Repentance: Necessary and Urgent
Left to our own devices, the Bible teaches us, we are cut off from God. However by his grace God has opened a door for us return to him. God approaches us offering us the righteousness which has been secured by the death of Christ.
Do you want to enjoy what God has to offer us? Surely you do!
If that is the case then you cannot remain a stranger to repentance. Peter put it very simply when he said: "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out," "repent and be converted." (Acts 3:19)
Repentance involves a change of mind towards God and that change leads to a judgment of ourselves and our own attitudes and behaviour. It has to do with changing our mind so totally that we undergo a 180° turn and head off in the opposite direction.
The Bible provides us with two main incentives for repenting:
the goodness of God which leads to repentance;
the coming judgment, on account of which God now commands all men to repent;
When a person repents it means that he/she changes their attitude about Jesus – he becomes from that moment on the most important person in the world to them.
Jesus knew how easily people find it to put off taking the really important decisions of life especially when such decisions were of a spiritual nature. So he told them a story which was designed to demonstrate the importance of settling matters with God while it was still not too late to do so. To follow Jesus advice would involve radical change in a person’s life: instead of continuing to rack up an impossible debt with God they would have to prioritise the seeking of an out-of-court settlement with God while that remained a possibility.
The climate of discussion was a moral one and moral challenges filled the air.
An Attempt at Evasion
It often proves the case that when we are morally challenged we become uncomfortable and try to change the subject or at least to shift the point of focus. That happened here in this case.
Everything was in place for some serious discussion about how the individuals in the crowd might expect to have to conduct themselves in order to settle matters with God. But... no... it was much more comfortable and much less threatening or challenging to talk about someone else’s problems rather than their own.
"Have you heard what that wicked fellow Pilate did to those Galileans as they were worshipping? Terrible wasn’t it? What have you got to say about that, Jesus?"
It is always easier to criticise and condemn others than it is to face up to our own short-comings. So we introduce our own red-herrings into the discussions hoping to take the heat out of the situation or at least to deflect that heat away from ourselves.
Maybe they wanted to hear Jesus condemn that cruel man Pilate – they would all be able to agree with him on that! Then perhaps they could move on from the awkwardness posed by those pointed personal challenges that Jesus had issued.
We don’t know when or why Pilate had committed the atrocity referred to and we would be wasting our time were we to try to imagine various scenarios. Jesus did not allow the introduction of this new subject to change direction of the discussion but he kept the focus squarely where he wanted it to be – on the personal responsibility of his hearers!
I wonder whether any of us here this morning are trying to side-step the challenges Jesus wants to confront us with. We hear what he says but we fear the consequences of facing up to his demands and so we hesitate, we try to change the subject, we try anything we can to get the focus shifted away from us.
Well, Jesus wasn’t about to let his hearers off the hook and I hope he won’t let you off the hook either until you have settled the matter with God. If he were to let you go it might mean that he’d given up on you and how sad would your case be then!
In responding to this latest diversionary tactic Jesus didn’t even bother mentioning Pilate but instead he did use the opportunity for meeting another wrong idea head-on.
Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries thought that they could draw a straight line from tragedy and/or physical ailment to the personal sin of the individual concerned. It was such an assumption that lay behind some in the crowd mentioning those Galileans whom Pilate had killed.
They reasoned something like this:
Jesus had pointing the finger at wrong-doing hadn’t he? Well, surely those Galileans must have been really bad to have had had that happen to them! And isn’t that often the way we comfort ourselves? We look at others and we think: I’m not as bad as them, I can’t be as bad as them. And pretty soon we’re suggesting to ourselves that we’re alright really – no need to make a fuss.
But this kind of "straight-line" thinking, while common enough, was all wrong. It was wrong when, in possibly the earliest of the books of the Bible to have been written, the Book of Job, Job’s friend Eliphaz suggested that the innocent never suffer:
Job 4:7 "Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?"
And it was wrong when Jesus’ own disciples were influenced by it as is seen by the question they asked their Master about a man who had been born blind:
Jn.9:2-3 "And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him."
The same type of thinking surfaced again on the island of Malta where the shipwrecked Paul was brought ashore to safety. Do you remember the incident? Paul gathered some sticks together for the fire but as he did so a viper bit him:
Acts 28:4-6 "When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, "No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live." He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god."
No, this sort of thinking is fraught with problems and when we start to think this way it is remarkable how easily we take the moral high ground and "we are not as bad as them" thinking creeps in.
What lesson then could the Galileans teach us? According to Jesus the lesson is that unless we repent we will be destroyed as certainly as they were! Looking at others is no excuse for inaction on our part. When we look at what befalls other sinners we should not try to work out whether we are better or worse than them but rather we should allow their experience serve to underline for us the seriousness of our own sin which needs dealing with.
Jesus continued to make this point by referring to another group of people who had lost their lives in unusual circumstances. This time it was a group of people who had lost their lives when the Tower of Siloam had collapsed – again Jesus said it was not a question as to how bad they might have been, that was entirely the wrong conclusion to draw – but as they all died so will all those who do not repent.
Jesus isn’t asking you to compare yourself with others at all. Your debt to God doesn’t depend upon the size of another person’s debts (real or imaginary) but you, yes, you need to sort out the question of your own debt while it yet remains possible to do so.
The importance of all of this is there clearly of us to see in the fact that the exact same conclusion is repeated in v.3 and v.5
"No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
Men and women may foolishly try to evade facing up to Jesus’ challenge but evasion is not the answer – repentance is essential! Don’t imagine thinking about others is the way forward – thinking about third parties may be interesting and even appealing but the way for you must include repentance and conversion to faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus and Repentance
This emphasis upon repentance is not to be misunderstood. We must not imagine that Jesus was reacting with frustration towards those who failed to respond properly to his teaching and so started to speak about repentance. Right from the outset, in his very first public message after he had set out to fulfil his ministry, he spoke clearly and seriously about the importance of repentance:
Mk.1:14-15 "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."
A little later he explained that this was the very reason of his coming into the world:
Lk.5:32 "I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."
I hope that you don’t think, like so many, that repentance is only for others. It is for all of us. It is for you!
The Urgency of Repentance
If the first paragraph of Luke 13 was all about the absolute necessity of repentance the second is about the urgency of that repentance. Repentance is necessary and it is necessary now!
Once again to help press home what he wanted to communicate Jesus told a story, a parable. We know this parable under the title of "The Barren Fig Tree".
As with all of Jesus’ stories the images were familiar ones and the details both plausible and easy to grasp.
Fig trees were a common enough sight in the M.E. of Jesus’ day and indeed are referred to frequently in the Bible. Jesus referred to them on several occasions using them as visual aids to illustrate what he wanted to say.
Fig trees were grown for their fruit and trees could produce two crops a year. The fruit could be picked and eaten directly from the tree.
The tree in this little parable was provided with every opportunity of flourishing – it was after all growing in the rather unusual place of a vineyard and so its growing conditions would be somewhat cosseted.
Year after year the owner came to examine it and its fruit only to be profoundly disappointed; there was no fruit to be seen. Finally the owner had had enough. Why should this tree go on uselessly taking up ground that could be used for other things? It was time for the tree to come down.
What could be more reasonable than that? You can readily imagine Gardener’s Question Time being quite happy to go along with that proposed course of action.
The head gardener however seems to have a special place in his life for this tree and is reluctant to give up on it so he argues for a stay of execution during which time he will try a little more TLC to see whether the tree will respond and produce the desired fruit. He will dig around its roots allowing water and air better access and he’ll add some fertilizer as well.
The tree has had a number of years already and is granted just one more year to prove its value. No fruit then and the tree will be cut down and destroyed.
And that is how the parable ends on this note of urgency – the time is running out for the tree, the owner’s patience is wearing thin, and soon it will be too late.
Jesus didn’t bother to give any further explanation as the main thought was clear. But just in case it isn’t obvious to you let me add a few words of explanation.
Just as the owner of that fig tree came legitimately looking for fruit so God comes legitimately looking for fruit in the lives of men and women made in his image. John the Baptist during his ministry had called for those who heard him preach to see to it that they bore fruit, fruit that was in keeping with repentance:
Lk.3:7-8 "(John) said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance."
A number of years later when Paul was defending himself before the court of King Agrippa he too spoke of his own preaching being designed to produce the same kind of fruit in the lives of both the Jews and Gentiles who listened to him:
Acts 26:20 "(I) declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance."
My friends, if you were that fig tree in Jesus’ parable and God came calling to investigate the quality of your fruit how would it go for you? Would God consider you only fit to be cut down and dug out or would there be the fruits of repentance in your life? Would he find you a converted person who had stopped heading in the wrong direction and was now following Jesus and trusting in him?
The tree in Jesus’ parable was granted another year but I can’t promise you another year. Some of us may well have used up just about all the time we are going to be allotted – and what is to show for it. The owner in the story was patient and oh how patient our Heavenly Father has shown himself to be allowing some 2,000 years to pass so that we might come to put our faith and trust in his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. But have we done so? How serious it is! Don’t delay any further – you know that God expects a response from you and you know that that response includes the complete turnaround that is repentance/conversion. Why will you refuse God’s gracious invitations when he has already met all the cost through the death of his Son?
You can call out to him at this very moment in your heart and he will hear you. You can go home and sit down quietly there and call out to him for all the grace you need. The one thing you simply must not do is to go on and on doing nothing: "Today is the day of salvation" and repentance is the road that leads you to the Saviour.
May God have mercy upon us all!