Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Lent

A Dusty Answer


Isaiah 55.1-9, 1 Corinthians 10.1-13, Luke 13.1-9

If I had to make a list of the most challenging passages in the New Testament, today's Gospel reading would certainly rank pretty high. The disciples come to Jesus with the shocking story of an attack by the Roman governor Pilate on a congregation of Galileans who, it seems, were in the very act of worshipping God when the blows fell.  The disciples have the deeply human need to try to make sense of such appalling violence. Why did God allow this suffering? Was it a punishment for sin? Jesus throws that idea out of court straight away. No, he says, they were no more sinful than others, just as the eighteen people who died in a terrible accident when a tower collapsed were no more deserving of such a fate than anyone else. But then comes the twist: 'unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did'.


It's very puzzling. On the one hand Jesus is saying that there is no straightforward relationship between sin and suffering, but on the other he seems to be offering repentance as an insurance policy against violence and death. And we know from bitter experience that this isn't how life works. Their faith did not save Jesus himself, or his disciples, from suffering and persecution. Our television screens are full of images of dreadful things happening to ordinary people like us, in Ukraine, in Yemen and Afghanistan and across the world.


So how do we try to make sense of what Jesus is saying in the passage? At the simplest level it is a reminder that, in the words of St Paul 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God'. We need to recognise that every day of our lives is a gift from a merciful and forbearing God, who, like the gardener in Jesus's parable, is ready to tend and care for us even when we don't recognise or respond to his love.

 But I think there's a deeper message here as well. The Greek word used for repentance – metanoia – means more than just turning around. It means a transformation, in the way that a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly. So maybe Jesus is saying that true repentance changes fundamentally our relationship to suffering and death, because we come to know that those things are not final, and that God's love for us in Christ is stronger than death itself. As St Paul writes to the young church at Corinth, 'with the testing, God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it'.


But we cannot repent, cannot let ourselves be transformed, for as long as we believe that we are self-sufficient and that we are safe. This is what we see in our reading from Isaiah. The prophet paints a vivid picture of God crying out like a salesman in the marketplace 'Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!' What God is offering is life giving, satisfying, and free. But there's no response, and the cries become more frustrated and more urgent. 'Listen to me, incline your ear to me, come to me; listen, so that you may live. Seek the Lord while he may be found'. But still people wander around as if in a daze, spending all their effort and their money on worthless distractions. 'Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?'

 

So sometimes that shock of fear which wakes us out of our complacency can be a lifeline, helping us to hear at last that voice still calling, still offering us hope and life and all the nourishment we need. Like the gardener in the parable with the barren fig tree, God is waiting patiently, longing for us to flourish. We cannot make the world safe or tame, but we can trust in its creator:  the God who loves us with a sure and steadfast love that carries us beyond all the questions. May that promise give us comfort and hope through all the anxieties and challenges that we may face in the week to come.


Amen.

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