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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Repent or perish

Texts: Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63.1-8; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9

Today the Scriptures confront us with the question: ‘do you hunger and thirst for nothing, or do you hunger and thirst for God?’ The Psalmist clearly hungers and thirsts for God; and God, out of an infinite kindness, satisfies this hunger completely:
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water . .  My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips . . . for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
Isaiah, on the other hand, speaks of a desire that is not so satiated, a hunger and a thirst that is not quenched because it is a hunger and a thirst for something other than God:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
To spend one’s labour and one’s money on things that can never, in a million years, bring satisfaction is to spend oneself for nothing.  Some of you will remember the Rolling Stone’s hit from the early 60s ‘Satisfaction’.  In part, that song goes like this:

When I'm drivin' in my car
And that man comes on the radio
He's tellin' me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can't get no satisfaction

When I'm watchin' my T.V.
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
The same cigarettes as me
I can't get no satisfaction.

The point made by this song and, nowadays, in a slightly more sophisticated manner by cultural critics like Noam Chomsky, is that you can never satiate an essentially spiritual hunger with food or drink or consumer goods, no matter what the advertisers might say. For while the consumer society lives from the human desire for things – a bigger or better house, car, phone, dress, suit, storage-solution, diet, boyfriend, body – none of these things will ever do the trick.  For in the end, for all their shiny attractiveness and glitter, consumer goods are like mirages.  They come into view, they attract our attention and give birth to a desire.  But once we possess them – once we have them in our hands - they disappear.  For consumer goods never deliver what they promise: happiness, peace, contentment, and end to the never-ending cycle of desire.  Having shelled out our hard-earned cash, what we finally hold in our hands is nothing, nothing substantial.  What we possess, instead, is a shell with a hollow heart.  And this hollowness signifies nothing other than the hollowness we continue to experience in the heart of ourselves, the hollowness of unfulfilled desire.  So out we go again, on the hunt for something that can finally fill the void.

According to the faith of Christians, in fact there is only one thing that will fill the void, and that thing is not really a thing at all, but a person, the God made known in Jesus Christ.  Jesus, as Bach memorably wrote, is the joy of all our human desiring.  He is the bread and the water and the wine that can finally satiate our thirst.  He is reality, the truly substantial, solid and concrete and undeniable as you like.  We are all searching for him, whether we know it or not; but we seldom find him because we in search for in all the wrong places.  He is the one who can fill the great big hole in our hearts.  By comparison, everything else is an insubstantial as fog. 

The problem, of course, with hungering and thirsting for every damned thing that is not God is that you can eventually starve to death.  Perhaps not literally – we might still be walking around – and yet we do so as zombies.  You know, the walking dead who have no zest for life, no joie de vivre.  In the passage we read this morning from 1 Corinthians chapter 10, the Apostle Paul speaks about the history of God’s people Israel and points out that even though the people of Israel saw the reality of God with their own eyes - having been led out of their slavery in Egypt with great power and an undeniable series of miraculous signs - when they found themselves in the desert of Sinai they nevertheless began to hanker after everything they had left behind in Egypt.  They hankered even for the conditions of slavery from which they had been freed.  They longed, in other words, for that which is evil, for that which makes not for life, but for death.  Many who were possessed by that desire in fact perished in the wilderness.  Their corpses littered the desert.  Now how do you explain that?  How do you explain a desire for evil and not for good, especially when evil’s greatest longing is for our death? 

Psychologically, one might refer to what is sometimes called the ‘battered wife’ syndrome, that is, the tendency of a person to return to a place of evil and abuse simply because living at home with an abusive spouse is, in the end, less scary that moving out into an unfamiliar world where one has to discover a completely new identity and reason for living.  ‘Who am I if not a battered wife?’ someone once asked me. ‘How do I handle emotions other than fear and self-loathing? I’ve completely forgotten, if I ever knew them at all, how to feel joy, or peace or love?  I don’t think I could handle it.’  In the face of such uncharted territory, many a person will return into the storm rather than head for safe harbour.  ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ says the proverb.  But there is a theological way of speaking about these things, also.  The apostle calls our preference for evil rather than good by the biblical name ‘idolatry’.  Now, an idol is an object we make, but then forget that it is we who made it. We then elevate that self-made object into the place that only God should properly occupy, the space of our greatest desire, the place of our deepest love and worship.  But here’s the rub (and the philosopher Feuerbach wrote about this extensively more than a century ago):  any object that we make and then elevate to the status of a deity most often symbolises nothing other than ourselves, our deepest desires, the things we long for most.  To then worship such a thing is therefore to do nothing other than worship ourselves.  It is become like Narcissus in the Greek myth, who becomes so enamoured by his own image on the surface of a pool that, in the attempt to hold and possess his own reflection, he falls in and drowns.  The love of things in other words, is really the love of ourselves, a worshipping of our own ingenuity at creating ever-new ways to deceive ourselves.   And it is a sad fact that most of us would rather worship ourselves than God.  Even if, by so doing, we make ourselves miserable with hunger and thirst.

For miserable is what we are, is it not, when no matter how hard we work and how many things we obtain as the just deserts of our hard work, we nevertheless feel as empty as a drum?  The truth is this, you see:  we cannot, no matter how hard we try, replace our need for God with an idol that represents ourselves.  The good and the beautiful and the true, the life worth living, the life that is meaningful and joyful is not something we can actually create for ourselves by the sweat of our brow.  Human beings are not God.  We cannot create such wondrous phenomena out of nothing.  When they come our way, the good the beautiful and the true arrive not by hard work or ingenuity, but as sheer gift or grace, an act of unconditional love from God.  Such gifts are indeed priceless, as Isaiah says:
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.
No matter how clever or rich or hardworking you are, you will not be able to buy, beg or steal the life of joy.  It is like the manna that the Israelites ate in the desert of Sinai.  It is like the water they drank from the rock.  It is a gift that cannot be stored or profited from.  It is God’s gift in Jesus Christ, and in the way of life that he represents.  It is grace, and mercy and peace with one’s enemies. 

So if you feel like you are on a treadmill, or like a mouse on one of those wheels in a cage, or if you value your house, your car, your toys, your clothes, your social reputation, or even the apparent ‘needs’ of your family more than you value the gift of God, then I would encourage you to ‘repent’.  Yes, ‘repent’!  Not a fashionable word, I know, but then again preachers are not called to be fashionable!  When the gospel-writer talks about ‘repentance’, he means this: to change one’s heart, to stop longing for things and start longing for God; to stop going in one direction, to turn around 180 degrees, and go in the opposite direction.  Repentance, you see, is not just for the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, those whom we rightly see as evil incarnate.  It is also for us, with our far more ordinary and prosaic evils.  The evil, for example, that is content to let the rest of the world starve to death and descend into endemic criminality so long as we are able to preserve the comforts and relative affluence of our own homes and hearth.  Repentance is what Lent is about.  It is a return to the promise we all made at our baptism to turn away from the devil, and all his works, and turn instead to Christ and his gift of life, life in all its fullness.  It is to turn from a life of empty slavery, in the thrall of our many idols, toward a life of thanksgiving for the many gifts that God bestows upon his beloved people.  It is to reimagine the fruitfulness of our lives, not in terms of the quest for safety and status and the accumulation of things, but in terms of our readiness in the power of God to produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience and self-discipline.

So let us reflect on our lives in the light of the word that is able to give life. Let us give away the appetites that lead to death, and let us repent.  A change of heart can make all the difference, both for ourselves and for the world at large.

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