Sunday, March 7, 2010

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

My soul followeth hard after thee: Thy right hand upholdeth me.

I enjoy watching the magicians Penn and Teller do what they do. I especially like their show because they reveal their secrets. Now, there are those who don’t like the way they do magic because they believe that Penn and Teller take the mystery out of it. And yet, even with explanations there are still questions about how they managed their tricks.

Take, for instance, the first trick I ever saw them do. They were on Saturday Night Live doing what seemed like a ridiculously simple trick. They were making tissue ‘ghosts’ fly. Eventually the ‘ghosts’ were flying up so fast that it seemed like it must be impossible. Through the entire five minute act, the camera was showing Penn and Teller in close-up, but at the end it pulled back so that we could see the entire scene. It was then we realized that Penn and Teller were hanging upside down. The picture had been turned so that it appeared they were right side up. The ‘flying ghosts’ were just hanging from their fingers by invisible threats. When the ghosts shot up in the air, they were actually falling down to the stage.

Now, this might not seem like it is very magical. After all, the magic was just an illusion and camera trick. This might be disappointing until you realize that these men managed to hang upside down for five minutes without appearing to hang upside down. I don’t know about you, but you can usually tell when I am upside down. My hair hangs down, the blood rushes to my face. My breathing is changed. I suspect if we looked closely, we’d find other signs that I’m not upright, like sagging skin The length of time a person can hang upside down is dependent on a lot of things, including their health, but even the healthiest people show signs after a few minutes. Taking into account the fact that they had to be in place long before the cameras rolled, means they were there even longer than the five minutes we witnessed the act.

So, despite the fact that the ‘tricks’ were really just tricks, there is still a sense of mystery to their act. They might show the audience how they accomplish all their tricks, but even then the viewer is left with questions. We know how they did it, but we still ask ourselves, “How did they do that?”

The same thing happens sometimes when we read the scriptures. We understand what is being said, we know that God is doing what God does, we know that God is able to do the impossible, and yet we still ask, “How did He do that?”

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God, speaking through Isaiah says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” It is pretty incredible that we are invited into the presence of God to feast on all the good things He has to offer. But we still ask ourselves, “How do we buy these good things without money?” We live in a market driven society where everything is bought and sold with cash or credit. We don’t even have much bartering going on these days. Paper or plastic refers to more than the bags we use to take home our purchases. It refers to the way we pay for everything.

So, when someone suggests that we buy something without money, we wonder how that can be. How can we buy something without a transfer of money? Even if we were talking about a bartered exchange something would pass both ways. How can something bought be free? Isn’t that a gift? And don’t we learn that the good things of God are gifts? Why would He use the language of the marketplace for a promise? Perhaps he is using a different sort of language in this passage. “To buy” can also mean “to accept or believe” in slang. It seems just as odd for God to be using slang as it is that He might use market language. We want God to be formal, to be holy, to be wise. “Don’t buy it” seems so informal, so ordinary.

But then, the choices we have to make in this passage seem very informal and ordinary. In the Message version of this text, Eugene Peterson translated verse two this way, “Why do you spend your money on junk food, your hard-earned cash on cotton candy? Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best, fill yourself with only the finest.” He is speaking to us as we might speak to teenagers getting their first shot at independence. “Be careful what you choose. There’s a lot of exciting things out there, but remember that you can get a healthy, tasty meal at home. Why spend your money on McDonald’s when you can have steak for free?”

But it is hard for teenagers to see beyond their reality. It is more fun to go to McDonald’s with their friends than to stay home with Mom and Dad and siblings. It is more exciting to chow down on junk food in the company of peers than to hang around with family. We aren’t much different as we mature; the source of our desires just changes. We think that it is better to go out and buy all the things we want rather than settle for the gifts that are given. So, God approaches us with this language we understand. “Come buy what I have to offer,” He says, inviting us into His presence. It is an invitation to enjoy the good things of life rather than purchase the things that are not so good for us.

We understand this, but it is still hard for us to understand. We see the world, and God’s grace, through very limited lenses. We want God to fit into our own little box, to act as we expect Him to act. We want His promises to meet our desires and satisfy our ways of accomplishing things. But we are reminded that God’s ways are higher than our ways and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. We might think we know the best way to accomplish good things in this world, but God knows far more. We might think we understand God, but there is also mystery to all that He does.

So, He makes it pretty easy even though we don’t fully understand. “Believe me,” He says. “Buy what I have to give. Accept the grace that has been given to you. Seek me, while I can be found.”

This last one is especially hard to hear because we think we have all the time in the world. Teenagers have this idea that they are invincible. I suppose that’s why they think they can eat McDonald’s three times a day while adults know that the fat and calories are not good for the body. Adults have seen the reality of our numbered days. Yet, when it comes to things of the Spirit, we aren’t much different than those teenagers. We still think we have tomorrow. We still think we can wait. So, we don’t like to hear that there might come a time when we might not find God. We put off repentance because we know He’s just waiting patiently behind us. So, we continue to buy all those things that perish, thinking that God will always be right there. We forget that we don’t know what tomorrow holds. He will be there, but will we?

Jesus talks about two separate incidents where the people were taken suddenly from this life. In the first, some of the crowd brought up a well-known story of the day of pilgrims to Jerusalem that had probably been killed by Pilate in the Temple, their blood mixing with the blood of their sacrifices. The people thought that those who died must be guilty and so they suffered for their sin. Jesus answers, “Think ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish.”

He then reminds them of another story of some people killed when a tower collapsed. Jesus asks, “Did they die because they were worse than anyone else?” Of course not; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But their story is important for us to hear. We could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 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.

But Jesus calls us to repentance. “Buy what I have to offer, this free gift, so that you will not die the way they did.” Oh, you might 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 the second story in today’s Gospel lesson, a day will come when God won’t wait any longer.

In the parable, Jesus talked about a fig tree that was not producing. 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 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.

Jesus is that gardener. 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.”

Paul addresses the same problem with the Corinthians. He reminds them of the Israelites, who wandered for forty years in the wilderness until God was ready to allow them into the Promised Land. In that forty years, a whole generation of people perished, so that only those who had not rejected Him at Sinai were allowed to receive the promise. They were not patient when Moses went up the mountain to receive God’s Word, and they quickly turned back to the only thing they knew: the gods of Egypt. Even as they wandered in the wilderness, they considered whether or not it would be worth returning to slavery to avoid the suffering they were experiencing. Paul tells us that those things happened to be an example to us today, they were written down to teach us.

Paul reminds them that they have reached the ends of the ages, and yet we know that the world has not yet come to an end. Yet, it is still written for us, for we have also reached this time, which is still the ends of the ages. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. We may think we can interpret the scriptures and set a date, but we don’t know. Even if the end of everything is a hundred or five hundred years away, we still don’t know when our last day will come. Now is the time to stand firm in what we have learned and what we know to be true. Now is the time to “buy” God’s grace. Now is the time to believe and accept what He has done and what He continues to do in our lives.

Even if we discover we are in a time of suffering, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we can still stand firm in God’s promises. God is faithful. That is probably the most beautiful statement in the scriptures. Oh, I like “God is love,” too. But, “God is faithful” has so much more power and assurance. What is love? How is love demonstrated? These can be open to interpretation. But “God is faithful” means one thing: He is true to His promises. He is with us now and always, and He is the way out of our troubles. Now is the time to turn to Him.

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 underneath that tower as it collapsed. We aren’t any different than those teenagers who think they can eat all the junk food that they want. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. We have all been tested in the same ways, and we all fall short. But God is faithful, but the time is short. This is a mystery we can not 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: eating that which is good and denying ourselves that which is junk.

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. The psalmist sings, “O God, thou art my God; earnestly will I seek thee: My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee, In a dry and weary land, where no water is.” In the Old Testament lesson, God offers us all the wine and milk we can drink, without cost. We, like the psalmist, are thirsty for the good things of life. So, we are invited to respond with the same joy and praise. And as we live the life we are called to live through faith in Jesus Christ, we will see that the free gifts of God are far better than anything we can buy. His rich feasts are more filling than any junk food. The shadow of His wings are safer than any human dwelling place. And so, we cling to our God, through thick and thin, through good and bad. We cling to the One who can and will get us through anything we may face.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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