We are in the season of lent, so I want to discuss a difficult topic: repentance. Along with this difficult topic, I'd like to begin with a difficult part of the Bible: the book of Joshua. This book is difficult, because we have the new nation of Israel coming into the land of Canaan to receive its inheritance, to take the land. The only problem is that the land is already occupied, and God has told Israel that it is okay to just go in there and destroy everything, down to every man, woman, and child.
Squirming yet? Well, what if I told you that God told his people in the book of Deuteronomy to not pity the people they are about to destroy, because those very people have had every possible opportunity to repent. In fact, God has given them hundreds of years to repent, and not only have they NOT repented, they are more corrupt than ever. Imagine a society where every man, woman, and even child was corrupt. A society where the parents taught the children to kill, engage in lusts of the flesh, and the worst kind of behavior. It may not be a stretch to imagine. We have evidence of such corruption in the world today, even in our own country. But can we imagine a society where every single person was that corrupt?
And even then, is that an excuse to wipe them off the face of the earth? Our problem is that we engage in comparisons, and we look at Israel, and we look at the people of Canaan, and we compare them. Who is Israel to be favored by God? Why did God choose them? Do they think they are better than the people of Canaan? Well, the answer is obviously NO. The people of Israel are no better than the people of Canaan, and that is where our problem lies.
We think of mankind as inherently good, and that corruption happens within a subset of mankind and lowers these people into evil. The truth is that because of the fall, we are born inherently corrupt already, and it is only the grace of God that lifts us out of such corruption. Israel is no better than the people of Canaan, except that God chose it to be so. He lifted them out of the corruption, and placed them in a favorable position in the world, in order to do his work. As God told Abraham in the book of Genesis, "all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you." Israel had a mission to the world, and one of the main steps in that mission was to be in that land.
But as we read the Old Testament, we see that Israel fails in its mission. The chosen people stop obeying God, and they fall back to their original state of corruption. Without God's hedge of protection, other nations come rushing in and take Israel by force. We have been looking at everything wrong. The question we should have asked was not, "why was Canaan condemned?" The question should have been, "why was Israel blessed?" The issue is not the destruction of the people in Canaan but the favor of the people of Israel.
We see something similar in the book of Jonah. Nineveh is a thoroughly corrupt city, and it is doomed for destruction. It is a huge city too, and it takes three days to get from one end to the other. Jonah walks in to the center, about a day's journey, and he relates this message: "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown." That's it. No "or else." No "repent!" There are no conditions. It's just a matter of fact: in forty days you all are goners. Done. End of statement. And yet, word spreads throughout the city like wildfire and everyone repents. Even the animals were dressed in sackcloth and ashes. Here we have a situation where a corrupt city is elevated out of destruction by God's graces. And this city was not in Israel. It had nothing to do with Israel.
Now we get to our gospel passage:
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" (Luke 13:1-9)
Here, Jesus is affirming everything we have been talking about. It's not that the disciples are better people than the people who were sacrificed to pagan idols or crushed under the tower of Siloam. No, you disciples are just as bad, and if you don't want a tower to fall on you tomorrow, then you need to repent. The first tower is a warning to you. God wants you to live a bit longer. He hopes you get the message of the tower and repent, because tomorrow another tower is coming for you, and its pieces may be falling as we speak.
Now we get a parable that seems to be unrelated, until we begin assigning roles. The vineyard owner is the Father, and he is tired of us, the fig tree, not producing any fruit. We are not even talking about bad fruit. We are talking about no fruit at all! Canaan was producing bad fruit. Nineveh was producing bad fruit. Israel was producing good fruit and then it began producing bad fruit. But here we are, chosen by God to be a part of his kingdom. At least we aren't producing bad fruit, we think! But are we producing no fruit at all? That may be even worse! Bad fruit produced may be responded to with a message of repentance, but when one produces no fruit, there seems to be no warning. Dig that tree out and throw it away, the Father says. We are just taking up space!
But here is where the grace of God comes in. Jesus, the gardener, stays the Father's hand. Give me another year, he says. I will dig a trench around it and put fertilizer in it. We will see if it produces fruit then, and after that, then you can cut it down. Jesus stays the Father's destruction upon us, because we don't deserve life. We are like the Canaanites, the Ninevites, the Israelites. We don't deserve any of God's blessings. We deserve to be chopped down and thrown onto the fire. But the Son, who died on the cross for us, he stays the Father's hand, through his sacrifice, and he pleads our case, and we have been granted an extra year. An extra year to repent and to receive his Spirit in our lives, so that good fruit can be produced. Look to the letters of Paul to see what these fruits consist of.
One last word about repentance. We think of it as getting on our knees and begging God to save us from a particular sin that we are confessing. This is only half the job of repentance. Many times we stay there, kneeling, and we feel the sin coming back, getting closer, opening the door behind us, and we are pleading with God to stop it. Keep it from crashing down on me! Look! Here it is! And it overtakes us again, and we blame the Father for not doing something!
The second half of repentance is getting up, turning around and moving away from the old life of sin and destruction and toward the new life in Christ. Moving toward God is as simple as singing a hymn and praising his name. Singing a hymn puts our focus on God and away from ourselves. Staying on the floor kneeling as the sin overtakes us again is still focusing on ourselves. It's just a selfishness of desperation this time instead of self-indulgence. We repent of the sin, confess it to God, and then we turn away, praising God through song and worship. Focus on God is the final part of repentance, and it is the way we know we have truly repented. The people of Nineveh put on sackcloth and ashes, yes, but they then called on God earnestly and turned from their wicked ways. That means they turned away from their sins and began moving toward God, with his name upon their lips.
Repenting is actually an uplifting exercise when it involves song and worship. Praise be to God!