An extravagant invitation

Stephen Adam, 28 February 2016

Isaiah 55: 1–9; Luke 13: 1–9

We’re halfway through Lent, and our gospel passage this morning is not an easy one. It has some big words about repentance and judgement – words which we as Christians are often uncomfortable and embarrassed about and tend to shy away from.

And as if that’s not enough, the first part of the gospel reading also raises the difficult question of tragedy and misfortune. Is it fair that bad things can happen to good people? It’s a question that has taxed Christians through the ages.

If there had been red-top tabloids in first-century Palestine, no doubt the headlines would have had a field day: ‘Tyrant’s troops murder worshippers’; ‘Tower disaster – 18 dead: was it negligence?’ We can easily think of similar atrocities and accidents in our own day. Can we make any sense of such arbitrary events, and what on earth does Jesus mean when he says, ‘Unless you repent you will all perish as they did’?

Let me approach this by means of a more recent real story. A retired priest, John Pridmore, recounts how 50 years ago he was serving his title as a young curate alongside two other clergy in his parish in an English town; you can tell how long ago it was, with three stipendiary clergy in one parish!

At 9.15 am on Friday 21 October 1966 an overwhelming disaster happened in a Welsh village, Aberfan. A waste tip slipped down the mountainside into the village, the slurry covering all before it. The children of Pantglas Junior School had just returned to their classrooms after morning assembly. The school was engulfed. 116 children died, along with five of their teachers. The hymn they had just sung at assembly was ‘All things bright and beautiful’. Pridmore recalls how glad he was not to have to preach two days later. Two of his colleagues did, one at Morning Prayer and the other at Evensong. To this day he can remember both sermons and how they contrasted.

The preacher in the morning took as his text the gospel we have just heard from Luke 13 – ‘Unless you repent you will all perish as they did’. It sounds as if he spoke appallingly clumsily and insensitively. He claimed that this tragedy should serve as a warning. We are all called to account, and one day judgement will fall unannounced, just as it did upon the innocent people under the tower at Siloam or those children at Aberfan. The preacher in the evening spoke entirely differently. Indeed, he could hardly speak at all. Silences, sobs and stumblings characterised the sermon. He struggled for words appropriate to the tragedy.

I’m sure we all recognise ourselves in that second priest. Weeping can be the Christian response to another’s pain. You’ll remember the account in John’s gospel of the death of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. ‘Lord’, says Mary, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. And then that shortest, most poignant verse in the Bible, ‘Jesus wept’. Jesus certainly identifies himself with the suffering of the innocent.

And yet, for all that, it was the first preacher who – despite his undoubted insensitivity – captured more accurately the tenor of what Jesus is saying to us in this gospel passage from Luke. In Jesus’ time, it was very much the Jewish understanding that everything happened for a reason. Sin and suffering were seen as intimately connected. We see this most dramatically perhaps in the story of Job, that absolutely righteous man who suffers the most appalling catastrophes. Yet his companion and so-called comforter, Eliphaz, attributes all this to Job’s sinning: ‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?’

This line of thinking also surfaces among the disciples in John’s gospel. You’ll recall that when Jesus meets a man who has been blind from birth, his disciples ask: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9: 2). And I suspect, if we’re honest, there is sometimes a nagging suspicion lurking in our own minds that our personal sorrows are in some way a punishment for our sins.

Jesus rejects that line of reasoning completely. He issues a challenge to the spiritual pride of his audience – and perhaps to us too – in making judgements about the sinfulness of others. He emphasises that these tragedies did not happen to these people because they deserved it, or were in some way worse sinners than those who lived. Note, too, that he does not offer any explanation or theology to account for the perennially perplexing dilemma of suffering in this world.

No, his point is a different one. Rather than debate who figures where on the scale of sinfulness, we all need to take stock of our lives. Such sudden, random tragedies should remind us of the need and urgency to reorder our lives to God’s way: to repent. We’re on borrowed time, if you like.

Rather than debate who figures where on the scale of sinfulness, we all need to take stock of our lives.

We’re reminded of the preciousness of life and our responsibility and accountability before God to use our lives well and usefully. In the same way as sin is really a turning away from God, so repentance is a turning back to God.

Perhaps the word ‘repentance’ has unhappy overtones for some of us, because too many who have preached repentance have preached hell fire and have turned the gospel of love into a gospel of fear, and so have distorted the gospel of Jesus, whose constant concern was to bring men and women to a realisation of the astonishing nature of God’s love for them.

So rather than beating ourselves up, wallowing in a pit of guilt, we’re invited to re-orientate our lives, turning back to God who seeks us and yearns for us, just as the loving father scans the horizon for the return of the prodigal son.

While there’s a hard Lenten message here about our need to set aside all the things that get in the way of our relationship with God – overcoming our pride, our self-sufficiency, and all the false priorities we erect for ourselves – that message is also softened, as it always is, by the knowledge that God is gracious and forgiving.

The parable of the fig tree planted in the vineyard provides an insight here. The tree has produced no fruit for three years and the owner comes to the gardener and says, ‘Chop it down!’ Here’s the theme of judgement again, but note what happens. The gardener’s insistence on giving the tree more time shows us something of the character of God, pointing to his grace. More than that, the tree is nurtured with manure to help it flourish. We’re reminded of God’s patient desire for the salvation of all his children. Judgement is withheld and we’re given another chance.

Manure or dung is perhaps not something we normally associate with the Word and sacrament and prayer, but these are means of grace and are provided so that we might flourish and grow and bear fruit.

If our gospel passage is stark, reminding us of the fragility of life and our need to take stock of how we live, we can also take heart from that marvellous hymn to the love of God found in our first reading from Isaiah. Here’s a picture of God, like a trader in the market place, calling out, yearning for his people to share his good food and drink, freely available to all, without money and without price.

In our over-consumerised society, where we’re constantly bombarded with advertising inviting us to devote resources to non-essentials that ultimately leave us disappointed, here’s an invitation to something different, something lasting. It’s an image of an extravagant invitation to everyone to come to the banquet, where there’s forgiveness and love in abundance – an image of the Eucharistic feast where we find true sustenance.

How do we respond to that invitation?

George Herbert, the 17th-century poet and priest, began his poem ‘Lent’ with the thoughtful words, ‘Welcome, dear feast of Lent’. In the middle of our Lenten journey towards Easter, may our response be two-fold – yes, to examine our lives and to repent, but also to be still more deeply aware of how we are held in God’s love for us, and to have a heightened perception of how things truly are when seen in the light of God’s revealing himself in Jesus Christ. Amen.