Sermon for Lent 3, Year C, March 24, 2019

Exodus 3:1-15                    Psalm 63:1-8                                       1 Corinthians 10:1-13                      Luke 13:1-9

          Some Sundays all the scriptures seem to demand attention.  This is one of those Sundays.  First, we have the reading from Exodus in which Moses sees a burning bush and stops to investigate because the fire is not consuming the bush. There, God speaks to him.  God promises to deliver the people of Israel from their oppression in Egypt into a land filled with milk and honey.  God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh, and to “bring my people out of Egypt.” 

          Moses asks God, “Who am I that I should go to the Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites of out of Egypt?”  God says, “I will be with,” but this is not enough for Moses.  Moses says, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’” they will want to know who is this God, “what is his name?”  If God speaking to him from a burning bush wasn’t interesting enough – here God answers, “I am who I am.”  What kind of answer is this?  It makes me think of Popeye – not the not the chicken, but the spinach eating sailor who saves the day with the strength he gains from eating his spinach.

          “I am who I am.”  I heard an interesting reflection on the fact that God says “I am,” which is in the present – not I was or I will be, but I am.  We are asked to consider what it means to worship a God who is in the present, rather than a God of the past or of the future.  God may be eternal, but it is difficult to have a meaningful relationship in the past or the future.  We find meaning by living in the present.  Too often, though we live in the past, or we live for the future, and we neglect to live in the moment.  We neglect those who are in need who are with us now.   We fail to be the hands of Christ, reaching out to them.  And, we fail to see God who is the midst of us all. 

          Next, we have Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth in which he suggests that even those who lived before Christ met Christ in the cloud that led them through the wilderness, from their captivity in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Paul says Christ was the rock from which the water flowed when the people cried out in thirst.  Paul references that time in the wilderness to teach us to be faithful and not to stray from doing God’s will as the people of Israel did, over and over again.  Paul then says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

          The idea that we are being tested by God in this life, is a popular belief even today.  I hear people say that God will not test us beyond our limits, and so we should hold fast to our faith regardless of the difficulties we face.  It is not a theology I embrace.  I do not believe that God’s love, the love that knows no bounds, tests our faith.  Bad things happen to everyone, not as a test, but because of the uncertainty of life.  There is another way, however, to interpret this scripture.  The word translated from the Greek as “tested”, may also be translated as tempted. 

          All the examples Paul uses here concerning the Israelites are temptations that we face – they are the temptation to place our own pleasure above the will of God.  God is faithful, and we can find the strength we need to endure any temptation when we remain focused on God, on God who is with us here and now – in the present.

          This is a message that is consistent with what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel lesson.  Jesus addresses the question of why bad things happen.  The popular belief is that it is because the people (or their parents) have sinned.   It is a popular belief by some today.  At the core of this belief is a desire for there to be a reason for everything that happens other than chance or bad luck.  We long to find purpose and for something good to come from a tragedy.  We long for God to be in control. 

          Not many of us are comfortable living in chaos, but we are all familiar with how it feels.  Jesus is asked about a horrific violation of the law of Moses.  The people are worried that because Pilot contaminated the sacrifices they were offering to God, they are afraid they will experience the wrath of God.  Jesus reminds them of an event familiar to all – the fall of the tower of Siloam which killed 18 people.  Then he asks if they think it was because they were worse sinners than “all the others living in Jerusalem.”  Jesus is challenging the notion that this tragic event occurred because these people had sinned.  If God was punishing those who had sinned he suggest, all in Jerusalem would be killed. 

          Next, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree that did not produce fruit for three years.  The owner tells his gardener to chop it down.  It is a sensible decision, cut it down and replace it with a tree that will produce fruit.  The gardener, however, suggests nurturing it and giving it one more year before cutting it down. 

          Jesus warns the people that they need to repent, or they will perish as did the Galileans and the 18 in Siloam.  This parable, is a warning that we need to care for ourselves, our own spirit health, so that we will produce the fruit of the spirit and experience life.  The repent or die warning sounds harsh, but remember Jesus is also challenging the belief that misfortune and death is not a punishment for our sins.  He doesn’t say why the 18 were killed with the tower fell, he only suggests it is not because of what the people had done or not done.

          Why then, does he include the threat of perishing?  I think we find the answer in the parable.  God is both the owner of the garden and the gardener.  The gardener wants to dig down to the roots and feed the tree – us, that our faith might grow and we might experience life.  True life, life lived in Christ, produces the fruit of love, and without love we perish.  Without love, life has no meaning and we might as well be chopped down. 

          Whenever we read the teachings of Jesus, whenever we read any parts of the Bible, we need to remember to whom and when it was written.  The stories in the Bible have survived for thousands and thousands of years, but how we express ourselves has evolved along with our understanding of the universe in which we live.  When we consider the beliefs of the people Jesus is speaking to, we can see Jesus is shifting the way people understand sin and punishment.  Jesus is trying to teach us that death is not God’s punishment for sin, but sin, itself, can kill our souls. 

Like the gardener, God continues beyond what might be considered a reasonable time, to nurture and support us that our lives might bear the fruit of true life in Christ.

Let us pray.

          Loving God, we thank you for offering us nourishment, for giving us chance after chance to bear the fruits of you love.  Help us, we prayer to make the most of what you offer that we might go forth today in peace, to love and serve you in the world.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.