Sunday, February 28, 2016

Third Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 33:7-20
Psalm 83
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

...for why will ye die, O house of Israel?

I was shopping with my daughter who was only a toddler at the time. We were in the clothing department. She played, as all little kids loved to play, by climbing in and out of the racks as I searched to find the perfect outfit. I was probably not paying as much attention as I should have, but I suddenly realized she was not in the rack where I was standing. I called her name; after several times I began to panic. It wasn't long before this incident that the news was filled with the story of a child kidnapping, and while I doubted that it would happen in this out of the way store in an out of the way place, I couldn't help but worry. I called louder and she didn't hear me. Others began looking with me. Finally an employee from a department at the far end of the store found my daughter crying in a fitting room, heard our panic and came to get me. My daughter was safe, and while I was angry that she had wandered away, I was even more thankful that she had been found.

The tone of today's Old Testament lesson is not very pleasant to our modern ears. It seems to focus on death. Even the righteous, if they sin, will taste death. Where is the fairness? Where is the mercy? After all, if I have done a million good things, shouldn't they outweigh a bad thing or two? Even worse is the promise that the wicked will be saved if they just turn around. How is that fair to those who live a lifetime of goodness? This understanding leads us to a lifetime of fear that the last thing we do will not be good enough to be saved. It leads us to be afraid that we will meet our end if we wander away. Yet, we are also angry because we know that 'those others', the wicked, have done far worse things than we will ever do. Where is the justice?

We miss the grace in this passage when we ignore the word "repent." This is a hard word for us today because we live in a world that tells us we should go our own way. The world tells us that it is ok to follow our hearts. The world tells us that whatever path we choose is the path that is right for us. We have no reason to repent; this is what happens in a world that ignores the reality of sin. Sin is not just a list of things we do wrong. Of course, as we wander on our Lenten journey we are reminded to consider our own sin, to look at how we have failed to be the people whom God has created and redeemed us to be. We fast as a discipline so that we might be transformed in one tiny way, step by step becoming the people that God calls us to be.

Unfortunately, it is often useless because we fast something that we take up almost immediately after the Resurrection. Instead of continuing in the path of discipline, embracing the transformation, following as God leads us into a better life, we celebrate the promise of salvation and then head in the opposite direction. We turn around and walk on our own path again.

During Lent we often follow a devotional practice of some sort, reading the bible more or praying daily, but as soon as Easter comes, we stop and go about our lives as they were before we started this journey. Instead of allowing the discipline to become a habit in our lives, we think seven weeks is enough to earn us the goodness and mercy of God for another year. "I did my duty: I fasted and prayed. So now I can go walk on my path until it is time to do my duty again. "It must be enough to hold me over until next time," we think.

The key word in today's texts is "repent," but it is not enough to simply say, "I've done this thing and I'm sorry. Forgive me so I can go on my way." Repentance is more than saying I'm sorry. It is even more than confessing our daily sins. Repentance is turning to God, following Him, keeping Him in our sight, trusting Him to lead us on the right path.

See, righteousness is not about being good and doing what is right. Righteousness is about being in a right relationship with our God. We want to play the games, to hide in the clothing racks, to wander on our own paths. Unfortunately, when we do so we end up like my daughter, crying in a place where we don't want to be, afraid of what will happen when we are found or if we are never found. We aren't punished for our disobedience, we suffer the consequences of turning our backs on God.

That's why God calls us to repent. "Turn around. Keep your eyes on me. I can make things right." See, God does not want anyone to die. He takes no pleasure in our death. He calls out to us in mercy and grace. "Why will you die?" He asks us. "Why will you continue to do those things that will keep you from my love and grace? Why will you turn away and walk your own path, the path that leads to death?

Paul seems to give us a list of those things that we do when we turn from God. He reminds us of the story of the Exodus when too many of His people died, "for they were overthrown in the wilderness." Some died when they lusted, ate and played in worship of the idol. Others died when they tested God and grumbled against Him. All who perished in the desert wanted to go their own way, they wanted to walk their own path. Donít we do that too? We'd much rather worship the god we choose, have the world (and the god we worship) satisfy the needs we want satisfied. We are more than willing to blame God for our misfortune, to see God as a punisher and a destroyer because then we can claim and create the god of our choosing.

The ways we turn from God is not limited to the list in today's letter to the church in Corinth. Paul used those stories from the Exodus to remind the new Christians God's people suffered because they turned from Him. They suffered the consequences of going their own way. They died because they did not keep their eyes on Him.

"Repent!" Even Jesus cries out the people that they should repent. He also shares a few stories, stories which would be on the evening news today. Men died at the hands of a powerful ruler. Others died when a tower collapsed. "Do you think they were worse sinners than you?" He asked. The prevailing thought is that trouble comes because of sin. "I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." Jesus is not suggesting that the listeners will suffer a cataclysmic death because they aren't good; He is warning them of a greater death that will come if they do not repent and turn to God.

The passage from Ezekiel is confusing and frightening. It seems to say that we will live or die based on the most current actions of our flesh. If the wicked repent and then die, they will live, but if the righteous commit iniquity and die, their righteous deeds will be forgotten and they will truly die. This is confusing because we know that it is not by our works that we live or die, and it is frightening because we know that we are sinners and that we fail on a daily basis. What chance do we have to die at that exact moment when we are being righteous?

Ezekiel writes, "...if he trust to his righteousness..." then he will die if he commits sin. It isn't the sin that will kill him, but the reliance on a righteousness that is fallible. When we trust in the good deeds that we have done to save us, we'll find that they are never enough to cover the bad deeds that we continue to do. Our works will never make us righteous. Repentance is not simply making things right after we have done wrong; there is no hope in that sort of faith. We can never know if we will truly be in the right state at the moment we die. Repentance is turning to God and trusting in Him. Faith is trusting that we are in a state of God's grace so that no matter when we die, we'll be saved by His righteousness.

Jesus told His listeners a parable about a fig tree. The tree was not bearing fruit after three years and the landowner was ready to let it go. Now, we might wonder why the landowner would be upset because such a young tree is not bearing fruit, but the according to ancient farming practices, the tree was probably more than six years old. They would not have even looked for fruit until after the third year when it should bear fruit. They gave the tree extra time, an extra three years. It was taking nutrients from the other trees and wasting space. The gardener begged the landowner to give it one more year with the promise to work with the tree so that it will produce. "Give me time."

Isn't that what Jesus does for us? He is the gardener; and He keeps asking God for a little bit more time. He keeps working to make us better, to nourish us and to help us to bear fruit. But the day will come when it is too late. So, He calls for us to repent today. "Repent now, so that you will not perish." The hard scriptures we read during Lent help us to face our own difficulties: our temptations, our fear, our doubt, our greed and our grief. We are forced to see our sinfulness, but we are also given a glimpse of God's grace in Jesus Christ. We know that even while we are journeying with Jesus in the wilderness that He is on the way to the cross to pay our debt. And as Jesus calls us to repentance, we can live in the reality that our God is faithful.

I've suggested several times that the best sermon title for today's lessons might be "Death, tragedy and all that crap." Perhaps the language isn't quite acceptable in the church, but it is an honest assessment of how we deal with the troubles in our life. We look at suffering as "crap" without realizing that it might just be the manure that our Lord uses to help us grow in faith and maturity. God does not purposely make us suffer, but He uses the circumstances of our life to help us to bear fruit in this world. In the midst of our suffering and pain He calls us to repentance, to return to the path that He has laid out for us. When we turn we'll see that He has been there all the time, and that it was us who got lost.

We donít understand and we think God is not fair. We cry out "Why me?" but we learn that it is our own self-righteousness that takes down the road to death. We are judged, not according to our good or wicked deeds, but according to the righteousness of Christ. Jesus calls us to repentance, not to save us from the possibility that our world will collapse, but so that we will not die the ultimate death. God is patient and longsuffering, like the landowner whose tree would not fruit, but there will come a day when it is too late. Thankfully we have in Jesus a gardener willing to work with us, to help us, to see if He can bear the fruit that God demands. "Give me time," He says to His Father.

When Jesus talks about life and death, He isn't referring to the physical life and death; He is referring to eternal life and death. The Gospel text is not a lesson about our own righteousness, but about trusting in God for true life. We don't become perfect overnight. As a matter of fact, there's only one who was able to live a perfect life in this world: Jesus. This call to repentance is not a command to be perfect, but to turn to the One who covers us with His perfection. Wickedness is not simply the sins we commit against our neighbors, but the insistence that we can go our own way and earn our place in heaven.

Salvation is found in a right relationship with God. Repent, therefore, and turn to Him for He will have mercy as He has promised. He is faithful. We will be tempted. We will lose sight of our God like a toddler playing games in the clothing racks at the store loses sight of her mother. We'll get angry with God and blame Him for our troubles. We'll doubt and fear and go down the wrong path. We deserve to perish.

The psalmist writes, "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springeth out of the earth; and righteousness hath looked down from heaven." Truth leads us to a right relationship with God. The truth is that we don't deserve God's mercy and grace. However, our Lenten journey is leading us to an even greater truth: the fullness of all the good things in heaven and earth come together in Jesus Christ. It is not up to us to be or create or earn these things. It is ours when we believe in Jesus.

The gardener says, "Give me another year. I'll do everything I can to make it produce good fruit." Jesus gives us another chance, but He calls us to repentance. "Turn to God, learn the lessons of the past, know that only that it is my righteousness that can save you." Our good works will never be enough and we can't be assured that we will be good at the moment when we die. We could be in the wrong place at the wrong time; we could fall prey to a wicked ruler or be standing under a falling tower. We could be in a car accident or get sick or lose everything because the world around us is falling apart. We could wander off so far that we stop hearing the voice of our Father. We don't know what tomorrow might hold.

God does not want us to perish, why would we want to die? He wants us to live in His grace in this world and in His glory forever and ever. He has done everything necessary and He is faithful. It is good for us to do the disciplines that help us to grow and mature in faith. It is good for us to fast and pray, study the scriptures, give alms to the need and help our neighbors. These are the good fruit we are called bear. Lent is a time of repentance, not just in word but also in deed. It is a time for letting go of control, turning around toward God, and trusting in Him. Our righteousness will never save us, but His will. His righteousness has saved us. He did it so that we would have life, and so that we would bear fruit in a world that desperately needs to see God's people living the life He has called and redeemed us to live, following His path and doing His work for the sake of the world.

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