We are coming up on the halfway mark in our Lenten journey, and our Scripture readings aren’t letting us off the hook. God calls Moses to an impossible task; the Psalmist is dying of thirst; Paul sternly reminds the Corinthians of the deadly consequences of misbehavior; and Jesus utters a dire warning to those who don’t bear fruit for the Kingdom: repent or else.
It’s a challenge to find the good news today.
As Mark Trotter reminded us last week, this season is about repentance, and Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, is urgent in his call for the people of God to repent. The people who crowd around him want to know why innocent people suffer. We ask the same question when an Uber driver shoots people at random, when a tree falls in a storm and crushes someone passing by, when our loved ones are felled by cancer. We want to know that there is logic in the universe, that there is a reason why one person is killed in a tornado while another is spared.
But Jesus calls our attention back from others to ourselves. Don’t worry about whether someone else deserved what they got: look to your own life and get that in order while you still can. When I heard the news about Justice Scalia a couple of weeks ago a petition from our Great Litany came to mind: from dying suddenly and unprepared, good Lord, deliver us. We are called to regular self-examination and yes, repentance, and Lent is a good time to start, because in Lent we walk on holy ground, the road that leads to the Cross.
But for many of us, paying attention to our own lives and to what God is doing in them represents a shift in our behavior. The amendment of life, what the Bible calls metanoia, is a process, not a one-time change. I think that’s in part why the church in her wisdom has given us a whole season in which to practice it. Ash Wednesday gets us started with the Litany of Penitence and the imposition of ashes, but that’s not enough. I know I need more than one jolt to get me heading in a new direction, and by the middle of Lent I might be just beginning to get to grips with it.
We start by paying attention. Moses was following the flock when something odd caught his eye. He might have walked on; perhaps others had seen the flaming bush and hurried past in fear. But Moses paid attention. He was curious. He stepped boldly onto holy ground. He asked the question: how can this be? And God rewarded him for that curiosity, that inquiring mind, that boldness, by speaking to him, by revealing God’s self to him, by recruiting him for an awesome task. I will send you, God says, to bring my people out of captivity. And so began the long and tumultuous relationship between Moses and the God of Israel, the God of a people whose very name means “those who wrestle with God”.
Centuries later, God’s people are once again in captivity. They are occupied and cruelly oppressed. The Roman governor has no compunction about murdering the Jewish people even on their holiest ground, in the Temple. The nation is in crisis, beset by injustice and corruption; the people are looking for a leader who will do as Moses did, who will liberate them from fear. They are looking for a Messiah who will fight and conquer as the Israelites once conquered the land and made it their own. Many of them think Jesus is that Messiah. But Jesus is a different kind of Messiah. He is marching on Jerusalem, yes, but not at the head of an army. He plans to confront the oppressive powers, yes, but not with force of arms. He will defeat the powers that be, but not by violent rebellion.
As he walks the road to the Cross, Jesus confronts the oppressive powers over and over. He teaches about love, about forgiveness, about abundance and sharing, about building on rock and seeking lost sheep and welcoming the stranger. In a culture that is fueled by fear, where the wealthy hold all the cards and the authorities have sold out to imperial powers, such teaching is confrontational indeed. As he approaches Jerusalem, Jesus focuses more narrowly on the national disfunction.
The parable of the fig tree is aimed at Israel herself: it’s not good enough to take up space, to claim a position just because the roots of Israel’s identity go deep in the garden of God’s creation. She must bear fruit. God is patient, but the time is coming when God will call others to service, when the chosen people will no longer be favored over other nations.
Jesus knows how unlikely it is that Israel’s leaders will heed his warnings. In fact, all his efforts will achieve is to put a price on his head and seal his fate. Those who seek to correct a community’s culture will always face resistance, sometimes resistance so strong that it leads to crucifixion. Those with a stake in the status quo aren’t interested in repentance.
But what about us? Assuming we aren’t going to join the scribes and Pharisees in their obstinacy, how shall we go about this Lenten exercise of amendment of life?
First we pay attention. We look closely at the burning bushes in our lives. We listen for the voice of God calling us into loving relationship and we trust that promise to be with us no matter what. We turn from judging others to reflecting on our own brokenness. Time is short: today is all we have, and there is no knowing what tomorrow may bring.
We bring ourselves before God, not just the good bits, the shiny bits, the well-behaved bits, but also the parts of ourselves that we would rather not see: the cruelty, the thoughtlessness, the selfishness, the pain we don’t want to feel. We bring it all to God and we proclaim our willingness to be changed by love. And God will change us. This is a God who acts. The burning bush is alive; God creates life out of what was dead and brings into being things that had no being. Our God longs for us to turn our lives around, to recognize that we are loved, and to bear fruit.
Take off your shoes, for this is holy ground. We walk the way of the Cross in Lent looking for the ways God speaks to us, the places God calls us to go, the tasks God has for us to attempt. We pay attention, we look inward, and we step forward, following Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, even all the way to the Cross if that is where he leads. This business of repentance and amendment of life isn’t easy; it’s a struggle – the people of God are those who wrestle with God – but the struggle results in abundance of life, in liberation of the captive, in resurrection. Let resurrection be our hope and our destination.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
Third Sunday in Lent