2/28/2016 Third Sunday in Lent The text is Luke 13:1-9.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Tornadoes strike the states of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. People die in the aftermath. Freak snow squalls cause multi-car pile-ups. People die in the aftermath. Gunmen walk into shopping malls and movie theaters and shoot anything that moves. People die and are maimed in the aftermath.
Why some people suffer as a result of natural disasters and humanity’s inhumanity, while others escape unscathed for a lifetime is intriguing. Perhaps, people escape as a result of being at the right place at the right time, or through strong intuition, or a series of other calamities and personal struggles that keep them home, we will never know. But, whenever bad things happen to innocent people, we are left with one nagging question – where is God in the midst of it?
Tori Amos has pondered this question. In her song, “God,” she expresses the questions that are on our lips when disasters strike down good people. Her song begins, “God, sometimes you just don’t come through.” She goes on to suggest that much of human experience causes a person to wonder, “Where is God in all of this?” or “If God is in charge, why is the world in such a mess?” or “If God is a loving God, why do people suffer?”
These are the questions that many of us have asked when bad things have happened to those we know and love. We search for answers. We turn to God and sometimes God just doesn’t seem to come through the way we think God should. If God were unfaithful and fickle, we might be able to explain what we see happening to those we would call good, loving Christians. But our God is not fickle or unfaithful. God is trustworthy and just, loving us beyond our ability to comprehend. So, when people who are going about normal activities are struck down, we are left with questions about our world and our God.
The disciples of Jesus also had such questions. They had questions arising out of what happened to those Galileans who were butchered by Pilate. Their blood was taken into the temple, poured onto the altar and mingled with the blood of the sacrifices as a warning from Pilate to all political rabble-rousers. But, this shouldn’t have happened to these people for they were devote and zealous followers of the faith. So, the disciples were left searching for an explanation as to why such unspeakable things happened to them.
In search of an answer, the disciples conjectured that perhaps these people had some hidden skeletons in their closets, some horrible sins in their background, and their fate was justified. Or, maybe, what happened to them was God’s judgment upon the use of military force (after all, these were zealots and the zealots wanted to kill the Romans and drive them out by force). But, Jesus would not confirm any of their theories. Instead, Jesus posed a question of his own, “Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans because they suffered thus?” Yet, before the disciples could even think of an answer to this question, Jesus added, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
With these words, Jesus did not get into an abstract discussion about the intentional will of God, God’s presence or absence in the midst of trouble, or God’s willingness to allow us freedom of choice, with all its horrors and blessings. Jesus did not try to justify God’s dealing with human life at all, and neither did he let those who were around him ease their own minds by believing that those people, those Galileans who were so cruelly murdered, and those Galileans who died accidentally when the wall of the water tower in Saloam collapsed were worse than they were. Those who died were just ordinary, average people who happened to be at the wrong place. Their sins were no darker than your sins or mine.
So rather than seeking an answer as to why tragic things happen, we are confronted with the urgency of repentance and confession. The death of so many people stands as a reminder to us all that we live close to the edge of death ourselves. Chaos and destruction swiftly and vehemently can burse into our lives whether we are minding our own business and going to work like the folks did on the fateful date in September when the planes hit the World Trade Center, or whether we are getting ready in the morning and slip in the bathroom and hit a head against the sink. We have no guarantees in life. And, it may be a lot later than we think.
God is patient with us. He seeds us with the Spirit, then he waits for some fruit. Sometimes, God will wait years and years and he goes on cultivating that which he has sown into our lives, even if no fruit develops. God gives us every opportunity to grow and flourish in Christ. But, our time to repent and turn to God, our time to respond to God’s grace and answer God’s call is limited. Life is fragile and we have no guarantee that we will have one last opportunity to witness to God’s love. By Jesus’ response to his disciples, Jesus reminds us of the uncertainty of life here on earth, the brokenness of this world, and God’s call to us to commit ourselves into the gracious keeping of a loving Savior. For, when we commit our lives to God, we begin to realize that nothing, not even death itself, can sever our relationship with God. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we belong the Lord. We are in God’s safekeeping and our God will not let us down, even when are in trouble and if we should question if he really cares.
My friends, accidents happen. Evil exists in the hearts of people. The world remains broken. And, lives end prematurely. But, as Jesus would not let his disciples congratulate themselves on being so good that they escaped the tragedies of life, so Jesus will not allow us to do the same. We might like to think that those who were slaughtered by Pilate were wicked people who got what they deserved, but Jesus will not allow us to believe this, any more than he will allow us to believe that escaping tragedy means that we must be living godly and upright lives. We might like to imagine that those who died in the construction accident at the tower were nothing but illegal workers, drunks and “poor white trash” that gambled and ran around on their wives, but Jesus will not allow this kind of self-justification. No, those who died were no greater sinners than anyone else; they were no greater sinners than you or me.
We may want to believe that those who live by the sword die by the sword, and that evil is repaid by evil. We may want to believe that those who are good deserve to have the best in life. But, Jesus responds to such statements with the reality of life in a broken world. The dilemma for those seeking justice in tragedy is that it cannot be found. Life happens. It happens to the good and the bad, and the sin of those who suffer is no different, no greater, than the sin of all of us. We all need a gracious God who will be with us in the worst of times and in the best of times. We are all in need of repentance. But, the time for turning toward God is limited. It may be later than any of us think. So, why put off until tomorrow what we can do this day?
Repent and believe in the Lord! Live a penitent life and put your trust in a gracious and faithful God, for God’s promises are the only things that last forever. God does not promise us a rose garden, free from pain, struggles, tragedy and death here on earth, but God does promise us life in his kingdom forever. So then, in the face of tragedies which we cannot explain, evil which persists and sin which is part of life, instead of questioning where is God in the midst of it, let us turn to our Lord for salvation and answer God’s call to us to come to him and find life and peace. And as you do so, may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.