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God of Second Chances by Rev. Richard Hasselbach

On December 23, 1849, a small group of prisoners was taken from Peter and Paul Fortress, a maximum security prison in St. Petersburg Russia, and brought to Semoyonov Square to be executed by firing squad. For eight months these condemned men had lived in deplorable conditions for the crime of being critical of the Tsar. After being given the opportunity to confess to a priest, each had a black hood placed over his head and was readied for execution: the soldiers aimed their rifles, waiting for the command to shoot. Do you think these doomed prisoners were the worse sinners than all other Russians? I tell you they were not! But unless you repent, you will likewise perish.

On the road to his own execution, Jesus encountered people gossiping about an atrocity committed by Pontius Pilate when he ordered his solders to kill some Galileans who had gone to the Jerusalem Temple to offer sacrifice. We don’t know more about this incident, but we do know that Pilate was a brutal man, quick to move from diplomacy to violence.

In the theology of the time, suffering was understood as punishment for sin. There was something oddly comforting about this belief: when there is a reason for suffering it is more manageable and less random. Those who suffer “had it coming.” Jesus rejects this theory in short order: the Galileans killed by Pilate in the temple were no more sinful than all the other residents of Galilee; the eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed were similarly not worse sinners than all the other people in Jerusalem. Jesus cautions, however, “unless you repent you shall likewise perish.”

The Lord is not saying that repentance will somehow ward off all human or natural evil, rather he underscores the urgency of repentance. Every one of the people killed by Pilate, or by the tower collapse, started their day routinely. Like the victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in our own day, they ate their breakfast, kissed their kids, and headed off to live their day. They never, in their wildest imagination, thought they would die, but death came suddenly, unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. It is impossible for us to imagine our own non-being, so regardless of our age or physical condition we think we will at least live to see tomorrow. For the Galileans murdered in the temple, or the eighteen crushed by the tower, or the victims of 9/11, there was no tomorrow, nor was there time to make peace with God or with anyone else. Here is the reason for Jesus’ urgency: unless we repent NOW, he tells us, we will perish as they did: unprepared.

Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews. When he stresses the importance of “repentance,” he is thinking of the Hebrew concept of teshu-vah, which means to “turn” or “return.” Repentance, in this sense, is to turn away from sin and to return to living in obedience to God.

Teshu-vah is more than feeling sorry for sin. First, we must do a fiercely honest examination of our lives: before we repent, we must know we are sinners. How have we broken faith with God or with others? Who have we betrayed; how have we fallen short; in what ways have we lost our integrity or strayed morally? This inner work is a necessary starting point for repentance. When people discover their flaws they often look for someone to blame, but teshu-vah requires us be accountable: we are responsible for sinfulness, and no one else. In the words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Finally, Teshu-vah requires that we look for ways to make amends for the damage our sin has caused.

Repentance, understood as Jesus meant it, holds out the possibility that we can be fully reconciled to God and to our communities; change our lives; and that even our flaws can be sanctified. There is no brokenness that God cannot transform into something beautiful when we trustingly place it before him. We can do none of this by ourselves, we need God’s help; we need a savior.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, a first-century Jewish sage, taught his students that they should repent the day before their death. His students objected: “how, teacher, can we know the day of our death?” “Then you must repent today,” the rabbi told them. There will be a time when there is no time left; but if we are still breathing there is hope.

To illustrate that God is a God of second chances Jesus gives us the parable of a fig tree that has not been fruitful for three years. The owner of a vineyard, disappointed by his barren tree, tells his gardener to cut it down. The Gardener however, unwilling to give up on the tree, says “leave it alone, give it another chance.” The word “leave it alone, in Greek, is aphes, which means “forgive.” “Forgive the tree,” he pleads, “and I will work on it: dig around it; fertilize it. Presumably, if the tree did not bear fruit in a year the gardener would again ask for moreforgiveness: recall that the Lord once told Peter to place no limits on his forgiveness: “forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times.” There is still urgency, though: every moment we waste on sin is a moment lost to life.

Back in Semoyonov Square, just before they were to be executed, the prisoners heard a drumroll and the sound of beating hooves: a messenger came from the Tsar commuting the death sentence to a term of four years hard labor in Siberia.

Twenty years later, in his novel The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote about a 27-year-old character, waiting, as Dostoevsky once did in that square in St. Petersburg, to be executed. “What if I didn’t have to die,” the character says, “I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for…”

God gives us every chance we need: are we making every minute count? Are we living life, as he would have us live it, to the full? Have we made use of all our second chances?

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