“Unless you repent...”
You and I do not, by nature, evaluate sin the same way our Lord sees it. He compares us, perfectly, to his perfect standard of the Law. We tend to compare ourselves to other standards.
Quite often, we re-create the law in our own image, making the 10 commandments seem more doable. They may even seem outwardly pious and religious, these new laws we make ourselves. Rome was expert in this by Luther's day. Go into a monastery and you will surely save your soul! Purchase in indulgence for a full pardon! Pray at this relic. Make this pilgrimage. Pick your perfect pious poison.
Or, we compare ourselves, not to the perfect law, but to a softened law. A law that has no teeth, but only gums us a little here and there. This is the idea of keeping the commandments “basically” or “pretty much”. I mean, God knows we need a little lee-way, right? Does he really mean “be perfect as I am perfect”?
We explain away the infractions we do incur. We rationalize why sin isn't sin. It's not hurting anyone else. Or if it is they deserve it. Or its the lesser of two evils. Or everyone else is doing it. Or no one will know. Or it's my only vice, really. Or the woman you put here gave me the fruit. Or the devil made me do it. I was just too weak, I couldn't resist.
And all of these are the lame attempts of the sinful Old Adam to shine the light of the law anywhere other than on his own sin. Or to at least dim that spotlight a little bit.
But today's text puts another such attempt before us. The comparison approach. Look at those sinners over there! They must really be bad. Look what their sins have caused them... don't you know you reap what you sow? Look, if they weren't such sinners, they wouldn't have fallen victim to the sword of Pilate. But we are far better than they are, obviously. And oh, look at those 18 people who died when a tower fell on them. God must have really had it out for them! They really deserved it. But not us. We're still here. We aren't THAT bad.
It's as if we re-write the old hymn to say, “Chief of sinners, though I be, at least I'm not as bad as thee...”
Don't think you play this game? I bet you do. Look at that church over there with all their problems. They're not such a wonderful congregation like we are here at Messiah. Look at those naughty teenagers. I'm glad my kids were raised right! Look at those immoral people. Don't they know all the diseases they can get from that kind of sinful life? Oh, the fellow on the corner with the cardboard sign. He must have made some mistakes. I'm glad I've kept my life in order. Look at him, look at them, look at their faults and failings and sins. And what do you not have to look at so closely? Your own.
Sometimes we call this “fruit comparison”. And the devil must love when we do it. Because when we are looking at our neighbor's sins, we are ever less mindful of the sins that we love, the sins that we want to keep, the sins that we don't want to look at, or anyone else for that matter. Especially God.
Jesus does not tolerate this sort of business. Do you think they are worse sinners because of what happened to them? By no means. But what it should awaken in you is repentance. Stop looking at the other guy's sins and punishments real or imagined. And take a look in the mirror of the law. There you will truly see who deserves to have a tower dropped on him. There you will see who truly deserves to be cut down, even in the midst of his religious observance. When we confess we deserve temporal and eternal punishment – it means we deserve the fires of hell, yes, but we also deserve all the calamaties that sin brings to this world, right here, right now.
And it is only the merciful forbearance of God that prevents our immediate and doom and downfall.
Jesus calls for repentance. He would call for the same from you, yes, even today. Repent! Turn from your sins. Look at your sins, see them clearly, that you might turn away in disgust!
And not just because it's Lent, mind you. But as Luther says in the first of the 95 Theses, the whole Christian life should be one of repentance. Since there is never a day that we are free from sinning, there is never a day that we should think we've arrived, that we're all set, that we don't need Christ.
Repentance, in this narrower sense, is not simply turning from being an unbeliever to a believer. It is not going from “lost” to “found”, or bad to good. It is the constant struggle of the New Man against the Old. The Spirit which is willing against the flesh which is so very weak. Repent! It's not a one time deal. It is your whole life as a Christian. Repent.. or you too will perish.
But repentance is not only a turning away from sin. It has a direction. The word of God wouldn't have us turn to ourselves, for that would only lead to more sin and failure. Instead, we turn to Christ. But we turn to him, not as a mere example to follow – for there we would surely fail again. Instead, we turn to him as the one who has mercy. The only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life. Christ's call to repent is followed by Christ's call to believe. Hear, and believe, and live.
Here is one, this Jesus, who suffered the ultimate calamity that he certainly did NOT deserve. He was crushed not by an accidental tower collapse, but by the weight of your sins – he was crushed for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. His blood was also shed by Pilate, though did Pilate know his role in this truest sacrifice of the lamb of God for the sins of the world?
He deserved no such fate, for he was without sin. He had no need to repent, for his face was always set upon his Father, and never on himself, his own will. But he set that face toward Jerusalem, and toward this cross, scorning its shame, for the joy set before him. And that joy was to rescue you from destruction. His suffering is joy, because in it he saves you!
And the parable of the barren fig tree. A broad-strokes reminder both of God's patient forbearance in Christ, in giving ample time for repentance and faith to flourish – but also a stern warning that even the patience of this merciful gardener has its limit. The time to repent is therefore now, today! The time to turn from sin and turn to Christ in faith.
He cultivates you, through the spreading of his good fertilizer. He prepares you and tends to you, by the preaching of this word – both the law and the gospel. He stands between you and the Father just as the gardener pleaded for this fig tree. And he does what is needed to keep you from harm. He's not afraid to get his hands, dirty, either. Or in his case, scarred with nails. But nonetheless, you, the passive recipient of his work, are the object of his affections. Just as the vinedresser tended to this fig tree.
So bear the fruit of repentance today. Don't compare your sin to some other sinner, but to the perfect standards of love. And see how you fall short. Repent! Turn from such sin, turn to Christ, and live. For only he can make a bad tree good. Only he, who died on a tree, can save your withering branches from being cut down, and you from being cut off. Only he can, and only he does, make you fruitful unto faith and life and love for your neighbor. Therefore, go in the peace that he gives...
The peace of God which passes all understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.