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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 02/28/2016

For those who think the Old Testament is about a God of wrath and judgment and the New Testament is about a God of grace and forgiveness, today’s lessons provide evidence to the contrary. If you’re looking for grace, you’ll find more in the Isaiah text than in the gospel; if you’re looking for wrath and judgment, today’s gospel text seems like a pretty good example. The reality of course is, that both the Old and the New Testaments witness to the grace of God but in both testaments, the grace comes with a degree of tension, tension that comes in the form of behavioral expectations that have to be taken seriously. It’s tension that also includes judgment, the knowledge that what we do does make a difference and that we are held accountable.

So Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish,” and he doesn’t just say it once, he says it twice. It’s harsh, it’s abrasive because there is an “or else” feel to it. In this case, Jesus was talking to a group who were playing the “Let’s compare sins” game. It’s a popular game and it always has been, because you always win; you can always find someone who you perceive to be a worse sinner than you. The trouble is, Jesus says, “I’m not playing,” and instead he calls for repentance.

Repentance is of course a major theme during Lent. It’s a time when we’re called to a engage in honest reflection. You’re all church people though, so you’ve heard that repentance is more than reflection. It doesn’t just mean thinking about things and feeling bad about yourself; repentance calls for action. It means turning away from the things and behaviors that keep us from being who God would have us be.

Making that more difficult though, is the fact that our society and culture, and that society and culture can also include the church, play the same “Let’s compare sins” game that we play as individuals, deciding that some sins are worse than others. With that, there can also be the perception that some sins aren’t so bad, they’re pretty much accepted. Again though, it’s the same game Jesus said “No” to. Caught in the game though, it’s easy to get distracted and think we’re doing pretty well because we don’t commit any of the really bad sins and as a result we wind up not worrying about the things that actually have more of an effect on our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.

It’s the things that really affect our relationships that Jesus talked about in his ministry, things like not playing the “Let’s compare sins” game, things like being judgmental, things like envy, gossip, greed, being uncharitable, failing to be hospitable and welcoming, creating boundaries between one group of people and another. Those are the kinds of things Jesus talked about yet some of them are pretty much accepted, even by those who call themselves Christians; all you have to do is listen to the characters who are running for president and you’ll get plenty of examples and right there as I point the finger at them, I’m guilty of being judgmental and making comparisons. See how easy it is to commit those sins, and how hard it is to repent of them? I can feel bad about my inclination to be judgmental and that’s just one example, but it’s hard to truly repent and turn away from those behaviors.

Repent or perish, Jesus says. Without question, that word perish includes a reference to judgment, some kind of accounting. I think it’s wrong though just to hear “perish” as being about a final judgment way off in the future. Jesus was always talking about the ways that we live in this world, the ways that the Kingdom of God is already revealed in this world. Remember the text from a few weeks ago when he preached at the synagogue in Nazareth and said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” He was focused on today.

So when Jesus says, “Repent or perish,” while there might be a future component, he’s also talking about the state of our life today. When we let the seductive ways of this world become our way of life we don’t necessarily perish physically, quite the opposite actually as on the surface of things those who embrace those worldly ways in many cases appear to be doing very well; but we do perish spiritually as the behaviors I mentioned, being judgmental, envy, greed, gossip lack of hospitality, those are the kinds of things that separate us from God and from other people, things that distance us from the Kingdom of God. So Jesus’ words don’t just represent a threat of future judgment, they’re also a lament over a quality of life that is lost, a quality of life that is perishing.

It’s the same thing that Isaiah laments in today’s first lesson. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” he says. Isaiah was addressing the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. They weren’t slaves, just strangers in a strange land, and many of them accepted their fate and accommodated to the ways of Babylon in an effort to make a good life for themselves. Some of the prophets suggested that that was the right thing to do. What Isaiah observed though, was that in the process of participating in the ways of the empire they had become part of, they had forgotten who they were. They had forgotten their identity. They had forgotten the ways of the Lord, their God.

So Isaiah calls them out; “What are you doing? Why are you going after things that will never really make you happy? Have you forgotten who you are? Have you forgotten the Lord?” Isaiah calls them out, but he doesn’t do it in a threatening “repent or perish” fashion, he does it with a gracious invitation to another way. “Anyone who thirsts, come to the waters; even though you have no money, come, buy and eat. Buy wine and milk without money and without price. Eat what is good, delight yourselves in rich food.”

We’re told that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but that’s exactly the metaphor, the image that Isaiah uses in calling the people to reflect on what they were doing. They were perishing so Isaiah reminded them of the grace of their God, the Lord. “Return to the Lord, that he may have mercy, to our God for he will abundantly pardon.” You’re not going to find a more grace filled text anywhere in the Bible.

“Repent or perish” is obviously much harsher than “Return to the Lord that he may have mercy and abundantly pardon,” but both statements serve as reminders that “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” In a way we don’t need the reminder because we know our ways are not God’s ways. On the other hand, we do need the reminder because we spend a lot of time trying to convince ourselves otherwise, that our ways and God’s ways are pretty much the same. Repentance can’t really happen until we acknowledge the truth of “My ways are not your ways.” We can’t receive the grace offered in the Isaiah text, we can’t be the people God would have us be until we accept this truth.

For us, being who God would have us be means accepting the baptismal identity we’ve been given; it means being fig trees that bear fruit. That’s the parable that Jesus tells after “Repent or perish.” It’s a parable that highlights that tension between grace and judgment. It starts with judgment: the owner of the vineyard comes across a fig tree bearing no fruit and orders it to be cut down; it’s just wasting soil. The gardener in charge of the vineyard suggests grace; let me work with it awhile, give it another year and if it still isn’t bearing fruit, then we’ll cut it down. So there’s grace, but still, there will be an accounting. The message though, is that the fig tree isn’t what it’s supposed to be if it doesn’t bear fruit. We are not who we are supposed to be if we spend our time going after things that in the end, don’t really make us happy. Both Isaiah and Jesus, using somewhat different tactics, invite us to a life that offers more.

Lent is a time to consider that more. We know it’s not about more money and more possessions and the false promise that those things will make us happy. But what is it? What is the more? You know me well enough to know I’m not going to give you an exact answer, because I think for each of us it is a little different. But it has to do with a quality of life that begins with and is grounded in abundant pardon and mercy. It includes the divine pardon and mercy that we receive, abundant pardon and mercy that tells us that God accepts us as we are and it also includes the abundant pardon and mercy we are to extend to others; there’s the tension of being accepted while at the same time more is expected of us.

Without the acceptance, the expectations would overwhelm us. Without the expectations, the acceptance wouldn’t mean much. Therein lies the tension.

We need the challenge of “Repent or perish,” but even more we need “Return to the Lord that he may have mercy and abundantly pardon.”

Pastor Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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