God's Extravagent Mercy

God’s Extravagant Mercy                                        
Third Sunday of Lent, March 20, 2022, Year C
Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9
    People are funny. We know what we need to do for God and that God will be there for us, but we get distracted, sidetracked, and discouraged.
Distracted by the daily-ness of making a living, keeping house, television and the internet, maintaining our stuff.
    Sidetracked by the demands of work and family, and the advertising that tries to make us want more and more, to pay for things we don’t need. We crave satisfaction, but find ourselves worn out and still thirsty, wandering far from God.
    And discouraged by the idea that the bad guys like Putin still decide to invade other countries, step on the weak to get what they want, and justify their actions in their own minds. We’re also discouraged by the idea that, once in a while, the bad guy is looking back from the mirror. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
    So when Isaiah starts out yelling, “Ho!” like a street vendor hawking his wares, it’s understandable to find ourselves skeptical. “Come, buy milk and wine without money and without price.” Huh? God invites us to listen to what would be nonsense coming from a human being. God even tells us plainly, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.” God is calling us into deeper and deeper relationship, the only place to find true satisfaction.
    God is calling us to repent, to turn around. God wants us to repent of our poor choices, stop chasing after the things of this world and come home, to seek the Holy Spirit to anchor us to God’s values and ways. We cannot satisfy ourselves. God must be our sustenance, our bread of life. God will abundantly, extravagantly pardon, and as verse 12 says, “you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” What a joyful image! The celebration is so big that even nature joins in. God rejoices with us as we return to the place of peace and rest, when we settle in her arms like a small child after a long day.
    It reminds us of the great banquet Jesus describes in Luke 14. When the invited guests are too busy with life to attend a party, the host sends the servants out to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame and anyone else they can find. God is calling us, determined to befriend us, to shower us with love and mercy. This merciful love led to the everlasting covenant Jesus made during the Last Supper, feeding us with his body and sealed with his blood.
    We are to do holy and sacred work, not simply live. We are to be salt and light to the world. Our full hearts, even in the face of difficult circumstances, witness to what it is to be divinely blessed. I’m not saying that we have to cheerful all the time. I’m saying there’s a peace beyond our understanding that will shine from us, even when life is sad.  
    Among the people of Israel, it was commonly assumed that those who experienced pain and affliction were being punished by God, either for their own sins or for the sins of their parents. This is why the Galileans talking to Jesus about Pilate’s heinous crime of killing his victims in the temple and mixing their blood with that of the animal sacrifices were wondering what the victims could have done to deserve such a fate, why God would have allowed it. They’re filled with self-righteous anger. They expected Jesus to join their angry conversation and agree that the Romans deserved condemnation. People like to have explanations for senseless, evil times.
 Jesus didn’t excuse the Romans, but he turned the attention back onto the Galileans themselves. He rejected the view that suffering is a punishment for sin and obeying the law brings blessings.
     He flipped the question from the issue of who had sinned and how much to the idea that ALL have sinned and need to repent. To quote Michael B. Curry, “Frankly, if God was in the business of meting out judgment and curses in relation to our sins, there probably would not be anyone left on the planet.”
     Due to the sin of Adam and Eve, all are now subject to God’s judgement. By repentance, we turn God’s judgement away by leaving our old beliefs and behaviors behind. We accept God’s kingdom by our faith in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for us. While righteousness doesn’t protect us from evil, repentance puts us in right standing with God and helps us make better choices. As Joyce Meyer says, “Sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian, any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.”
     Jesus then told the parable of the fig tree. The tree was a metaphor for those who had heard Jesus’ message and either rejected it or dithered over whether to follow him. The master comes looking for results, and wants to tear out the unproductive tree. The gardener is its advocate, pleading for permission to give the tree one more year to grow and the special attention it needs to help it be productive.
    This is God’s divine and extravagant mercy acting instead of God’s judgement, a gift through the redeeming work of Christ. It’s free, but it’s not cheap. It cost Jesus a torturous death. It costs us a complete turnaround. We do our part by following Christ’s example, by changing and growing year by year and bit by bit, listening to the Master’s voice and following his example.
The tree must do its part by growing, forcing its roots outward, reaching for the sunshine. The reprieve isn’t permanent, but based on the tree’s improvement in the coming year. Trees don’t have the choices we do, but you get the idea.
    Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, “Are we bearing fruit or taking up space?”
    The gardener’s care includes digging around the roots and adding manure, which is symbolic of Christ’s blood and humility, even to the point of death. He now acts as our advocate before the Lord.
    There’s another side to this question. If bad things happen without sin, how long should we blame ourselves when bad things happen, even when we think it’s our fault?
    I participated in a grief group four years ago after my husband died. One of the members had lost her son to suicide. She blamed herself. Maybe she could have done more. Maybe she could have gotten him help sooner. She was absolutely miserable. I felt inspired to say to her, “You have been beating yourself up long enough. Imagine you have that stick in your hand that you’ve been taking to your own back. Put your hand out to the side and let go of it. Now you have two hands free to work on putting your life back together. Whenever you feel this way, remind yourself to put down the stick.” I’ve told many people about this idea since then who have found it helpful. Even if it was your fault, if you’ve repented, God has forgiven you. God isn’t mad at you anymore.  Put down that stick and remind yourself that you’re God’s precious child and you have work to do for him.
    There are limits to what we can know or understand about what happens around us or to us. We won’t get answers to most of our questions. The future belongs to God, but we have a part in the actions that will define the future, the mission of doing what we can with what we have to help further the kingdom. We witness to those we can, and leave the rest up to God.
    God is calling your name. God wants you to come home. God isn’t mad at you, but wants you as an obedient child. Ho! Come and be filled!

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