Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA
Lent is a season of repentance, of acknowledging we must turn away from death-dealing things and move toward life-giving ones. And our readings this morning are blunt on this score. Let’s focus our attention on Isaiah first.
Don’t let these old-fashioned words of this prophet about the “wicked” and the “unrighteous” slip past your ears—because that’s us, folks. Martin Luther liked to say we are both, simultaneously, saints and sinners. But they don’t cancel each other out to some happy medium. Without God I am wicked. I am unrighteous.
We have heard Isaiah tell us that God, to our “souls”—to our emotional, moral and spiritual selves—God is the rich food we need to live, but… do we feel that way? Sin? Eh… I’m fine. I don’t know if we really find God to be such rich food for us. Sometimes, maybe God and church are more like a holy burden than the rich food or the party that Isaiah describes…
We hear Isaiah tell us that God’s Word of pardon and mercy, is to be like fancy and delicious foods to us, and like water to those who are on the edge of a dehydrated death. But God’s Word isn’t rich food, it isn’t a party like Isaiah tells it. It’s nothing unless you need and want that Word of forgiveness first.
So, to ever experience forgiveness, we must talk about Sin. I’ve heard a lot of people say that young preachers never talk about Sin. But not today. It is tempting to think about Sin as though it were only small, individual actions, like throwing stones at birds, or white lies. Or Sin is having a body, that sex is a sin… No.
Sin is something much greater and deeper than our own bodies and actions. Sin has spread throughout all of creation. And creation includes our government, our towns, our schools, and our families. I don’t know how sin got here. I don’t want it to be here. But scripture does tell some interesting stories about that, though.
Think of our Sin in this way: it is behind a nation of corporations where roughly 77% of people are convinced smartphones help us stay connected, but these same people—according to other research—suffer markedly increased amounts of both anxiety and depression because of their phones, and the fear of missing out they create.
Sin is behind all the fantasies of our culture: we are cruelly obsessed with prolonged youthful appearance, and the incessant, restless search for rapid cures, quick fixes, and new diversions.
Sin is a culture of student pressures so intense that parents bribe their children into college.
Our Sin, too, has caused public schools across America to be pathetically underfunded, and often kids of color are the ones left with no futures. No one can afford to pay attention to them. And then we can’t understand the acts of hopelessness of these children.
These aren’t someone else’s problems. We participate in this Sin everyday.
Our Sin is a nation of women harassed, abused and raped. According to a 2010 CDC study, in the US nearly 63% of women have experienced sexual violence. Our Sin is women, who are not listened to when they cry out for help, not even given the benefit of the doubt.
Our Sin is behind a nation urging its young people to be loyal, to join the branches of the armed services. Yet when these young people come home from acts of great bravery and violence, with both their brains and their consciences injured—we can’t seem to serve them adequately. And so many are left to take their own lives.
These horrors go on and on… We are chained to systems of unrighteousness and wickedness. Maybe none of you, personally, have caused or done these horrible things I have named. But we are all part of this society, part of the culture, that these things happen within. It is us.
At the time of Isaiah’s prophecy all the people of Israel were kicked out of their land, they were crushed, enslaved, rejected and separated. The Israelites were a dead people. I am awfully sad to admit it, but that is us, as well. We are dead without God. Our homes and our jobs and our friends can’t save us from the immense evil that is done by us and on our behalf.
As we very often confess: Sin is something that we cannot escape by ourselves.
The most important part of Isaiah’s prophecy is, ironically, the first word. A nifty little Hebrew word “Ho.” It’s an interjection, a call, a scream, kind of like “Hey!” or sometimes “Alas” or “Woe.”
Some believe this was a ritual word in Hebrew used to summon the dead. A deep call that could reach the ears of those on the other side of the grave.
Up to this point in Isaiah’s career as prophet, he had been that pesky prophetic voice warning Israel that their doom & exile & death was coming: saying, “Watch out! Return to the merciful ways of God.” So, this promise of new life comes as kind of surprise in Isaiah’s repertoire. And not only a promise of new life, but an “abundant” new life—a celebration, a free banquet.
Now, bread is a complicated metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, just like it is in the New Testament. When we pray, ourselves, for “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer: we don’t mean actual loaves of bread. We are begging God all that we need to live. And as you know, we need more than just the exact right nutrients and water for our bodies to live. We need love and meaning and fun. And God tells us today we also need mercy and pardon from our endless systems of Sin.All that is this bread & this rich food.
Through the deal, the covenant, that God made with David—which stated that David and his descendants would always be King, and the Lord would always be David’s God—this promise God has opened up to all nations, says Isaiah, not just Israel and David. To us, too—because, David’s heir we remember at Christmastime is Jesus.
The rich food of pardon is ours, but it tastes like cardboard unless we really feel the need to repent. To us that are dead, to us that dwell in a culture of death and injustice and disloyalty: “Ho!” God screams to us. We hear God calling, beyond the grave of Sin.
God says, “Hey you! 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.”
God laments with a wearied chagrin,
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
“Seek the LORD while God may be found,
call upon the LORD while God is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD,
that God may have mercy on them,
and [turn] to our God, for the Lord will abundantly pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” says God,
“Nor are your ways my ways,” says the LORD.
“For as the skies are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
So writes the prophet Isaiah. And as the Gospel of Luke has proclaimed it today, when God sees us, sinners that we truly are, God only lovingly sees a barren fig tree that just needs to be tended and fed.
And year after year Jesus the Gardener argues on our behalf, and will give that little tree another chance. You know, the Greek verb in “leave it alone” and “Father, forgive them” is the same word. There is no vengeance in God, even if we deserve it. Not even “justice” in the sense of punishments fitting the crime, because God’s thoughts are not your thoughts.
There is only God’s Holy One, our Jesus. In Christ to us is opened the rich food of forgiveness—the bread of pardon, and the wine of starting again. God entered this world, (that’s what Christmas is about) a world of abuse and violence, a world that tried its best to torture and kill our God (that’s what Lent is about).
But our world failed, and God has won (that’s what Easter is about)!
Incline your ear, and come to Christ, listen, so that you may live.