Today, we receive an astounding promise. Despite our past, our sin and imperfection, God has great plans for us. During Lent, we remember our mortality and all that separates us from God, but more importantly we trust God’s promise that our future – and the future of this church – is in God’s hands, and that God’s has a vision for each of us and everyone we love, and that God’s vision is for good and not for evil, for a future and a hope.
The children of Israel are in crisis. For over a century the nation has been a pawn caught between Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. And for the past seventy years, the elite of the nation have been in exile in Babylon. Generations have come and gone, and many don’t even remember a time of freedom. Now, the time of exile is passing, with the demise of the Babylonian Empire. The possibility of freedom is frightening: the people have no idea about what’s next. Freedom may be on the horizon, but freedom for what?
In this time of uncertainty, the prophet Isaiah emerges and tells the people that their best years lie ahead. God will provide for their deepest needs. Everyone will have enough food, and scarcity will be no more. More than that, hope will be reborn. The nation will prosper and become a beacon to humankind. Out of despair emerges vocation and mission.
Jesus’ words also come in a time of crisis. His spiritual honeymoon is over. Jesus is still getting great crowds, people are being healed, outsiders welcomed, and spirits revived, but there is tension in the air, and the cross is on the horizon. If he’s true to his vocation, Jesus will embody the prophesy that the Messiah must suffer. He will come to Jerusalem in glory and in less than a week, Jesus will be abandoned by his followers and crucified.
Perhaps, struggling with his own anxiety, Jesus’ words to his followers are dark and mysterious. He speaks of tragedy – political violence by Herod and the fall of a tower, both examples of meaningless suffering, and reminds his listeners that life holds no guarantees. Good and evil, and rich and poor, can be the victims of fate.
Out of the blue, we receive the diagnosis of cancer; a friend in good health dies of a heart attack; a child is hit by a speeding car; a boat sinks off Greece and a refugee family drowns; an A student becomes addicted to opioids . Our lives are precarious, and much as we want to deny it, we are always at risk. In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death, as Martin Luther confesses.
Life is amazing but also risky and we need to be prepared for wonder and tragedy alike. Jesus calls his followers to repent, and to turn their lives around: I think he means to get your life together, deepen your faith, and put God at the center of your life, because eventually you will have to give up everything you hold dear. Eventually, you will have to go through the valley of the shadow of death, you can’t go around it or avoid it; it is inevitable for all of us, and that’s frightening.
The story is told of the night of falling stars. As stars appear to fall from the sky, the village is filled with terror. People run to and fro, wildly shouting, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling.” In their fright, they seek the counsel of an ancient couple known for their wisdom. Hearing words of gloom and doom, the couple look at the heavens, pause a few moments, and respond, “Yes, the stars are falling, but look at the ones that are forever in place.”
Look to what is everlasting. Look to God’s faithfulness amid life’s challenges. Don’t succumb to the fear mongers or the scarcity speakers. “Be afraid,” they tell us, “be really afraid,” they counsel. These, however, are not the words of Jesus, who faces the cross, knowing that God is stronger than death and that beyond the cross is everlasting life.
Jesus tells the story of a barren fig tree. The owner wants to cut it down, but the gardener says, “Give it one more year. Let me nourish it, and give it all I have, and then let’s make a decision about the future.” Jesus assures us that our God is always giving us another chance. Every moment brings possibilities and energies. Every moment brings the opportunity to turn around and take a new path, to choose life, and begin again. God is not out to get us, God is out to love us.
Today, let us turn from fear to love, and hopelessness to loving action. We have work to do and we can do it if we remember that we are the change we’ve been looking for. God has a vision for us to be God’s partners in bringing a future and a hope to our community, our church, and the world.