Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near
A sermon for the third Sunday in Lent
As we move towards Easter, our thoughts begin to turn to our part in the breaking and the healing needed in those who would walk with Christ through Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Today’s readings challenge us to reflection and growth along this path.
In the first reading we hear the prophet Isaiah trying to find words and images to describe the offer of boundless life God makes to all.
The opening phrase of the reading sets the scene. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy, and eat’
God is calling everyone to himself. Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters he says; what a splendid image! A satisfying life is potentially available to every one of us. In every generation, and the present is no exception, life apart from God proves unsatisfying or incomplete; we thirst for something more. Think for a moment what a cup of cool, clear water tastes like when we are really, really thirsty. This is what God is offering in spiritual sense.
Over the years others have made the same discovery as Isaiah. H.G. Wells used a different image for this experience when he said that there is a God-shaped hole in each person’s heart, while the great poet and preacher, John Donne, who had been a right terror as a young man, said of a life lived close to God: T’is such a full and filling good. If you are thirsty – come and drink.
The remainder of that opening call is In Isaiah: “Those without money, come, buy, and eat”. All are invited to the great feast of heaven. You do not have to be perfect to get in. The prophet speaks God’s word that his welcome is completely beyond any legalistic requirement; God’s kingdom is open to everybody and without payment. It is open to the most sinful. There is no question of worthiness. He who has no money is invited, entry cannot be bought. We cannot guarantee our place. There is room and food enough for all; we just have to come!
If we turn now to near the end of the reading Isaiah says:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near,
Let the wicked forsake his way, let him return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God for he will abundantly pardon.”
Here we find God’s response to those who have come to the feast – joined God’s community – but then have slipped back into old unloving ways. Again, healing this breach between us and God is initiated by God. The prophet stresses God is actively reaching out to us, Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; and this despite the fact that we have actively or casually drifted away from him.
There is a second point to this however. The prophet says that we must take an active part in this return to God. We must turn again to God and actively choose to give up our unloving habits and choices. God does not force us to do this, but it does not happen if we do not take his invitation to heart. Our part in this healing might be subordinate but it is indispensable. There must be a genuine turning towards God on our part. Otherwise our prayers are just an expression of our unhappiness, not a determined return to following God’s will.
We come then to the last couple of verses of the Isaiah reading. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither 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 higher than your thoughts.” The cosmic comparisons are a vivid reflection of the momentous importance the prophet attached to his message of repentance and forgiveness.
To us these wonders of the divine grace that we have been just hearing about seem unreasonable and the universal offer of salvation hard to understand, but God’s priorities are different from ours. His range of vision is universal and includes everyone. His understanding of the human heart is deeper than human understanding and as a consequence, his way of doing things is different from our way of doing things. It is precisely because of this that the invitation to seek and to call and to return has such force. For God is permitting himself to be found by first drawing near to each of us. God is awesomely transcendent yet he draws near to those who seek him and repent.
We have seen in this wonderful reading the promise and hope freely available to those who, for whatever reason, think they might be beyond the Grace and welcome of God. No one is beyond God’s mercy; all that is needed is for us to turn to the God who is nearer to us than our breath is to our heart. “T’is such a full and filling good”
If we now move on to the New Testament readings, we are confronted with entirely different challenges to Christian living. Both readings are directed to those who consider themselves part of God’s kingdom but have become overconfident of their place and lax in behaviour as a consequence.
In the epistle we hear of the perils of such overconfidence.
Paul is writing to his Corinthian friends to deal with various issues that have arisen in their congregation. One of these issues is that they have become a bit cocky and are acting as though they are guaranteed a place in the kingdom, no matter what they do. And they have not been acting well. In response to all the great gifts God has shared amongst them, they have become arrogant and unloving. So human!
In response to their behaviour towards one another, Paul reminds them of a bit of Jewish history. He lists some of the things God did for the Israelites while bringing them out of Egypt and of how they responded. God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt by opening the Reed Sea, they had the cloud and pillar of fire that led them day and night, they had been given the manna to eat in the wilderness – they had every reason to believe God was with them. In response they gave into sexual licence, they made an idol to worship, they grumbled and rebelled over and over.
The whole history of Israel shows that the people who enjoyed the greatest privileges God could give were far from being safe from temptation, self-centredness and arrogance. Paul is saying ‘let those who think they are safe take heed lest they, like the Israelites fall and are lost’. Let those who are so cocky, so sure they are saved, beware. Our faith is meant to be confronting, calling us to grow; not so comfortable, we drift away.
Finally in the Gospel we hear of the consequences of not listening and responding to what God is actually saying to us.
Jesus laments over Jerusalem. Israel keeps drifting away from God. However they do not notice this is happening as they continue to keep the outward appearances. They have built a magnificent new temple dedicated to the worship of God. And the people come, make sacrifice, and think they have done all that is necessary, they have ticked the right boxes; they can now get on with their lives however they wish. But – in the olden days and again in Jesus time – they are not listening. They are sure they know what God wants. The fact that God might have different priorities does not enter their heads – they refuse to listen and the consequences are dire.
We must therefore ask ourselves the same questions – are we praying, and studying, and acting in ways that will allow us to hear what God says to us – or are we simply doing what we are used to – are we comfortable in our patterns of life and worship and do not want to change? Are we refusing to listen for fear of what we might hear? What is God calling us to do? Perhaps we are like the people of Jerusalem? Are we, as individuals and as a parish, going to be assailed and destroyed by those opposed to lives of faith, like the Jews in Jerusalem when the Roman legions came?
So, our lessons today give us two great messages. Firstly, we should take to heart the great promises in Isaiah – there is Grace enough for all – come and drink if you are thirsty. Secondly, what is the way we are meant to walk with Jesus? Easter is a time for us as a parish and as individuals to listen, to reflect and to act.