Sunday, March 11, 2007

Third Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

There hath no temptation taken you but such as man can bear: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that ye may be able to endure it.

The Gospel lesson for this week is a hard one. As a matter of fact, when I began my research for this week’s writings, I realized that I had never once in seven and a half years used this text for my daily devotional. It is also not a memorable text, at least for some people. I’ve heard several comments this week from people who do not even remember ever hearing it before, even though it has been part of the lectionary. I suppose that even though we hear it, if the text is not expounded upon, then it is easily forgotten. I can imagine that many pastors simply ignore this text, or avoid it, when preparing their sermons. I know I tried.

As it turns out, this is one of those rare occasions that my preparation through Midweek Oasis and A WORD FOR TODAY will actually be heard. I found myself drawn to the words of Isaiah, “Come, you who are thirsty.” I thought about Jesus in the desert and how he was hungry after His forty days, yet the scriptures say nothing about thirst. I’m sure that He must have had something to drink. Water is so integral to the functions of the human body that we can’t live more than three days without it. Jesus was not superhuman, as a matter of fact that forty days in the wilderness helps us to see that He was fully human just as He is fully divine. He must have had water.

Water is often identified with spirit and the Spirit. So this text gives us a good foundation for talking about spirituality. In this day when there are hundreds of self-help spirituality books available on the shelves of a secular bookstore, it is important that we address this with our congregations. Spirituality is not frightening or freaky. It is vital to our life of faith. Now, unfortunately the type of spirituality with which the people are probably most familiar are practices that they can accept, and probably should not accept. All too often our quest for the divine leads us down a path of works righteousness and idolatry. Yet, we are called to a life of prayer, of seeking God’s face. Christian spirituality includes prayer, but it also includes life within the congregation, worshipping together and experiencing God’s Word and Sacraments. For the Christian, spirituality is not really a quest to find something, but instead it is about receiving that which God has already done.

I’m fascinated by the language in Isaiah. He writes, “Come buy and eat. Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” How can we buy something with no payment or which has no price? Isn’t that a gift? Yes, the grace of God is a gift. There is another definition for the word “to buy”. It also means “to accept or believe.” You’ve heard someone respond to a statement with “I don’t buy that” or “I can buy that.” We are called to “buy” God’s word as true, to believe it – to believe Him.

The Pharisees didn’t buy it. They were following Jesus around along with the crowds. They wanted to hear what He said. They wanted to experience His presence just like everyone else. One day a Pharisee invited Jesus to have dinner. (Luke 11:37) There must have been some acceptance of what Jesus was doing up until that point or the Pharisee would never have invited Jesus to his table. There were strict rules about dining companions. Besides, sharing a meal meant acceptance and approval. If Jesus were seen at that point as an outsider, a sinner or a heretic, He would not have been welcomed.

His welcome was short lived because He told the Pharisees and teachers of the Law the truth. He called to their attention the things they were doing that were unrighteous or at least self-righteous. He told them that they were sinners and that they are as good as dead. This dinner did not make him popular among the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. As a matter of fact, after this dinner they decided to follow him and try to catch him in something that he might say. They were hoping to find the very thing that would incriminate Him and halt His ministry.

In today’s passage they asked Him about a well known event of the day, but an event about which we have no more information than what Luke tells us. Apparently Pilate found reason to massacre some Galileans in the Temple. This bloody event is not recorded anywhere else, but it fits in the character of Pilate who was a cruel leader. What we do know is that their blood mingled with the blood of their sacrifice. They were not only murdered – their offerings were invalidated by the death and bloodshed, stealing from them the forgiveness they would have received by obedience to the Law of Moses. They were such horrible sinners that God would not accept their offering or grant them forgiveness. They died with no hope.

In the second story, eighteen people were killed when a tower collapsed. Archeologists have recently unearthed the ruins of a tower that they have identified with the tower of Siloam. It is near the pool of Siloam, familiar to us in the story from John 9 when Jesus sent the blind man to the pool to wash the mud from his eyes. Though the man had been born blind, he was healed. Archeologists found the pool a few years ago, but there is no consensus yet as to the purpose of this pool. Some suggest that it was used for the ritual baths taken by pilgrims as they approached the Temple to offer their sacrifices. If this is true, then the people who suffered from the collapse may well have been pilgrims seeking God’s forgiveness. They died before they could offer their sacrifice and once again forgiveness was stolen from them.

Jesus asked, “Do you think that they are more sinful or if they committed greater offenses?” He answered Himself, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” I suppose one of the reasons we avoid or ignore this passage is that this statement does not seem to fit into the character of Christ, who is merciful and loving. Yet, this is not a statement about divine vengeance. It is not a threat from Jesus. It is the truth. If you reject God, you will perish. They were rejecting God – by rejecting Jesus. Without Him there is only death; in Him there is life.

Our Gospel lesson ends with the story of a fig tree. This tree is not bearing fruit and the landowner is ready to let it go. We might think that he is unmerciful because the tree is only three years old; however it was probably more like six years. He would not have even looked for fruit until after the third year. That is when it should have started to bear fruit. At six years the fig tree has been a waste of time, land and resources. This unfruitful tree is stealing the nutrients from the trees that can product. The gardener begged the landowner for one more year with a promise to work with the tree to try to get it to produce.

I was going to call my sermon “Death, Tragedy and all that Crap.” Perhaps that is a little bit too offensive for most churches, 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 manure 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 invites us to buy His Word – to believe that He is there in the midst of it all. He reminds us that His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts higher than our thoughts. We don’t understand “Why me?” but we are invited to dwell in the mercy of the Most High God who promises to get us through our troubles. In God – in Christ – there is hope even when there seems to be no hope.

History repeats itself and if we do not remember the past we are doomed to repeat it. That’s why Paul reminds the Corinthians of the Hebrew rejection of God at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Paul does not want the Corinthians to return to their old way of life. The Hebrews had spent four hundred years away from the presence of God. Though they remembered the God of their forefathers, they did not know Him and they did not trust Him. When Moses did not come back from the mountain in their time, they turned to their old ways. They thought slavery in Egypt was better than suffering in the desert on the way to an unknown promised land. It would have been just as easy for the Corinthians to return to their own pagan practices.

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.

Paul writes, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as man can bear: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that ye may be able to endure it.” We are all tempted. We have all said, “Why me?” We have all looked away from God and fallen back into our old ways. Jesus is the gardener who seeks the Master’s mercy. He works with us, digs up the dirt and piles on manure. He helps us to mature so that we will bear fruit. He will give us strength to stand up against the things that keep us from God, providing a way out so that we will have life.

We are reminded however, that time is short. Now is the time for repentance. Isaiah writes, “Seek the Lord while he may be found.” Paul writes, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Jesus says, “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” Isaiah talks of water, but also wine and milk. Jesus talks about manure. All these things will help us to grow into that deeper relationship with God that week seek, to experience the spirituality that our soul longs to experience.

It is no wonder that spirituality is compared to water. We thirst. Yet we thirst for something much more than just the wetness of cool, clean water. We seek a connection to the divine, a relationship with our Father and Creator. That is what this journey of Lent is all about. It is not simply a time to give up something or to face the temptations that seize our flesh. It is also a time to delve into the spiritual, to develop disciplines that will make us healthier in body, mind and spirit. It is a time to drink in the life giving water of God’s grace.

Many of us approach the beginning of a new year with a list of resolutions – things that we want to try to change in the coming year. We set our goals pretty high, trying to bring about transformation, change that will make us healthier, happier and more successful. We mean to stick to it, but for many people the resolutions quickly fall apart and we give up because it is too hard. Most people seem to last about forty days – until the second week of February – which is when they fail, give up and return to their old way of life.

Lent serves a different purpose. We take up spiritual disciplines that emulate our Lord’s time in the wilderness, particularly the fasting. We usually choose to give up something we love, but set the goal much lower than we do at the New Year, choosing something that won’t make much difference for forty days. I don’t mean to say that we make it easy, for any change, even a minor one, takes commitment to accomplish. Unlike the New Year’s resolutions, however, we go into Lent with the knowledge that there will be an end. We look forward to Easter when we can go back to our old ways, gorging on those things we love, remaining unchanged through the journey.

Perhaps for Christians, Lent would be a much better time to make resolutions. During these forty days we are called to repent – that’s why we hear stories like the one found in today’s Gospel lesson. So, even though there are incredible messages to find throughout all four of the scriptures this week, perhaps this is the very time to challenge ourselves to face that difficult text, to deal with the death, tragedy and “crap” that plagues us in this world. In the midst of it all, we can experience God’s grace like David in the wilderness and sing His praise. “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” When we are caught up in the cares of the world, burdened by suffering and pain, we have one place where we can go – to the Lord. We need not go far because He is right there with us through it all, offering His mercy and forgiveness to all who turn to Him.

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