Monday, March 25, 2019

When Bad Things Happen

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during worship on Sunday, March 24, 2019.]

Luke 13:1-9
Why do bad things happen to people? 

We ask this question, in many different ways. The main reason we ask it, it seems, is because we want the world to make sense. 

Often though, it just doesn’t. 

Marriages end. 

Spouses and children die. 

Tragedies occur. 

And we wonder why.

This question seems to be on the minds of people who approach Jesus in today’s gospel lesson, Luke 13:1-9. Let’s look at it together. 

Verse 1: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.”  

Apparently, pious, believing people from Galilee, the region where Jesus grew up, had been offering sacrifices to God at the temple when Pilate set Roman soldiers on them, murdering them and, showing added disrespect to the Jews, polluting their sacrifices by mingling the blood of the worshipers with them. 

We have no record outside of the New Testament of this particular incident. But we do have independent records of Pilate doing equally awful things. Pilate was a well-documented thug.

The unspoken question of Jesus’ interlocutors here, of course, is, “Why?” 

Now, it’s possible as you read their words to Jesus to think that they wondered how an omnipotent and loving God could allow worshipers to be killed in the Lord’s house. But, it’s apparent from Jesus’ reply to them that He reads their question differently. He sees that they already had their own explanation for what happened to the murdered Galileans and were there just to get Jesus to agree with them. 

He doesn’t

Verse 2: “Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”

The unspoken assumption of the people who approach Jesus is that, somehow, the Galileans murdered in the temple deserved to die. And mentioning what must have been another bit of recent news, Jesus says that eighteen people who had been killed by the collapse of a tower built into Jerusalem’s city walls didn't deserve their tragic deaths either.

As we read this passage, we may be horrified by the suggestion that the victims of these tragedies and the family members who mourned for them deserved these horrors. 

But don’t we hear people say similar things in the face of tragedy that befalls people today? 

Don't we, sometimes, looking for a rational explanation of irrational events, say such things ourselves?

When Alabama was hit with flooding recently, some claimed that it was God’s punishment for voting for Trump in 2016.

Back when much of California was ablaze with fires, some people on Twitter claimed it was  God’s punishment for filthy movies that came from California.

Ideas like these appeal to human ego because they say that if we’re doing the right things in life, nothing bad will touch us and that if bad things like these happen to other people, it must mean that they’re not good people like us, not right with God like us.

But, as disciples of Jesus, we know that we are, every single one of us, and that, at best, Christians can only claim to be sinners saved from sin and death not by how good we are, because we could never be good enough to be counted righteous, but only because of what God has done for us through the crucified and risen Jesus and through the faith in Jesus that has been set in us, not through our effort, but by the Holy Spirit

In Jesus, true God and true man, we have a Savior Who endured poverty, pain, and death even though He was sinless and deserved none of the bad that happened to Him. Do we want to say that Jesus deserved the horrors that befell Him? 

I hope not! On the cross, Jesus got what we deserved and what we deserve

As God’s Word teaches, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).” God doesn’t give human beings the punishment we all deserve, but eternal punishment comes to those who choose to follow sin rather than Christ.

Bad things happen in this world simply because we live in a fallen, imperfect creation that is haywire with sin and death

Jesus says that God the Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).” God isn’t out to get anyone. 

And Jesus tells those who follow Him, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”  God loves us and He makes all baptized believers in Jesus part of His new and eternal creation, but as long as we live in this old creation, every one of us is subject to its difficulty, pain, and death

Thugs will order soldiers to kill worshipers. 

Towers will fall on people standing in the wrong place. 

Wildfires will rage in wooded areas. 

Floods will come to coastlands and river valleys. 

There may be things we can (and should) do to prevent some tragedies, but the possibility of tragedy is baked into the cake of a creation groaning under the weight of sin and death.

And so, the first question we need to ask in the face of the tragedies that befall others or could befall us at any moment in our lives isn’t why. It’s what am I going to do about it? What will we do once we come to terms with the reality of our mortality and susceptibility to tragedy

Jesus has already told us how we should respond to that question twice in our lesson. He says, “unless you repent, you too will all perish” and, again, “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” 

In other words, don’t make judgments about others that make you feel superior; focus instead on daily seeking the forgiveness and new life that God offers us through Jesus

Daily repent: turn each day away from sin and turn each day to Jesus

We might take as our model the man in Jesus’ parable who prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13)!” God will renew us in His charitable, forgiving love, when we offer up prayers like that. 

In Psalm 51 in which David confesses his sins to God, he also confesses his faith in God’s receptivity to the repentant: “...a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise (Psalm 51:17).”

In our gospel lesson, Jesus underscores His call for us to daily repent, to turn to Him and live with God as part of His renewed people, in a parable. Verse 6: ““A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Here, Jesus tells the story of a fig tree that deserves to die. A fig tree that doesn’t produce fruit is only taking up space, just as a disciple who knows Jesus, but never repents or seeks to follow Jesus is taking up space. 

So, the owner of the fig tree orders that it be cut down. 

But the caretaker asks that the owner let him spend a year trenching around the fig tree to ensure that it gets plenty of water and putting lots of fertilizer on it, just as God showers us with grace so that we can know Jesus, grow in Jesus, and show Jesus to others. So that we can bear the fruit of a life filled with Jesus. 

God’s intention for us when He claims us in Holy Baptism, feeds us on His Word, gives us Holy Communion, and places us in the fellowship of the Church is clear: As long as we live in this earth, whether a long time or a short time, God means to fill us with and means for us to share with others, the life that only comes to those who trust Jesus Christ

Our lives are meant to be displays on which God daily writes the message for all the world to see: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).”

A moment ago, I said that the first question we need to ask in the face of life’s tragedies is not why, but what am I going to do about it? Am I going to turn to Christ and live? 

I think that in the parable, Jesus suggests a second question, the answer to which, when I remember it, sustains me and encourages me with hope in an often hopeless world. It’s this: Why me? Not “why me” as in why is bad stuff happening to me, but “why me” as in why am I still around? Why is God still pouring His grace on me?

When I suffered a heart attack nine years ago, it was the "widow maker": a 100% blockage of the left anterior descending artery that often leads to sudden death in its victims. More than two weeks after the cardiac event, a cardiologist was able to push a stent through the blockage.* Later, during my overnight stay at the hospital, the night duty nurse entered my room. She'd looked at my chart. "You're lucky to be alive," she told me. "God must have plans for you."

I'm convinced that God has plans for you too! That's why you're still drawing breath on this planet.
I can’t explain why tragedies befall some people and not others. I don’t know. 

But I do know this: God keeps us around until further notice because He wants us to let the world know about the new and everlasting life all people can have through faith in Jesus Christ

The apostle Peter writes to we Christians in one of his New Testament letters (this translation is from The Message): “ are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference [Christ] made for you (1 Peter 2:9-10, The Message).”

The victims of tragedy in this world don’t need misinformed “Christians” piling on, telling them that their pain is punishment from God. Our call is to share Jesus. Our call is to live for Jesus, Who lived, died, and rose for us and for those who don't yet know Him. 

May God help us to do just that. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

*Why this happened two weeks after the heart attack is another story too long to go into here. But the fact that I survived after losing 40% of my heart function and still having 100% blockage in a critical artery is something which both I and my cardiologist regarded as miraculous. And that's not a term I throw around lightly.

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