REPENT OR PERISH
It is a divine message but one of limited power! It is the Law, not the Gospel. It can wake us up from our spiritual coma. It can strike fear into our hearts, but it cannot justify us before God or console us in the face of evil. Today's gospel lesson talks about two kinds of trouble that we must endure in this world.
One is man made, when the strong oppress the weak to secure their own position. Pilate did this when a contingent of Galileans tried to throw off his power. His soldiers murdered them in the temple, mixing their own blood with the blood of the sacrifices they brought. It wasn't the last time that Pilate would shed Galilean blood. The first was for sins against the state, but with Jesus it was for our sins against God. There are Pilate's large and small in every generation, let us be sure that we are not one of them.
Besides man's cruelty to man, we hear about another type of catastrophe today, about a tower that fell and killed 18 people. It may sound like small potatoes when we consider the mass casualties of our day, but to those people it was a big deal. Unfortunately the more we "progress" the greater the opportunity for carnage, because try as we might, whenever greedy, lazy and fallible men are involved, something will always go wrong.
But what of such events? Is God speaking through them? Is he sending his judgment to men before its appointed time? There are more than a few who would answer, Yes. And, what if we escape such things? What if we prosper in life and are healthy, wealthy and wise for all of our days? Does this mean that all is right with our souls? Does it mean that the Almighty is pleased with our performance, and that he is showing his appreciation in return? We long to know many things, but it is not the ninth inning yet.
There is no doubt that whenever we suffer, whatever the cause, it is always a wake up call, a summons to repent, to re-assess, to look upward, outward, and to ask hard questions of ourselves in light of God's word, so that, in the words of St. Paul, "we would not be judged with the world," but as important as self-examination is we must not become pre-occupied with ourselves, or with asking unanswerable questions. Instead we must fix our eyes on Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who teaches us by this parable that we are the fruitless fig tree, and that he is the Vinedresser who acts to save us!
But what went wrong? How is it that divinely planted trees, for that is what we are, cannot produce the fruit that God seeks? It is because the devil injected humanity with his poison. He did it in order to stop us from producing the fruits of righteousness, so that we might share in his endless misery, but Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate to change that outcome. The digging and fertilizing that the Lord talks about in the parable is his own death and resurrection. It is the only cure for what ails us. It is the only way to extract satan's poison, restore us to the image of our Maker, and make us fit for the heavenly mansion that Jesus went ahead to prepare for us.
Today's readings are heavily slanted towards the Law. The Old Testament lesson warns God's people not to get comfortable with sin or to become weary in well-doing. The Epistle cautions us not to receive the grace of God in vain. In it St. Paul mentions three specific transgressions that God's people must avoid: sexual immorality, putting God to the test, and complaining rather than giving thanks. The message is precise, unmistakable, and applicable to believers and unbelievers alike: unless you repent you will likewise perish.
But how do we do that? We are doing it now. We repent by coming to church. From the beginning whenever God's people gathered for holy communion with their Lord they first confessed their sins. They conceded what we concede every Sunday: that we are poor sinners, miserable sinners who merit nothing from God, nothing that is except present and eternal punishment. That is repentance! Churches that don't do that -- and there are many -- can hardly be called churches, but we don't only confess, we also receive absolution from the pastor as if from God himself. This too is part of repentance. By it our sins are dissolved, our hearts are made light, our wrongs are made right, and we become new creations. We also gladly hear and learn God's word so that from it we might learn to live a godly life, and from it obtain the strength to do it. This too is part of repentance, but there is still more. We pray, praise and give Eucharistic thanks in unity with the whole people of God, using the church's unique language, and most especially by taking the cup of salvation to our lips. Here dead trees are made alive, fruitless trees fertile and timid trees bold. Here, at the Lord's altar, we are assured that we will never perish because we are tended by the Great Vinedresser, Jesus our Lord, who died so that we might live; and who rose again so that we might never die. God grant that we continue to thus repent and believe the gospel. Amen.
Rev. Dean Kavouras