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Lent 3C Sermon
Isaiah 55: 1-9, Luke 13: 1-9
24, 2019


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Isaiah 55:1-9

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

HO! HEY … YO … PAY ATTENTION! LISTEN UP! Our first lesson begins with “HO!” because God wants to get the attention of his people who are in exile in Babylon. This passage is close to the end of a section of Isaiah, called the Book of Comfort … and it is filled with promises and hope. The mighty Babylonian empire is in trouble because of the growing power of the Persians under Cyrus the great. God is getting the attention of the people who, for 50-some years, have been under the rule of the Babylonians – sometimes for worse but sometimes for the better. Nebuchadnezzer had not looked kindly upon these Judean people, and those who insisted upon remaining faithful to their one God were persecuted. On the other hand, many assimilated into the culture and lived quite comfortably as bankers and contractors and other professionals. For the first group, 50 years had wiped out all signs of hope and they stopped expecting God to deliver them. For the second group, this new lifestyle suited them, and they had no intentions in leaving their new home, even if they had the chance to return to their homeland.

Isaiah is getting the attention of both groups of people – HO! HEY- LISTEN UP! Yahweh is about to do something great and you will be returned to the rich land that was promised you from Yahweh! What a herald of good news – HO! – is. Quickly after getting their attention they hear a promise of a feast – a free banquet where instead of bringing silver to pay your share, you need nothing. Everyone who thirsts can come to the water – the refreshing waters of God’s presence. We all know the refreshment that a drink of cold water is when our thirst must be quenched. This is the life-giving promise of a God who has not abandoned the people he loves so much.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is getting the attention of the people around him as well, even though he doesn’t shout out a loud exclamation! In the preceding verses, he had criticized the people for being so good at predicting the weather but being so bad about predicting how God was at work in the events around them. Now someone brings up a recent event where the ruthless Roman governor Pontius Pilate had put down an insurrection in Galilee and mixed the blood of those killed with the blood of his pagan sacrifices. This was an atrocity, and something that the rulers would have done out of anger to make an example of them: don’t any of you even think of opposing us! It seems that the reason they bring it up to Jesus in the first place is that age old question, “What did these people do to deserve this?” Jesus quickly mentions another current event about which people were certainly asking “why”? A tower fell – the tower of Siloam, in south Jerusalem – and 18 innocent people lost their lives. In today’s age, an investigation might ensue, the stability of the structure examined, and lawsuits would be filed if there were errors made in the construction of the tower. That would have been the reason for the consequences that happened. But as always happens, the question of “why” goes much deeper than simple consequences of human error. This isn’t supposed to happen to people; towers aren’t supposed to fall on someone for no apparent reason; people fighting for their independence shouldn’t be humiliated by being killed then having their blood mixed with pagan sacrifices. Young people shouldn’t die, leaving behind families that miss them. What was so bad about these people.

It is in this situation that Jesus says, “HO!” He says that these victims were not worse offender than others living in Jerusalem…but unless you repent, you will perish as they did! Now THAT is an attention getter! That challenges some deep-seated Christian assumptions about sin and forgiveness and God’s presence in tragic situations. Does he mean that they – or the WE – might be struck down by sudden calamity? Or that we will die at some future time still mired in our sin? Or that will we somehow be separated from God?

We are left with a certain amount of ambiguity about precisely what Jesus means. Rather than try to resolve things too quickly, let’s turn for a moment to the parable he tells as an illustration of the pronouncements he has just made. The scene is a familiar one not only to large scale farmers, but to anyone who has ever had even a vegetable garden. Sooner or later, you uproot the plants or trees that are not bearing fruit. So, upon finding a fig tree that is alive and well yet bears no fruit, a landowner instructs his gardener to get rid of the tree. The gardener protests, asking for one more year in which to tend the tree by loosening the soil and spreading manure around it. If it does not respond, the gardener agrees: yes, cut it down. It has been a common interpretation that the landowner is God and the gardener Jesus. But nowhere else in Luke do we find a picture of an angry God that needs to be placated by a merciful Jesus. Rather, Luke portrays God as a father who scans the horizon day in and day out waiting for his wayward son to come home; and as a woman who after sweeping her house all night looking for a lost coin throws a party costing even more to celebrate that she found it. Given this slightly different picture of God’s reaction to sin, I wonder if we wouldn’t do better to imagine that God is this peculiar gardener, the one so partial to unyielding fig trees. God, that is, isn’t above loosening the soil around us and even spreading manure in the hope that we may bear fruit. Why? Because God loves us and wants the best for us.
So why do bad things happen to good, and sometimes not-so-good, people? Ultimately, Jesus doesn’t say … and neither can we. Sometimes misfortune is of our own making, sometimes it is a result of evil intentions of others, and sometimes it is tragic bad luck. But Jesus, son of the all-loving God, isn’t above using such occasions to invite us to wake up – or in this case, turn around (repent!) – so that we might look differently at our life and world. Jesus isn’t above taking the daily news of his time or ours and using it to jar us into recognizing that life is a gift, that God is seeking us out, and that there is so much good we can do with the time we are given, and there is an urgency to that since our time may be cut short at any moment.

People of Clinton Heights gathered for worship on this Third Sunday in Lent: HO! HEY … Pay Attention! Jesus’ interaction with those present with him in Luke 13 and his parable is an attention getter, much like Isaiah’s promises of free milk and honey were for the exiled Judeans. God is inviting us not to be overwhelmed or defeated by the headlines we read; rather we are to be focused by them on the gifts and good work right in front of us. God is digging around our roots, spreading manure in the hope that we’ll blossom and bear fruit. God loves us and gives us all that we need to live … whether it be as cool and refreshing as water, as tasty and filling as milk and honey, or as unpleasant but necessary as manure. Strengthened and nurtured by those things, we are called to bear fruit; and the fruit that we are called to bear is needed urgently in our world today – things like love, hospitality, gentleness, kindness, patience, justice and peace. Hey – Ho! Repent, you that have received eternal life from God … so that others may experience it as well! May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.