Every season of Lent, I try to come up with a theme, a theme that flows through the Bible readings for the entire six weeks in Lent. What is the theme for the current season of Lent? Look at the altar. The draping purple cloth and the six candles are not just there to make our sanctuary beautiful. Yes, they do symbolize the theme, “the Way of Salvation.” It tells us, our way goes along with the way of Jesus to the cross. And through worship, we have been reflecting on the things we experience as we journey through the way of salvation. On Ash Wednesday, we meditated on our beginning and end, our dust-ness and mortality. On the first Sunday in Lent, we thought about Jesus in the wilderness and the three temptations of human desire, will, and fear. On the second Sunday, we reflected on our way of being the church, being the community of the saved in this secular, skeptical, and individualistic age. And today, we are looking into a rather uncomfortable and yet essential topic of Lent: repentance and forgiveness.
I know, these days, repentance is not a popular subject of any sermon. Who would want to hear that you are a sinner or there’s something seriously wrong with you? And I also know, these days, preachers have been reluctant to present Jesus as the one who fiercely fought the evil in the world. He was not just a gentle guy, meek and mild, not a buddy, a therapist, or a life-coach. Jesus got very upset with people. He criticized evildoers and cursed hypocrites. He frequently admonished his disciples. And he even overturned the tables of money-changers and wielded the whip of cords in front of the temple. For sure, Jesus unconditionally loved the people around him, but at the same time, he was just and righteous to their sin. This is why he demanded them to truly repent.
The season of Lent is called the season of repentance—forty days of honest reflection on our identity as sinners. We know, by God’s grace through our faith, we, though sinners, are saved by Jesus from sin and its consequence—death. Jesus opens us the way of salvation. However, please remember, our journey on this way can begin only when we repent. Yes, we should repent first, to be redeemed and to walk the way with Jesus. Some people say, Lent is only a penultimate journey; Easter, resurrection, the victory over death, is our ultimate destination. But before reaching that point, today we better pray honestly and solemnly looking into our spiritual status quo. And we better strike at the root of our complacency and comfort, and get down on our knees to repent.
You may ask, what does it mean to repent? The word, “repentance,” originated from the Greek word, “metanoia,” which simply means, turning around, the change of direction. Let’s say we all are driving down to south. We would usually take either the Garden State Parkway or I-95. But some of you might take some other local routes too. It’s totally up to you. And let’s say that these roads and routes represent our ways of life we choose. Then here, repentance is not a matter of choosing between the Garden State Parkway and I-95. Repentance is a matter of changing direction from south to north. It’s about turning back from death to life, turning back from self to God, turning back from sin to Jesus Christ on the cross.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is telling us about this repentance. In the days of Jesus, there were two tragic news that everybody knew. Pilate, the Roman governor, massacred the Galilean pilgrims who came to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices with no clear reason. And there followed a unfortunate accident at Siloam where eighteen people died by a fallen tower. To comprehend such tragedies, people thought, the dead were worse sinners than the alive, and their sin caused the wrath of God. So the crowd asks Jesus what he thinks about their reasoning. Jesus answers them, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”(Luke 13:3; 5). What does this mean? First, Jesus denies their reasoning, “No, God is not the God of wrath.” Second, Jesus moves their focus to a more pressing issue, the issue of repentance, “Sooner or later, you will all die too, so when you still have time, you should repent. And this is much more important than finding reasons for those tragedies.”
According to Jesus, we can’t figure out why good things or bad things happen in our lives. They are out of our control anyway. Some may choose the Garden State Parkway and unfortunately have all the roadside constructions and lane closures. Others may take I-95 with some traffics but somehow go along rather smoothly. That’s life. Be that as it may. But one thing is clear: unless we change our direction, we will go down and perish. No matter how lucky or unlucky we are on our ways of life, if we don’t change our direction, we will go down and perish. So Jesus is telling us today, repent and change the direction. And this is something we can surely do today, and every day.
Now some of you might wonder, “I confess my sins personally and in every worship service. I got baptized and have faith in Jesus. Doesn’t it mean that I am saved and I already changed my direction of life?” Yes, it does. By God’s grace through our faith, we are saved. Our sins are forgiven and now our direction of life is towards the new life in Christ. But at the same time, we should be keenly aware that we can very easily move backward. Although we changed the direction to north but we can still move backward to south. Yes, we can still relapse. This is what we Methodists call backsliding.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus also tells us about this backsliding through the parable of the fig tree. In the parable, a man has a fig tree planted in his vineyard and it bears no fruit. So he asks his gardener to cut it down. Then the gardener replies, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:8-9). We know for sure that our God is the God of grace who gives us a certain time to repent and move forward. Yet it is also clear that our God is the God of justice who will surely judge our sin at the end. So in our limited time on earth, we need to intentionally walk on the right track, and like the John the Baptist says, we need to bear fruits worthy of repentance on our way of salvation.
Faithful companions in Christ, I know, today, I am talking much about a topic that is not just good to hear. But please remember, from time to time it’s really necessary to be aware of who we are and what we ought to do. We still have time, although it is yet limited, and we still have one another who journey together in the right direction. In this season of Lent, let us do something to bear good fruits in life. Let us keep staying in the loving relationship with God and with people around us, keep growing in faith and holiness by joining the works of piety and works of mercy in our church, and keep repenting when we fall back, and keep submitting ourselves to God to be redirected. May God be with all of us with the grace that abundantly pardons. May we drink the living water from our rock of salvation, Jesus Christ, and wash our sins away. And may the Holy Spirit be with us and empower us to step always forward to the new and everlasting life. Amen.