Pastor Paul Waldschmidt delivers a sermon entitled “Repent or Perish” based on Luke 13:1-9 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered on Sunday, March 24, 2019
Have you ever played “Would you rather?” It can be a fun game to pass a little bit of time. For example…
- Would you rather lose all of your possessions or all of the pictures you have ever taken?
- Would you rather be completely invisible for one day or be able to fly for one day?
- Would you rather be married to a 10 with a bad personality or a 4 with an amazing personality?
- Would you rather find twenty dollars on the ground or find all of your socks that have ever gone missing in the dryer?
- Would you rather sing a hymn that never seems to end or listen to a sermon that never seems to end? (Don’t answer that!)
Most “would you rather” questions are intended to provoke deeper thinking. They’re not supposed to be easy to answer. By contrast, the would you rather? question that links together our three readings for today seems very easy to answer with no thought at all. “Would you rather….repent or perish?” No, I understand that it’s not even once asked in the form of a question. In fact, with the Gospel lesson, it’s an exclamation. Repent or perish! Nevertheless, it seems like a no brainer. Repentance, it is. But that’s not to say that real repentance comes easy to us.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Our sinful nature resists turning away from sin every step of the way. Left to ourselves we can only, ever remain mired in the ways that will make us perish. Only the powerful working of our God can bring our stubborn hearts to repentance. We see that powerful word at work in the word of God before us today from Luke 13.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Apparently, both stories were in the news and therefore hot topics of conversation among the people. Now, you have to know something about the way religious people thought about tragedies that happened in people’s lives back in those days. It was almost universally accepted back then that if something bad happened to you, you must’ve done something really bad that caused that badness be visited upon you. And so the people around Jesus may very well have been looking at the Galileans who had been murdered while offering sacrifices and the victims of the tower that fell with a bit of self-righteous disdain. “They must’ve done something pretty bad to have this happen to them.”
Jesus had to turn that thinking upside down. We shouldn’t try and draw a one to one correlation between a particular sin and bad things that come into our lives. And it’s particularly dangerous when we’re playing that game with other people’s sins and troubles in mind. Because when we’re obsessed with shining a white light into all the dark places of others’ lives, we’re conveniently ignoring what’s going on in our own lives, and minds, and hearts.
Repentance doesn’t come easy to us. It’s much easier to concentrate on others’ sins than to hold ourselves accountable before God’s law. You know what I mean? Do you ever do a “backhanded” confession of sins? I know having a heart full of hate for someone is wrong. But Jesus, that person does so many hateable things! I know that not being content is wrong. But Jesus, you have to admit that I have it worse in life than other people. I know that I’m not the spouse or parent that I should be, and that’s wrong. But Jesus, at least I’m doing a better job at it than my no good brother in law, sister in law, coworker, neighbor or some random guy I see on the news! I know that (fill in the blank) is wrong. But Jesus, let’s be serious, despite what I say, I don’t really plan on putting a stop to it in my life. When we make that sort of “but Jesus!” confession, it’s a sign that we’re really not taking sin seriously, sin that—if we continue to coddle it—is indeed serious enough to send us to hell. And so we, too, hear Jesus say, “Repent. Or perish.” Repentance is the right choice and now is the right time to do it.
That’s what the parable of the fig tree illustrates. If we see the vinedresser pleading for another year for the fruitless fig tree and we think to ourselves, well that buys me a little more time to snuggle up on the couch with Satan—we’re missing Jesus’ point entirely. Our God is patient, but that patience is not a license to keep punching Him in the nose. The next breath could indeed be our last breath. Now is the time to get tough on pet sins. Or we will see Him get tough on us because of our pet sins for eternity. God will not be played. You know he’s deadly serious about sin when Jesus looks us square in the eyes and says, “Repent or perish.”
We can loathe our sin with a red hot hatred, but that doesn’t fix the problem of our sin. Inasmuch as seeing an x-ray doesn’t fix a broken leg–it only confirms that there’s a pretty big problem going on. We can change our attitude about our sin today, but that doesn’t change the sins of yesterday. Only Jesus can do that. Jesus covers over the sins of yesterday and last week and five months ago and fifteen years ago with the perfect blood he poured out on a cross. As serious as Jesus is about our sin. He’s equally as serious about saving us. The same one who says “turn away from sin” says “turn toward me in faith.” The same one who looks you in the eye and says “repent or perish” is also the one who says “believe and live.”
When you see that you realize that there’s something more powerful than fear of God’s punishment at work here. It’s called love and gratitude for God’s deliverance. If fear of perishing eternally is only our motivator, we might do the right thing but it with a grudging and grumbly heart. And let’s be honest, fear loses its legs after a little while, slowly regressing back to comfortable complacency. But there’s an even more powerful reason to hate our sin. Because Jesus hates sin and our singular goal in life is to be like him. And that has legs because it’s constantly fed and powered by God’s Word.
Did you catch the plea for patience from the gardener in that parable? “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. He pleads for one more year, but he doesn’t then just sit back and wait with arms crossed. He acts to nourish and nurture, to feed and fertilize. That’s what our Heavenly Gardener does for you in Word and Sacraments, so great is his desire to care for you personally and see a fruitful life in you.
Let’s be honest. Does repentance today stop temptation from coming back tomorrow? You know that it doesn’t. You know that on this side of heaven, sin is a never more than a heartbeat away. But this isn’t about never sinning. It’s about how we handle the sin that inevitably ensnares us. Will we coddle it or plead for mercy? Will we continue to make excuses for it or be repulsed by it? Will we be bare trees or will we produce fruit in keeping with repentance, that is to say will we take steps to stop that specific sin in our lives?
Repent or perish! A serious Savior speaks in serious words to us today. But understand why he does so. His love for us is so massive that he can’t sit idly by while we destroy ourselves with a casual attitude toward sin. That love brought him down from heaven. That love carried him to a cross. That love drives his urgent words to us here. Let us listen too with urgent ears.
Let us repent, trust in him and live. Amen.