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  • Mariah Martin

Does Your Soul Spark Joy?

Luke 13:1-9

Luke 13:1-9

If any of you have been paying attention to the news recently you might have seen an article reporting that Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old girl from Sweden, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Greta has been nominated for her organization of school strikes, which culminated in a worldwide school strike on March 15, demanding that the government make positive changes that will help stop climate change. These kids are protesting because they are not old enough to vote yet they want their voices to be heard.

According to the world’s authority on climate change we have 12 years left to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. “Beyond that we’re looking at catastrophe—food and water shortages, extreme weather, wars over resources and mass migration of climate refugees.”

Greta laments that no one (particularly at a governmental level) is acting as if we are in crisis. She says, “What we do or don’t do will affect our future and the future of our children…Yes, we need hope. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. I want you to panic. Yes we are failing but there is still time to turn this around and fix this…we either choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. Act as if your house was on fire, because it is.”[i]

This 16 year old girl sounds like a prophet, like John the Baptist, like Jesus: Repent for the Kingdom of God is near, repent for the reign of God is at hand. Repent or perish.

Greta, John, and Jesus are all drawing our attention to the stark reality of our fragile existence. We get one life. One life that could end any minute. What we do with this life matters. It matters to God. It matters to the survival of our civilization. It matters to our loved ones, to the future generations.

In Luke 13 people approached Jesus and were baiting him to play the blame game when it came to two atrocities: one where Pilate murdered people, another where a pillar fell and killed 18 in its path. Whose fault was it?

Jesus simply refuses to play their game. Instead of joining into a theoretical conversation debating the morals of another’s actions or sins, Jesus turns the conversation in a startling direction.

Basically Jesus said, “Instead of gossiping about the sins of others, let’s talk about YOUR sins.” He forced the listeners to turn from idle commentary on people and situations they didn’t understand and move towards a conversation on repentance.

To do this he told a very confusing story about a fig tree. It leaves you wondering “who’s who?” in the story. Who is the person that desires that the tree be cut down? Who is the farmer? Who is the fig tree supposed to represent?

I believe as soon we start asking the “who’s who?” question, then we have fallen into the very trap that Jesus was warning us against. The Blame Game.

And in the end it doesn’t really matter “who is who”. What matters is that the fig tree is still standing. It has been spared, for now.

We can assume that the sparing of the fig tree is a demonstration of grace. Jesus is addressing people who, by grace, still have time in their short mortal lives to turn inward to examine their soul. To repent of their sinful ways.

There is time to turn this around, but not much. We must act now. We must repent.

So, what exactly is repentance? The Hebrew word for repentance is “shuv”. It means turning from sin and turning towards God. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia” which means change, an overturning.

What is missing from these definitions? A call to feel sorry for yourself. A directive to feel guilt, blame, shame. We can’t afford to notice our sin and wallow in self-pity, in embarrassment, in self-hatred. If we do, then we will waste our life away. There will be no change, no growth, no restoration, no forgiveness, no reconciliation, no redemption.

Repentance has two moves, two steps so-to-say. Turning away from sin is only the first half. It MUST be followed by turning toward something.

Change, overturning, turning from and turning towards, these concepts are not stagnant, they are all verbs that require action, movement, direction.

Yes we need hope, we need lament, and we need to be aware of the ways in which we break relationship. But all of this is empty if we are not moved to action.

Our lives, this life, is a gift given out of grace. How will we chose to live it?

We have been given a chance, an invitation to follow Jesus, to leave our old, destructive ways behind and turn towards God, to participate in God’s work in the world.

Or have we so determinedly set our eyes on heaven that we are ignoring where there is Hell on Earth?

Jesus is beckoning us to ask ourselves how we can live our lives on Earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus has given u sour daily bread, so why do we continue craving that which doesn’t satisfy?

Jesus was so urgent because he saw the ways in which we are destroying ourselves. Repent or parish. What if we are the authors of our own perishing?

What is repentance? Repentance is looking past the fruit to the root. If the root is corrupt, rotten, then it will either produce no fruit or it will produce rotten fruit.[1]

This does not mean that we are evil, rotten, sinful people to the core. However, our sin and our hurtful actions are rooted in deep fear, ironically in the anxiety that we aren’t good enough. That the people we love don’t really love us. That they will leave us. Or that we will lose our own identity somewhere within theirs. Then we disguise these fears as anger, resentment, criticism and we take our own insecurities out on others.

Repentance begins by renewing our inner person. It means taking a look at the gunk inside us.

Minimalism is an up-an-coming trend. It is a pushback to capitalism and consumerism. It is a practice of desiring, buying, and having less “things” and feeling content with what you have.

There is a show on Netflix that features a woman named Marie Kondo[2] who goes to different people’s houses and helps them get rid of their stuff. The whole process is ritualized. People hold up whatever they might part with and determine whether it “sparks joy” within them. If it does, they keep it, if it doesn’t then they thank the object for its role in their life before they donate it.

This movement caught on like wildfire, so much so that Goodwill’s donations have drastically increased.[3]

Overall, this is a helpful movement. It is good to de-clutter our lives. The issue is when we turn and immediately replace all that we have given away with shiny new things.

Additionally, it fails to point out that the joy an object sparks within us is fleeting. This joy does not sustain. It does not satisfy. We consume but we are not filled.

How about instead of pretending that we can jet joy from the things we have, we de-clutter our hearts so we can make room for that which sparks true, sustaining, rich, filling joy.

That sounds nice in theory, but it is admittedly abstract. What does de-cluttering our heart actually look like? How do we know what is clutter? What is the gunk that is choking our hearts and clogging our arteries? John and Jesus would name this gunk sin.

Sin is that which breaks our relationship with God, ourselves, others, and all creation. Sin has many faces. Sometimes we know exactly what sin looks like and we can feel it eating us from the inside out. It is the hole that we keep trying to fill with things that just make the hole bigger.

But sometimes our lives feel fruitless, but we don’t exactly know what is corrupting our roots. One painfully practical way we can clearly identify the sin in our hearts and begin to de-clutter our inner selves is to recognize the stories that we tell ourselves.

In an article posted by, Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams talks about “narrative identity.” Narrative identity is a story that you create about yourself. These are stories that you tell yourself as well as what you tell others when you want people to understand you. What is key is that these stories are not purely factual, we make crucial interpretive decisions when we tell these stories.

We don’t just say, “I had a bunny named Midnight.” We say, “I had a bunny named Midnight, it was my best friend. I grieved when that bunny died more than I did my grandparents. This rabbit was the start of my love for animals.”

We add significance to our stories. We decide if they were positive or negative. Whether the characters in the story were “good guys” or “bad guys”. These stories help make sense of our life and shape us. These stories are often key moments in our life, a particularly high point, low point, or an important turning point.

McAdams divides the story we tell ourselves into “redemptive stories” in which we interpret the story as going from bad to good: like “I had really bad anxiety, but eventually it taught me ways to express my emotions and organize my life in a more healthy way.

Vs. “contamination stories” in which the story goes from good to bad. For example, “My favorite aunt and I were inseparable, but then she moved away, leaving me feeling alone and bitter towards her.”

“People who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion, and agency. These stories allow individuals to craft a positive identity…they are loved, they are progressing through life, and whatever obstacles they have encountered heave been redeemed by good outcomes.”[4]

Those who tell themselves contamination stories tend to be more anxious and depressed and are less driven to contribute to society and younger generations, their lives are less coherent.

What is key is that we can make small edits in the way we tell our stories, resulting in a big impact on our lives. The article ended by saying that journaling about things that you are grateful for can change your perspective on your life and the stories you tell.

This wasn’t in the article, but I look at this process as “narrative repentance”. What would it mean to look at the stories we tell ourselves, like “my mom resents me”, “everyone leaves me”, “I am (insert any negative thing…lazy, mean, too sensitive, etc)” and start to turn towards a more complicated and positive perspective of ourselves.

What if we move from, “My mom resents me” to “My relationship with my mom is complicated, maybe I have hurt her and could try to repair that relationship?” Or “everyone leaves me” to “I tend to push people away when I am scared, how can I feel more secure in myself and let others take care of me when I am down?” Or “I am lazy” to “I am good at relaxing and prioritizing my mental health”. We could go on and on but hopefully you get the idea.

Criticism isn’t helpful, whether it is between you and your partner, friend, or with yourself. Criticism sparks an alarm in our brain that triggers a primal fear of being left alone in the world, of being not good enough, it puts us in survival mode—which ironically ends up moving us farther away from healing and growth.

God doesn’t want us to perish. God desires our flourishing, our highest potential. God wants us to bear fruits representative of our deep, strong, healthy roots. But we have control over the health of our roots. We have control over the state of our heart, whether our soul sparks joy. If we own up to our own internal gunk and reframe this gunk in a positive light, then we can turn from our sin—repent of our old ways—and turn towards the way of God—we can turn towards a healthier relationship with God, ourselves, others and all of creation.

Re-framing the ways we tell our stories is one practical way to repent. To turn from the destructive towards the constructive. To move from sin towards flourishing as children of God.

A second way we can repent is by examining our habits. J. K. Smith, author of the book, “You Are What You Love” says that our habits make us who we are. They define what we love.

Our habits are what we do without thinking. They are like driving a stick-shift. At first we must think hard about putting in the clutch, about how much gas to give it while we let the clutch out. We must listen to the engine for when it tells us to shift up or down. Eventually you get in the car and you shift seamlessly, you just know how to drive it. It has become almost like an extension of yourself.

What is scary is that we don’t always choose our habits. Sometimes we take on the habits assigned by our society because that is what everyone else is doing.

We find ourselves complaining at work about a coworker or about our spouse because that is just what people do at work. That’s just how they talk. Or we get coffee every morning in a disposable “to-go” mug because that’s our habit, and no one really uses a re-usable travel mug—plus you would need to go out and buy one—and it’s all just too much of a bother. The disposable mug is just easier.

Sin does not always rear its ugly head in dramatic obvious way. Sometimes we comfort ourselves because we really aren’t that bad, we don’t tell racist jokes, we don’t physically hurt our loved ones, we don’t steal, or do drugs, etc.

But more often sin is a compilation of 1,000 little things we do. Our habits form us. They are what we must examine. We must take the time to sin on the floor, naming and holding up our habits, asking ourselves if they spark joy—if they contribute to the flourishing of others, or if they actually slowly erode us, slowly causing ourselves and others to perish. Repent or perish.

Repentance is like a heart transplant.[5]

Once you root out your sick heart, the cause of your suffering, your perishing, if you put a new heart in and continue with your old destructive patterns, you are just going to eventually make this new heart sick. Just by getting a new heart does not mean you got rid of your old bad habits. You must do the work of slowly forming new habits.

BUT having a new heart does give you the capacity for new loves, for more time to live well, a chance to turn towards all that gives life.

Repentance, a new heart so-to-speak, is God’s gift of grace. It is more time for us to choose if we are going to live in our old habits of sin, if we are going to make our new heart perish or if we will turn away from these harmful habits and turn towards habits that align with Jesus and God.

So what exactly do we turn towards? Well, worship is one way we can shape new habits. It is a routine, something we do without thinking. Worship, at its best—with a supportive and loving church family, is like rehab or physical therapy, where we go to heal from our heart surgery. It is where we heal old wounds, where we build up new muscles that help keep us from re-injuring ourselves or injuring others.

Worship can be a safe space to look at our sin, to sift through our habits, to get up the guts to leave behind that which does not align with the way of Jesus. It gives us the strength to turn away from that which breaks relationship and does not satisfy. It helps keeps us from perishing, from being the author of our own destruction.

Worship helps us turn towards helpful, life-giving, satisfying habits. Worship reminds us that we are good. That we are children of a creative, amazing God. It helps us look at our life narratives and point out where we see the Light of God working. Worship, spending time with God and others that care for us, helps orient our hearts towards God.

It helps us see that every day of our life is a gift of grace. Worship, at its best, extends the invitation to live Heaven here on Earth.

Yet we can’t forget that worship does not end when we walk out of the church doors. There are other idols and gods competing for our worship. We cannot be complacent. We must be alert. We can’t take our time here for granted, assuming we have all the time on the earth. We must act now. We must act as if we are in a crisis. Because we are. We know not what we do.

Let’s create space for one another to face our sins, to name them, to turn from them, to turn towards the Light of God. Let’s open our arms so they can turn towards us. Let’s make room. Let’s help one another re-form our habits, our stories, so we are in alignment with the life of Jesus. For the kingdom of God is so close we can almost touch it.

Yes we are failing, but there is still time. Time to re-form our hearts. For our souls to spark joy. But we must act. For once we start to act, hope is everywhere.


Works Consulted

Christian Century

Grace or Judgment?

Yvett Schock

Christian Century

Third Sunday in Lent; Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

Emily C. Heath

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

James K. A. Smith

“Commentary on Luke 13:1-9 by Arland J. Hultgren.” Accessed March 21, 2019.

“Commentary on Luke 13:1-9 by Matt Skinner.” Accessed March 21, 2019.

“Fig Trees and Repentance by Karoline Lewis - Craft of Preaching - Working Preacher.” Accessed March 21, 2019.

“Grace or Judgment?” The Christian Century. Accessed March 19, 2019.

“Repent or Perish: Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9.” The Christian Century. Accessed March 19, 2019.

“The Value of a Barren Tree.” The Christian Century. Accessed March 19, 2019.

Young, Franklin W. “Luke 13:1-9.” Interpretation 31, no. 1 (January 1977): 59–63.

[1] I got these ideas from the book “Radical Spirituality”

[2] Marie Kondo also has a book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. She calls her practice the “KonMari” method.



[5] This is not an original idea but I can’t find the source.


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