Preached 18 March 2001 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
Bong … Northern rebels massacred in Temple. High Priest lodges formal protest with Procurator. Bong … 18 dead, many more injured, as tower collapses at Siloam. Health and Safety officials begin investigation. Bong … Procurator unveils plans for new aqueduct in Jerusalem. Herod describes the proposed structure as a “monstrous carbuncle”. Bong …
Jesus has just been listening to News at Ten … or the Judean equivalent. And it seems that some of the people listening with him had been passing comments (as one does) while the news was on. And the comments had been on the lines of: “What a bad lot those folk must have been to come to such a sticky end. Goodness knows what they’d been up to.
Now Jesus was no stranger to this way of thinking. He encountered it all the time. He couldn’t even stop to heal a blind man without his own disciples asking: “So … who sinned, Lord? This man, or his parents?”
In other words, someone must have sinned for a man to be blind. Jewish thinking in Jesus’ day didn’t allow for accidents. Blindness didn’t just happen. Neither did a tower falling down. Or someone getting massacred. There were no accidents, there were only rewards and punishments. All bad things that happened to human beings were a direct result of bad behaviour — bad thoughts, bad words, bad deeds.
And if they were not due to the badness of the sufferer him or herself, then they must have been due to the badness of his or her parents or grandparents or even great-grandparents. For, as everyone knew, “the iniquities of the fathers” could be “visited on the sons even to the third or fourth generation”.
Well, Jesus would have none of it. He’d be the first to agree, of course, that bad behaviour can cause bad things to happen to people. Smoking can cause lung cancer. Excessive drinking can cause cirrhosis of the liver. But he would not buy into the Jewish belief that because you’ve got cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, you must necessarily have done something to deserve it. “No,” he says. “The people crushed by the collapsing tower in the Siloam area of Jerusalem deserved that fate no more than any other inhabitant of Jerusalem. And the Galileans killed in the temple deserved it no more than any other Galileans. But, take what happened to them as a warning, a reminder, that unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
Unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Just what is Jesus getting at here? Well … imagine some cliffs like those at Flamborough, or Dover. And imagine a vast multitude of people stretching back as far as the eye can see, all heading for the cliff edge. All of them blind. All of them oblivious of what’s in front of them. And, as they draw ever nearer to the cliff edge, hear them all busily discussing such questions as why it had to be that Mr X had that accident with his car. Why God allows Mrs Y to be crippled with arthritis. Why a bloke as nice as Mr Z has been made redundant. I think that’s the sort of picture that Jesus was painting for the Jewish nation in our Gospel reading, and, by extension, for any nation at any time anywhere in the world.
“Repent, or you are all going to perish. Never mind the accidents befalling others and whether they deserve them or not. Recognise that there’s a catastrophe awaiting you … all of you … unless you repent. Not a catastrophe that God wants to happen. Not a catastrophe that God won’t move heaven and earth to prevent from happening. But a catastrophe that will happen nevertheless in the absence of this one essential thing. Repentance.”
And then he tells them a story to try and bring home to them what repentance means. A story of a fig tree in a vineyard. Nothing strange about that, by the way. Fig trees and other fruit trees were often planted in vineyards. But the problem with this tree was that for three years it hadn’t produced a single fig. Well, actually, for six years it hadn’t produced a single fig. It says in the Gospel that the owner had “come seeking fruit” for three years, but you didn’t “come seeking fruit” from a fig tree until it had already been given three years to establish itself. So this tree was definitely a duff tree. And the owner knew it. “Get rid of it,” he tells the gardener. “It’s a waste of space.” But the gardener is loathe to do that. “Let’s give it one more chance,” he says. “I’ll break up the soil around it and put plenty of manure in and perhaps that will do the trick. Maybe next year it will fruit. If not … well, then I’ll chop it down.”
And there the story stops. Does the tree bear fruit the next year? Jesus doesn’t say. But the implication is that, if it does, it will have “repented” in the sense Jesus is using the word. And what will it have done? It will have changed. It will have changed in a way that alters its behaviour. Repentance is about change. And the goodness and grace of God is shown in the tree-owners willingness to wait and allow more time and fresh opportunity for a change to come about. Change. Repentance is about change.
I wonder if that is what you would have said repentance was about if I’d asked you as you came through the door this morning? I suspect not. I suspect a great number would have said something like: “Repentance is confession of sins, telling God we’re sorry for the things we’ve done wrong.” Well, that usually goes along with repentance, but it isn’t the thing itself. The proper name for that sorrow and regret is “penitence”. And the reason that I’m drawing a distinction between the one and the other is that, however good it might be for us to be penitent, Jesus nowhere commands it. But he does command repentance. He does insist that repentance is necessary to our salvation. It’s necessary if catastrophe is to be avoided. And his teaching, as our Gospel reading this morning shows, is that repentance means change — a change in direction that leads to changes in behaviour and, eventually, to changes in every area of a person’s life.
If you were at the Lent Course on Thursday night, you will heard, as I did, the story of Zacchaeus expounded in a way that I suggest could hardly be bettered. David painted a vivid, unforgettable picture of this odious little quisling tax gatherer, getting rich at the expense of his fellow-countrymen by collaborating with the occupying powers; but then having an unexpected encounter with Jesus.
What passed between Zacchaeus and Jesus over the tea and biscuits we’ll never know; but we do know what the result was. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house because here was true repentance. No tears that we are told of (though there may have been, behind the closed doors), and not just words; but a change in direction. And you will see why true repentance which leads to salvation is a change in direction if I remind you of the substance of what David was saying on Thursday night.
He said that Jesus’ mission on earth was “to seek and to save the lost” and that Zacchaeus was one such because the word “lost” as Jesus used it means “being in the wrong place” in relation to God. Now Zacchaeus was very much in the wrong place in relation to God. God was over there and Zacchaeus was over here and moving ever further away. So what was needed if salvation was to come to Zacchaeus’ house? What had to happen for Zacchaeus to be saved, rescued from the consequences of his sin? What had to happen for the people on my cliff top not to fall over the edge? Obvious, isn’t it? He had to turn round. They had to turn round. There had to be a change of direction.
Remember our first reading from Isaiah? “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”
Confessing to being a bad lot and having gone off the rails would be fine, but it wouldn’t have wrought any kind of change in Zacchaeus. Working himself up into a frenzy of sorrow and self-loathing would be pretty impressive to everyone around, but it wouldn’t have done the trick either. No, there was one thing needful. He had to repent in the sense of “change direction”. And he did, and in consequence his whole life changed. It couldn’t be otherwise. A lifestyle that suits a journey away from God is hardly likely to fit in with a life lived with God at the centre, and that will always be the case.
But do lives change today? Are such changes possible? Or was Zacchaeus a one-off? I was surprised on Thursday night by the degree of scepticism over the possibility of such radical changes taking place today.
We identified the kinds of people we thought might be the Zacchaeus’s in today’s world — drug barons, for instance — but the thought seemed to be “they’ll never change like Zacchaeus did, because they can’t change.”
Well, I challenged that on Thursday and I’ll challenge it again now. And I’ll challenge it by reference to Jim and Marie and a number of their friends.
So who are Jim and Marie? Well, going back a few years before I met him, Jim was one of the leaders of organised crime in Sunderland. He controlled a whole network of prostitutes throughout the city. He was into extortion and blackmail. He ran drugs. And he and his thugs inflicted beatings and knifings on any who crossed him. But in 1992 at the age of 25 he was careless enough to let himself be caught for almost killing a man and he was charged with GBH. He went on the run to Glasgow and built up another life of crime there, then after three years, when the heat was off, he returned to Sunderland and to his long-time girlfriend, Marie.
She’d started off as one of his working girls at the age of 15. Now Marie had a sister called Sue, and Sue had been taken by a friend to a church in Sunderland and there she had had what she could only describe as an encounter with Jesus. Well, you can probably guess what comes next. Sue told Marie what had happened to her, and seeing the change in her sister, Marie went along with her to the same church. And what had happened to Sue happened to Marie too. Jim was, of course, enraged by what was going on. He tried to knock the nonsense out of Marie and, when that didn’t work, he decided that the only thing to do was to go and knock it out of the minister at the church and to put a stop to what he was doing. Again, I’m sure you can guess what happened. Jim ended up having a dramatic encounter with Jesus too. Here is what happened to him in his own words:
“I realized Jesus was alive, could forgive me of sin, and best of all, he loved me. Helplessly weeping, something I had been unable to do since I was five years old, I was gently helped to my feet and led to a corner of that church building where I began a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, my saviour. Could God ever forgive all of my sins? After all, there was not one commandment I had not broken. The pastor reassured me of the power of the cross of Jesus Christ, and his ability to make me a brand new creature. As I surrendered to God kneeling there on the floor of that church hall, confessed my sins and asked Jesus into my life, an indescribable joy filled my whole body. Returning home that evening I was afraid to sleep in case I shut my eyes and awoke to find the wonderful new feeling had gone. Most of the night I sat up in a chair, but when I eventually gave in to sleep I awoke to find love and joy filled my heart. It still does today. I was a different man overnight. I couldn’t live the same way, which caused some anxiety to some of my friends in crime. Since I had been personally responsible for so much damage I was committed to winning as many for heaven as I possibly could. Marie and I knew instinctively we should marry if we continued to live together. So with my heart bursting with love for her, I took her as my wife. The church at Sunderland Christian Centre took us to their hearts. We experienced love and care like we had never known before. We had a new family. We wanted to serve God with all our hearts. His word became alive to us. Spreading our faith became essential. It was with joy I was able to see some of my working girls find Christ and begin to attend church, and the friend who had protected my own life so many times say the same prayer as I had done that memorable evening. Now in our church in Sunderland, unknown to many people, are major criminal figures, worshipping the Lord. My life is forever changed.”
That was in 1994. Yvonne and I met Jim and Marie at SCC in 1996 and again in 1997 and the changes go on. Because repentance still works. Or rather God still works powerfully where there is repentance. A change in direction can still bring about a radical change in a person’s life. But of course it is true that for many of us there will never be a change of direction in our lives that is as marked and as obvious as that in the life of Zacchaeus or that in the life of Jim in Sunderland.
By far the greater part of this congregation is composed of people who have from childhood been brought up to live in a godly manner observing strict rules of conduct modelled on Christian teaching. So when repentance takes place in our lives, it will never be a hugely dramatic change in direction.
But the danger, of course, is to think that because we have grown up as church-going people we don’t need a change in direction at all. The danger is to believe that all we need is a proper display of penitence Sunday by Sunday … “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed …” But not repentance. Not a change in direction.
I suggest to you that we do indeed need a change in direction. All of us, without exception, and all of the time. Try this test. Where is God in my life? First of all generally, and then in any specific area I care to think about. Is he at the very centre so that everything else — all my relationships, my activities, my affections, my money matters, my hobbies — revolve around him like planets round the sun. Or is he to some extent off-centre?
If he is off-centre at all, we need to change direction until he is central once again. We need to repent. We need to be like Ellen MacArthur checking her navigational instruments on board Kingfisher in the Vendee Globe race, and adjusting our sails, hour by hour, day by day, to stay on course.
Difficult? It would be if it were left to ourselves to make the change alone. But we are not. There is one who waits to point us in the right direction, to help us trim our sails, and even to put the wind within them. One who is committed to keeping us on course and bringing us safe to harbour. He is the Spirit of Christ. And the Lord is here. His Spirit is with us.
One final thought. It is not my own. I got it from a German theologian but my heart says Yes! to it, and it is this. “Repentance is joy.”
I started out by saying how most of us think that repentance is sorrow. But no, repentance is joy. There may be tears, but they will be tears covered in smiles and laughter. For repentance, however many thousand times we engage in it throughout our Christian life, is always and ever turning and coming home to the Father. The Father who is always and ever running down the lane to meet us, with outstretched arms, and shouting: “Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet. And bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found.
May we each one of us know that joy of repentance here, this morning, as once again we turn and face the welcoming Father who reaches out to us in love and forgiveness and mercy and compassion at, this, the Lord’s Table. Amen.