Beware of “Gapers Block.” About a decade ago I heard a phrase I had never heard before. The phrase was “gapers block.” Gaper’s block is when you see an accident on the side of the road. And what is your reaction? You slow down. Well, on an interstate where people are used to going 70 or 80 mph, when people slow down to 40, the traffic can back up. And when that happens, we tell ourselves that we’re slowing down to be safe. But let’s face it, there’s also that curious part of us that wants to know what’s going on. The problem with gaper’s block, of course, is that if you’re looking off to the side of the road, where are you supposed to be looking? As they told us in driver’s ed. class: “keep your eyes on the road.” These words this morning start out with a sort of gaper’s block. They start out with a distraction from the main point that Jesus wants them to focus on. In Luke 13, we read: “1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 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.”” (Luke 13:1–5 NIV11-GKE)
So there were people who came to Jesus with this odd and cruel story. Pontus Pilate, the governor of that area had done something shocking and stunning. There were people bringing animals up to the altar to sacrifice them. In some way that we aren’t told human blood got mixed in with the animal blood. Did Pilate’s soldiers cut down someone else and then that blood spattered onto the animals? Did Pilate’s soldiers cut down people as they were offering up their animals so that, there on the altar, was animal blood and the blood of those who were offering up those animals? We aren’t told those details. But we do know that is was bloody and it was wrong. And isn’t the same true today? If you buy a newspaper today or turn on the news, do you hear headlines like this: “Woman comes home after hard day of work” or “Dad finally learns how to change diaper?” No, instead you hear about that which is bloody and wrong. And when we hear about it, we can obsess over it.
Notice where Jesus takes the conversation. They had already decided that they knew the answer to the why question. Why did they suffer like this? They had done something worthy of dying this way. So, to them, Jesus says, “Unless all of you repent, you all will perish.”1 And just to make sure that they understood him correctly, he makes the same point with a different example. There was a tower people were building. And the tower fell on them. And the people concluded that it fell on them because they had done something worthy of being punished. And again, Jesus told them that unless they all repent, they will perish.
Now, my friends in Christ, there are two points to take home and ponder here. The first is that tragedies happen. And when they do, God and God alone is the only one who knows all the reasons why it happened and what he is going to do with the situation. And the second is this: Tragedies out there do not give me the right to ignore what is happening here in my heart. For each one of us has this real temptation to conclude that I have the right to not repent. We can say in our hearts that there are those people out there. Those tragedies happened to them because they are so bad. And we say this to avoid the bad that is in our own hearts. Or a little closer to home, we can say to ourselves that we do not need to repent because what that other person did to me is so much worse than what I did to them. To all of these made-up-rights Jesus says, “repent or perish.”
But my dear friends, see where Jesus goes from here: “6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ 8 “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”” (Luke 13:6–9 NIV11-GKE)
Who is the one who repents? I am the one who repents. And in these words, if we ask the question, “why do I repent,” we find the answer. Jesus tells a parable. And here is where, whether you know it or not, each of us automatically chooses which character we are in the story. So who are you in this story? Are you the owner that hates waste and yearns for justice and fairness? Are you the gardener who loves his plants? No, my dear friends, each of us is the fruitless fig tree. What we see in these words is the heart of God and the struggle in his own heart over each one of us. He sees our sin and out of justice and fairness wants to cut it out like it’s a cancer. But he also, out of mercy for us, loves us and cares for us. And so what does he do for each of us? He is patient with us. He cuts digs away the excuses and made-up-reasons why we do not need to repent. He gives us the nourishing promise of forgiveness that Jesus died for our sins. And then a miracle happens: we repent. And Jesus tells us this parable so that we could go back into our memories and find examples where we were stubborn sticks in the mud and God still gave us repentance. God still forgave us. And that memory of the past gives us every reason to repent now.
And so, my dear friends in Christ, the main point in these words is not that we are supposed to pry open God’s hidden will with a crow bar to find out how God deals with tragedies. No, instead, the real issue he wants us to focus on is the answer to the question: “who repents?” He urges each one of us to say to our Triune God above, “I repent.” And, my good friends, here is where it is good to remember what repentance is. In the words of our catechisms we memorize these words:
First: What is Confession?
Confession has two parts. The one is that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution or forgiveness from the pastor as from God himself, not doubting but firmly believing that our sins are thus forgiven before God in heaven.
We focus in on the fact that repentance is seeing and admitting our sins. And this is important. But there is that other part to repentance. That other part of forgiveness is rejoicing that our sins are forgiven. There is such joy in knowing that when we confess our sins, God really, truly, and actually forgives them. He forgives them and forgets them. He gives us peace and joy, where before there was anger and bitterness. And so, my dear friends in Christ, in your own soul whenever you ask the question, “who repents,” knowing the promises of forgiveness Jesus speaks here, let your answer always be, “I repent.” Amen.
1 “ⲉⲁⲛ ⲙⲏ ⲙⲉⲧⲁⲛⲟⲏⲥⲏⲧⲉ ⲡⲁⲛⲧⲉⲥ ⲟⲙⲟⲓⲱⲥ ⲁⲡⲟⲗⲉⲓⲥⲑⲉ” (Luke 13:5 GNT-ALEX)