Third Sunday in Lent
The same question and answer almost always come up when there is some sort of tragedy or disaster. Unfortunately, they are the wrong question and answer.
Let us look at the answer first: "Those people who died in the disaster deserved it. They had been living lives of manifest sin for too long, and God had had enough and brought destruction and desolation on them."
Look at the most recent tragedies and disasters as an example:
- Just a week ago yesterday we heard the horrifying news of a major earthquake in Chile. It was one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history, and affected the same region as the largest earthquake ever recorded. I heard on the news that this quake was so strong that it knocked the earth off of its axis by three inches; so much that the experts have said that Saturday was a just over a microsecond shorter than a normal day. That aside, so far, I haven't heard anyone say anything about the Chileans (but I won't be surprised when someone does). I'm sure there are those thinking it: "Man, those Chileans must have really ticked God off."
- About three weeks ago, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake. The same thought processes were going on. We even heard one talking head say that this was indeed God's wrath exacted upon the Haitians for having made a pact with the devil. Never mind that only a small fraction of the population practice some sort of witchcraft or voodoo. What was it God said to Abraham about finding even a few righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah? (Ahh, but I digress.) Nevertheless, the thought is the same as always: "Those Haitians were some despicably evil people (or must have been) and got what they deserved."
And, lest we think that this wrong answer applies only to people and nations "out there":
- August 2005, one of the strongest Hurricanes ever recorded makes landfall near New Orleans, Louisiana. The city is nearly laid to waste, not by the fierce winds so much, but by flood waters. It's a risk living near the ocean and by a lake when you live below sea level. Now, if even for a moment, I don't think there are any that can deny that they thought that it was at least fitting that the "Sin City of the South" was ravaged by one of the worst hurricanes ever recorded. I supposed to thumb its nose at this thinking, New Orleans is back to business as usual, despite the signs of the destruction that can be found in places like the Ninth Ward.
- September 2001, New York and Washington D.C. are attacked in the worst act of terrorism the United States has ever seen (the world, for that matter). Thousands of people die as they are trapped in the twin towers of the World Trade Center and after the plane impact at the Pentagon. And there was a famous evangelical Christian who claimed this was the wrath of God against America for her grievous sins. And now, an even taller tower is planned to replace the two that have fallen, and the Pentagon has been repaired with the work of our country's defense going on there as it had before.
We hear it and think it so often. When something tragic, devastating, or disastrous happens, it must be the wrath of God against those people for the sins they committed. And because we hear and think it, we are led to ask the wrong question the moment we hear about such news. "What did they do to deserve this?"
Such was the thought posed to Jesus in this morning's Gospel. He had been informed of the tragedy that befell some Galileans while they were making their sacrifices. Pilate's men had entered the temple grounds and executed these Galileans. Their blood was spilled and mixed with that of their sacrifice, an affront and offense; a statement by Pilate that he was in charge.
So, the question was on the minds of the people who told Jesus of this. "What sins did they commit that God would have their blood mixed with that of their sacrifices? How bad must it have been if God allowed this to happen at the hands of Gentile overlords?" Therefore Jesus, knowing their minds, asks the question for them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?" And, so that they are not left wondering, He answers the question right away: "I tell you, no."
He then takes it out of the political realm. Those Galileans were murdered at the hands of the Romans, who had a reason to do so. They were rebels against Roman rule, and by Roman law, deserved to die. So, from a political point of view, they got what was coming to them. That's why Jesus brings up a tower in Siloam that falls on 18 people, killing them. "[D]o you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?" Again, Jesus quickly answers the question: "I tell you, no."
In other words, Jesus is telling the people they are thinking the wrong question. When people die due to political might or tragedy, they didn't die because of some gross sins. He is telling us that when people die because of a natural disaster or act of terrorism, they didn't die because they sinned greater than the rest of us. He is telling us that tragedies, devastation, or disasters do not happen as an act of God's wrath upon the people who died in them because they were grievous sinners.
"But wait, pastor," you might be thinking right now, "Didn't Jesus continue, ‘[B]ut unless you repent you will all likewise perish.' If sins, and especially bad sins, do not exact God's wrath, why does Jesus warn the people they would perish like the Galileans and the Siloamites?" For the answer, let us delve into the parable Jesus tells:
A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, "Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?" But he answered and said to him, "Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down."
In order to understand sin and wrath, and also grace and mercy, Jesus tells this parable.
Fig trees and vineyards are common Old Testament metaphors for Jerusalem and Israel. In using both, Jesus is driving home the fact that He is speaking to the people of Israel. In other words, the people being referenced in this parable are the people called by God's name.
The owner of the vineyard and fig tree goes to the tree looking for fruit, but finds none. In frustration, the man, who represents God in His wrath, wants the tree cut down. No need for the fruitless to waste the good earth God gives it.
That's the Law talking. The Law demands obedience, and in that obedience demands outward proof. Do what it says, or die. Produce fruit, or be cut down. Do good according to the Law and be rewarded; do evil and be punished. The Law is logical like that. And because the Law is logical, it's easier for us to grasp.
It's this logic which leads us to ask the question, "What did they do to deserve that?" at a time of a major catastrophe. It's that logic that leads us to think and some to exclaim that God is especially angry at the victims of a disaster for some gross, grievous, manifest, or continual sins.
The keeper in the parable, who represents God's mercy, has a different idea. He wants to leave it alone for a time and nurture the tree. The word used for "leave it alone" has another meaning: forgive. "Let's forgive the tree and give it some time with some extra nourishment for a time."
That's Gospel talk. In the face of sin and not bearing fruit, the Gospel comes along and says, "you're forgiven." It gives nourishment in the Word so that one can see the need for forgiveness and by the power of the Gospel bear fruit in keeping with repentance and receive the forgiveness it so freely gives. It is patient and forbearing and merciful!
Mercifulness is illogical. The Law says those who do wrong get punished; they get what they deserve. Mercy says those who do wrong do not get punished; they do not get what they deserve. Then grace comes along, forgiving those who do wrong; giving them what they do not deserve. Grace is even more illogical. And because mercy and grace are illogical, they are difficult for us to grasp.
When Jesus spoke this parable, He spoke it with eyes fixed on Jerusalem. It would be a few short verses later when He would speak what we heard last week: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem..." God would seek from the fig tree of Jerusalem and Israel the fruit of faith, of trust in Him and His promises; He would send prophet after prophet to Jerusalem. Every time, however, all He found was religion and politics. Yet, He bears with it; He is merciful and gracious, because that's how God does things—so, He gives them more time. "The LORD is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy," the Psalmist writes. St. Peter explains, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."
That's the reason why Jesus twice said, "[B]ut unless you repent you will all likewise perish." The sins of the Galileans and Siloamites were no worse than the sins of any one else in Galilee or Jerusalem. On the contrary, the tragedies served as reminders that they lived in a sinful world—a world tainted by sin (not any particular sin, but the fallen, imperfect, and unholy condition). The Galileans and Siloamites did not die because of any particular sin they had committed; they died because they lived in a sinful world. Such a tragedy could happen to anyone else living in Galilee or Jerusalem.
It hasn't changed. The Chileans and Haitians commit sins no worse than us. New York, Washington, and New Orleans commit sins no worse than Elizabeth does. The tragic events in those places all serve to remind us that we still live in a sinful world. Such tragedies can still happen to anyone living in New York, Washington, New Orleans, Elizabeth, or anywhere.
The wages of sin is death. So, Jesus calls us to repent. Repent, because worse can happen. Death happens because of sin in the world, but eternal death can happen because of unrepentant sins. The word for repent means to have a change of mind, to re-cognize as I have often heard it described. In repentance, we recognize that death in the here and now is not the worst kind of death, but that there is a death worse than that which happened to the Galileans and Siloamites, to the New Yorkers and Washingtonians, to the Haitians and Chileans.
God's wrath for sin is just. Sin is what separates us from God, and He is completely justified in making that separation eternal for sin's sake—the worst death. So, represented by the owner of the vineyard, God is justified in wanting to lay waste the sinful, unfruitful tree. God's love for the sinner is merciful. God's grace is what reunites us with Him, and He is completely merciful in bridging that separation for Christ's sake. So, represented by the keeper, God is merciful to forgive the sinful, unfruitful tree, and gracious to nurture it.
For Christ's sake, God is merciful to bridge the gap of sin that separates us from Him. That bridge is the cross on which Jesus died. That death on the cross is what reunites us with God, what reconciles us to Him.
You can think of it this way: Was Jesus' a worse sinner than anyone else who had died? Did He commit some great offense to deserve to die an excruciating death as a criminal? Absolutely not! Jesus was the perfect, spotless Lamb of God, "Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth." So, if He was sinless, then there is no way His sins could be worse than those of anyone else. And...absolutely yes! "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us...who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree..." (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24). So, if He was made to be sin for us and bore our sins—all our sins—in His own body on the tree of the cross, then He was the most despicably vile sinner the world has ever known.
Jesus did not get what He deserved, but it was in no way merciful...for Him. He laid aside receiving what He deserved, eternal life, electing to give it to us who receive Him, and took upon Himself what we deserved, eternal death and separation from God. He was, in essence, the tree cut down, even though He bore the fruit of faithfulness; cut down in the stead of the fruitless tree in the vineyard. However, being God Himself, He would not remain that way for long, for He rose again on the third day that we who receive Him, who repent of our sins, and are nourished by the fruit of His sacrificial death—forgiveness of sins—would receive the fruit of His resurrection—life eternal in Him.
Therefore, death is not something to be feared. On the contrary, viewing death as the gate to life eternal, we can say with an anonymous poet:
For me to live is JesusTo die is gain for me;Then when so e'er He pleases,I meet death willingly.
as with the apostle St. Paul, "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain." While on tour, the Seminary Chorus director would often tell us, "Your job as pastor is to teach your people to die well; for when you've taught them to die well, you've taught them to live well." Therefore, dear hearers, know this: with Jesus, Baptized into His death and resurrection, receiving His Body and Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, living in His mercy, you can die knowing that you will not die eternally—you become one of the blessed dead in Christ. No, you will not die the eternal death; Christ has borne that punishment for you, and if He has borne it all, there is none left for you. And after you have died, and Jesus returns, you will rise again as He has, fruitful trees in God's eternal vineyard, because you are forgiven for all of your sins.