Weekly Meditation: 28th February 2016

3rd Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8

1st Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

There is comfort, together with two warnings, in today’s Bible passages.

That God loves his children is abundantly clear. He invites them freely to feast with him (Isaiah 55:1-2), to be restored and refreshed. He has made “an everlasting covenant” (v 3) with them and has “endowed [them] with splendour” (v 5). The Psalmist David knows God’s love intimately. He longs for God as a thirsty man in a desert would long for water (63:1), because “[God’s] love is better than life” (v 3), and – just like Isaiah’s image of feasting – to be in God’s presence is to be “satisfied as with the richest of foods” (v 5).

Images of feasting abound in the Old Testament. The worship of God revolved around sacrifices and feasts, as one of the strongest images of God’s provision for and fellowship with humans. Nothing is done by halves; cups overflow (Psalm 23:5) heads are anointed with oil that runs down beards and collars (Psalm 133:2). Even in the wilderness, the Israelites were provided with quail, manna from heaven (Exodus 16:13-16) and water from the rock (17:1-7). The apostle Paul carries forward this image into his first letter to the Corinthian church, but he spiritualises the food and drink supplied by God, and sees it as representing Christ who is our ultimate sustenance (10:1-4).

There is an enormous reservation hanging over all this, however. But … God had not been pleased with the people of the Exodus (1st Corinthians 10: 5) and what happened to them is a warning for us. We can take God’s provisions and his grace for granted, just as the Israelites did in turning to evil, idolatry, “pagan revelry”, “sexual immorality”, testing God and “grumbling” (v 6-10). Perhaps the Israelites were so confident in their “ownership” of the true God who had worked such miracles for them that they let down their guard. Or perhaps they viewed him as a “genie in a bottle”, there just to provide for them, and to be corked up afterwards. Either way, they fell – so that many of them lost their lives on the journey to the Promised Land (vv 5,9). “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (v 12).

That is the first warning – not to take God or our own status for granted; to beware lest we fall. Even those invited to the lavish feast in Isaiah’s prophecy (55:1-2) were warned that the invitation needed to be responded to quickly; “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (v 6). Also, just because they are invited does not mean that they are faultless. God challenges them to forsake “wicked ways” and “evil thoughts” (v 7). Even King David, loving God as he did, sought him “earnestly” and continually, acknowledging that he needed God as he needed food and drink (Psalm 63:1,5).

We can lose sight of God and allow our standards to slip. That is certainly a big problem today. Society is changing rapidly, and behaviour that not long ago would have been thought scandalous, is now condoned. I still think sex belongs exclusively in marriage, but in saying so I feel old fashioned and out of touch, because it seems that “everyone” is sleeping around, changing partners or “living together”. Thirty-five years ago, all heads turned when our two-year-old daughter suddenly piped up in a busy coffee shop, “Mummy, when are you and daddy going to get married?” (We were married – she just had not been there for the wedding). Now no one would blink. Couples are commended for trying each other out before committing to marriage. In trying to maintain our own standards, how far should we go in condemning what others are doing? This is where the second warning comes in.

In Luke’s gospel, chapter 13, we meet Jesus fielding questions from some of his followers regarding the perceived sins of others. Were individuals who came to a “sticky end” suffering for the sins they had committed? (v 1-5). Such questions are still asked. When the Twin Towers fell in 2001, there were some prominent Christians who claimed that it was God’s judgment on the nation for tolerating sin. Jesus, however, refused to go down that route. He turned the question back onto the questioners, and warned them, “Unless you repent you too will all perish” (vv 3, 5). He then told them a parable in which a fig tree was to be given sufficient time to prove itself rather than being prematurely cut down (vv 6-9). It is not for us to judge others; this is the second warning.

In focusing on the warnings, however, let us not forget the comfort of these lectionary readings. God wants to give time for everyone to turn to him; he has wonderful things prepared for those who love him and his door is – for the time being – wide open. The admonitions are for us as individuals; warnings to examine ourselves and our standing. We can leave the judging of others to God. “’My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’, declares the Lord”. (Isaiah 55:9).

By Susan Thorne