Challenging our Images of God and Grace

Sermon for The Third Sunday of Lent; 3rd March 2013;  Isaiah 55.1-9; Luke 13.1-9

Today’s Bible passages challenge our images of God and Grace.

In our services, the readings from the Bible that we hear, the words of the hymns we sing, and the metaphors our prayers employ create a rich tapestry of ways of picturing God and the way he gives of himself in love.  Yet it seems to me that we seldom imagine God as a market trader or grace as a good shovel full of manure!

The first reading we heard just now was from the prophet Isaiah and the refrain of our first hymn anticipated its core invitation:  come to the waters, come to the feast.  The call that we hear in verse 1 of Isaiah chapter 55, is like that of a street merchant or market stall holder hawking his wares in the bustling market or bazaar.  Picture in your minds eye a town square full of stalls selling all kinds of goods from brightly coloured cloth, to fruit and veg, to pots and pans. There are many good things to buy to satisfy your hunger or quench your thirst.  People are jostling, stall holders are shouting, beggars are calling out from the pavement in hope of someone throwing them some change. It is busy and noisy, dusty and chaotic.  And into this scene comes God the market trader offering his wares.  “Ho, 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.”  All around him people are spending their money on things that will not really nourish them, wasting their hard earned cash on something that will never satisfy them.  Instead he calls them to a feast a banquet of rich food to delight them.  They are invited to come and listen to the words of life itself, words that are good enough to eat, words to make you alive.

In the midst of the buying and selling, the haggling and bartering, amongst those trying to make a buck and those trying to grab a bargain; God comes and calls out – setting out his own stall.  He is offering life in all its fullness, satisfaction for the soul, his own love like thirst quenching living water.  He is giving away for free the thing that will make us whole, but instead we keep on shopping for trivial things that will never meet our truest needs.  And so it is today, as someone has said, we spend money we do not have on things we do not need to impress people we do not like.

Real markets are wonderful, very human places, full of character and genuine interaction. A far cry from the sterility and order of a supermarket or even the abstract notion of ‘the market’ as the ultimate arbiter of the changes and chances of commercial and social life:  “let the market decide” we often hear it said.  But actual markets are places of relationship and exchange they are places of real human interaction.

Here comes God offering his wares, not selling but giving – does he not understand the rules of the game?!  Obviously not, as it also said in our reading from Isaiah: his thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways are not his ways. Here comes God promising everlasting relationship, and sure love for his people.  Here comes God, giving away the riches of life with him to satisfy our deepest needs which more often than not bend us out of shape.   His free gift of love will put us right and be more than enough.

What then of the second reading, from the gospel according to Luke.  This slightly strange passage begins with two stories of untimely deaths one of which is brutal and unjust, the other a terrible accident.  Jesus emphasises that these people did not die as a result of their sin – what happened was not some kind of punishment or judgement on their lives.  The reality is that something like that could happen to anyone.   Unjust, cruel and horrible things do happen to good people as well as to bad people.  That is not the point Jesus wanted to make, his point is that we cannot trust in our own self-righteousness for our protection.  The stories also convey that there is an urgency to our turning away from our selfishness and back to God’s generous love.

And what of the unfruitful fig tree?  Three years should have been enough for it to bear fruit.  The story is reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament.  For example, the prophet Micah compares his search for justice in Israel to that of a frustrated harvester who finds no figs or grapes in the vineyard he oversees. But Jesus gives this a twist in emphasising the divine forbearance.  Three years should have been enough, but at the intervention of the gardener it is given another year.  It is not just given one more year to start being a productive tree all by itself. It is a year in which it will be dug around, and fed with manure and given the best chance to fulfil its potential. So it is with us. God’s free gift of grace is one that breaks open our resistant clay and nourishes us and waters us so that we might grow to maturity in love and become fruitful.

What kind of fruit?  What will this tilling and watering and manuring of grace bring forth in our lives?  The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; so those are good start.  The prophets looked for justice on the fig tree and on the vines representing Israel;  the prophets today would look for no less on the fig tree of our lives.  Perhaps a different kind of fruit is for us to be people who know that grace is working on us and in us and through us, so that we might be people of grace and witnesses to God’s grace.  Part of the fruit of the Christian life is to be able to see ourselves as God sees us.  We are people who are deeply flawed and fallen it is true; but more than that we are people who are deeply loved and completely forgiven.  We are a people who were thirsty and whose thirst has been quenched with live giving water; we were hungry and we were fed with finest bread;  we were lost and we have been welcomed to our Lord’s Table as brothers and sisters of Christ.  And as our new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, speaking in Coventry this week said: ‘The possibilities open to a church of reconciled reconcilers are more than we can imagine.’ May it be so. Amen.