Lent 3C: Parched and Searching

FootprintsOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 55: 1-9

Read the Old Testament Passage

This chapter is the last in what many people call “Second Isaiah”. It was probably written around the end of the exile, or about 540 b.c.e. In the ancient world, when a new king assumed the throne and ushered in a new era, the king would often issue a misarum edict declaring a release from all debts and then the king would call for a great banquet to which all the kingdom was invited. So the opening lines call us to a new kingdom, a new era, and that great banquet.

Here, Yahweh provides for those who thirst. This is probably meant to refer both to physical thirst and spiritual thirst. Now keep in mind that these exiles had experienced loss, grief, and estrangement. This call to a new day and to a rule that would quench their thirst was huge. We are reminded that this is the “stuff” that makes up life. This is followed by a call to repentance. God has announced the plan to the people and they are now invited to respond. We are also reminded, though, that God’s thoughts and God’s ways are not within the human boundaries and limits that we have created. In fact, the last part of this passage implies a “widening” of the Davidic covenant. It is a calling to go beyond your kind, to call on “nations that you do not know”.

This is a good reading for Lent. We are called to open our minds and respond to the invitation that God has issued us, beyond our own manufactured rules and our own created boundaries. The surprising work of God is open to us all—wicked and unrighteous included—if we will return to the God who abundantly and generously pardons.

This whole image of thirsting is an interesting one. Timothy Shapiro claims that “hope is preceded by longing”. You see, God is not requiring us to be right or moral or steadfast. I don’t think that God is even requiring us to lay prostrate at the feet of God in good, old-fashioned repentance. God’s only requirement is that we thirst for God, that we desire to be with God so much that we can do nothing else but change our course and follow God. It is our thirst that draws us closer to God and closer to each other. We just have to desire something different enough to be part of making it happen. Alexander Stuart Baillie says it like this:

 

Our deep spiritual needs, which are thirsts, can be met by Christ. It is God’s desire that every person should know the real joys of life. Augustine, the great churchman, expressed this idea as follows: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and we cannot find rest until we find it in Thee.” In other words, we cannot have our thirst satisfied until God does it for us.

 

This age needs to become more realistic. It needs to listen again to the words of Jesus, who said, ‘I thirst.” He who is the Son of Man, the Son of God, is our example. He is the great pioneer in every realm of life. Surely if he thirsted, how much more do we? Humanity needs to get away from the world of “things as they are” into the world of “things as they ought to be.” This means that men and women must learn to live for others. It is only when we can live a life of self-forgetfulness that we get our truest joy out of life. One needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges. It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful. When one has done his best there is, he finds, still more to learn and so much more to do. [One] cannot be satisfied until [one]attains unto the stature of Jesus, unto a perfect [human], and ever thirsts for God. (Alexander Stuart Baillie, “Thirsting”, in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 242-243.)

 

So, what happens with those of us for whom thirst can be so easily quenched?  How do we learn to hope at the deepest part of our being if we never truly long for anything?  How do we discover what true need is when we often live our lives over-filled and over-served? How do we hunger for something better in a life where we are so satisfied?  Perhaps that is why people like us need this season of Lent, plunging us into the depths of human need and profound grief.  Maybe the point of it all is to teach us how to thirst and, therefore, to show us that for which we long.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does that “widening” of God’s invitation mean for you?
  3. How does this speak to your own Lenten journey?
  4. What does this whole idea of our needing to “thirst” for God mean for you?
  5. How difficult is that for us?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13

Read the Epistle passage

In this passage, Paul reminds his readers that they are just like their ancestors—and no better. According to him, those ancestors journeyed, lived, and followed God. And yet, they, too, sinned and fell short. Paul is essentially telling the Corinthian church that their behavior is not a guarantee of God’s blessing. (This sort of flies in the face of that “once saved, always saved” idea, I suppose.) Paul’s idea of “idolatry” may be a little different than the definition to which we have become accustomed. Here, he is warning of an idolatry that has little to do with pagan worship but, rather, against making an “idol” of one’s spiritual practices, beliefs, or religion.

He is reminding his readers that they should have learned from those that came before them. They, too, did everything “right” and yet their relationship with God still suffered. We too, no matter how hard we try, will at times fall short of what God desires for us. This is the somewhat radical nature of our relationship with God. It is ongoing and always growing. We have no room to become smug or judgmental.

It is as if Paul is trying to rattle the so-called “self-confidence” of the Corinthian readers, as well as our own. He sees salvation not as a place in heaven or an escape from hell, but as an ongoing relationship with God. This gift of faith that we have will never allow us to become complacent. We can never “rest on the laurels of our past good”, so to speak. Instead, we have entered an ongoing relationship with God and with others—including joy and grief, blessing and pain, fulfillment and needs, life and death. Our religion is really nothing more than an instrument, an always-changing framework to help us understand this relationship. The relationship and the way we encounter God’s love and grace is what it’s all about.

In this season of Lent, this becomes even more pronounced than usual. What does that REALLY mean to live a life of faith? What does that REALLY mean to walk where Jesus walked? Well, it means to walk the road that goes to the cross. And there, your belief system might fall apart but your relationship with God will be your saving grace.

 

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asks. Then, as they gathered around the table in the Upper Room, with the cross only a few hours away, there was the “cup” before him, the blood of his death. The disciples looked for glory; Jesus led them toward death. And so Thomas à Kempis says:

Jesus now hath many lovers of His celestial kingdom: but few bearers of His Cross. He hath many who are desirous of consolations: but few of tribulation. He findeth many companions of His table: but few of His abstinence. All desire to rejoice with Him: Few wish to endure anything for Him. Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread: but few to the drinking of the cup of His Passion. Many reverence His miracles: few follow the shame of His Cross.

[The Imitation of Christ]

 

We are like that. We have signed on for the glory of it all, not the humiliation. We want healing, comfort, reward, success. Like me, the folk at First Church, Corinth, had signed on with Jesus for the glory of it all. They expected to eat the heavenly food and live forever, to achieve power; glory, exotic gifts of the Spirit. But Paul takes them back to the Upper Room, back to the dark night of the cross. He reminds them that it was “on the night when he was betrayed” that the Lord took bread. On the night he was forsaken by God, defeated by Caesar and humiliated by his friends, he took the cup in hand. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor. 11:23, 26)…

We, like the Corinthians before us, seek to fill ourselves, cure our aches and pains, live forever. Too often, American evangelical Christianity presents the good news of Christ as the solution to all human problems, the fulfillment of all wants, and a good way to make basically good people even better. The cross suggests that this good news is the beginning of problems we would gladly have avoided, the turning away from the quest for self-fulfillment, the ultimate mocking of our claims for goodness. The principalities and powers tremble only before the cross. Nothing less than death will do — painful, full-scale conversion, letting go, turning from ourselves and toward God.

This meal is not some magical mystery medicine we take to exempt ourselves from the hard facts of life in this world. It is a way of confronting those hard facts. No prayers of a TV evangelist, no prayer cloth from Arizona, no holy oil or water, no holy food, no technique for self-betterment, no sincere social program exempts us from this death.

But at the table, with cup in hand, even our most painful times are redeemed because this Savior saves through suffering. Without the cross, our faith wouldn’t be a comfort to anybody. What would you say to the terminal cancer victim? The mother of a starving child in an Ethiopian desert? The 80-year-old resident of a shoddy nursing home? “Smile, God Loves You!”

No, you can say that our God has been there before. Wherever a cross is raised in the world, our God is there with the crucified. Our God does not flinch in the face of evil. In a hurting world where injustice still sends the good ones to the cross, we do have something to preach. We, like Paul before us, boldly lift the cup and daringly preach Christ and him crucified. If we would follow this Lord, we must follow him down this narrow way of Passion  ( William Willimon,“The Cup of Death”, (Excerpts), (The Christian Century, March 31, 1982), available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1297, accessed 3 March, 2010.)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How prevalent do you think it is for people today to make an “idol” of their spirituality or religion?
  3. What is the difference for you between belief and faith in God and a relationship with God?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 13: 1-9

Read the Gospel passage

Similar to the Epistle passage that we read this week, here Jesus reminds the ones who were there to hear this of two historical events that, although the details are lost to us, were probably very much on the minds of those first century hearers. First, the reference to Pilate’s mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. The “tower of Siloam” reference relates to the collapse of a tower in the Herodian wall around Jerusalem which apparently collapsed without warning and crushed eighteen Jerusalemites. You could identify these two events with modern-day events that have great meaning for us but may not carry the same weight of significance 2,000 years from now—perhaps 9/11 or the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis in 2007.

But Jesus is dispelling the idea that these victims had done something wrong, that they deserved what they got. The truth was, their lives ended suddenly and unexpectedly. They are reminders that each of our existences is somewhat precarious within this world. Jesus is claiming that the need for repentance is for us all. No one is “exempt” from it. Using the fig tree illustration, he reminds us that even though we have not been cut-down, we should not assume that we are bearing choice fruit. Unless you repent…

Well, this is anything but a comfortable, feel-good parable! I think the problem is that we look at repentance as something negative. We envision repentance as a change toward being “right” or “moral” or something else that will win us favor with God or rack us up enough points to get us into heaven. But repentance is not about losing who you are; it means discovering the wonder of who you are meant to be.

The Greek word that is usually translated as “repentance” is metanoia. In Classical Greek, it meant to change one’s mind, one’s heart, one’s soul, one’s life. Penance was not a part of it until later. It simply meant to follow a different road. But unless you repent…unless you change course…unless you let go of the life that you’ve created, and listen to the road that beckons before you, you will remain comfortable and secure and right where you are. And you will die! But, oh, what you will miss! Frederick Buechner says, “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,” than to the future and saying, “Wow!” ( Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1973), 79.) Unless you repent…

Could this be the year? We can hear that as a threat. There’s not much time left. Indeed, some evangelists press us with the question, “Where will you be if you die tonight?” But Jesus’ parable moves in the direction of promise more than threat: “I’m going to do everything I can to help this tree live and bear fruit. I’m going to dig around it and put down manure. I’m going to find every way possible to get to hearts that are hard as packed down soil.” While we’re speculating about why certain people died at Pilate’s hands or why the others were killed by the falling tower, Jesus, the gardener, is working on our hearts. Yes, those stories were real. They were as real as every tragedy we can name: flood or earthquake or military tyrant, cancer or heart attack or an innocent child caught in the crossfire of drug warfare. Such realities remind us that our time is finite. Stories like these dig at our hearts. They get to us with the truth that we can’t keep putting everything off until tomorrow.

But being scared to death can rob us of all hope. Life can then seem utterly arbitrary–if I die, I die. There’s nothing I can do about it, so why try? Into the midst of such despair, the gardener comes. Don’t cut the tree down. Let it alone for one more year. Jesus, the gardener, wants us to live. His passion marked for us by great urgency–don’t wait! Look at your life and dare to ask the hard questions: Am I stingy in my love for others? Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs? Do I refuse to believe that I can be forgiven, carrying from year to year a growing burden of guilt? Am I so busy making a living that I’ve forgotten to make a life? Jesus digs at us with questions like these. Jesus digs at our hearts in the outstretched hand of every homeless beggar on the streets, of every child not fed. “What have you done?” Jesus asks, and “What have you left undone?” Such questions, like the parable of the fig tree, move us toward repentance, a word that means to turn around, to believe things can be different, to trust that the one who calls us to turn around will be there even when we fail.

We might not do things this way. We’d probably be far more impatient than God. “You’ve had your chance,” I’m tempted to say. “The year has passed and you still haven’t shaped up!” But I am not God, nor can I put my words in God’s mouth. Still, the gardener comes. “One more year,” he says, “I’ll do everything I can to bring this tree back to life.” “Who knows?” asks the gardener. “Could this be the year for figs?” (Barbara K. Lundblad, “Could This Be the Year for Figs?”, March 18, 2001, available at http://day1.org/638-could_this_be_the_year_for_figs, accessed 3 March, 2010. )

 

  1. What meaning does this hold for you?
  2. What is challenging or uncomfortable about this passage?
  3. Why is this whole idea of repentance so difficult for us?
  4. What does this mean for you on this Lenten journey?
  5. What does it mean for us to take more responsibility for what happens in the world, for what happens in our Jerusalems?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The purpose of Lent is to arouse. To arouse the sense of sin. To arouse a sense of guilt for sin. To arouse the humble contrition for the guilt of sin that makes forgiveness possible. To arouse the sense of gratitude for the forgiveness of sins. To arouse or to motivate the works of love and the work of justice that one does out of gratitude for the forgivesness of one’s sins. (Edna Hong, “A Look Inside”, in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter)

 

Any religion…is forever in danger of petrification into mere ritual and habit, though ritual and habit be essential to religion. (T. S. Eliot)

 

Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality…They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once…that said, “A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of a great meaning.” (Ann Lamott)

 

Closing

 

We pray, as often as we meet, that we might “perfectly love you.” Indeed, we have been commanded from the beginning, to love you with all our hearts and all our souls and all our minds and all our strength. We have pledged to love, pledged in our prayers and in our baptism, in our confirmation and with our best resolve.

 

But we confess…we love you imperfectly; we love you with a divided heart, with a thousand other loves that are more compelling, with reservation and qualification, and passion withheld and devotion impaired…

 

Free us from idolatries, and our habits of recalcitrance, tender our hearts, gentle our lips, open our hands that we may turn toward you fully toward your world unguardedly. Let us bask in your freedom to be fully yours, and so trusting fully our own. We pray through the Lord Jesus who loved you singularly, perfectly, fully—to the end. Amen.

(“Perfectly Love”, Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), 11-12.)

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