March 24, 2019

3rd Sunday of Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
Luke 13:6-9


Some say that people don’t appreciate something that is free. If it is free, people tend to take it for granted. In one sense, it’s true. But, something free can be a great benefit to those with limited or even no resources.

 We live in a very fortunate country with universal health care system. Our family use this extensively, especially for our son Abia. I always tell my wife not to take any chance and take Abia to a doctor if he is unwell. After all, we live not far from a medical center that offers bulk billing.

 But, I think we would be very reluctant to take Abia to the doctor often if we have to pay for each visit. The fact that we don’t have to pay for a visit plays a big role in our decision to see a doctor.

 Indeed, for many people, there is a great difference between free and cheap. Last Sunday evening, we were in the Twilight Market in one of the new estates in Baldivis. The event was well attended by young families with young children. There were many attractions to entertain the littlies, one of them was a bouncy castle.

 Abia was playing with his bike when he spotted the bouncy castle and demanded that I took him there. So, I did what he asked and, without hesitation, put him in the bouncy castle to join the other children. But, it was not long before someone told me that Abia needed a stamp to play there. And, the stamp costed three dollars. Once he had the stamp, he could play as long as he liked and returned as many times as he liked.

 I was a bit taken aback when I realized that the bouncy castle was not for free. Luckily, I had a few coins in my pocket and paid the fee.

 But, I wasn’t the only one. Some people also thought that the bouncy castle was free. They put the children in the bouncy castle to play only to be told that they had to pay first. Some paid the $3 fee, but others refused to pay once they knew that it wasn’t free. Now, it wasn’t the amount of money that stopped them ($3 is a small amount of money after all). What stopped them was the fact that they had to pay instead of having something for free.

 Indeed, there is an infinite difference between free of charge and $3. If you don’t believe me, ask one of our op shop volunteers. They will tell you that a 50-cent discount makes a big difference in people’s decision to buy or not.

 In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet sounded like a salesman trying to offer something for free.

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.”
(Isaiah 55:1 – NRSV)

 But, here, free is not the same with cheap. God was not offering something cheap to the people of Israel. The quality of what God offered was superior to the quality of the ones that the idols offered.

 So, it made economic sense. It was the best quality and it was for free! Only a fool would refuse such offer.

 “But, what was it that the prophet in Isaiah offered?” you may ask. It was the presence of God in their life. He was offering the people the chance to be with God and find favor in God’s eyes. The idols demanded sacrifices before people could enjoy whatever service that the idols offered. But, God didn’t require such sacrifices. God only asked the people to turn away from the idols and listen to Him. God only asked them to repent.

 Friends, repentance is a major theme during Lent. In Lent, we are reminded to leave our old habits behind and embrace a new one. Lent is the season when we are invited to die with Christ and rise again with him on Easter Sunday.

 But, repentance doesn’t often work with threat of punishment. I see this in my son, Abia. Whenever he is angry and crying, being stern with him often doesn’t work. Giving him a warning when he is upset will only agitate him more. The thing that often works is to take his attention somewhere else;

to convince him to do other things that he likes; to convince him that listening to mummy or daddy is a better option for him.

 That was what the prophet in our reading from Isaiah did. He offered his words within the context of calling the people of Israel to repentance.

 Don’t get me wrong, he used other approaches too. Yes, he did give warnings to the people. He did remind them that disaster would happen to them if they didn’t repent.

 But, he used a different approach in our passage today. He enticed his listeners with the benefit of listening to God.

 Indeed, a more effective way to repentance is to remind ourselves of what we are missing out; that if we do not change our life, we are missing out on a fulfilling life with Christ; that if we do not repent, we are missing out on living a life where our:

“soul is satisfied as with a rich feast”
(Psalm 63:5 - NRSV)

Indeed, the psalmist of Psalm 63 was so thrilled with the presence of God in his life. For him, being with God was as fundamental as our basic necessities like eating and sleeping. Just like he ate his food with his hands and mouth, he used both to praise God as well.

“I will lift up my hands and call on your name ...
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips.”
(Psalm 63:4-5 - NRSV)

 For the psalmist, living without God was like living in a dry land where there is no water and nothing grew.

“O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.”
(Psalm 63:1-2 - NRSV)

 So, in the Psalm, repentance is about returning to where God is. To live with God and be with God. To follow God in our life and to find fulfillment in life along the way.

 Seen from this view, sin is not mainly about doing something wrong or forbidden. It is mainly about living our life so far from God that it feels like we are living in a desolate place.

 Using Jesus’ parable in Luke’s Gospel, living in sin is like living like a barren fig tree. At first glance, Jesus’ parable seems to be contrary to the point I’m trying to make today. It seems that Jesus was giving a warning to his listeners: “Unless you all repent, you will all end up like the fig tree. The ax is waiting. Repent now or you will be uprooted.”

 But, to read the parable only as a warning is to miss the nuance in the parable. The parable is as much about warning as it is about patience.

 I think patience is the stronger theme here. God is patient like the gardener who still wants to try to give the fig tree a chance for another year.

“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”
(Luke 13:8 - NRSV)

Now, in the Middle East, fig tree is a very fruitful tree. It may take years for it to grow, but once it has fully grown, it can bear fruits three times in a year.

And, the tree thrives on neglect. It doesn’t need special attention to grow fruitfully. The gardener can simply plant the tree and wait until the tree starts bearing fruits.[1] 

So, the gardener in Jesus’ parable goes above and beyond the normal practice of growing fig tree. Indeed, the emphasis of the parable is not on the uprooting or cutting down, but on fruits bearing. The fig tree is planted to bear fruits. That is the tree’s main purpose. That is the tree’s main potential.

Likewise, our life is meant to bear fruits, not to stay barren. Our life will be fulfilled only when we bear fruits; only when we reach our true potential.

But, unless we change our ways, we will stay barren. Unless we truly repent from our old ways, our old habits, we will keep living an unfulfilled life. I think this is the true intention of Jesus’ parable.

And, like the gardener, God will give us the encouragement and nourishment that we need. God will not leave us alone to our own devices. God will try to help us bear fruits. 

Friends, repentance can mean many things for many people. Some see it as a kind of moral uprightness. Others see it as a feeling of regret.[2]

But, in Jesus’ parable, and in the Greek world, repentance means other things. Repentance means changing one’s mind, or seeing things differently, or being persuaded to adopt different view.[3] Repentance means taking a different and better route that can lead us to fulfillment in life.

 One commentator says:

“the Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy. And it finds grace experienced within the awful precariousness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence.”[4] 

Yes, repentance should bring joy in our life. It is not about being sad or pretending to be sad. It should not be a burden. It should be about the unshackling of the burden that we carry our entire life. It should be about our liberation from the sins that have bogged us down.

What we need is not fear. We don’t need to be threatened to repent. In fact, most people will not take the path of repentance through threat.

What we need is to develop a kind of spirituality that is based not on fear, but on desire for God. We are to build a “thirst for God”.[5]

No, we cannot choose whether we love or not, whether we have a desire or not.[6] Love and desire are inherent in our experience as human beings. But, we can choose what we love or what we desire of. And, we can choose to love God and to desire being with God in our life. 

This kind of positive attitude will have a stronger influence in our life than warning. Living and being with God is not supposed to be something that we are afraid of; it is supposed to be something that we desire greatly.

Toby Keva

[1] From a sermon by Jim Sommerville on C17_ The Third Sunday in Lent, Year C (2019)

[2] Luke 13/1-9 Commentary by Matt Skinner - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[3] Luke 13/1-9 Commentary by Matt Skinner - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[4] Luke 13/1-9 Commentary by Matt Skinner - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[5] Psalm 63/1-8 Commentary by Amanda Benckhuysen - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[6] Psalm 63/1-8 Commentary by Amanda Benckhuysen - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)