Lent 3 • Luke 13:1–9 • February 28, 2016
By Glenn Nielsen
In this text Jesus doesn’t explicitly accuse someone of something that needs repentance. Rather, he says the unfortunate people in the tragedies were not worse sinners. So this sermon focuses on the second half of repentance—the turning toward Jesus in faith—although a short section does mention what we need to turn away from. I use the warm phrase “coming home” to get at that part of repentance. The goal is that the hearers repent (come home to Jesus) more often, even daily.
What follows is a working brief, not a full sermon, allowing you to recast it in your own words and context. A fuller version of the sermon was proclaimed at a St. Louis congregation in September 2015.
Coming home is good when you are welcomed. It’s good to be welcomed home in love and acceptance. I occasionally take a trip of a week or more. But it’s great to drive into the driveway, walk through the front door, and be welcomed home. But not just after a long time away from home. Each day, to come home from work and to be welcomed in love and acceptance is so very good. Repentance is like coming home. To repent is to come home to Jesus in love and acceptance. But more about that later. Let’s go back to the gospel reading.
Two tragedies have happened. (Here I described the sacrifices made and how the soldiers mingled the worshippers’ blood with sacrificial blood. I called it sacrilege. Then I described a tower falling on unsuspecting people, and called it a disaster.) But did you hear what Jesus said? Were the Galileans worse sinners? No. Were the eighteen victims worse sinners? No. So in these cases these tragedies were not because of some great sin.
We have those tragedies too. I get letters from St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. The children there have cancer. The letter is asking for a donation and a child is usually pictured. No hair, hospital gown, but a smile on the face. Are these children worse sinners than other kids? Jesus says . . . (I kept silent for a few seconds and let people fill in the answer). No. (I then did the same thing with three other examples, a mother and child killed by a drunk driver. A tornado taking one house and leaving the one next to it standing. A child shot by a drive-by gunshot. (Each time I kept silent and had the people answer before I did with, “No.”)
So why did they happen? We’re waiting for the answer from Jesus. But he doesn’t give us one. No, he ignores the abstract, “Why do bad things like this happen?” and goes straight to the lives of those listening. And to us. He turns and looks at us. Unless we repent, we too will perish. And this perish is even more catastrophic than the tragedies that brought death. This perishing is eternal. Forever being separated from God. Never being able to come home to his love. Jesus is taking us out of the abstract “why?” and turning us back to ourselves. Calling us to repent, to come home.
Now, most of the time we have heard repentance defined as turning, and it is that. We turn from one direction and head another. We are to turn from anything and everything that gets in the way of our relationship with the Lord. If it disrupts our connection to Jesus, turn away from it. And it’s not just the big things like murder, adultery, or embezzlement.
No, more often it’s the everyday things we need to repent of. The way we budget leaves us living from paycheck to paycheck with little to give to those in need. We have the things we want, but ignore the generosity Jesus wants us to do. So we turn away from that greed (I was walking slowly in one direction here and suddenly turned around and walked in the other direction) and come home to Jesus. (I did the same with other everyday sins: anger, complaining, impatience, fear, and lust. Each time giving a brief description of the sin and then turning around while saying the phrase “come home to Jesus.”) Do you see how repentance works? You turn away from something that is pulling you away from Jesus and turn around to come back home to him.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of repentance. The young son wants his inheritance early. His father gives it to him. He heads off to another city to live. (I told this biblical story in greater detail during the actual sermon.) Do you see what the big problem is? As Americans, we think about how he wasted the money. We imagine what type of sinful living he indulged in. But the bigger problem happened earlier. He. Left. Home. He turned his back on his home.
Finally, he realizes what he has done. He’s feeding pigs and they have better food than he does. So repentance has begun. He turns away from what has led him so far from home and heads back. His father sees him coming. He runs to meet him. New robe. New sandals. New ring. Celebration! He’s come home. Repentance is coming home. Repentance is being welcomed home in love and acceptance.
Repentance is coming home to Jesus, and he’s waiting with open arms. His nailscarred hands welcome you with his love. He stretched out those arms on the cross to provide the forgiveness for all that we need to turn away from. His open arms have forgiven the greed, fear, lust, impatience and any other everyday sin that gets in the way of our relationship with him. When we come home to Jesus, he is risen from the dead and restores us to his family. He brings us home once again. And he gives us his Holy Spirit to renew our lives. Generosity, patience, trust, contentment, peace, and kindness become the fruits of repentance in our lives when we come home. Yes, coming home to Jesus’s love is so needed. Coming home to Jesus’s acceptance is so good. Nothing is more wonderful than to be welcomed home by Jesus.
And we need to come home every day. Martin Luther’s evening prayer helps us do that. (I spoke it, with the emphasis on “I pray that you would forgive my sins.”) Each night before going to sleep, this prayer brings us home to Jesus, to sleep in his forgiving, welcoming love. This year I turn sixty. I figure I have lived two-thirds of my life, with one-third left. But it could be 98 percent lived. The cancer cells could grow in my body. The plane I’m in crashes. The stray bullet finds me. For many of us, we don’t know when and how that moment of death will come. But when it does, Jesus wants us to be home with him. He’s calling us to always come home to him.
When I travel, I use a GPS. If I miss a turn, it says, “Turn around when possible.” With Jesus, it’s always possible to turn around and come home to Jesus, and he welcomes us with love and forgiveness. Repentance is coming home to Jesus. Amen.