At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "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?" Luke 13:1-3, NRSV
Isaac existed in a realm of fog and shadows. People appeared as if out of nowhere, their faces indistinct, yet vaguely familiar; their voices a muffled whisper, barely audible, hardly understandable. And then, just as quickly, they would vanish again back into the fog which engulfed him.
His emotions were just as clouded and hazy. Oh, there was anger at first, intense, white hot, searing; but it soon flashed out, giving way to feelings of helplessness and despair, and then ultimately to numbness, nothingness. Flat. Sterile. That is what his existence had become. Two-dimensional. He was reduced to a mere cipher of himself on the scroll of human existence.
He wasn't always like this. There were distinct flashes in his mind of times when he was happy, joyous and free. Even living as a Galilean transplant in Jerusalem and having even closer contact with those disgusting Romans. Ari had made it all bearable. He would put a bowl on his head as a mock helmet and do an impersonation of a Roman soldier that would have him in stitches for hours. Pops would have been so proud to see his sons working side by side in the family pottery business. He, Isaac, the master craftsman, and Ari, with his wit and charm the salesman deluxe. They made a good team and a good living for themselves even in those difficult times.
Through it all, Ari kept him laughing and kept him faithful. Isaac never had much use for religious faith. Being a Jew was more of an ethnic identity than a religious one for him. But Ari would not let him forget the deeper meaning of his Jewish identity. Isaac went to synagogue more out of duty and obligation. "Hey, at least I go," he would tell his protesting brother. The whole enterprise didn't make much sense to him though: old stories of long ago ancestors and a mysterious God who somehow singled them out of all the peoples of the world for special relationship. Yeah, right. He just sort of politely smile and pray that he wouldn't fall asleep and start snoring. But when Ari talked about the Jewish life of faith and explained things to him, it seemed to make more sense. Imagine that, his younger brother, the consummate salesman, being his rabbi. What would Pops thought about that?
So, when on that fateful day, Ari went off to offer sacrifice, Isaac let him go, even though they were in the midst of a rush order that was backing everything else up. Rabbi Ari, off to the Temple, Practical Isaac at home to work the wheel and fire the kiln. "We all make our own sacrifices," he could remember thinking to himself.
But then it got late. Ari never came home. That wasn't like him. He was prompt and true to his word to a fault. Isaac became worried. What could have happened? If he slipped out on him, leaving him behind with all that work... No, Ari was not like that. Something must be wrong. He hurriedly shut down the store, praying he remembered to shut off the kiln. As he approached the Temple he remembered a growing sense of foreboding and a knot in his stomach the size of Egypt.
The rest was a blur. The gawking crowd. The wailing women. And the smell of blood. He pushed his way through the chaos. Blood. A sea of red. Goat blood. Lamb blood. Human blood. All mixed together and indistinguishable. And there was Ari's lifeless body, a death grip on the lead of the lamb that he had purchased. The lamb was stunned and silent. Splashes of red like flames illuminating its fleecy coat. It looked up at Isaac with confused eyes.
Ari never got to offer his sacrifice. Ari became the sacrifice. Isaac barely remembered releasing the lamb and watching it wander off into the maze of people. He simply clutched his brother close to him, not even noticing the blood that stained his tunic.
Then the anger. Then the fog. It turns out that the Roman flunky of a governor, Pilate, got it in his head that day to sacrifice a few Jews. Why? Pilate probably had his reasons, but none that would make sense to any sane human being. Romans! Ari was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. A victim of a mad man's random wanton violence. Ironic, Isaac mused, Ari a victim of randomness in what he professed to be a God ordered world. Where was this God when Ari needed him most? What could Ari have done to deserve such a fate? Surely God didn't sacrifice Ari, because of Isaac's doubt and indifference? The questioning. The doubt. The accusing finger-pointing. The guilt. It was too much for Isaac to relive. He drifted back into the oblivion of his foggy existence.
One day some friends dragged him along to see this new rabbi that was the rage of the whole countryside, Jesus. Quite a reputation, they told him. Healed lepers. Gave sight to the blind. Even cast out demons. Quite a show. And to top it all off he was reported to be quite the preacher and teacher. Should make for great entertainment, they told him. Nothing like a good exorcism to perk up one's spirit! Besides, they reasoned, you have hardly left your house since, well, since it happened. And so they whisked Isaac away. He didn't have the energy to put up much of a protest.
Jesus, it turned out, was a rather unimpressive, ordinary looking man with a small entourage of followers. They found him setting in the Temple courts with his followers gathered around him, much like any plain old run-of-the-mill rabbi. They sat down on the edge to listen. It was pretty unspectacular, not very memorable at all until one of his buddies, wishing to to stir the pot, blurted out, "Hey, teacher, what do you think about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?"
Time stood still. Jesus looked up. He looked right at Isaac and his friends. Then Isaac saw a little flash of recognition in Jesus' eyes. He felt very naked and transparent. Jesus saw his guilt and despair. Jesus saw his rage and doubt. Jesus knew him. And despite all of the ugliness he carried around with him, Jesus loved him.
Oh, Ari... Tears, long dammed up, began to flow freely and pool on the ground, much like the blood had flowed and pooled in the Temple on that day. Oh, Ari... And now under Jesus' knowing gaze, Isaac began to realize what Ari had always tried to teach him: Life is God's daily gift to us, what we do with it is our gift to God. How many times had Ari said that to him? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? Now Isaac began to realize. now he began to understand. "God, forgive me!" he prayed falling to his knees. On that day, the fog that had engulfed Isaac, began to dissipate...
We want things to make sense. We want things to be fair. We want them to be right. We want to think that we get what we deserve, if not in this life, at least in the next. Problem is, what we want is not always reality. The wicked prosper. The righteous suffer. Face it, we can piously say, "Everything happens for a reason," until we turn blue; but that doesn't make it so. The fact is, stuff happens. That's reality. We are all sinners. We all fall short of God's glory. We are all dependent solely on God's grace for life.
"Don't think these are any worse sinners than any others," says Jesus, "Repent while you still can." Turn to God and trust in his grace for life, for you never know when a fatal heart attack, or a car wreck, or even a violent home invasion may occur. Treat each day, each person, as the precious gift of God they are, and live with a grateful and praise-filled heart.
Consider the fig tree in Jesus' parable: given a gift, a reprieve, another day to bear fruit, fruit worthy of repentance. Just as that tree depended upon the care of a loving gardener for the things that make for a life of abundance; so, too, we are dependent upon God for all that we need for life. And, yes, the pruning can prove painful, and the fertilizer messy and stinky, and the whole process long and drawn out and seemingly leading nowhere. And, yet, God still gifts us with another chance, another opportunity, another possibility for trust and repentance and life in abundance.
The questions asked by this text are not so much "Why?" but "How?" How can we live life in such a way, that we live out of God's gift of grace? How do we treat others as God's special gifts of grace to us? How do we bear fruit worthy of our calling as baptized Children of God?
As this season of Lent continues, may these questions lead us deeper and closer into relationship with the one who is our life, our hope, our love. Amen
Sermon for Lent 3c (RCL)
I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.