Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-5, February 28, 2016
The Old Testament lesson ends at an unfortunate spot this morning. The conclusion of God saying, my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” leaves us with an easily misunderstood message. Here’s how the chapter concludes
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
This message was addressed to the Israelites living in exile in Babylon. It came at a time when they were wondering whether God could be with them. Wasn’t the fact that they had lived in Babylon so long a sign that God had abandoned them? Yet they were not poor. Some of them had assimilated into Babylonian society, gone into business and were doing quite well for themselves up there. To this people living in place far from their ancestral home God offers food, lots and lots of food, good food, their favorite food—all free! And God offers this food to everyone who get hungry. Everyone who gets hungry, everyone who gets thirsty.
When God puts an offer like this on the table, God asks, why do you waste you money on things you don’t need? Why do you work in jobs that bring no satisfaction?
God is trying to get the people—note this word is delivered to a community, not to individuals—to lift up their eyes and see that God is offering them something much greater. Blues singer Esther Mae Scott reworked the Beatles’ song this way, “God don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy His love.” God is extending an offer of protection and security, not simple physical security and safety, but a lasting, eternal security. The people have to listen to God’s message and look and see what God is doing.
“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…”the prophet wrote.
And what are these wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts? Simply the belief that God is remote, far away, unmoved by the longings of the people! These wicked thoughts are indifference born of futility. It is one of the seven deadly sins: sloth. Sloth isn’t idleness. Sloth is inactivity rooted in the confidence that nothing we do can make any difference. Whether we acknowledge that God is close at hand or not is of no consequence, the slothful one says.
But we must not forget—and Isaiah reminds us—that our Lord is an impassioned God. Eagerly longing for the people—all people—to return. And God’s love surrounds us as the rain and snow, the soil and the sky.
The question is—and the prophet hints at this—‘how long’? How long will God make this offer? “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” implies that there will come a time when God will not be found, no matter how diligently we seek. “Call upon him while he’s near,” implies that there will come a time when God is not near and will not hear when we call.
Heinriche Heine quipped on his deathbed, “God will forgive my sins; it’s his job.” But is God’s forgiving mercy infinite? Is it offered to those who trust in forgiveness, but are not changed by it? Is Herr Heine’s smugness the same thing as security?
Security and its source are also the topic of the gospel lesson this morning. It’s a strange passage. Some people came up to Jesus and told him about how some people had been killed while offering sacrifices at the temple. Jesus told them that those who were killed on Pilate’s order were not worse sinners than anyone else, just as those who were killed when the tower in Siloam collapsed were not the worst sinners in that town.
Basically, Jesus is telling us, first of all, not to draw joy from other people’s problems. He’s also telling us that peril is real, even though accidents are random.
We may be tempted to blame the victims of Pilate’s slaughter and the tower’s collapse, but Jesus won’t let us. He reminds us that those people are sinners just like each of us. God didn’t somehow precision-guide the tower to fall on the worst people in Siloam! It just happened. So we can’t distance ourselves from them. Or believe that we’re somehow superior to them.
But we also cannot say there’s no connection between our sin and God’s action in the world. There is a connection, though it is not always apparent, and God doesn’t always reward virtue or punish sin fairly. At least in our sight.
Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” And I believe he means utterly unprepared. Unless we turn from our sin, turn from the notion that God is remote and far away, our lives will be wasted.
The good news that Christ offers is that God is gracious, inviting everyone to turn from their sin, not just on our deathbeds, but now—this is the moment! We get another chance!
That’s the point of the parable Jesus tells just after today’s gospel lesson. We get another chance, but we don’t know how many more chances we get. The fig tree is given another year, but not two years. God’s grace demands a response, demands that we live lives that bear fruit, that are examples of accepting grace, mercy and forgiveness.
We’re in a season of waiting, a season of preparing. We’re moving each day closer to the holiest days of the year. Days of public spectacle and celebration, like Palm Sunday, but also days of mounting tension and sadness and betrayal—Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We know what’s coming. We know the story of our faith. We know that it ends with inexpressible joy and victory over death.
The story ends with the quiet emptiness of a rock tomb on Sunday morning. And from that
Emptiness Hope is born and released into the world.
I keep returning to Hope. And I always capitalize it when I write. Because Hope is the message that God sent to the exiles through Isaiah. There’s Hope because there’s still time, God is still near. There’s hope, but Jesus told those who listened—just as the fig tree is given another year to produce fruit, there is still time for each of us to repent!
But God’s mercy demands a response. The grace that sets us free is not something to horde or grow complacent over. It should renew us energize us to live as joy-filled new people. To let our joy radiate and inspire us to share the Hope we know as Jesus Christ. What good is it to be new, if we feel old? What good is it to live in Hope if it doesn’t change us?
I’ve said this before, but I bears repeating. Worship is about change—what we’re doing together right now, is about change. If you walk out of here at 10:30 and say, “Tom, I feel exactly the same way I felt an hour ago.” I will say, “I’m sorry.” Because that would mean that our worship hasn’t moved you.
It hasn’t moved you
To recognize your sin;
To feel the joy of forgiveness for that sin;
To embrace the Hope that our Savior sends us;
To express the joy of living as a forgiven person;
To think about something in a new way;
To change the way you approach a problem;
To be glad in knowing that God’s love is real;
To know that God’s love surrounds each of us and all of us;
To remember and be glad in knowing that you are a child of God, made in God’s image.
I could go on.
What Isaiah and Jesus are both telling us today is that there is still time for us to respond, stll time for us to let God work in us and change us!
And Isaiah tells us that we are an essential part of God’s plan. God says through Isaiah, “so shall my word e that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
So God needs us to respond to this new chance. God needs us to accept forgiveness and live as people who are brand new and renewed, not by our doing, but as a gift from our generous Creator. That’s an invitation to all of us—and each of us—not to be complacent and passive in trust, but to dwell and revel in the security God offers us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.