Wondrous Love

Sermon for Sunday, March 3, 2013
Lent 3C
Exodus 3: 1-15;  Psalm 63: 1-8;  1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9; 
Hymn #439: What Wondrous Love Is This
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss, to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul—to lay aside his crown for my soul?

 What wondrous love is this that could possibly have moved God, in the person of Jesus Christ, to sacrifice his life for people like you and me?  For people as wayward and worldly, as willful and wounded, as we are?

Is there anyone who thinks we deserve such wondrous Love?

But God’s life-generating Love is as non-discriminatory as Death’s heart-aching inevitability. It is for everyone–without exception.  We no more deserve the gift of love we’ve been given, than the dance with death we can in no way avoid.

What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown for our souls for our souls? It’s Love that can quench the soul’s thirst, slake the parched soil of our lives, infuse our roots with the stuff of life, and transform us into the healthy and fruit-bearing creatures we are meant to be… flourishing on God’s holy ground. It’s crazily unstoppable, unbounded, unconditional Love–that neither delights in death nor sets time limits on its own outpouring.  Love that pronounces, “I AM who I AM” in one breath, and pleads in the next for a little more time to coax us with its gentle touch into loving back…

What wondrous love is this that longs for us to turn around and yield our hearts, our minds, and our souls into intimate relationship with God? It is Divine Love; creative Love; extravagantly generous, self-sacrificing Love that can never be merited or earned.  Love that knows no limits—Love that simply is by its very nature for everyone, everywhere, evermore.  For Moses and his freedom-seeking people, for the psalmist rejoicing under the shadow of Love’s wings, for Paul and his prosecutorial perspective–and for the Galileans whose blood was on Pilate’s hands, the victims of Siloam’s fallen tower, the owner of the vineyard, his gardener, and yes, even for the fig tree, for us.

You see, this wondrous Love that lay aside its crown for our souls is for us, not against us.  It is to be followed not feared, embraced not evaded, relished not resisted.  This wondrous Love is God–our Creator, our Savior, our very Breath.

And yet like our first century brothers and sisters in the faith, we harbor primitive, frightening vestiges of a fearsome God the Final Arbiter, who sees into the dark recesses of our hearts and metes out divine punishment.   Childlike fears fester in us, of a God defined by judgment rather than mercy, a God of cause and effect, who rewards the lives of the good and punishes the lives of the bad.

But how devastatingly heartbreaking this must be for the wondrous Love of God that lay aside its crown for our souls!

So Jesus speaks a corrective word on behalf of the misunderstood Almighty, the Divine I AM that is God’s own infinitely patient and merciful Self.  And the word he speaks is “No.”  No, Jesus says unequivocally, those who were killed by Pilate’s henchmen, and those crushed by the falling tower—none of them were any more sinful than any one else. Death is indiscriminate.  People die. And sometimes they die without warning.  They no more deserved to die than you do.

But I have a warning for you, Jesus continues.  Unless you repent–unless you turn your life around to embrace the wondrous Love of God and be transformed by it, you will perish just as they did–which is to say, unprepared.

This hits us like a slap in the face and we are suddenly attentive–awakened from the deep sleep of denial:  “They” are “we.” Now wondering why bad things happen to good people seems a pretty pointless pursuit: they happen to all people– and that means us. We are clearly confronted with the certainty of our own deaths and our lack of preparedness for unexpected ones. Death is no more influenced by our worthiness or lack thereof than is that wondrous Love of God in which we live and move and have our being.

And so we are called to prepare—called to “repent” to use the biblical word.  Called to humble our hearts, our minds, and our souls so we may embrace a mature relationship with God…called to contemplate the contingency of our lives, our total dependence on the source of such wondrous love that gives us the pure grace of every breath we take…called to know the deep spiritual joy and sustained gratitude that such spiritual preparation engenders.

What Jesus is saying to the crowd—and what he’s saying to us right now—is that we need to yield our wills to God’s will and open our hearts to God’s loving presence not annually, during Lent, but daily—moment by moment—purposefully and mindfully praying, “Yes, Lord, you are here.  Thy will not mine be done.”

Because to bear fruit, whatever barriers come between us and God’s wondrous Love must be removed– like Moses taking off his shoes– so that we might say with the psalmist, “My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.”

So the bearer of God’s wondrous Love tells a parable about a barren fig tree.  And if we allow ourselves to be held hostage by an old childlike fear of a punishing God, we will identify God as the landowner, Jesus as the gardener, and ourselves as the fig tree.  But parables don’t work that way, and try as we might to make the corresponding connections click, they doesn’t.  They’re not supposed to.

Presumably we know by now that God’s life-generating Love is as non-discriminatory as Death’s heart-aching inevitability.  Presumably we know by now that God’s life-generating love is for everyone, everywhere, evermore.  And presumably we know by now that Jesus Christ is God’s embodiment of that life-giving love who came not to judge the world but to save it.

Could it be, then, that the frightening voice of judgment we hear in this parable is not God’s but our own?  Could it be we are the ones judging ourselves so harshly, instead of yielding ourselves to the tender care of the Gardener?

The parable of the fig tree invites us to consider what hidden parts of ourselves the fig tree might represent.  It calls us to have compassion and mercy on those dark places and to let God’s wondrous Love nourish them and transform them into sources of new life and new growth.  The Love of God in Christ Jesus can and will transform our failures, our shortcomings and our sins into things of grace and beauty and remarkable value in the service of God. Nothing need be wasted.

Because when we yield to God’s wondrous Love, we freely embrace the truth of this morning’s opening prayer that, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” When we yield to God’s wondrous Love, our hearts cry out like the psalmist’s,  “your loving-kindness is better than life itself; my lips shall give you praise!” When we yield to God’s wondrous Love, we invite Christ to transform the barren branches of our egos into rich fruit-bearing lovers of His people and His creation. “Here I am,” we are invited to pray with hearts open wide, “My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.  Teach me to release my fears and cling to you, that we may walk the Holy Ground of wondrous Love together. Thy will not mine be done. Amen.”

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