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. (Isaiah 55:6-7)
Our Gospel reading today is not an easy one to be sure. In it, Christ presents us with a challenging message to hear, to comprehend, and to respond to.
We’re told Jesus hears about a recent catastrophe: some Galilean pilgrims were slain by Pilate, the Roman governor, while they had come to the Temple to worship God. This leads Him to make some surprising remarks: “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.” He then says the same thing about those killed in Jerusalem when a tower collapsed: “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.”
Now one thing is obvious about this passage: it is a clear summons to repent… to turn away from our selfishness and sins, and to turn towards the Living God.
But wrapped up with this clear invitation to repent comes some nagging questions and concerns about how these two tragedies, and many others besides them, connect to our choices and actions. In other words, we might find ourselves asking today: is Jesus saying that those people simply got what they deserved? And that unless we repent and fix ourselves up, we’ll get what we deserve too?
Is this how we are supposed to think about the tragedies in our own lives? The sudden catastrophes that we and others find ourselves facing? What about the people of Mariupol, in Southeastern Ukraine? All those civilians besieged and bombarded by the Russian military? As heartbreaking as it is, are they just getting what was coming to them?
Sadly, sometimes even our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ have made these kinds of claims… trying to find some logic amid all the tragic and terrible events in our world. Sometimes it seems easier to try and draw a direct line between the evil that someone experiences and the evil that they somehow “must have” embraced.
This point of view is summed up in the sentiment: “we all get what we deserve.” So, when our life starts to fall apart by a frightening diagnosis… or by a betrayal, or an accident… the age-old questions come to mind: ‘Why me?’ ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ Or ‘what did those people we love and care for who are suffering… why did this have to happen to them?’ These questions come quite naturally.
But as natural and urgent as these kinds of questions can be, our Gospel reading today is not about drawing a direct line between all suffering and sin… such that we can look around at human misery and somehow explain it all away. Rather, Christ is instead offering us a warning… one that all of us must heed… but it is a warning that springs from the heart of the infinite mercy and steadfast love of God.
Just like us, the people in Jesus’ day wanted to understand the causes of catastrophes… they shared our impulse to try and explain what seems like random or unjust tragedies, and one common way was, just like Job’s friends, to try and find fault with the victims. ‘This must have been God’s judgement on them…’ ‘They must have done something horrible for that kind of thing to happen.’ ‘They must be getting what they deserve.’
Psychologically speaking, this kind of reasoning is often a strategy of self-preservation…. an attempt to assure ourselves that something like that couldn’t happen to us. Or at least to help us feel a more bit secure in a world where we often feel powerless. As long as we play by the rules, and keep our nose clean, this line of thought likes to assure us, then we won’t have to worry about those kind of tragedies.
The problem, of course, is that this clearly isn’t true. And it also leads to a dangerous kind of presumption… the attitude that somehow we are secure in our moral superiority. If sin leads directly to suffering, then I can look down on those in misery. After all, they’re only getting what they deserve, right?
This is the attitude, the presumption that Jesus forcefully attacks in our reading today, undermining the false sense of security this viewpoint fosters: ‘You think those folks were worse sinners than the rest of you? Forget it! Don’t assume you’re any better… turn around and put your trust in God!’
The scholar Marguerite Shuster has this to say regarding our reading: “Most emphatically—a point that cannot possibly be overemphasized—we have no justification for using a text like this one to free ourselves from anxiety about the fate of other people on the grounds that they are, after all, getting no more than they deserve. That would be to turn on its head what Jesus is doing here. What he is doing, though, is not very pleasant: he is telling those who are not at the moment suffering that they should not rest secure in their immediate comfort, for that comfort is not a sign of their positive moral deserts… Instead of resting secure, one should take grateful advantage of time given to repent, for it may be cut short at any moment.”
Jesus is not offering an argument for why those tragedies had happened at all. Instead of a why… He gives offers a what… a clear and urgent call to action. He’s warning us not to trust in our own self-righteous security… and instead calls us to turn to the LORD with all of our heart, and strength, and mind… and to do so NOW, without delay! It's not about how to avoid suffering, it’s a call to live faithfully every day… no matter what comes our way. A call to place our trust in the Living God, and stay true to our Saviour.
This is the same concern we heard in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians this morning, urging them to beware the dangers of spiritual presumption… of assuming we’re standing securely on solid ground when we are not. He offers up the example of the Israelites when they were rescued from slavery in Egypt… after they had already been saved by God, and were on the way to the Promised Land. Yet Paul reminds us, because of Israel’s persistent unfaithfulness, they kept on turning their backs to God their Saviour, and brought about all sorts of suffering on themselves as a result. They kept on choosing the roads that only led to death, when God had already done so much to spare them, to provide for and guide them… to bring them a whole New Life.
In light of their less than ideal example, St. Paul doesn’t want Christians to assume that because we’ve been baptized, or share in the other sacraments, or have experienced God’s salvation in the past, that we can now just live however we want to. Of course, all these things (Baptism, Holy Communion, powerful experiences of God’s saving grace) are wonderful gifts of God meant to draw us deeper into His fellowship and life, they are not guarantees that we can assume set us free to chase after our own desires. We cannot assume that because we are Christians how we live each day doesn’t matter: “if you think you are standing,” St. Paul warns us, “watch out that you do not fall.”
But along with that warning, St. Paul points us again to the grace and mercy of God: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:12-13).
Turn to the LORD and trust in Him, Paul says, even in the midst of our trials, knowing that He longs to be our gracious and faithful Saviour. Not giving us simply what we deserve, but abundantly more than we could ask or imagine!
This is what we heard from the LORD through the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading today: an invitation to share in the abundant generosity of God’s salvation. Isaiah 55:1-3.
“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.”
Everyone who thirsts, come… you that have no money, come, buy and eat… without money, and without price. No talk at all of what we deserve.
The scholar Timothy Saleska highlights the nature of this gracious invitation… this undeserved gift of God to all who turn to Him: “This banquet of salvation, this feast of victory, is not exclusive but inclusive! For all of us who are burdened by life’s failed expectations, by our own inadequacies, and by our sin, God says, “Come and eat!” For us who are afraid of death and who often feel as if we are slaves to circumstances beyond our control, God says, “Come and eat!” For everyone who is thirsty, here is water. To all of us who have no money—nothing to give—Yahweh still says, “Come and eat!” …This is indeed precious food. Not only do verses 1 and 2 invite all those who have nothing and have no means of their own, but in effect it says: “Your money is no good here anyway.” “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without means of exchange.” That doesn’t only say, “those who have nothing can still eat,” but also that the meal is not available for money anyway. No one can offer anything to get it because it is priceless—it has no price and is beyond price!”
Friends, God offers us not what we deserve… He gives us abundantly more! More mercy. More forgiveness. More fellowship. More meaning and hope, and joy. More peace, even in the midst of chaos and catastrophes. More comfort, even as we grieve. More life… even in in the very shadow of death.
And nowhere is the abundant grace of God more lavishly given than in the catastrophe of the cross; where the terrible cost of the sins of the world was bourn by the only One who did nothing at all to deserve it. Where Jesus Christ, gave His body to be broken to put our wicked and wayward world back together… and gave His precious blood to wash all of our sins away.
This is the same Jesus who warns us to turn our hearts today and every day to the Living God. To seek Him, to listen to His voice, and entrust our lives to His saving love, receiving His gift of New Life that Jesus paid for at the cross… and inviting others to join us in turning to Him with all our hearts.
I’ll end now with a few more words from Timothy Saleska: “In the end, Yahweh serves up Christ for us. In him we find compassion and pardon and eternal life. In him God keeps the covenant he made with David, and we receive the mercies of his eternal kingdom. He feeds our hungry souls and fills us with good things, all at no cost to us (remember, the feast is priceless) but of course at great cost to him.
And so, in Christ the meal is ready. He brings us the precious gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. And he wants us to come. As the text says, “Seek him while he allows himself to be found… Call him while he is near!” The meal is ready now. Now is the time of salvation. In his word and the proclamation of it and in his supper in which he offers his very body and blood, the God of pardon and peace and eternal life is to be found. In Christ, the work of the servant is freely offered. Come and eat!” Amen.
 Marguerite Shuster, “Third Sunday in Lent, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 392.
 Timothy E. Saleska, “Third Sunday in Lent, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 365.
 Timothy E. Saleska, “Third Sunday in Lent, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 366–367.