March 20, 2022
“Accomplishing the Purpose”
Rev. James Rausch
I’m so excited this morning that it’s kind of difficult to focus. First, Isaiah 55 is, in my opinion, one of the greatest chapters in the Bible, and I want to do it justice so you can take from it all that I’ve found in it. And there’s this other thing: You know the Brothers Restaurant that is just a few blocks away over there on Peoria? Well, what would you say if told you that Lisa O’Kelly informed me before church this morning that Seth has reserved the whole place at 10:45 this morning and is buying brunch for everyone in the church?
Yeah, you’re right not to believe it, but what a great way to get everybody’s attention, right? Nothing like free food to pull in a crowd and pique their interest. And Isaiah gets my attention every time with the way he starts off this passage. “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.” (Isa. 55:1 NRSV)
Now, prophets have been known to employ some pretty peculiar and even drastic methods to draw people’s attention to their message. Amos gained an audience among the enemy Northern tribes by first announcing God’s displeasure with surrounding tribes including his own. Hosea took a wife from among the “professional women” in the city and then named their children with prophetic statements. Jeremiah bought property just as the nation was about to be overrun and taken by the Babylonian forces. And Isaiah walked around among the people in his birthday suit for three years to announce God’s coming judgement on Egypt and Ethiopia.
So, to get your attention today, in the tradition of Isaiah, aren’t you glad I’ve chosen to employ his “free food” method?
Whenever you read the Bible, it’s a good practice to keep in mind three questions: What does this tell us about God? What does it tell us about humanity? What does it tell us about humanity’s relationship to God? So, let’s look for some answers to those questions in our passages today.
Now, to a people who have been exiled and have learned to do with very little, and often to do without, the possibility of eating and drinking until they are satisfied is music to their ears. “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Now that Isaiah has their attention, he gets to the meat of his message. “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant.” (Isa. 55:2-3 NRSV) “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.” (Isa. 55:5 NRSV) Nothing could have sounded more impossible for this beleaguered remnant of a people who had been sapped of their strength and conditioned to believe that God had turned his back on them forever because of their idolatry.
They were doing what we all do naturally: They looked at their circumstances, applied the best of their knowledge, wisdom, and experience to the situation, and concluded how things were going to go down. Isaiah’s promise of redemption, God’s favor, and a renewed purpose were simply unimaginable. So, God then reveals something about who God is and who we are in a beautiful statement shared through the prophet Isaiah: “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.” (Isa. 55:8-9 NRSV) That God’s mercy and love do not ever give up goes well beyond our human conceptions of justice and forgiveness. And we need to be reminded continually that our even best understanding of how things should be is only a partial reflection of God’s higher ways.
Don’t misunderstand. Our knowledge, wisdom, and experience are valuable and essential for us to employ. We just have to keep in mind that our thoughts and understanding just don’t rise to God’s level; they have their limitations. Take, for example, the human ability to understand cause and effect in far more complex ways than other creatures. My brother’s dog has learned that if it rings a bell, they will let it outside. But humans can calculate multiple causes and effects to do things like send people into space and bring them back. We exercise these abilities constantly, and we should!
Common sense suggests to us that if there is a demonstrable effect, there is an explainable cause. And we love explanations! We crave explanations. Things we can’t explain drive us crazy. The desire to comfort by explanation is part of who we are as human beings. It comes with the territory. But sometimes our desire for an explanation leads us to faulty conclusions. In varying ways, the friends of Job reflect that. They cannot resist explaining his suffering. “As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same,” said one to Job when Job’s world fell apart (Job 4:8). Lots of people embrace the concept of Karma, and we even have a saying: “What goes around…” (Job 8:5–6). Michael B. Curry
So, The Lord’s message through Isaiah – to a people who thought their time in exile left them weak and broken to the point that God had no use for them – was that God was making an everlasting covenant with them, and they would have a major role to play in the world to come! Impossible for them to have expected or imagined, but God’s ways are higher than human ways. Don’t you just love that? We have human concepts of goodness and justice that have a lot to be said for them. But God’s goodness and justice still far exceed our own. So, we exercise our abilities to explain and make judgments with humility. We know we get it wrong sometimes, and we need to leave room for God-sized possibilities.
And God gives us this marvelous promise in Isaiah 55 that allows us to live in hope and assurance: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55:10-11 NRS) God’s Word is as trustworthy and steady as the water cycle that you learned about in science class as a child! The rain comes down, waters the earth, accomplishes its life-sustaining tasks, and then returns through evaporation to be gathered in to clouds and repeat the cycle again. God’s Word is the same! It come from God to creation, accomplishes its life-sustaining tasks, and then returns to God. It’s a guarantee. God’s purposes will be accomplished, and even I can’t stop it or mess it up. We understand Scripture to be God’s word. And we understand Jesus, God’s Son, to be God’s eternal Word. And God’s Word sent to us will accomplish its purpose!
So, let’s now turn to Jesus in today’s gospel story where the people with him are talking about a ghastly atrocity that took place at the temple where Pilate had some Galilean worshipers there sacrificed along with the animals. The Jewish community would have been outraged at such a heinous act, and rightly so. So, they wanted to see if Jesus was feeling what they were feeling. Self-righteous anger. Rodney Clapp writes “If emotions were cuisine, this would be the pièce de résistance, the dish we love to linger over and return to, time and time again. Anger by itself does not taste so good. It is bitter and leaves an aftertaste. On the other hand, self-righteousness—there is the seasoning that makes plain-old hamburger-anger irresistible. Self-righteous anger goes down smoothly. It makes us feel superior. It elevates us above lesser mortals, not to mention our enemies. So long as we have it on our plates, the confusing grayness of the wearisome world goes away. It is bracingly, refreshingly clear that we are the good guys and those others are the bad guys. If all this were not enough, self-righteous anger also reheats wonderfully; it tastes almost as fine the second or fifth or sixtieth time out of the oven. However, this is Lent, and in the Christian tradition Lent has long been a season that messes with our menus. Such is certainly the case with today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is hanging out with his fellow Galileans, his home folk, his people. In these neighborly circumstances, they serve up some self-righteous anger. They tell him “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). –
So, will Jesus go there? I mean, it would be hard to come up with a more poignant example of something about which self-righteous anger would more justifiable. When something is so wrong, we have a craving for things to be set right. Self-righteous anger seeks to be satiated with revenge, score-settling, and our human conception of justice.
There is a movie Trilogy starring Liam Neeson that first appeared in 2008 and was followed by two sequels through 2014. Do you know what those movies are called? “Liam Kills Everyone.” No, that’s not what the movies were entitled. The titles were “Taken” 1, 2, and 3. But in our house they are also known as “Liam Kills Everyone.” If you’ve not seen them, the trouble starts when the teenage daughter of a retired CIA agent travels to Europe and is kidnapped by a human-trafficking crime syndicate. She is drugged, smuggled away, and evaluated as to what kind of price she could bring. She is eventually sold at auction among billionaire bidders. Liam, utilizing his special CIA skills, means to track her down and will stop at nothing to rescue her. The formula of the movies is a classic appeal to our hunger and thirst for good old black and white justice, where the bad guys are seen for the trash that they are, and they all get what’s coming to them.
Liam kills them… all of them… 36 people in the first movie alone, and every execution feeds the audience’s desire for revenge, justice, and the triumph of good versus evil. It is over-the-top absurdity in fictional entertainment. And it is wildly popular. The trilogy of movies has taken in over $950 million.
So, will Jesus take the bait and indulge in a little self-righteous anger? Many people of his time wanted him to be the Liam Neeson type of hero. Surely, he could have. How they would have loved to see Jesus settle the score with Pilate and his Roman scum. I mean, who could deserve it more than those who would murder worshipers on the altar of temple, mingling their blood with the animal sacrifices? It’s black and white, right?
But Jesus didn’t bite. In fact, he took a different turn altogether and gave a little theological lesson about how our human ways and thoughts are not as high as God’s ways and thoughts. He instead pointed out how our desire to explain things often ends up leading us to false conclusions and bad theology. It was common at the time, and it remains so even in our day, to explain when bad things happen to people by concluding that they must have had it coming. Just like Job’s friends, they can’t resist drawing a cause-and-effect picture to explain things. Jesus challenges that thinking, because he knows that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than human ways and thoughts.
In your thinking, Jesus points out, these who met a more gruesome fate must have been worse sinners than others whose deaths were caused by an accident. But they are no different from any of you. The lesson is not to measure the sins of others, but to realize that life is short. So repent while there is time.
Then, to emphasize the need for change in their attitudes and actions, Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that failed to produce fruit. In a region where fertile soil is scarce and precious, a landowner could not afford to have unproductive plants and trees taking up space and resources. The best-practices of farming that they had come to know and trust said that if a fig tree bears no fruit in three years’ time, you must cut it down and replace it with something that would bear fruit. That’s just the way things are done according to time-honored wisdom. But in the parable, the gardener does the unexpected, and what the listeners would have heard as foolish and wasteful. He convinces the owner to wait another year while he fertilizes and tends the tree.
The tree may be interpreted to represent God’s People, Israel, being given another chance to fulfill their mission. It might be seen to represent God’s People, the church, being given a chance to fulfill our mission. It might be taken to represent your life, and the chance you are given to bear fruit for the kingdom. Such second and third and fourth chances are beyond what human justice can comprehend. But God says, “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts.”
“My word, that goes from my mouth, will not return to me empty” – that is, without having borne fruit – “but it will accomplish that which I purpose.” Jesus, the gardener, is the Word of God, who will accomplish all that God purposes. And he is tending to all in God’s garden to see that all the fig trees produce figs, all the vines bring forth bunches of grapes, and that each person that comes to him bears fruit for the kingdom. In God’s higher ways, we are given more time and attention. This is the miracle of grace. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” it says in Isaiah, “Call upon him while he is near.” Repent while you have been given this gift of time and tender care, it says in Luke.
So while we are called to bear fruit, let’s be reminded of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul lists in Galatians 5: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23 NRSV)