent have to do with the ongoing message and meaning of Jesus of Nazareth? And, more close to home, what does this admonition have to do with me, with my life and meaning as a human being?
Jesus had a way of dealing with such probing questions. He was quite aware that one picture is worth a thousand words. So, as Luke's Gospel relates, Jesus presents the word-picture of a vineyard and uses the image of a fig tree in its midst to illustrate the call to repent.
It was an accurate and familiar picture to be sure. Fig trees were and are often planted in vegetable gardens and vineyards in that part of the world, and they are treasured for their delicious and delectable fruit. But there's a big, big problem with this particular fig tree: nada, nothing-it is utterly barren, producing no figs whatsoever. And there's a double problem with this state of affairs. There are no tasty figs to be had. But even worse, especially in the arid land of the Middle East, this tree is absorbing large amounts of nutrients and nourishment, thereby depriving the surrounding vines of vital nutrition.
So, what do you do in a situation like this? The owner, who must have attended the same school of horticulture as this preacher, has a clear and direct solution. "Hack the darn thing down; I've had enough!" And who can blame him?
Ah, but there's a surprise ending here. The vinedresser intercedes, saying that he will take the really radical step of dumping precious manure around it and will give it special TLC to see if it can change and bear fruit. Although nothing further is said, the vineyard owner must have given in. The fig tree is given a temporary reprieve, even though it would have legitimately been destroyed.
Well, what do you know-a merciful fig tree story? Ancient literature is full of fig tree parables where the tree gets the axe. Even Jesus himself zaps a useless tree in a story told in Matthew's Gospel, and the tree withers away dead on the spot. But this is a story of mercy, not punishment. And it is also a story of expectation - the expectation of a radical change and turning about of things. The tree must change. It must produce fruit by this time next year-or else.
"So then," says Jesus, "unless you repent, change, turn around, bear fruit… you will likewise perish." The fig tree word-picture and parable is used by Jesus to tell the story of God's call to repentance. He wanted his listeners to turn to the God who loves and redeems his people. He wanted them to change their minds and their lives to reflect the compassion and care that God had given to them. And, he wanted them to bear fruit: the fruits of repentance, of new life in God and God's love -- the fruits of grace, joy, hope, and peace.
Jesus' word is direct. His call is clear, his admonition simple. "Repent! Turn around, turn to me. Claim my life, bask in my love, relish my compassion, enter my mercy. Repent! Change your mind." That's what the Greek word translated as "repent" literally means. "Change your mind"- your heart, your soul, your life.
So, remember my original question? What has this got to do with me, with my meaning, with my life? Truth is, it sounds pretty drab and dreary. Am I supposed to don some sackcloth and ashes and walk down Second Avenue in New York City outside my office? Am I supposed to dwell on my past life with regret and sadness? Am I supposed to wallow in guilt and shame?
Not necessarily so. In fact, not so. This not what the rich meaning and the great possibility of repentance actually are. Listen to the definition of repentance offered by the novelist and spiritual writer Frederick Buechner:
To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, "I'm sorry," than to the future and saying, "Wow!"
Now, I believe that this is indeed the case. To repent is to come to our senses, and I do need to do just that. I need to come to my senses about some things, about my belief in and relationship with God, about my priorities in life, about some things that draw me from the love of God. And I need to look to the future and say "Wow!" God holds great promise and great possibility for me and for my life. God offers great love and great hope for me and for my life.
Of course, we need to take stock of our lives. We do need to examine our own personal history, make amends when necessary, and ask for God's forgiveness. But we dare not get stuck there. That is not real repentance. Rather to repent is to come to our senses, to change our mind, to turn in some new directions, and to enter our future with a sense of the hope, love and companionship that God offers to us in our lives.
"Wow!" God has something in store for us in our future. God will give us gifts for our future. God will be there with us and for us in our future. To repent is to change our minds and recognize these things. It is to turn towards the future with faith, hope, and love.
Jesus told the parable of the fig tree to call his listeners to turn towards him and to change their minds and their hearts. The result for the fig tree and for the listeners is the same: to bear fruit. As Jesus tells the story, the hope for the changed fig tree is that it will bear fruit. He has the same hope for the human beings who would listen to his words, that they would bear fruit.
The ultimate sign of our changing of the mind, our repentance, our turning in a new direction is the action of our life. It is not words. It is not sentiment. It is not feelings. It is action, bearing fruit, doing some new things in our lives. The fulfillment of the call to change and repent is new action of faith in our living.
It's possible to be deluded, to get caught in the words, but God seeks more from us: actions of faith, actions of hope, actions of love. "If you're in love, show me!" The result of repentance is activity rooted in faith for individuals and for communities of faith.
As individuals, we are called to do actions of generosity, compassion, service, peace making, justice, witness and respect. These are the fruits of a life turned to God, of a mind and heart changed by the Spirit of God. As communities of faith, we are called to bear fruit as well. There is a mission revolution going on in American Christianity today because congregations are aware of this. It's not enough to gather for common sentiment; we are brought together in Christ to bear fruit, to engage in God's mission, to do the actions of restoration, renewal and reconciliation in the world around us.
Think of your own community of faith, if you are a part of one at this point in your journey. How is it turning towards God? How is it transforming people's minds and hearts? How is it bearing the fruit of mission? Is it hopeful? Is it excited about the future which God will give to it and through it to human beings? The fruit of mission takes many forms for the local community of faith -- invitation, pastoral care, learning together, spiritual transformation, service through such means as the Millennium Development Goals. But the point is this: The local community of faith is called to bear fruit, to show forth mission.
Think of your own life. How is your life turning towards God? How is your heart and mind being changed? What fruits of mission are you bearing? What new actions of the Gospel might God have in store for you? Are you hopeful about the future into which God calls you? Words and expressions, yes… but "if you're in love, show me."
This season of Lent is a time to take stock of our own hearts, souls and life in God. There are some steps that help us to do just that; here are some of them:
* First, acknowledge your need for God, in prayer and in your heart, acknowledge the reality of the living God and recognize your own yearning and hunger for that God in your life.
* Second, confess your sins. Tell God about the things that you do regret and want to leave behind as you turn a new direction and embark on a new journey in your living.
* Third, accept God's forgiveness and lay claim to God's love. Truth is, God is much more ready to forgive than we are to receive that forgiveness and much more ready to love than we are to own that love.
* Fourth, change your mind, re-examine some things about your life, your priorities, and your patterns of activity. Let God renew your mind with God's grace and love.
* And finally, finally, bear fruit. Show some new actions, some new practices, patterns and behaviors that reflect the love that God has for you and the love that you have for God.
"Repent. Change your mind. Bear fruit." There it is, a repentance recipe for this season, the ingredients for spiritual renewal during these 40 days of the Lenten season. Jesus used a fig tree as a symbol of these ingredients and as a symbol of a new future and renewed hope in the love of God.
That fig tree was given the opportunity for its renewal, its change, its growth and its life. And, thanks be to God, so are we.
Let us pray.
Change our minds, our hearts, our directions, our souls, O Loving God. Let us receive the forgiveness and mercy that you so abundantly give. Nurture and nourish us in your grace that we may bear the fruit of service and compassion. Inspire us to the actions of mission and ministry. Rouse us from sentiment and words only to new Gospel activity in your Spirit. Grant that we may serve you as a renewed and confident people.