A sermon for the third sunday in Lent

a sermon preached on Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9

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aving just heard read aloud words from the prophet Isaiah and from the gospel according to Luke, the first thing we need to do is to explode two commonly held assumptions about the bible

First, there is the assumption that the Old Testament is all about a judgmental understanding of God, while the New Testament is sweetness and light.  Yet would it be fair to say that as you heard those two readings, Jesus sounded pretty tough, while Isaiah seemed to be voicing something with strong notes of mercy, hope, and forgiveness?  “Unless you repent,” says Jesus, “you will likewise perish,” while Isaiah sings, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; you who have no money, come, buy and eat.  Come, buy wine and milk without money, without price.”

And secondly, we often work with the assumption that religion and politics are to kept at arm’s length from each other; that faith has nothing to do with politics. And yet what we’re faced with in both readings tonight are deeply political issues and circumstances.  Yes, it is true that Jesus is no political animal; he’s not on an electoral campaign, and he’s not interested in taking Pontius Pilate’s job, thank you very much.  And yes, it is equally true that whenever the church has attempted to “do” politics on the world’s terms it ends up badly compromised.  But still, the setting for both of these readings is intensely political

In the gospel reading, we hear that news had been brought to Jesus and his followers; news of a horrific event that had just taken place in Jerusalem:  “Some Galileans had been in the temple, and Pilate had mixed their blood with the blood of the sacrifices.”  This probably means that a group of Galilean pilgrims had gone up to the temple, and that soldiers had been sent in to deal with what looked like some sort of gathering or rally; or perhaps Pilate was just using a bit of “shock and awe” tactics, to keep the locals in fear.

“Do you suppose,” says Jesus, “that these Galileans were any more sinful than anyone else?  No.  But unless you repent, you will likewise perish.”  Then he cites another example, of the collapse of a tower in Siloam, that killed eighteen people; same question, same challenge.

Now we can easily hear the call to repentance as being a kind of hellfire and brimstone call, aimed at individuals, calling them to clean up and behave.    But he’s not speaking here to individuals on those terms; he’s working with a very particular political context.  Listen to what N.T. Wright has to say about this passage:

Jesus is making it clear that those who refuse his summons to change direction, to abandon the crazy flight into national rebellion against Rome, will suffer the consequences.  Those who take the sword will perish with the sword.   (And) those who escape Roman swords will find the very walls collapsing on top of them as the enemy closes in.  (N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone)

Jesus is not in fact talking prescriptively about what God will dish out to those who don’t get their moral and spiritual ducks in a row; rather, he’s talking descriptively of how this will all play out if this people keeps on its course toward a rebel uprising.  He is describing what in fact happens some thirty-five years after his death, when the walls of that temple, that city, are brought down by the Empire in a monumental bloodbath.

Which is what empires do to resisters.  They always have, and they always will.  That’s just true.

Five hundred years earlier, Isaiah, too, was singing his songs into the context of empire.  In that case, it was the Babylonian empire, which had taken thousands of Israelites into captivity, where it was systematically trying to domesticate and tame them.

“Come, you who are hungry and thirsty… food and drink without price!”   “As an alternative to Babylonian junk food,” writes Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Isaiah, “Israel is summoned to listen… to the offer of the rich food of the good news of God.”  The covenant made with David is to be honoured, and nations – nations! – will be drawn in and made a part of it.  Not the way Babylon conquers nations, though…

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:6-9)

Again, from Brueggemann,

To ‘return’ to Yahweh here means to embrace fully the future that Yahweh is now offering.  This ‘return’ is not simply a spiritual resolve but the embrace of a new hope and a new historical possibility that entails a dramatic reorientation of life in political, public categories.

God does have a purpose purpose for the world, and one that is unlike anything else in the world; and (from Brueggemann one more time), “faith is acceptance of a radical promise and summons to alternative life.”   At the heart of that promise is a hopeful imagination; one that dares us to dream and to live differently, even in the midst of the most difficult, violent or soul-stifling times.

It might well have been tempting to take part in a political plot in the Jerusalem of Pilate’s day, and to believe that the sword was the only thing that was going to set you free.

It might well have been tempting to just feed on Babylonian junk food – to accommodate to the dominant culture of that land, to leave off all talk of God and let it be no more than a memory associated with the old days back home in Jerusalem – after all, look where our faith in God landed us?  Here, in exile.

And it is tempting in our day and our own culture to tuck God neatly into Sunday – maybe come to church, maybe not – and then live in the “real world” the rest of the week.  Play politics and finance and media and life by the rules of the wider society, and divorce it all from my spirituality, my own personal religion; “Your own personal Jesus,” as the deeply cynical song by the rock band Depeche Mode puts it.

But Jesus isn’t personal, or at least not in that way.  Yes, he places a claim on us as individuals, but at the heart of that claim is a call to be the Body of Christ; to be a people together; and by virtue of being together and of hoping and praying and worshipping and imagining together, we are a political and social alternative.  We have a reason to not fall for a politics of power, and to not get sick on the junk food of this empire; all consumerism, hyper-sexualized yet stangely passionless.

But you can’t do that alone.   Which is why our faith is unquestionably “social”, and in the best sense of the word “political”.  We are a politics; the Body of Christ is an alternative social vision, living now what shall be in the fullness of time.  Amen.

Jamie Howison

One Response to A sermon for the third sunday in Lent

  1. byron says:

    Good stuff Jamie. I confess to having simplified the two testaments into before and after. This illuminates the error of that convenience on my part. Havng my own personal saviour is not working all that well for me, I miss being a part of the greater body. Sadly my tendency to not rein in an active ego hurts my involvement as well.
    I am thinking about returning for services just to hear someone else speak the word. This will surely mean more collisions of core beliefs. Do you think it is worth it? How does one find true fellowship in a congregation discerned as seriously intolerant? Do we just justify it by reminding ourselves that all of us are sinners, and forgive their convictions if they are opposed to our own? How on earth did the church ever get so widely disparate in doctrine? Why does St. Bens seem so much like a fresh new gust from an ancient breeze?

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