You’ve certainly seen them before. Carrying signs. Yelling about hell and damnation; fire and brimstone. Here in LA, they even carry their message on their vehicles. Heck, somebody even made a Tailgate-Bus-o-Fear!
And while I am hesitant to give this sort of Christianity any credence whatsoever, the reality is that they kind of get to the heart of what Jesus has to say in Sunday’s Gospel lesson. “Repent or perish” is a hard word to hear from Jesus whose core message is the Good News of God’s love for all of creation, but it is the message he felt was needed in that moment, albeit a message dripping with metaphor and nuance that often gets overlooked by the likes of Pat Robertson and his compadres.
As I tied up my trampoline and found homes for outdoor furniture cushions ahead of last night’s Potentially Dangerous Situation (PDS) storm system I joked that don’t normally worry about these things, but when school closes early and Sunday’s gospel is the Tower of Siloam, doubt begins to creep in. Of course, I know that tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods aren’t sent as God’s punishment upon an unfaithful people. I understand that when Jesus says “perish” he means something more than physical death. In fact, the Greek word Luke uses there is apollumi, which is used throughout his Gospel to describe those who find themselves lost: outside of right relationship with God.
When Jesus says “repent or perish” he doesn’t mean “repent or God will smite you.” Instead, it is a warning of eschatological proportions. Repent or be found wanting. Repent or be on the outside looking in. Repent or be given over to the consequences of your selfish actions. Turn around and follow the right Way, for the path you are on leads to eternal punishment.
Yet even in this word of judgment, there is hope, as Jesus follows these words with the parable of the faithful dresser of sycamore figs, aka the parable of the somewhat patient farmer, aka the parable of the fig tree. After three years of waiting for figs, the farmer comes ready to cause the fruitless tree to perish right then and there, but because of the intercession of the gardener, the farmer relents, deciding to wait another year. The offer to repent that comes from Jesus isn’t an all or nothing deal. We may be unwilling to change upon first hearing the Good News, but there is still time, time for the Spirit to work in our hearts, time for us to experience the power of the risen Lord, time to repent. God’s gracious offer is steadfast and his mercy endures forever.