Sermon for 3rd Lent, Year C, Lectionary texts
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.
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 he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”
That Specific Thirst
Rat and Mole are in a boat on a river. They have been out in the middle of the night. It’s now dawn, in Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows (chapter 7, http://www.online-literature.com/grahame/windwillows/7/.)
We pick up the story just at the moment in which first Rat, then soon also Mole, hear a strangely compelling flute piping mysteriously, from somewhere unseen and distant.
“A bird sang suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving…, look at him with curiosity.
“It’s gone!” Said the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. “So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worthwhile but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever. No! There it is again!” He cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.
“Now it passes and and I begin to lose it,” he said presently. “Oh, Mole! The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.”
“…Rapt transported, trembling, he was possessed in all his senses by this new divine thing that caught up his helpless soul… a powerless but happy infant in the strong sustaining grasp…
“Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade’s cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there… then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically he bent his oars again. And the lights grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of the dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvelously still.”
The Essential Longing
Grahame has captured in words what words can hardly describe; a longing, intense and sweet, almost painful, for something that we grasp only in fleeting glimpses. Rat hears the piping, but then it goes away, leaving him longing for more.
And so it is with God. In all of us is a thirst that no substitute can quench. Only the pure water of the Spirit will do. And like the thirst for water, no amount of substitutes: coffee, Coke, or Pepsi comes close. Alcohol doesn’t work. If substitutes do anything at all, they only make us long for the genuine source of satiation even more acutely. We long for God whom we grasp only fleetingly and in glimpses, yet profoundly, compellingly.
The Longing at the Center
What do you want most of all? What is a the center of your heart? We can work from the outside ring of the bull’s eye towards the center. On the outer perimeter are our surface desires – for food, fashion, entertainment, distractions. Nearer to the center are more substantial desires: safety, security, the well-being of those we care about. Closer still is our quest for love, respect, purpose, meaning, and significance. And at the center we find our longing for God.
We can echo the words of Augustine:
“You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in You.” (Confessions 1.1, ca. 397 CE)
Seeking and Finding
As we move from the outer rings of surface desires towards the center, we find that money and personal control are decreasingly effective. We cannot buy love or respect, we cannot coerce meaning into existence. So it turns out that all of our spending and coercion are vainly wasted. This is what Isaiah observed among his people long ago. He sounds the call to attention, then asks probing questions:
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! … Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
The answer to the thirst, the satisfaction of the heart’s deepest longing simply isn’t there, in the marketplace, in the mall, on the internet, to be booked or purchased at any price. Isaiah says:
“Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
What could be purchased without money? What is it that has no price?
“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near”
This is an invitation – not an invitation to relinquish joy for the sake of morbid religious introspection. No, the opposite. This is an invitation to delight; an offer of quenching the thirst at the center; to experience life in its essential goodness. Isaiah says,
“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.”
“So that you may live” – that is the offer, the summons; the calling. With that opportunity on the table, why would anyone spend money for that which is not bread, or labor for that which does not satisfy? And yet the tragic truth is that many spend their entire lives that way.
When is it, in the course of an average human life, that the call of the music so beautiful that it hurts, stops beckoning? What is it that seduces so many to give up the quest to find the piper at the gates of the dawn whose melody makes us tremble and weep, in favor of the pathetic saccharine sweetness of substitutes?
I cannot speak for everyone, but my experience is that even when I have attempted to displace the essential yearning of my heart, the specific thirst that only God can satisfy, with something else, I may indeed distract myself, but the longing continues. It is a mercy that nothing is able to finally replace that specific thirst.
The frustrated people of Jesus’ day attempted to displace that essential, specific thirst with the substitute thirst for national, political freedom. The Galileans resisted Pilate’s Roman rule and died at the altar for it. Others were crushed when the towers they were storming collapsed. But they were seeking a solution that lay at the perimeter, not at the center of their thirst.
Observing this, Jesus offers the parable of the unfruitful fig tree. There is yet time, but not much. God graciously gives us time to re-evaluate; to do a self-assessment; to ask ourselves, “How is this working out for me?”
Like a fruitless fig tree which has been given one more year, this is our time to take stock. Is there any edible fruit? What have our lives been producing? Can others say that they have found on our branches a source of sustenance? Have we borne the fruit of justice, mercy, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption in our generation?
The Table at the Center
Today is our invitation to pay attention to the thirst in our souls. It is not general; it is specific. There is only one Source that can satisfy that longing. It is found at the very center of our hunger; in God alone, who has come down like the piper at the gates of the dawn, in the form of a human; Jesus, who has played the melody we long to hear.
We will come to his table, where he offers himself again to us. This is where our hearts long to be filled, our hunger satisfied, our thirsts quenched. In the words of the hymn, we sing:
We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread, And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountain-head, And thirst our souls from Thee to fill!
(“Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts”)
Rat and Mole have followed the song to its source. The moor their boat and go ashore.
“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. `Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’
“Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror–indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy–but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
“Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible color, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; …All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
`Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. `Are you afraid?’
`Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. `Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet–and yet– O, Mole, I am afraid!’
“Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.”