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Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

Here’s a moment I’m sure you had to be there for. A group of my college friends were walking across campus in the fall, and we saw a dozen or so geese  that happened to be flying north. We all called out, almost in unison, “You’re going the wrong way!”

I think that’s what Jesus means when he warns people to turn from sin. He sees us going where we don’t want to go, and he names that. As the saying goes, when you realize you’re deep in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. “Turn from your sins or die” sounds harsh to our ears, but I don’t hear wrath in this, as if God were giving us just one last chance before blasting us to smithereens. Jesus isn’t announcing that we now have enough rope to hang ourselves. He’s acknowledging, “I see what you’re up to here; you’re on a road leading to death, and you won’t like it.”

In his conversation here, Jesus points to two key things about sin. First, in response to the story of tragedy and disaster, he reminds us that God is not in the punishment business. We should hear these stories as a caution about sin, not as a warning about God, Second, he moves from there to the fig tree that fails to produce. That’s obviously not because the tree made a bunch of bad choices, it’s because it’s broken and ill. Jesus’ response, then, is to nurture and tend it, not to burn it out. When he brought up the fig tree, Jesus knew he was talking about the temple, but we can also hear this as being about ourselves as religious people. When our life is not fruitful, not resulting in the joy we truly seek, Jesus doesn’t cut us down. Instead, he gets back down to our roots to nourish and strengthen us again.

Jesus responds this way because he knows that sin is not a behavior. It’s an illness. Our souls get sick, because our core of love is too fragile, or because our internal and external fears are too strong. Our desires can turn far from God and become needs of their own: needs for status, possessions, and security. We often start measuring by the wrong ruler. Then, yes, our behaviors can often become harmful to ourselves and others, with violence, anger, or cheating. But these “sins” are symptoms – the root of the illness is beneath the surface. The root of the illness – the real meaning of “sin” – is going the wrong way, taking in the wrong stuff, listening to a voice other than the voice of love.

One symptom of this illness is spending ourselves on what doesn’t satisfy us. Literally as much as figuratively, we often spend our resources on junk we don’t need or want. We even have a term for this: “retail therapy,” where we shop so we can feel better long enough to compensate for a bad day, some bad news, or bad relationships with ourselves or others. Or addictions, large and small. When a friend of mine got a new, better job, she suddenly realized just how much coffee she had drunk in her old position, to substitute a faux good feeling for the real thing. Or when we talk about the national economy, “recession” is now a dirty word, because real business cycles would remind us that the world is bigger than our paychecks and credit cards. So we keep spending, buying, and consuming, often just to avoid the worry of falling behind – or to shore up an identity that will eventually die.

Isaiah spoke to a people who worked hard for others. They were in captivity, building a country not their own and giving their whole selves to what doesn’t feed them. I’ve spoken to people with three-digit monthly incomes and four-digit accumulated utility bills, people with cars that cost more to run because they can’t afford to fix them, people who know just how incredibly expensive it is to live in poverty. We can feel just as trapped when we try to stack a fixed income against the tide of inflation or pour ourselves into family costs that just keep spiraling upwards. We often feel like Tennessee Ernie Ford: “You load 16 tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Only instead of owing our souls to the company store, we owe them to Visa, to the payday loan guy, to our medical bills. We’re captive to the ghosts of the past, the specters of the future, and the crises of the present.

To all this, Isaiah and Jesus say, “You’re going the wrong way!” They invite us to reorient our lives, to dig back down to the root of what matters, what satisfies us and glorifies God. They call us back into a community where all are fed. The promise is that God will lead us through the desert and bring us home, that Christ will lead us through death and bring us into life. God is not interested in making people successful in a world where money is the scorecard and collecting stuff substitutes for having bigger goals. God means to transform this world and focus us all on what truly matters.

So welcome to Lent. This is our time to look at what we know still isn’t right in the world. It’s our time to tell the truth, to acknowledge that we have problems we would like to avoid. So I invite you to look at your problem, whatever it is today. What’s it a symptom of? Look at your problem with Jesus’ compassion; believe that you’re known and loved b/y words, so you can put your soul-sickness in God’s perspective. Then turn to new life – feel grace restore your deepest roots – and may you savor the best food of all.