Third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
The passage from Ezekiel is confusing and frightening. It seems to say that you will live or die based on the most current actions of your 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?
Verse 13 offers a bit of help with this problem. 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.
It is so easy to get caught up in the belief that we can save ourselves. And if we believe that, then we just as easily see the disasters of others as a punishment from God, or at the very least the possibility that they have gotten what they deserve. That’s what is happening in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus responded to a question from the crowd about a group of people who died at the hand of Pilate by asking if they deserved to be killed in that way. Then He asked if a group of people who died when a tower fell if they deserved to die in that way.
He answered, “Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” 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, we could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, too. We could fall prey to a power wielding ruler who knows no bounds. We could be standing under a tower 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.
Jesus calls us to repentance, not to save us from the possibility that our world will collapse, but so that we will not die. You will still die, but at least you’ll have the life He has promised. He is calling the people to turn now, to not wait until it is too late. 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 do 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 a perfect life 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 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.
Perhaps the perfect sermon title for this text is “Death, Tragedy and all that Crap.” It might sound offensive, 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.
The Jews in Jesus’ day sought righteousness according to their own terms. They tried to be their own gods. They tried to control the world around them. They tried to be good, righteous and worthy of whatever it is they wanted. Paul tells us that the ancestors of the Jews did the same thing. Though God delivered them from Egypt and gave them a taste of salvation and the waters of baptism through the cloud and the waters of the Red Sea, they forgot God. They became idolaters, eating, drinking and indulging in the pagan traditions of Egypt. They tested God and suffered the consequences of turning away from Him. They did not trust God so turned to find comfort, hope and peace through other means.
Paul reminds us that we are no different. We think we are better, more faithful than those who wandered the desert and those who lived in Jesus’ day, but we aren’t. Paul shares the stories of our forefathers as a warning that we naturally tend to go in the wrong direction. We would rather rely on our own strength and abilities, so we turn away from God.
The story of the fig tree shows us that God is willing to work with us, to help us to be fruitful. But we are warned to be careful: the day will come when it is too late. So while we can’t do it on our own, we are called to do something. We are called to repent, to turn around and trust God. Paul comforts us with the knowledge that we are no different. “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 will be tempted. We will fail. 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. But the vinedresser says, “Give me another year. I’ll feed it and it will produce good fruit.” He gives us another chance. Yet, He also calls us to repentance, lest we will perish. We have another chance, but for how long? We could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or fall prey to a 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 don’t know what tomorrow might hold.
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 fullness of all the good things in heaven and earth—mercy, truth, righteousness and peace—come together in Jesus Christ. It is not up to us to be or create or earn these things, we are called to believe in Jesus and it will be ours.
God does not want us to perish. He wants us to live in His grace in this world and in His glory in eternity. He’s done everything necessary to make it happen. Lent is a time of repentance. 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 repent and trust in Him.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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