Sunday, March 24, 2019

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

I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.

The perfect sermon title for this week might be, “Death, Tragedy and all that Crap.” It might sound shocking, 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 will help us grow in faith and maturity. God does not make us suffer, but He uses the circumstances of our life to help us to bear fruit in this world. We don’t understand. We ask, “Why me?” But we are called to repentance from our self-focus and trust in God who has promised to get us through. We don’t like to travel through the valley of death, because it seems like there is no hope, but there is always hope in Christ. We thirst for something we don’t always understand, but God has a way of meeting all our needs.

Thirst has a way of putting a stop on all other activities. When you are thirsty, the thought of getting a drink occupies your mind. It is even hard to eat when you are thirsty. Water sustains us. We can go for weeks without eating, but we need water daily to stay alive. It is natural for our bodies to seek something to drink. Water washes impurities out of our systems and keeps us healthy.

It is understandable that spirituality is often compared to water. Throughout the scriptures there are references to our thirst and the life giving water of God. Isaiah quotes God’s invitation to all. “Come, everyone who thirsts, to the waters! Come, he who has no money, buy, and eat! Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” We are invited to quench our spiritual thirst on that which will give life. Jesus repeated this invitation when He identified Himself as the One who gives the living water. 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. Yet, we are much more aware of our physical thirst than our spiritual thirst.

Isaiah presents an offer from God for something greater than the stuff we buy. He spoke to the thirsty, those who craved something that would satisfy their greatest needs. For the Israelites, only God could provide such a gift. He invites us to buy the water that will quench our real thirst without cost. What does this mean? After all, the word “to buy” means “to acquire possession, ownership, or rights to the use or services of by payment especially of money.” How can we buy wine and milk without money or without price?

There is another definition for “to buy.” It is to accept or to believe, as in “I buy that premise.” We don’t buy the gifts of God with money; we have nothing of value to trade with Him. We receive that which He has to give with faith. Unfortunately, we prefer to buy the things that are tangible to us and use the money we have earned with our own two hands. God’s gift of grace is without cost, and this is hard for us to understand and accept. We have learned that we can earn favor, and we think that applies even to our relationship with God. The lessons throughout Lent remind us to trust that God is faithful to His promises and they call us to live in that trust.

During Lent we willingly and willfully quench our thirst for God, committing to a journey we know will end. Though Lent fasting and disciplines have the potential to bring some change to our lives, we never think of the benefits beyond the forty days. We follow Jesus into the wilderness, giving up something or taking up something, and yet we never look at this as a time of transformation. We don’t really use it as a time to grow closer to God.

Matthew Henry wrote about Psalm 63: “There are psalms proper for a wilderness, and we have reason to thank God that it is the wilderness of Judah we are in, not the wilderness of Sin. David, in these verses, stirs up himself to take hold on God.” David knew that his time in the wilderness was time to seek God. He isn’t giving something up, but he is taking the time to find his God and develop a relationship with Him. That’s what Jesus did also. For too many of us, Lent is a time to suffer, to give up something we love, including our time. It might appear that we are being more spiritual, devoting ourselves to God, yet we do nothing during that time to develop the relationship. For David, the wilderness journey was more than a trip in the desert. He spent time with God in the morning and at night. He spent time in the sanctuary of God’s love. He sought God in the world and in the privacy of His bed. He rejoiced in God during the whole journey and at the end of that journey he was prepared to face his future, his enemy and his purpose.

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 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.

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 live our lives in a way that makes us feel good, to be satisfied in flesh and emotions, to wander on our own paths. Unfortunately, when we do so we end up crying in a place where we don’t want to be, afraid of what will happen. God does not punish us for our disobedience, but we do suffer the consequences of turning our backs on Him.

That’s why God calls us to repent. “Turn around. Keep your eyes on me. I can make things right.” God does not want anyone to suffer; 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?” “Repent!” Jesus cried.

The stories in today’s Gospel lesson would be on the evening news today. Men died at the hands of a powerful ruler. Others died when a tower collapsed. Jesus asked, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things?” The prevailing thought was that trouble comes because of sin. “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.” Jesus was not suggesting that the listeners would suffer a cataclysmic death because they weren’t good; He was warning them of a greater death that will come if they do not repent and turn to God.

If we believe that we can save ourselves, then we just as easily believe that the disasters of others are a punishment for sin. We think they have gotten what they deserve. The crowd asked if the people who died at the hand of Pilate deserved their deaths. Jesus compared that story to the tower. If one is punishment for sin, is the other? He answered, “I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.” Jesus did not suggest that they died because of their sin, but then He warned the crowd that they would die if they didn’t repent!

They did not die because of their sin; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their story is important for us to hear because we could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, too. We could fall prey to a ruler wielding power that knows no bounds. We could be standing under a tower that is about to collapse. We could be in a car accident. We could get sick. We could lose everything because the world around us is falling apart. We don’t know what tomorrow might hold. Tomorrow might be too late. God is patient and longsuffering. God is willing to give second and third and fourth chances. But as we hear in today’s Gospel lesson we will not know when it will be too late.

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 perfectly in this world: Jesus. We aren’t Jesus, but we are covered by His righteousness when we repent and trust in Him.

The hope we have is not that we’ll be righteous at the moment that we will die, but that God will be faithful. And thankfully, we worship a God of second chances. Take, for instance, the parable in the second half of today’s Gospel lesson: 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 planted more than six years earlier. 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. The unfruitful tree was stealing the nutrients from the trees that could produce. The gardener begged the landowner for one more year with a promise to work with the tree to try to get it to produce.

They say that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. We study the things of the past, what worked and what didn’t work, to help guide our decisions for the future. The Bible tells us there is nothing new under the sun, and this is most certainly true in every aspect of human nature. American culture is not much different than other prosperous civilizations in ages past. Our political system was established based on ancient examples. Military, education and welfare policies were founded on principles used many times before. If we refuse to recall the lessons learned throughout history, we will continue repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Just as ancient history is important for us to know and understand to keep from falling into the same traps, so too is the Old Testament witness important for Christians. The Israelites had Christ before them, reflections of the promise to come. They were given the manna as a promise of Jesus, who is the Bread of life. Water flowed from the rock, foreseeing the Living water that is Christ. Yet they did not remain faithful to the One who fulfilled their needs. As we look back on those stories we are reminded that Christ is the solid rock on whom we stand and who gives us strength. When we are tested, as the Israelites were tested in the desert, we are warned from their example to turn to God.

Some were blaming the victims of Pilate’s wrath and natural catastrophe with their own demise. “If they weren’t sinners...” How do you deal with things like death, tragedy and other kinds of suffering? Those that suffer must not be righteous; they deserve all that they get. There were some who drew parallels between the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 with the collapse of the tower of Siloam, as if the story in scriptures was a divine message of warning. Can we really say that those who died on that day were more sinful? No, of course not. Unfortunately, many deal with any sort of tragedy in the same way as the Pharisees, but Jesus told them that everyone is a sinner who will perish without God.

Yet, if something is said enough, we can be convinced that it is true and I am sure many people who suffer wonder what they did to deserve such a catastrophic event in their life. At some point in the mourning and healing process we ask the question, “Why me?” It is a natural reaction to the difficulties of this world. Yet, it is also a statement of doubt. When we ask, “Why me?” we question God’s judgment, we question His purpose, and we question His love. It is beyond belief that a loving God would allow such terrible things to happen to His people, so this question can lead to a deeper and much more dangerous rejection of God and Jesus Christ. Such doubt makes it impossible for us to do what is right; it makes it difficult for us to bear fruit.

No matter how hard these texts are for us to read, and even to understand, the Gospel message is clear: God forgives, He transforms and in Him is life. We might experience suffering, but like manure, God can use our hard times to bring transformation and good fruit. We might feel like we have been burdened with something beyond our ability to bear, but God gives us a way to stand up under the burden. He gives us Jesus, who offers grace to those who have no hope.

Repent and believe are not two commands but just one. We can’t believe unless we put aside those things that are incompatible with the life Christ is calling us to live. We may not live a life of violence, greed or do the things that are illegal or immoral in this world, but we all have things from which we must turn. Jesus Christ makes us new, changes our lives to conform to His good and perfect will. Repent and believe in Him that the world will see His life manifest in yours.

We all doubt. We all ask, “Why me?” It is common to human beings. God invites us, however, to be transformed, to drink in the living waters of His grace and to keep our eyes and our hearts on Him through it all. He invites us to buy His grace, not with money but with faith.

We might suffer. Jesus never said He would keep us from pain. He has promised to be with us through it, to give us the strength and the courage to stand firm in the faith which we have been given. He has promised that even there seems to be no reason for hope, there is always hope. He calls us to recognize our sinfulness and to look to Him for forgiveness. The pain we experience is not some act of divine vengeance. Bad things happen. When the bad things happen, we can be assured that God loves us through it all and that He knows what will happen in the end.

We aren’t any different than the Israelites in the desert, the pilgrims caught up in a political battle in the Temple, the people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. We have all been tested and we all fall short. God is faithful, but tomorrow may never come for us. This is a mystery we cannot fully understand, because God’s ways are higher than our ways. So, we stand in between the now and not yet, and even while we will fail we are called to live as He would have us live: buying the things that are good and denying ourselves the crap.

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. He calls us to repentance with the promise that God is faithful. The free gifts of God are far better than anything we can buy; His rich blessings are more satisfying than the things of this world. In repentance we cling to the God who does not want any to perish and trust that He will get us through anything we may face.

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