Thirsty people become joyful people (sermon)
Isaiah 55: 1-13 Luke 13: 1-9
It is the season of Lent… the season of repentance. Two weeks ago I talked of repenting of prayerlessness. Traditionally Lent is about giving something up, rather than for example taking on something, like a prayerful life. And the problem is this has sometimes become perverted into a kind of masochism. We inflict on our selves a bit of suffering as if that were somehow good for us. As if that were somehow to share in the suffering of Christ. But of course Christ never chose to suffer for the sake of suffering. He chose to confront the world and take the consequences, which clearly would involve suffering… and that is a very different thing. Lent is a time when we focus on following him on that journey. So if there is some suffering the flows from following Jesus, so be it. But not for the sake of beating ourselves up… self-hatred.
Jesus says to his disciples ‘unless you repent, you will perish just as they did’. What does he mean ‘just as they did’? The two examples he gave are quite different ways of perishing –one by accident, the other by the most abhorrent murder imaginable to the Jewish mind. So Jesus is not saying that they will perish in the same manner. He is simply saying that, like them, we, if we don’t repent we will perish. That is what I learnt on my retreat too – that my life has been perishing for lack of prayer, for lack of living in the presence of God. If I don’t pray, in that sense, I will perish.
Repent… change your mindset/habit of mind (that’s what the word ‘repent’ means) or perish. Not repent or be punished. Repent or perish. It’s different.
In the second part of today’s lesson Jesus tells of a man who planted a tree which produced no fruit. He tells the gardener that it is time to cut the tree down. He thinks its dead and wasting space in the soil. But the gardener comes in on behalf of the fruit. Give it another year, let me dig around it, put manure around it… Jesus doesn’t say who represents God here. But I suspect it is the gardener. When it looks like the tree has perished. God holds out space and time for growth and fruit… the season of second chances.
I wonder if any of you have given up on the spiritual life, despaired of making sense of this ‘following Jesus’ thing? Perhaps, like the owner of the property in the story. Perhaps you have given up on yourself. Jesus says now is the season of second chances. We don’t need to perish and live without fruit.
The reading from Isaiah is one of my favourite passages.
Hey, everyone who’s thirsty… come to the water. You that have no money come buy and eat!
It’s a free shop. Anyone been to the free shop up in Corstorphine?
If you have nothing… no money in the spiritual bank… nothing to give God… it doesn’t matter… the water of life is completely free.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Don’t spend yourself… on this, that and the next thing etc … don’t spend yourself on succeeding in your job… don’t spend yourself on getting your house just right… don’t spend yourself on saving up for your retirement… on constant distractions from TV and internet and this that and the next long list of entertainments and overseas trips. All fine things… but they don’t satisfy… they become substitutes for (distractions from) the water of life… and spending ourselves on them means we perish.
This comes from deep down in what it means to be human. We are restless creatures… God has created us with restless hearts. Restless because we are created to move beyond ourselves to move towards God, to be part of the great movement of God’s life. This restless desire, this fire that burns in us makes us different from other creatures. Ronald Rolheiser, a catholic theologian and pastor, in his anthropology classes likes to say that the difference between humans and animals can be summed up like this.
“Cows munch grass contentedly in a paddock. Humans smoke it discontentedly in bars”.
You know this movement of restless desire whenever you go shopping. No sooner have you purchased something and taken it home than is seems somehow less attractive, things are unsatisfying as soon as we have them… we burn with desire… that is what it is to be human… The greek word is eros (erotic creatures)… a good thing.
Isaiah says, give that desire its centre and focus in God’s life. Come to the waters and discover a higher life… a satisfying life (my ways are higher)… you are no longer in the centre of a little circle calling the shots…
Rolheiser was speaking to a group of catholic seminarians about celibacy. And one came up to him later and complained.
“I am tired of abstract talk about sexuality. It’s all useless because nobody can tell us what to actually do with sexual tension’.
Rolheiser’s point is that it’s not less desire we need, its more desire, and deeper and wider desire. We need to locate and process our desires within our desire for Christ and his desire for the world.
Anglican theologian, Sarah Coakley says that the life of prayer is where we spread our desires before God and they begin to find their proper and satisfying place. The solution to desires that are out of control is not to apply stricter and stricter rules… nor is it to try and empty ourselves of all desire, according to the Buddhist way, but to grow our desire for God. Come to the waters. Find in God the food that satisfies.
That’s a nice metaphor, but what is this satisfying life all about? The gospel says it is the life of love… come to the water and you will learn to love others… because the waters are nothing other than God who is love, none other than God who loves you unconditionally. No charge, without reservation, as you are.
As a Christian reading Isaiah it is impossible not to come to one conclusion. Jesus is the water of life. Jesus is the life of God poured out in the dry land of our human existence. Jesus is the word that goes forth from God (to quote Isaiah again).
This is not just a theory. It’s not a matter of simply believing Christian orthodoxy. It’s not a matter of taking my word that God loves you. As if you could do it in an instant. It is a matter of ‘coming to the water’ in prayer and contemplation and attentiveness. It’s a matter of receiving it in the Eucharist. It takes time…in the presence of God. It’s a process of learning.
Isaiah 55 finishes with a beautiful parallel. Just as God’s word goes out and doesn’t return empty. So the prophet tells the people.
“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands.”
Those who drink from the love of God, are gradually set free to love their neighbours. And in that same love, the receiving and the giving, find satisfaction.
Thanks be to God.