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Luke 13: 1-9; Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8
Sunday 24 March 10am Eucharist
In the last 10 days we have learned of the massacre of 50 Muslims attending Friday prayers in Christchurch, and of the catastrophic Cyclone Idai in East Africa, and we inevitably find ourselves asking questions.
It was the same in Palestine 2000 years ago – Jewish worshippers had been murdered by Pilate, the tower at Siloam had collapsed killing 18 people – and people were asking questions. They asked the same questions we do. Who is to blame? Whose fault is it? Were the people who died at fault? Or does the blame lie elsewhere?
Jesus said: you are asking the wrong questions. When things like that happen you should not be looking at others and asking questions about them, you should be thinking about a much bigger picture and at your own place in that picture.
What is that big picture? There are many evil things being done in the world, there is a great deal of pain and suffering. Many people’s experience of life is that it is nasty, brutish and short. Jesus said that the bottom line is that each of us will have to give an account of our own lives and that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish”.
Lent is when as Christians we take time to reflect on our own lives and our focus during this season is on penitence.
Having urged people to repent, Jesus then told them a parable. It is the story of a fig tree that had not borne any fruit in the three years since it had been planted. I do not know much about fig trees. However, a little online research tells me that it is not until some years after planting, that a fig tree begins to bear fruit. Different websites gave me different lengths of time, but there is a consistently clear pattern. So whatever type of fig tree Jesus’ audience was familiar with, people would have understood the idea that a tree had not produced fruit for a few years; equally they would have understood the idea that there was a time for it to have fruited but it had not done so. In the story, rather than cut it down straight away, the vinedresser was prepared to give it one more year and one more chance.
Clearly, Jesus was speaking about the patience of God, which is intended to lead to repentance
So bringing these two passages together Jesus is saying that when bad things happen out there and to others, it should be a reminder to look to ourselves and to make sure that we are right with God and the only way to be right is to repent.
But that leaves us with another big question hanging in the air – what does it means to repent?
For an answer to that question we can go back to the Old Testament reading from Isaiah.
We sometimes associate the idea of repentance with the phrase sackcloth and ashes. The marking of foreheads with ash on Ash Wednesday, as Canon Michael explained, is a reminder of our mortality, of our weakness and sin which is destructive and ultimately leads to death.
Another Lenten symbol or sign is that of giving things up for 40 days. Repentance is turning away from things. So we give up things, turning from them, whether chocolate or alcohol or social media. We do that as a sign that we are able to take ourselves in hand, whilst we attempt to impose a deeper discipline on our inner lives.
But our Old Testament passage which is also about repentance seems at first blush to strike a very different note.
Rather than fasting it speaks about feasting. Isaiah says: “Come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price”. The Psalm set for this morning is Ps 63. In it David says: “my soul is satisfied with a rich feast”
The starting point for each of them is that we are hungry and thirsty. Isaiah says “Ho, everyone who thirsts”. David says “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you.” Of course, there is a link here to giving things up. Giving something up can create a sense of desire and that can become a starting point for discovering a deeper hunger than just a physical craving.
But the starting point for David and Isaiah is that if you know you are hungry and thirsty then you are invited to gorge yourself – with food and wine – and it is all free.
What have they found which gives them that deep inner satisfaction?
David says that he has looked to God and found that God’s steadfast love is better than life. Isaiah says that the rich and satisfying food is discovering God’s everlasting covenant – God’s steadfast sure love. And he brings us full circle back to David by saying it is the love God had for David. David was not only a king but also an adulterer and murderer who discovered that God offered him unconditional and for ever love whatever he had done.
In whatever way and to whatever extent we reflect upon our own lives during Lent we will undoubtedly find things there which we really do want to give up and turn away from. But so often, try as we might, we simply cannot do it. There are things that keep a hold on us, whether through their memories or their compulsions or even their attractiveness. It is at that point that discovering that God loves me, that God surrounds me with love, that God’s love will never let go of me is not only deeply satisfying but can be life transforming.
So David and Isaiah say to those who are thirsty – real satisfaction is on offer – the very best food and drink – a rich feast – and it is all free.
But how do I eat and drink to find that satisfaction? What does it mean?
Isaiah talks about listening to God. “Listen carefully” he says, “incline your ear”, listen so that “you may live”. David speaks about meditating on God. He is saying that he allows thoughts about God and what God has said to fill his mind when it is at rest. Again it is a careful listening.
And what do they listen to? They listen to those promises of God’s steadfast covenant love with which the Bible is filled, from start to finish.
But we have more than words alone. Very shortly we will actually eat and drink together. We will eat bread and drink wine. These also are symbols – symbols of God’s love for us evidenced and demonstrated by Jesus Christ. We are invited to eat and drink in remembrance that Christ died for us, and to feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.
So through word and sacrament each of us can be shaped in our thinking and in our behaviour by that extraordinary fact that I am loved by God with an unconditional and forever love. It has been said that “nothing I do can make God love me more and nothing I do can make me God love me less”.
But coming back to our starting point, does this mean that as Christians we cannot address questions about evil and disaster? No, it does not. But it means that they are better addressed when we have begun to put ourselves in order. It is said that GK Chesterton once wrote to the Times newspaper in relation to an article entitled ‘What’s Wrong with the World’. His letter allegedly said “Dear Sir, Regarding your article ‘What’s wrong with the world’. I am. Yours sincerely G K Chesterton.” When we acknowledge that, we can begin to look outwards and to look at others. But we will do so differently.
My companion book for Lent has been the book recommended by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is entitled Reconciliation and is by Dr Muthuraj Swamy. Like me, you may have an initial resistance to his use of the word ‘other’ as a verb. ‘To other’, or ‘othering’, may seem strange to our ears but I believe it can be a help to our thinking.
He shows how from the garden of Eden onwards, humankind’s pattern of relationships has so often been that both individually, and together in our groups and tribes, we distance ourselves from the other or others. That is followed by blaming those others. That inevitably leads to division and conflict.
In contrast God comes to those who have distanced themselves from him and each other. God came and dwelt among us or “pitched his tent among us” as one translation puts it. Ultimately on the cross he gave up his own life so that we might be reconciled to him and to one another.
Now, as those who have been reconciled to God we are called to live in communities that reflect God’s ways rather than our ways. As God said through Isaiah “my ways and my thoughts are not your ways and your thoughts”.
So we are called, once we have discovered that reconciling and forever love of God, to begin to live out God’s ways in community. We begin within our Christian communities, our cathedrals and churches. We practice ways of relating to one another that are reconciling rather than othering. We do that in our own families, in our community gatherings and in our social life together. It is not easy. And we demonstrate that to the world that looks on. Wherever and whenever we can, we help the wider community to live that way also, constantly challenging its othering and blaming.
Whether we look at the world arena, the national stage this coming week, our local community, or our life together as a congregation – that is the call to us this Lent. The call is to ask the right questions, to seek the reconciliation that God offers, and having found that new way of living, we are to live it out day by day and hour by hour.
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