Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sermon on Luke 13:1-9, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, "God and Disasters"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. There’s an old familiar problem that always rears its ugly head whenever there are natural disasters like the earthquakes, tsunamis, or humanly inflicted tragedies like genocides and terrorist attacks. That old familiar problem is the question of evil. Usually people ask this question: “How can a good God exist and allow so much evil to happen?” Great tragedies with huge death tolls bring this question racing to the forefront of our minds. Sometimes, as a way of excusing God, people will actually blame the victims instead. It was their wickedness that brought this disaster down on their own head. Today we’ll hear how Jesus addresses these problems and what God has done to intervene against evil in this world. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’ve probably all heard some of the opining when these tragedies occur. Often it’s offensive speculation. Many people try to find someone to blame behind some disaster or calamity. Religious zealots want to say God did it to punish specific sins they have in mind. Atheists and agnostics want to say that if a God does exist, He must be evil, to have allowed these things to happen. So disasters become a good excuse for woefully misguided Christians to blame the victims, and the same disasters become a good excuse for woefully misguided unbelievers to blame God. Listen to some examples you may or may not have heard about. Most recently Pat Robertson said that the nation of Haiti had “swore a pact with the devil” to serve him in exchange for gaining independence from French rule, and “every since then have been cursed by one thing after another.” Implying that the earthquake that hit there was a result of some great national sins they had committed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, actor Danny Glover blamed the same earthquake on global warming and climate change, and the inaction of nations like ours at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

Going back a little further, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey (a noted author), and Chuck Colson all made comments blaming Hurricane Katrina on the wickedness of the city of New Orleans. Jeremiah Wright and many others, from religious and non-religious backgrounds blamed 9/11 on U.S. government policy, on the presidency, or any number of other conspiracies. A man I overheard in an airport some 5 years ago said that if you looked “biblically” at the tsunamis that hit Indonesia several years ago, that they must have happened because those people really “p.o.’ed” someone. Implying that they too had committed some grave sin which led to this massive destruction. Atheists and agnostics meanwhile scoff at both a God who would allow such things to happen, and His supposed followers who blame the victims of these tragedies.

Going further back yet, we find that such pat explanations for tragedies are as old as human history. The book of Job records how his friends blamed him for the terrible losses he endured, including the death of his children, his servants, his flocks and herds. They accused Job of some secret sin that he refused to confess—because no righteous person could suffer such calamity at God’s hand. Sandwiched between these modern-day and ancient examples, was the time of Jesus and His disciples. Then too, people held a view that sin and suffering were connected through cause and effect. This led to situations like Jesus’ disciples asking, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). When it came to the example in today’s reading in Luke 13, we’re not told directly who the people were trying to blame. But Jesus uses this opportunity to expose this whole system of thinking about tragedies and calamities as false, and to cut short all speculation about why it occurred.

They came to Him telling about Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. We don’t know anything else about this event—except to consider the heinous nature of it. Since Passover was the one time when laymen would be involved in making their own sacrifices at the altar, it likely happened them. So imagine the outrage: religious pilgrims participating in the highest religious festival in their most sacred environment—the Temple—being cut down in cold blood by foreign soldiers. It was an unimaginable sacrilege. To get a sense of how it would translate to our context, imagine terrorists gunning down a bunch of Christians in the midst of celebrating holy communion on Easter. Words couldn’t express the outrage and gut-wrenching sorrow we’d feel.

The people probably anticipated Jesus’ condemnation of Pilate’s wickedness, or at least a cry of despair. Perhaps these Galileans were known troublemakers who’d thus far eluded the government. We don’t know. But Jesus statement catches them all off guard. He cuts short any speculation about blame or any political accusations, and also determining some cause and effect from certain sins. Rather, He uses this as an occasion to draw them back to examine their own lives and their own sinfulness and mortality. His question exposes their thinking: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” They had chosen an example of a tragedy caused by deliberate human evil—one that we might compare to the acts of 9/11 or the genocides in countries like Rwanda or Bosnia of recent memory.

Jesus then adds a second example of tragedy—only this time the accidental death of 18 Jerusalemites, who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed. This example we might compare to the earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, though on a much smaller scale. Here was just as much of a tragedy as Pilate’s murders, though now with no obvious person to blame. But it raised the same questions: did they get what was coming to them? Had they done some specific sin for which God was repaying them? Jesus again asks “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Rather than speculating about the cause of the tragedy—which wouldn’t really change anything—Jesus provoked them to examine their own life. Were they living without repentance for some sin? Were they ready to face their judgment if their life ended suddenly? Jesus showed them that receiving God’s grace for sin was their greatest concern. His point was that something worse than dying in an unexpected tragedy could happen to you. That something worse would be to die without repenting of your sins. Jesus told the same to an invalid whom He healed and sent on his way, saying: “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you” (John 5:14).

So where are we left? Disaster or untimely death doesn’t tell us anything about whether we or someone else was more sinful than another. It doesn’t tell us that God loves us or hates us. The circumstances of life can’t be read like a horoscope that tells God’s pleasure or displeasure. All of these are common reactions, and all of them are harmful to ourselves or to others who see us use them, because they misrepresent God. We’re left instead to contemplate the shortness of life and the immediate need that every one of us has to repent over our sins. As Jesus teaches in the short parable about repentance that follows this exchange, He’s like a patient gardener who looks for the fruit of repentance. A gardener would eventually cut down a tree that’s inactive and unproductive, and throw it away. But God is patient with us, and gives us an opportunity to repent and bear fruit. That fruit is the evidence of a changed life. But this opportunity lasts only for our lifetime. So all tragedies leave us a reminder of the urgency to repent of our sins and turn to God’s grace, for we know that He desires not the death of the sinner, but that we would turn from our sinful ways and live (Ezek. 18:23).

That nagging problem of evil remains. What does God do about evil? Shouldn’t He intervene? Doesn’t God care? When suffering and evil are inescapably thrust before us, it’s easy to overlook or forget how God intervened against evil. Only at the cross of Jesus can we finally find some resolution for evil. There we see God’s greatest intervention against evil—the intervention that reversed the whole fate of the sinful world, and turned the tables on evil. At the cross, the gnarled, grotesque fingers of evil clutched and clawed at Jesus, the Son of God, trying to extinguish the light that had come into the world. The devil thought he tasted victory when Jesus died on the cross. Evil seemed to have had its greatest day as it snuffed out the greatest life that ever lived. But the innocent life of Jesus proved an unstoppable force that rose from the grave. Suddenly sin was buried forever in His tomb, and God had the victory instead. Jesus defeats evil at the cross, not by brute force, but by exhausting evil of all its force and power.

In the cross of Jesus there’s finally some resolution to the battle between good and evil. At the cross Jesus cut us sinners free from sin and evil. Sin is crucified, so that one day this old sinful shell can die and fall away like the husk of a seed, and we won’t perish with it. Even now the new creation that has begun in us through the Holy Spirit is sprouting forth into new life. At the cross we see the goodness of the God who delivers us from evil by cutting us free from it all, so that when the final judgment comes and God destroys sin and death once and for all—we won’t be casualties, but survivors. Not only are we released from its grip, but we’re spared the eternal consequences of our sin, even if sometimes we face the earthly consequences.

When we look at the cross of Jesus, and His forsakenness as He bore the world’s sin—one could easily be appalled at the spectacle of it all. Such immeasurable evil. To a stranger who knew nothing of Jesus or His life, it might seem as though God was greatly angered at Him. A stranger might wonder what He’d done so wrong as to deserve such a fate. They might have asked if He were a worse sinner than the rest to suffer in this way. Yet in the midst of that suffering, Jesus was the most blessed of all. Here God would be glorified through His death that would pour out God’s gracious love and mercy for all the world. There at the cross, despite the suffering and tragedy of it all, God was pleased with Jesus, as He obeyed His Father’s will. So if we learn from the cross of Jesus, we can know that even in the midst of suffering, even in the face of great evil, this does not mean God’s favor is taken away from us or that He has abandoned us. Thank God that His love for us and blessing isn’t limited only to the times when everything is going right. God is with us and identifies with us in all our sufferings and sorrows. More than that, His suffering and death means that we’re spared from the greater tragedy of dying without God’s grace. God does care about our suffering, and the cross is God taking on the full force of evil and winning for us. And the death toll of that tragedy was one. Truly we’re blessed in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. What kinds of speculation have you heard about the cause of recent tragedies? When it’s done by Christians, how do you think it affects our witness to the good news of Jesus?

2. A common idea throughout history is that suffering is caused by a one-to-one relation to some sin or evil we’ve done. How did the friends of Job show this view? Job 4:7; 8:4; 22:5. How did the disciples of Jesus? John 9:2-3. How does Jesus counter this idea? Reread Luke 13:1-5; cf. John 9:3; 11:4.

3. We cannot trace a particular cause for all suffering or tragedy. Does this mean that we never suffer as the result of our own sins or those of others? Isaiah 64:1-9. Does grace mean we can sin with impunity? Romans 6:1-4. How does the Bible affirm that God is nevertheless sovereign over all that happens on earth, good or evil? Isaiah 45:5-13; Matt. 5:45.

4. Since suffering and death are a daily reality, is it simply the scale of human tragedies that makes us more conscious of questions about evil and life and death? What should our response be when such disasters occur?

5. Reread Luke 13:1-9. What greater tragedy does Jesus want us to avoid by repenting of our sins? Cf. John 5:14. Does God desire sinners to die? Ezek. 18:23; 1 Tim. 2:4.

6. What is God’s greatest intervention against evil in human history? When will evil finally be eradicated altogether?

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