When Bad Things Happen – Sermon on Luke 13:1-9

Lent 3C
March 24, 2019

In the Friday from First message, I mentioned a fancy theological term for the question, “How can a good and loving God allow bad things to happen to people?” That term is theodicy. Don’t worry, there won’t be a test. You don’t have to remember the term. But it’s the first thing we think of when catastrophes happen, especially when they happen to us, or to people we know.

Why does God allow evil to thrive? How can God just stand by and watch as hundreds of people are killed by a cyclone ripping through Mozambique and Madagascar, or while dozens of people are gunned down in Christchurch, New Zealand? How can someone who has never smoked a single cigarette die from lung cancer? How does a perfectly healthy young mother, who has devoted her life to ministry, die abruptly from an infection? Where is God in all that suffering?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. Good people, people who have trusted in God their entire lives, have asked these hard questions. And it is easy to blame God for circumstances that are beyond our control. If God is really in charge, and he lets terrible things happen to people, the only logical explanation must be that they somehow deserved it. God must be punishing us for something we’ve done when bad things happen, right? It’s the only way we can make sense of it all.

Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem (Lk 9:53) and we’ve been listening to him along the journey. Last week, we heard him call out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and experts in Jewish law while he was a dinner guest in a Pharisee’s house. And we had to admit that Jesus was calling out our own hypocrisy, too.

After dinner at the Pharisee’s house, Jesus gives a long sermon. It runs through all of chapter 12 and comes to something of a climax in the passage we read today. Jesus speaks. Listen to him.

At that very time there were some present who told him 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. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)

Don’t be fooled by catastrophe and tragedy. Those terrible things that happen to people, like having a tower fall on you, or your dairy farm wiped out by flooding – things like that can make you question where God is in the midst of suffering. It’s easy to lash out at God and blame the Creator of the Universe for allowing bad things to happen.

After all, if we blame God, it takes the responsibility off us. We can allow ourselves to be distracted by the things we can’t control, instead of doing something about the things we can. “’Why did this happen?’ it’s too easy to ask, wringing our hands as we sit on the sidelines and do nothing, changing nothing, influencing and affecting nothing.”[1] It’s easy to shrug our shoulders and say that it’s all God’s fault, and I can’t do anything about it.

But when his followers ask Jesus the theodicy question, he makes it clear that catastrophic events aren’t God’s punishment. Those people weren’t any worse sinners than you or me.

David Lose writes, “These events – whether in the first or twenty-first century – aren’t ultimately about guilt or punishment or the origin and cause of evil. They are just events, some of which we can’t do much about, while others we can, but what remains is that no amount of discussing or debating … helps us get about the things we can influence.” When bad things happen, it’s a wake-up call to repent, to turn our eyes toward Jesus.

“Luke mentions repentance more often than any other book in the Bible. In fact, close to more often than all of the rest of the New Testament combined.”[2] Repentance is a major theme during the season of Lent. We talk about repentance as an act of turning completely around 180 degrees, to leave our sin behind us.

We also say that repenting requires being sorry for our sin. But repentance is much more than telling God we are sorry. Someone tweeted this week, “An apology without change is just manipulation.”[3] And while that comment might sound like it was just intended to spark some argument on Twitter, there is some truth to it. Repentance isn’t just saying you’re sorry for what you’ve done wrong. It requires turning, changing.

But repentance is also not just behavior modification: “So often we think repentance needs to be some dramatic sin we need to cease doing or some kind of bad behavior we need to turn away from.” That might be true for some of us. But it’s more likely that you don’t consider yourself that kind of a sinner. Your sins aren’t very dramatic. You can manage your own behavior without much help.

Maybe it’s time to reframe our idea of repentance. In the book we’ve been reading together this Lent, Listen to Him, J. D. Walt writes, “As we near Jerusalem, we must think of repentance in terms of who we are running to more than what we turn away from. It’s time to flip repentance.”[4]

So instead of heading down the rabbit hole of theodicy, and blaming God for all the bad things that happen to us, or offering hollow apologies, or thinking of repentance as some sort of self-help program to improve our behavior, we need to focus with laser intensity on the voice of Jesus. Our repentance needs to become a deep desire to listen to him, especially when we find ourselves in the middle of a catastrophe.

This story isn’t really about theodicy. It’s about repentance. And that’s been true all through this season of Lent, as we have tuned our ears to listen to Jesus, to get close to him. Here, he says it plainly – not once, but twice: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

When Jesus says, “Unless you repent you will die as they did” he doesn’t mean a tower is going to fall on you. Your blood is not going to be mixed with some animal’s sacrificial blood. And, unlike some scholars, I also don’t think “as they did” suggests that they were somehow not right with God when they died, maybe because their tragic end was so abrupt, they didn’t have a chance to confess their sins and be absolved of them.

I think Jesus was making the point that the tragedy of these deaths was not in their gruesomeness, but in their pointlessness. Unless you repent, in other words, your life will be as pointless as their deaths were. If you want your life to have a point, if you want your life to have a clear purpose, repentance is the key.

When we flip repentance, and think of it as turning toward Jesus, instead of just turning away from sin, something else happens. Instead of repentance being all about what we do to make ourselves acceptable to God, we suddenly find ourselves basking in God’s grace. “Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.”[5]

Jill Duffield writes about attending a gathering where several members of the group had recently received their GEDs. As she listened to others rejoice with these new graduates, she learned that many of the adult students who were receiving their diplomas had been labeled ‘unreachable.’

She writes, “What a pronouncement to make about anyone. Unreachable. Beyond hope. No need to try any harder or any more. Impossible to get to them. Unreachable. How often do we label people unreachable and give up on them? Look, we say, no figs, no fruit, useless. We communicate in word or action or inaction: cut them down, they are wasting soil that could be better utilized.”[6]

And then she goes on to ask, “How often have we felt written off, labeled unreachable, been cut down to size, dismissed or rendered invisible?”[7]

How does it feel to be considered a problem? What’s it like to know others think you are wasting space that someone else could put to better use? Our hospitals and nursing homes and jails are filled with people who might think they’ve been written off, dismissed, or rendered invisible. As teen suicide rates climb, we could probably add schools to that list of institutions where people have lost hope.

Yet, Jesus says, “Wait a minute. Let me do some fertilizing here. Let me dig into the hardened earth and loosen it up a bit so the roots can breathe. Let’s not give up quite yet. There’s hope that this life can become fruitful.”

Christ calls us to the kind of repentance that turns our attention away from ourselves and points our attention toward God. Instead of trying to improve ourselves in order to merit God’s love, Christ offers that love to us freely and says, “Here, receive this gift. Let me enrich your soil with some manure. Let your repentance become the compost that fertilizes new life.”

God’s judgment is a given, whatever tragedies we may experience. The answer to tragedy is repentance toward God. When bad things happen, Jesus encourages us to turn to God instead of blaming God.

Those poor souls who died violent deaths didn’t deserve to die like that because of some evil they had done. Bad things happen. But how we respond determines whether or not our lives will be as pointless as those deaths. We can wallow in self-pity, or we can repent toward God, and live.

Jesus is moving closer to Jerusalem. He knows his window of time to teach us is shrinking. Next week, he will use parables to teach us about being lost and then found. The week after that, we will get to eavesdrop on his conversation with a rich young ruler. On Palm Sunday, he will weep over the city of Jerusalem. With each step we take as we follow him, our listening will need to become more intense, so that we can hear him clearly. 

[1] David Lose:http://www.davidlose.net/2019/03/lent-3-c-now/
[2] Stan Duncan, http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2016/02/lent-3-cyear-c-isaiah-551-9-1.html
[3] Logan Jeffcoat, twitter.com
[4] J.D. Walt, Listen to Him: 40 Steps on the Road to Resurrection, 50.
[5] Taylor Mertins, https://twitter.com/taylormertins/status/1108800898388631553?s=12
[6] Jill Duffield, editor, Presbyterian Outlook, “Looking Into the Lectionary” for Monday, March 18, 2019.
[7] Ibid.

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