Sermon delivered on Lent 3C, Sunday, February 28, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63.1-8; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you ever thought that the OT is all gloom and doom while the NT is all bright and cheery, you were surely disappointed in today’s lessons because the opposite is true. We hear dire warnings from our NT readings while hearing a warm and redeeming invitation in our OT lessons. What’s up with that? Well, in one way or another, all our lessons implore us to accept God’s mercy and ways right now while there is still time and we still have the chance to do so, and this is what I want us to look at this morning.
We begin by looking at the prize described in our OT lesson. God, through his prophet, issues us an unbelievable invitation. In the previous chapters of Isaiah, God has been preparing a meal for his starving people, us included, despite the baggage we all bring to the table. God knows life can wear us flat out and beat us down, and that our sin leaves us desolate and fearing death. We think we can have life without the Source of all life. We think we know better than our Creator what is best for us. But of course, that is utter nonsense. The patient cannot survive without being connected to his life support system, and left to our own devices, we steadfastly refuse to get hooked up! Sin got us kicked out of paradise and leads to our alienation from God and therefore to our death. This is serious stuff, literally a matter of life and death, and we have no reason to hope for mercy from God, especially based on how we treat each other. You hit me and I’ll hit you back harder. We all know how the game is played.
So imagine our surprise as we listen to God speak to us through Isaiah. Are you burdened by life’s failed expectations, by your own inadequacies, or by your sin? All the above? Well then, says God, come and eat the richest foods from the table at my salvation banquet! Are you afraid of death or feel like you are enslaved to circumstances and/or forces beyond your control? Come and drink the finest wines! Reluctant to come to table because you have nothing to bring? No problem! Come and feast anyhow until you are fully satisfied. After all, you are my heart’s desire! You can trust that my invitation is good because I don’t break my promises. Want proof? I promised my servant David to be his God and to redeem the people of Israel I called him to lead. And of course I fulfilled that promise ultimately in David’s descendant, Jesus, my promised Messiah. Remember what he told you?
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6.35, 54-56, 58).
I know you break your promises all the time. But not me and it’s my table, not yours. So come and eat and drink at my table because when you do, you will find you have renewed health, not sickness, and new life, not death, just like I promised through Jesus when I became human.
At this point we want to look at God with our mouths hanging wide open in utter disbelief. Are you kidding, God? What have you been smoking, dude? Have you looked at my past track record? You are holy and perfect. Me? Not even close. And you want me to come in the tattered rags of my sin and rebellion and brokenness to feast at your table? Unbelievable—literally. Just too good to be true.
Well, no it’s not. Now if we only read our assigned OT lesson today, along with the corresponding sentiment in our psalm, we would indeed be perplexed at God’s gracious invitation to us (that’s one of the problems of preaching from just the assigned readings in the Lectionary). But if we go back and read the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 52.13-53.12, a passage we read every Good Friday, we find the reason for God’s invitation.
[H]e was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.5-6).
God can invite us to his salvation banquet where we can feast in his kingdom now and forever because of the work of his Suffering Servant, Jesus the Messiah, God become human. Our sin keeps us hostile toward God and separates us from him so that we can expect nothing but death. That is our just reward and we get earthly justice. But we are not dealing with humans. We are dealing with God who loves us and cherishes us despite our sin and rebellion and hostility. God knows we do not have the power within ourselves to break our enslavement to sin, so God broke it for us on the cross and by sending his Spirit to live in us to heal and slowly restore us to our right minds. We struggle to believe this because we know our own heart and we know we wouldn’t be this gracious toward our enemies. We’d hit them in the mouth (or worse) if we could. But God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. He has prepared for us the new creation from all eternity and given us a taste of it when he raised Jesus from the dead. And now because we have been healed and reconciled by Christ’s body broken on the cross and his blood shed for us, we are invited to be part of God’s feast in his new world forever, starting right here and now. The cross testifies to the fact that God takes the deadly consequences of sin very seriously. But it also testifies to his great love for us. The resulting invitation to the heavenly banquet is the prize for which we strive, made possible only by the love, mercy, and grace of God given to us through Jesus Christ our Lord, thanks be to God!
Do you believe this? Really believe this promise and invitation? If you don’t, you need to work on ending your own stubborn rebellion against God’s love and gift offered to you in Christ. If you do believe the promise and accept God’s invitation for you to come feast at his salvation banquet, then it must change you. For those of us who believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, God’s invitation to feast at his table is also an invitation to reject our old ways, the ways that dehumanize and kill us and make us sick, and to accept his new way of living that is exemplified supremely in Jesus. In Christ we have a perfect model of what real humanity looks like and we are called to strive to become like Jesus with the help of his Spirit who lives in us by denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus in his suffering. This isn’t easy or clean by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it is quite messy. We are thoroughly broken and out of whack. But it’s possible to reject the evil that dwells in us and say yes to our humanity so that we don’t lose our place at God’s table with its rich food and finest of wines. Why? Not because of anything we might do or not do, but ultimately because God’s ways are not our ways. God created us to love and enjoy, and he calls us to do likewise with him. God’s mercy is greater than we can ever dare hope for or comprehend, thanks be to God! Amen?
With this in mind, we are now ready to look at the warnings in our NT lessons. We must always remember that they are there to help us fight the good fight to be transformed into the very image of God as made known to us in Jesus our Lord. There seem to be at least two ways we can reject God’s invitation to us to feast at his table, and the consequences are both dire and eternal. The first way we can reject God’s offer to us is to refuse to let the love of God change us so that we choose the way of idolatry and evil instead. We tend to become what we worship and when we choose to give in to the evil that is within us instead of working to resist that evil, we can expect nothing but God’s righteous judgment and death. Thus the biblical imperative to repent, i.e., to change the course of our life. We are not called to repent because God is some kind of cosmic bully who delights in punishing us. We are called to repent because God loves us and does not want to see us slip into patterns of behavior that will ultimately dehumanize us and obliterate God’s image in us so that we don’t want to feast at God’s table (and sadly there are many today who fall into this category). Jesus tells us as much in our gospel lesson. Turn things around in you before it is too late. You never know when you are going to die. You just know that you are. So the question is this: Do you want to die being hostile to God or reconciled to him? Act now. Shed your evil ways. Follow me. You don’t know how much time you have left. And trust me, you don’t want to die outside the mercy of God.
I am not talking here about our ability to follow the rules. The issues I am talking about run much deeper than this. Rules are fine, but they only help us achieve a greater end. What I am talking about is the evil that is within every human heart that makes us want to hate God and reject his love and leadership over our lives (cf. Jeremiah 17.9). This is why Paul warns us in our epistle lesson not to desire evil. God gives us free will and the ability to choose, and for our good. Without free will, we can never truly have a relationship with anyone because love requires that we enter into relationships freely and willingly, not under duress or coercion. Without free will, it would not be possible for God to love us or us to love God.
The second way we can reject God’s invitation to feast at his table is through presumption as Paul also warns. Remember your spiritual ancestors, the Jews, he asks? God rescued them from their slavery in Egypt by leading them through the Red Sea and out to real freedom. And afterwards God was present with them in the wilderness in the pillars of clouds and fire. God fed them manna and they drank from the water that was Christ somehow mysteriously present with them. And how did God’s people respond? They rebelled against God and effectively wanted to go back to Egypt, back to their slavery! Here is Paul warning us not to be willfully hostile and rebellious toward God. But Paul is also telling us something else. God’s people got presumptuous. They thought they were exempt from God’s wrath because of all God did for them. Their presumption helps explain their rebellion: God won’t hurt us because we are his people. Therefore, we’ll do whatever we please. Not so fast, says Paul!
Now of course we recognize in these examples that Paul was talking to us about our own baptism in Christ and our participating in the eucharist. These two sacraments—outward and visible signs of the inward invisible reality that God has rescued us from sin and death in and through Jesus who is present with us powerfully in the eucharist—while efficacious, are not magic. Paul warns us not to presume, like our ancestors in the wilderness did, that because we are baptized and come to the table each week that we can therefore go and act any way we want. If we willfully choose to return to our old, sinful ways that lead to alienation from God and our death, our baptism and eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood will not save us. They are not here to give us an excuse to continue to act badly. No, they remind us we have been redeemed, and so we are to act accordingly! Paul tells us to put on Jesus, i.e., to choose to act like Jesus in all our living, and we will find that these sacraments remind us of God’s great love for us and strengthen us to follow in his ways so that we can be his true image-bearers once again. We must never presume to take God’s love and mercy for granted, in effect throwing them to the swine by willfully choosing to live evilly. Again, I am not talking about the occasional failures we all inevitably suffer. I am talking about willfully deciding to live a life of hostile rebellion against God, all the while thinking we’re covered by the sacraments when we are not.
And so we close by returning to God’s gracious invitation to us. Come and eat and drink at my table and celebrate your freedom to love and become fully human once again! Don’t worry or fret that you are not worthy. Of course you are not! But that is not why I invite you to feast. I invite you because I love you, and I love to be merciful and compassionate toward you. That is the kind of God I am and that is the kind of people I want you to be. This is our Lenten challenge, my beloved. It is also our Easter hope and promise. Don’t be afraid and don’t lose hope. God never abandons us. Instead, God promises to help us shed our slavery to things and idols that dehumanize us. The finest food and wines await us because God is who God is. Let us resolve to embrace God’s love and mercy and fight the good fight to perfect love and freedom. It won’t come in this lifetime, but it will help us get ready for the day we will be able to love perfectly and be perfectly free. What a celebration that will be! It means we’ll be at the best table in all creation, celebrating life and living faithfully to our Lord and God. And that, folks, really is Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.