Isaiah 55:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
How is your Lent going? Are you making the most of these 40 days, or are they just passing you by in the rush of life?
I know that a good number of people are following the 40 Acts resources - doing some kind of act of generosity and kindness each day until Easter. The point of 40 Acts, and other similar Lent resources, is to practice a different way of life. A Jesus way of life - generous, loving and forgiving. And we know from all the research evidence, that if we want to change a habit, or to learn a new skill, practice is the key. Lent gives us a chance to practice life being like Jesus.
But there’s another side to Lent that we need too. If we are practising being like Jesus - then we also need to give some time to thinking about the way of life we are stepping away from. Jesus did two things throughout his ministry - he held out a vision of life as his follower, and he told people that to follow him - to really follow him- they would have to leave some things behind. And the word the bible uses for that process of turning away from one way of life and stepping into a new one is - Repentance.
To repent isn’t just to say ‘Lord I am really sorry for the bad things I did last week’, to repent is to turn around, to change your mind, to see the world differently, to leave things behind and to head in a new direction.
And both of our readings today are about that process of turning and changing. They are all about repentance.
You might like to have the readings open, because we’re going to look at them in turn. They’re in the weekly sheet or in the pew bibles.
Isaiah 55 first of all. It starts with the image of a street vendor calling out to people - here, try this, it’s free. It would be like someone setting up a stall, laden with home baked bread and fresh coffee outside a fast food outlet and offering it to people for free as they pass. Why would you want the over-priced junk food you’ll get in there, when you can have this for free?
And the passage is set in a very particular context. Israel is in exile; Years earlier the great Babylonian Empire defeated them in battle and swept through Jerusalem, taking thousands of people away into exile. Now, they can come home. And this passage is a call to do that just that - ‘come home’. But some of them don’t want to. Life under Babylon might be hard, but at least it’s known - and going home would be risky It’s easy to get settled isn’t it - it’s even easy to get settled into situations and circumstances that are far from perfect.
How many of us have habits or ways of doing things that we know don’t satisfy, but which we keep on doing. A job we hate, but just can’t summon up the energy to leave; an addiction to our screens, or to that extra glass of wine, or to pornography; a flaring anger at our partner or our kids that we loath ourselves for, but just can’t stop?
Isaiah says to those who have settled for second best - ‘come home’. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? I have something that is far, far better for you. Come home.
And these aren’t just fancy words that God is offering - not just ‘pie in the sky’, there are good solid reasons to trust the invitation. First God looks back at the past - I was with David, he says, and through me he did amazing things. As if God’s saying, ‘look at my track record’ and believe that what happened then can happen again now. And then he offers the invitation ‘seek the Lord while he may be found’, turn around, leave your bad habits and come home, ‘that the Lord may have mercy, for God will abundantly pardon’.
And then, to anyone listening who’s thinking, ‘sounds great, but I can’t see it’, a final call - ‘just because you can’t imagine it, doesn’t mean it can’t happen’. ‘My thoughts’, says the Lord ‘are not your thoughts’. I dream much bigger than you ever can. So come home, and see my dreams for you come true.
What is it that you’re doing that doesn’t satisfy? What are you doing that harms others? What is it you need to turn from and leave behind? What could God’s glorious dream be for you?
God says, ‘leave it behind and come home’
Now to the gospel reading.
This too is a story told in a particular situation to a particular group of people. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and he knows what’s going to happen. He knows what’s going to happen to him, but he also knows where things are heading for the whole of Israel. Israel remember is under the brutal rule of the Romans, and it bristles with rebellion and anger. While some have simply accepted the invaders, most despise them, and there are many who are talking of rebellion and uprising. The Romans know that, and they have long experience of dealing with rebels - and their primary tactic is straight forward brutality - keep people scared and they’ll stay quiet.
And Jesus can see where this is heading. He can see perfectly clearly the appalling results of Roman rule, and he consistently condemns those who have joined their side, particularly the Jewish leaders. But that doesn’t make the other side right - he is just as clear where uprising will get Israel - it will lead to their destruction.
We often think in a similar way - a binary way. Either this is right, in which case that is wrong. Or that is right, in which case this is wrong. But God’s way rarely matches exactly with our binary options. Very often, while we are arguing from the extremes, God says, there is a different way, a third way, a way you haven’t noticed.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at the gospel passage.
Jesus is told about some Jews that Pilate has recently murdered, and murdered in a particularly brutal way, while they were worshipping. As if someone were to come in here now and slaughter us all.
Presumably, given Jesus’ reply, there had been some chat about this - Why did they die? Maybe they were bad people who deserved their punishment? And Jesus is unequivocal in his reply. ‘No, of course not.’ - and then he turns the question round - rather than pointing the finger at others, he says, how about you notice the ways that you mess up. You’re all part of this society that is heading in the same direction - and the direction is destruction. And that isn’t a metaphor for hell - this is literal destruction that Jesus is warning them about. And 40 years later, his warning comes true. The Jews rise up against their oppressors, and the Romans do what the Romans always do. They take revenge and they destroy Jerusalem and raze it to the ground. Thousands die by the sword of the Romans, like those ‘whose blood with the sacrifices’ and thousands more under the rubble of the ruined city - just as Jesus said it would be. ‘Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did’.
And then he tells a story about a fig tree planted in a Vineyard which, year after year, fails to bear fruit. And, the owner of the garden tells his gardener to chop the useless tree down. But the gardener, who clearly knows about fruit trees, asks for more time. Let me look after it really carefully, and manure and water it this year, and we’ll see what happens. We can come back to the decision about chopping it down again in the future.
There is, the story says, another chance. So repent, turn from what does not satisfy and is not of God, and come home. There is another chance.
And for us, who do not live under Roman rule, what does it say? And what do these two passages say to us when read together?
Jesus’ words in the gospel remind us why we need to repent - to change the way we do things, or the things we do. Because there are some ways of life, some choices, some patterns of behaviour that really do have consequences, and if we continue with them, bad stuff will happen. Not because God is punishing us, but because he can see where those things lead.
So, someone caught up in a pattern of unhealthy relationships, might just end up damaging the people they love; someone caught in addiction, or in vindictive behaviour, or whatever it might be for you, might well come to a day when they have to face the very real harm they have done.
That’s just the truth.
But the truth is also that there is a better way - there is always a better way. And the Isaiah passage reminds us what God is offering. It’s an invitation to come home, to give up the ways of life that do not satisfy, because there is something entirely filling - something ‘ful-filling' we might say - on offer instead.
We’re nearly half way through Lent now, and the offer is there for you.
What do you need to give up, to leave behind and to repent from?
Really. What must end. What needs to finish.
Because the consequences are serious. And because there is something better on offer, something that will fill your emptiness, something that will satisfy, something so good, you cannot even imagine it.
I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Hey, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. Return to the Lord, for he will abundantly pardon.
Read Isaiah 55:1-13. Take a moment to savour the words and the astonishing offer that is being made. Discuss your response to the passage
What might God's dream for you be? What seems impossible to you, which might be possible to God?
What do you need to let go of and to leave behind?
What would help you to let go of the things that you need to leave behind and to step into God's future?
Read the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15,1-11. How can this passage add depth to the Isaiah passage, with it's call to 'come home'?