Truth that Leads to Change
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
We’re approaching the halfway point of our Lenten journey. The hazy, lazy days of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee are quickly beginning to pale under the shadow of the Cross looming before us.
The gospel lesson today reads like a freeze-frame of Jesus-in-motion. It’s not clear where he is at this point of the journey, but he’s on his way to Jerusalem. I like to think he’s already there, perhaps teaching on the Mount of Olives. It was a popular spot for Galileans to pitch their tents when on pilgrimage to the holy city.
Luke begins by saying, “Now there were some present at the same time….” (Luke 13:1) Presumably, it was a friendly audience. Unlike the Sadducees and Pharisees who often tried to trick him, those gathered here seem to be honest, would-be followers of Jesus.
Their question was heart-felt. They wanted to know what he thought about a recent incident in the temple. It seems a group of Galileans had been massacred by Herod’s soldiers in the very act of offering their sacrifices to God. The slaughter took place on the temple grounds. It’s hard to imagine a more heinous act. Being from Galilee, it’s possible those asking the question knew some of the ones who’d been murdered.
What’s curious is Jesus’ response. He showed no outrage or pity. Instead, he threw a question back at them:
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners
than all the other Galileans,
because they suffered such things?
I tell you, no,
but unless you repent,
you will all perish in the same way.” (Luke 13:2-3)
Taken at face value, this is hard to explain. Was Jesus that cold and callous? Was he that indifferent to such atrocities of life? Perhaps there’s a part of the story we’re not getting. Perhaps Jesus was distraught over the news and overcome with emotion, and it was only after he regained his composure that he went on to ask them this question. Luke doesn’t say. Instead, he crops the picture tightly and focuses solely on Jesus’ reply:
“Unless you repent,
you will all perish in the same way.”
What follows is a similar incident only, this time, it’s Jesus who brings it up. It seems a tower overlooking the Pool of Siloam had fallen, killing eighteen innocent bystanders down below. Whether it was due to shoddy construction or overcrowding on the upper deck, or the ground shifting underneath the foundation, Luke doesn’t say. All we know is that that it fell, and eighteen people died as a result. So, Jesus asked his followers,
“Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them;
do you think that they were worse offenders
than all the men who dwell in Jerusalem?
I tell you, no, but, unless you repent,
you will all perish in the same way.” (Luke 13:4-5)
Again, Jesus seems unsympathetic, and this isn’t how we like to think of him. But, rather than dwell on his emotions – or lack thereof – let’s focus on the point he made, for, in both instances, his message was clear: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
What this says to me is that we live in a fallen and broken world. Whether by the hand of a tyrant or the force of nature, terrible things happen and, when they do, innocent people suffer and die. In our own day, we know all too well the horrors of the Holocaust and genocide and ethnic cleansing; tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.
Is it too much to say we can expect no less? Whether you die a natural death or by the hand of a terrorist or by a bolt of lightning, the end result is the same – you die. One way or the other, we’re all born to die. The question is whether or not you’ll choose to live, and what Jesus makes clear is that the only way to live – really live, not just go through the motions – is to repent – to turn to God and seek God’s will for your life; to lose your life in devotion to Christ and, in so doing, discover life in all its abundance.
“Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.” It’s a warning and a promise: If you repent, you’ll experience life in all its abundance, just as John 3:16 says:
“For God so loved the world,
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish,
but have eternal life.”
If you don’t repent, you’ll die – which is not necessarily to say you’ll stop breathing, but that you’ll never experience the fullness of life God has in store for you. You’ll always fall short. You’ll never be satisfied and content with what you have. Plus, you’ll be consumed by bitterness and anger, worry and anxiety, pettiness and strife.
“Unless you repent,
you will all perish in the same way.”
To repent is to change, and I don’t know why, but we resist that like The Plague. You know the old adage: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is: Change? Not surprisingly, when it comes to change we do our best to circumvent it any way we can.
Here’s a theory of my own. See what you think of it. I think, in an effort to avoid change, we take an active approach and manipulate situations to our advantage. We do every good work imaginable, but, in the process, we go unscathed. We go to church; we read the Bible; we serve on committees; we participate in community events; we even pray and read devotional literature. We do all these things, but, at the end of the day, we’re just as set in our ways as ever. It’s as if we’re immune to change.
I speak from personal experience. In years past, I used to love to go to conventions and conferences and seminars and workshops. I’d go anywhere, anytime to hear a good lecture or learn a new approach to ministry. I’d come back with a whole tote bag full of handouts and brochures and resources to think about; but, instead of putting them to use, I’d put them on a shelf or in a file drawer or in the waste basket. As for the experience itself, it may have been stimulating for the moment, but it seldom lasted, and it rarely changed the way I went about my ministry or lived out my life.
It’s a paradox: The more we invite change, the more we stay the same. A friend of mine calls this “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” It gives the appearance of change while doing nothing to address the underlying problem deep down below.
By contrast, a minister friend of mine told his congregation not long ago, “What we’re about in this church is truth that leads to change.” He told his congregation that, while he hoped they’d feel good about coming to church; and that they’d make friends and enjoy each other’s company; and that they’d work together to serve the common good; they must never lose sight of the fact that what they were called to do was to honor Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of their lives and live in such a way as to lead others into a personal relationship with him.
Amen to that! We’re to live as disciples of Jesus Christ and make disciples of others. Paul told the Corinthians,
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) He went on to say:
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,
not reckoning to them their trespasses,
and having committed to us the word of reconciliation.
We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ,
as though God were entreating by us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20)
What we need to be about in this church is truth that leads to change and not simply truth, for truth’s sake. Think about it:
• The reason we sing God’s praise on Sunday morning is so we can sing God’s praise throughout the week;
• the reason we study God’s Word is so that it might become a living Word in us;
• the reason we reach out to others in the name of Jesus Christ is so that that they, too, might come to know him as Lord and Savior.
Years ago, I went to Patrick’s school to drop off his lunch. In the entrance was a big bulletin board decorated like a Nascar race with cars speeding around the oval. The caption read: “Six Weeks Honor Roll – Off to a Good Start.” On the roof of the cars were various students’ names.
Pretty clever, I thought to myself. But, as I studied the image more closely, it dawned on me that the cars weren’t going anywhere – they were just going round and round in a circle. They ought to be heading somewhere, I thought – toward some lofty goal like higher education, or virtue, or statesmanship. In the church, they’d surely be headed toward the Kingdom of God.
Listen: Unless we’re about truth that leads to change, we’re just going in circles. We’re like the fig tree in the little parable Jesus told his followers. He said,
“A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard,
and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none.
He said to the vine dresser,
‘Behold, these three years
I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and found none.
Cut it down. Why does it waste the soil?’
He answered, ‘Lord, leave it alone this year also,
until I dig around it, and fertilize it.
If it bears fruit, fine;
but if not, after that, you can cut it down.'” (Luke 13:6-9)
Jesus didn’t say what happened – whether the fig tree bore fruit the next year or not, but the message was clear: If it didn’t, it’d be toast.
“Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.” God calls us to turn from the ways of the world and walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Paul told the Romans,
“Don’t be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,
so that you may prove
what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.”
God calls us to embrace in our own lives – and proclaim to others – a truth that leads to change. Then, and only then, can we truly sing,
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.”
Luke says that John the Baptist went so far as to specify changes various people needed to make. When the people asked him, “What shall we do (to escape the wrath of God)?” he said,
“He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none.
He who has food, let him do likewise.”
Tax collectors: “Collect no more than that which is appointed to you.”
Soldiers: “Extort from no one by violence,
neither accuse anyone wrongfully.
Be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:9-14)
One of the benefits of this long Lenten season is that it gives us time to think about the changes we need to make in our own lives to get back on track and live as disciples of Jesus Christ.
So, what do hear the Spirit saying to you today? What changes do you need to make in order to stand blameless before the throne of God’s grace?
A long-standing practice of the Church has been to offer an invitation to rededicate your life to Christ. It assumes that you’ve accepted Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of your life and been baptized in his name. It also recognizes the fact that, like most, you need to rekindle and reaffirm that commitment, from time to time.
And so, I’d like to offer you that invitation this morning. It begins with a simple prayer, and it continues in two ways – as you do your part to make the changes God is calling you to make – and as God does his part to give you the grace and strength you need to make them stick.
Well, here’s the prayer. If you will, repeat after me:
Lord Jesus Christ, I have failed you in many ways. I am not worthy to be your disciple. Forgive me, I pray. Receive me, once more, as your disciple and friend. And lead me in the truth that leads to righteousness. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.