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Third Sunday in Lent

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Readings: Isaiah 55:1–9; 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 & Luke 13:1–9

I’m sure that at some stage of our lives, we’ve heard of something bad happening to someone we weren’t overly fond of, and we’ve thought to ourselves, serve themselves right, he or she deserved it. Well that’s basically what happens at the beginning of our gospel reading today. 

Jesus has just finished condemning the crowd for failing to recognise what his teaching signifies, which is that the time they had all been waiting for, that is the coming of God’s kingdom, had now arrived. And after criticising the crowd, he warns them of God’s impending judgement.

We are told that while Jesus is talking, several members of the crowd bring Jesus news of an incident in which an unknown number of people from Galilee have been murdered, on the orders of Pontius Pilate, while they were offering sacrifices to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. Stemming from Old Testament times, the Jewish tradition believed that anyone who experienced suffering or tragedy had brought it on themselves because they had sinned: the story of Job is the perfect example of that.

Suspecting that these people are inferring that those Galileans must have brought this disaster on themselves, Jesus asks them a rhetorical question: do they think those Galileans deserved to die in the manner they did because they had sinned more than other Galileans? 

He answers his own question, and tells them that unless they all repent of their own sins, then they too will perish. He then himself introduces another incident in which a number of people died; the collapse of a tower near the pool of Siloam, in which eighteen people were killed. He again asks a rhetorical question: do you think these eighteen were any worse than anyone else living in Jerusalem? Once again he answers his own question and also warns them again to repent before they too perish.

Jesus then tells the crowd a parable of a man planting a fig tree in his vineyard who, for three years, has come expecting to find fruit on the tree, only to be disappointed. The man tells the gardener to remove the tree, but the gardener asks the man to allow him to care for the tree for one more year to see whether he can cause it to bear fruit. Through the story of this parable, Jesus is warning the people that they, like the fig tree, have one more chance to live a fruitful life. They need to repent and turn back to God, to live lives that bear fruit, that is, to live in accordance with God’s will.

The prophet Isaiah, writing to the exiles in Babylon, reminds us that we are all invited by God to be with Him. Today’s passage opens with a call to the exiles to enter into a renewed covenant with God. The call comes in the form of an invitation to a feast. God has already announced his intention to restore Jerusalem and Judah through the work of the Persian Emperor Cyrus. God has confronted the exiles with their sin and urged them to repent, and now he makes an impassioned appeal to his people to return to him. 

The exiles are pictured as thirsty, hungry, and penniless. They are invited by God to “buy” for no cost the delicious food and beverage that he offers. The material blessings of a renewed covenant with God are the reality underlying the imagery of food and drink. If the people return to God, they will experience life, which refers here to material prosperity and national security. This life will be the product of a renewed covenant with God, a covenant modelled on the covenant that God made with King David. 

The final verses of today’s passage from Isaiah – “For my thoughts are not your thoughts . . .” – are often interpreted as meaning God’s ways cannot be understood by humankind, but that’s not what they mean in the context of this passage. Isaiah is really stressing the moral difference between God’s thoughts and ways, and those of human beings. God’s thoughts and ways are in fact governed by righteousness – His righteousness — so his effective word accomplishes a moral purpose, which is to restore sinners from the error of their ways.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul describes this righteousness as being “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 6:11) Paul argues that by the grace of God alone, we are reconciled to God if we believe in Jesus Christ. In today’s passage from First Corinthians, Paul is still dealing with the question of eating meat which has been offered to idols, which Jewish people were not permitted to eat under the law. There were those in the church who had the view: “We have been baptised and are therefore one with Jesus; we have shared in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and therefore shared the body and blood of Jesus, so we are in him and he is in us; therefore we are quite safe; we can eat meat offered to idols and come to no harm.” 

Paul warns such members of the church of the dangers of overconfidence. To do so he uses the history of the Ancient Israelites; going back to the time when Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt. God went ahead of them in the cloud to guide them; God parted the Red Sea and enabled them to flee from the Egyptian army pursuing them; they ate the manna in the wilderness; and they drank from the rock at Meridian. The Israelites enjoyed all of these privileges and yet they failed dramatically.

The history of Israel proved that people who enjoyed the greatest privileges of God were far from being safe from temptation. Paul reminds the Corinthians that special privilege is no guarantee of security. He reminds them of the need for vigilance; to be aware of potential temptations. Paul is sure that temptations will come, but he also knows that these temptations are not unique to them – others have endured the same and survived them. Paul knows that where there is temptation, there is also a way out. And that way out, is in the power of the grace of God.

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