Sermon: March 24, 2019

Third Sunday in Lent 2019

by The Reverend Jeffrey C. Johnson

Isaiah 55: 1-9

“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.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
    my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
    a ruler and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
    and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed you with splendor.”
Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
    and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“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

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The Holocaust, Hurricane Michael, Cancer, Heart Disease, Stroke. I mention these difficult events and terrible diseases because they are part of the shadow side of life and they happen monumentally or on an everyday basis. In my pastoral world here since 2015, I’ve had about 30 funerals/memorial services since I’ve been here. It is part of the ministry of the clergy, but it is also the tapestry, the big picture of my call that which is life, living, dying, and death. But in the midst of ministry here, I have begun to think about my own journey into death in that I have journeyed with so many people since I have been here.

When confronted by tragedy and death, especially unexpected death, We Christians naturally try to rationalize, well, why did this happen? Did these people destroyed by these events deserve it? Did their sinful nature bring this on them? As my parents sometimes said, “if you lie down with dogs, you’re gonna get up with fleas.” Now, I don’t mean to pick on my parents, but we humans are grasping for ways of understanding poor or bad life choices.

Strangely enough, this is what the Gospel addresses today. A common belief in Jesus’ time was that if one experienced pain and affliction, one was being punished by God. If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. We see a red thread of this so-called logic throughout the OT and various parts of the Gospel. The OT prophet Ezekiel deals with the very theological issue that children somehow inherit their parents’ sins. One’s parents had a direct impact on their children’s suffering. Ancient Israel comes by this suffering honestly, Jesus is addressing this here, and it is something that we struggle with today.

Why do bad things happen to people in the world? It’s a small question with a monumental answer. The problem is there really is no answer. We can only begin to scratch the surface of why there was a Holocaust during WWII or why the American government felt the need to intern Japanese Americans during the same World War? I would say that the root of these terrible events is humanity natural ability to default and to defer to fear. Regarding fear, noted spiritual writer Marianne Williamson writes that “fear talks first and fear talks loudest.” I always try to remind myself of this when I am confronted with my own personal fears and the fears I encounter in the world.

Jesus is speaking to a natural or human disaster here in the Gospel. Pontius Pilate (the Roman official who would later order his execution) has executed some local Galileans. It was a brutal execution because Pilate was notoriously brutal. Jesus asks if those fellow Jews who were executed deserved their fate or are they any more sinful than you Galileans before me? Later in this story, Jesus references a freak accident where a tower falls on seemingly innocent people…did those killed by the falling Tower of Siloam deserve what they got?

We can use the same moral reasoning in a modern context: did the 2,996 people deserve to die in the World Trade Center on 9/11? The Boston Marathon Bombing? Hurricane Michael in my hometown of Panama City, FL, the list goes on. I think when we take a moment and step back and think of the nature of God and humanity, we realize, NO, these people did not deserve these deaths by their own actions or worse, the actions of their parents.

So, how do we respond? Well, I would ask how would God respond to those suffering due to imminent death or loss? Does God seek to punish us or to love us? I think the answer is simple: God chooses to love us rather than punish us. One my favorite seminary professors was fond of saying, “No one more than God wants hell empty.” God wants us to live life fully with both creation and humanity.

In this gospel passage, please remember that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and ultimately en route to the Cross-to his suffering and dying. It is fitting and even ironic that Jesus is talking to the disciples here about the same unjust fate and suffering that he is about to face in Jerusalem. It’s easy to think that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die for us. Even that’s part of the equation, the explanation around the Crucifixion, but it’s really about journeying with Jesus to also confront our own human, broken nature. It is ultimately joining Jesus in solidarity around the Cross-in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice. God is not punishing Jesus or us. That’s pretty awful theology, by the way. It’s what we Lutherans call the Theology of the Cross, where we gather at the Cross together and recognize the love outpoured for us there. It is not about finger-pointing or assessing guilt, it is about the ultimate response to God’s ultimate love.

This is heavy stuff. And you might be thinking, my, my, my pastor, where’s the gospel, the good news, in this tough stuff?? Well, as I like to think, there’s a lot of gospel in the Old Testament. So, please look back at your Isaiah passage from Isaiah 55. Here we are presented a song, led by the prophet Isaiah who almost sounds like a cheerleader.

“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.”

This is the song of someone rejoicing in the something rich and something that mere money cannot buy. And, as usual, Scripture has a way of turning things inside out and upside down. How do we buy something to eat or drink that requires no money? What renews us in the community of faith? What gives us more than we could ask for? The love of God, for us New Testament folk, the love of God found in Christ Jesus.

So, when we remember our baptisms when we see the font, when we splash water on our faces in the morning when we get up, when we kneel at the altar rail for communion, remember that you are being given love from someone who loves us more than we can know. Remember that when we are confronted by things we cannot understand: loss of loved ones, the loss of faith in the world and its institutions, natural disasters, terrorism, and even the loss of faith in our fellow human beings, we must remember that Jesus journeys with us now, all the way to the Cross that place of ultimate of solidarity, union, and love.


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