I heard the story of Jay Rathman not too long ago. Nobody famous, just a regular guy living on the edge of both the city and the mountainy wilderness in Northern California. Jay loved the outdoors, and on one occasion he was hiking one of his usual trails when he reached a particularly precarious bend in the road. To his left was a pretty sheer drop 60 or 80 feet, and on his right was a jutting outcrop of rock. As he rounded the corner, out of the corner of his eye he noticed movement and turned just in time to see a timber rattlesnake flying fully extended through the air as it was striking at his face. He said he learned in those milliseconds that snakes don’t blink. But luckily, because of his reaction, the snake just missed his right ear. Unluckily, he had on a wool turtleneck which the viper tangled its fangs in, so that its body slung over his shoulders. In the tussle, Jay plummeted off of the other side down the slope, and went rolling and skipping down through the rocks and brush to the bottom. Having regained himself, he leapt to his feet remembering the snake. The rattler was still clutched in his hand where he’d grabbed it behind its head, and he proceeded to throttle it.
Awesome and terrible and awesome. And all true. The story caught my eye out of the usual list of stories in my newsfeed, and I had to read more. And having started it, I had to finish it. And, reflecting on that, I see some things in myself that I think probably go for human nature in general.
For one, yeah, I appreciate the element of vicarious excitement/fear. Some of y’all feel about snakes the same way Indiana Jones does, and it’s skin-crawling to think that Jay Rathman saw, let alone touched, the reptile. You wouldn’t have grabbed it by its head even to save your life. Even the rest of us, the normal ones, get a little chilled at the image of a rattler extended through the air, fangs-bared, aimed at our face. Man, have you ever had a snake strike at you at all? It ain’t right.
But there’s another big force at work in me with stories like this, or TV shows and films, even the nightly news. They attract me because I want to see not only if the person makes it out alive, but HOW they do. I want to look at their situation, and learn, and potentially avoid a similar fate. Now, no, this isn’t all a conscious thought. I didn’t say, “Josh, look, an article about snakes in the California hills — it might come in handy one day.” But I gravitate to stories like this, and survival scenarios, and do-or-die stuff, in part, because it feels like preparation.
I think that’s universal to humans. We learn primarily by observing. How else have we learned how to respond in dire circumstances than by witnessing others? I think it’s why some of us not only love survival stories but we also have a certain fascination with tragedy. The reason news networks run so much muck and violence and the like is that we tune in, and the network is driven by one thing – whatever the most of us wants to watch. I’m not saying that we like tragedy, but it draws our attention and we are fascinated by it, especially when it happens to other people. People will say they watch the news because it makes them feel better about their own troubles. Maybe we just want to know what’s going on in the world, and to share the stories of others. But maybe, also, some part of it involves our attempt to figure out what it was about those people, and those circumstances, that led to tragedy. We ask, first, “Why?” Why did it happen, and how, and what choices were at work, and what external factors, and – the big one – where was God in that mix. The questions of tragedy. The same questions that Jesus fields in Luke 13:1-9.
Read Luke 13:1-9 here.
We have two grizzly and tragic situations showing up on Jesus’ nightly news. The people were fascinated by it, buzzing about it, and where else to discuss it than with the Rabbi? So Jesus responded. Only, he did it with absolute brevity, saying, “Did God visit this trouble on these people because they somehow deserved it? No!” And then he did something else. He shifted the conversation by adding that their take-home lesson wasn’t going to be why bad things happen, or why these people had suffered, or what exactly God was doing. It was going to be, “Repent!” The people originally came to Jesus with the questions, “What was it about those people, and their lives, that brought on such suffering? What was it about God that let or made this happen?” Jesus makes clear that there’s a better, deeper question for them to ask themselves: “What do these situations tell me about life, and the state of the world, and me?” And the answer he offers seems to be that each of us, one way or another, dabbles in things that lead to death, even tragic death. So the first order of business is, always, to change that trajectory. To repent.
The problem for me with repentance is that it’s just a word. Even when it’s explained as a “total change of direction” as if we do a 180-degree turn, that doesn’t always translate to a very motivating idea. We’re turning around, saying no to bad things and bad words and drugs, but it can feel like it just boils down to the same old message: “Don’t do this. Do that. Not that. This. Like this.” We’re told that, having done and not done all of the right things – dizzying 180 after 180 – then we’ll arrive at heaven and glory one day. And that’s repentance: minding our P’s and Q’s. But, here and elsewhere, Jesus has attached a sense of urgency and energy and effort to repentance; he has attached it to dire circumstances, so there’s another image that I want to share with you that I think gets closer to accurate. It comes from another one of those TV shows, “Man vs. Wild,” where Bear Grylls, an ex-commando, tries to somewhat simulate survival scenarios by plunging himself into the wilderness. In this particular episode, he has jumped out of a boat in the North Irish Sea and is aiming for landfall in an effort to find civilization, a road, a telephone, or some other help. Watch:
You need to know that in the olden days, if someone found themselves on the wrong road, getting lost, or just turning around to bail out on their journey, they were described as “repenting” that road. Well, we have Bear Grylls who has climbed out of freezing water and charged up this cliff face, looking for a break, but who realizes there isn’t one and decides to “repent” that path. The most interesting thing is, how long did it take him to make that decision? If he hadn’t been narrating to us and the camera, how long did it take him to look around, see no other course of action, and choose to leap 30 feet back into that cold sea? Not even minutes. Why is that? Because he knows that in a scenario like this, there is an urgency that is always at work. Every minute without food, water, shelter, or help, is a minute closer to exposure, starvation, and death. It was never an option for him to sit right down and stay put, to wait for help, or put off going back down to the water. He didn’t get frustrated at back-tracking, or undoing all of his progress so far. It was death to stay there on that cliff, and potential life to turn right around and get back into the deep. Decision made, in seconds. That is the kind of thing I think Jesus puts to us in Luke 13.
He redefines repentance. Recasts it in the light of dire circumstances. He seems to also redefine true tragedy. The murder of the Galileans was tragic because it was grizzly, at the hands of a foreign oppressor, and it defiled their sacrifices to God. The tower incident was tragic because so many were killed, utterly out-of-the-blue. We don’t know if there were men, women, and/or children amongst the 18 dead. Tragic. But Jesus expands the definition further by describing an equally tragic reality – when any of the children of God, who are given all that they need to survive and thrive, fail to bear any good fruit at all. Jesus seems to think that even all the suffering and junk we see or experience shouldn’t be enough to render us fruitless. Why? Because God himself, in Christ, tends to us, gets down into the dirt with us, manure under the fingernails and all, to be sure we have a chance to bear fruit.
It’s a word of judgment and accountability, but also deep grace. It’s a word of mercy that still holds urgency. As Dr. Guffee said, the gardener only asks for one more year of tender care to see if the tree will fruit. How many Lenten seasons have we had a chance to observe, and heard this same challenge to repent? Is this going to be the year where fruit comes forth? It’s in nobody’s hands but ours, under-girded with opportunity by the very hands of God.