3rd Sunday in Lent – 3/20/2022
Tragedy, in one form or another, strikes somewhere in the world every day, if not every hour, and not just in Ukraine. At the same time, in this age of 24-hour cable news, the internet, and smartphones, the word of wars, carnage, destruction, and heartache greets us every hour. And, of course, with each disaster or tragedy, the age-old lament of anguish rises to heaven: "Why God?" "Why do such devastation and destruction of innocent life have to happen?"
In their search for answers, some people look for the human culprits, demanding revenge and justice. Others shrug their shoulders in weak resignation to evil and say, "Well, such things just happen." "We are simply victims of chance." Still, others seek to point their finger at God, questioning His love by saying, "If you are a loving God, how can you allow such horrible things to happen?" Others try to defend God, insisting that either those killed or injured deserved it or that it was simply the devil's fault and God had nothing to do with it.
All such rationales and explanations, however, don't cut it. Not only are they unsatisfactory, but they are misleading and false. For starters, while it is undoubtedly true that the devil is actively working to wreak havoc in God's ideally ordered world, and while it is also true that human beings, because of their sinful nature, are also prone to evil, to leave God out of the picture of tragedy, as though He were just some impotent and helpless bystander, diminishes God and absolves each of us from our guilt.
There are not two gods in this universe, one good and the other bad, each exerting themselves at various times over the other. Scripture teaches us that there is only one God, the Triune God. He alone is Lord over all. The devil, this fallen angel, can only do what God allows. He is a pit bull on a chain.
Look at the example of Job. The devil had to seek permission from God to afflict Job and his family. That tells us that all tragedy has a definite God connection, either because He directly causes it or, in His divine providence, He allows it to happen for His purposes.
But, even with this understanding, we are often left to ponder, "What possible good purpose could God have for allowing such tragedies to happen at all?" "For that matter, how are you and I to interpret any tragedy or disaster in our personal lives?"
People of all times have been asking the same things about tragedies. So we see from the account of Jesus' ministry before us. A most heinous tragedy occurred in Jerusalem right under Jesus' very nose. It seems the ruling governor, Pontius Pilate, went on one of his insane rampages, for which he was notorious. He ordered his soldiers to ride into the very outer court of the temple itself and slaughter innocent Galilean Jews worshipping there. The sad result was that the blood of the Galilean worshipers was left to mingle with the blood of their sacrificial animals.
Those who brought up the incident to Jesus were just as dumbfounded as you, and I am trying to explain similar injustices and tragedies today. They hoped Jesus could shed some light on the whole thing. And He did, though not in the way I'm sure they expected. For this reason, Jesus seized upon this occasion as an opportune teaching moment. He used it to teach all his followers, including you and me, the truth about tragedies. Jesus responded, "Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the others because they suffered in this way?" "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will likewise perish."
With this reply and the following teaching, Jesus teaches us four valuable lessons about tragedies.
First, He warns us not to interpret such events as always being God's retribution or punishment for people's sins. That was the rationale on the minds of those who brought the matter up to Jesus. It was a typical Jewish response. Remember the incident when even Jesus' disciples asked Jesus concerning a blind man, "Who sinned, him or his parents, that he is blind?" The prevailing notion was that if something terrible happens to you, it directly results from your sin or, at least, the sin of someone near you, and God punishes you.
But Jesus immediately debunks such notions with His emphatic reply, "I tell you, no!" The Galileans were no worse sinners than those standing there with Jesus, nor were you and I. If God immediately punished everyone who sins, we would all be in constant misery or death every time we sin. But as the Scriptures say, "(The LORD) does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities." Instead, God is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" (Ps. 103:10 and 8).
By the same token, if God immediately visits every sinner with his just desserts, why is it that the seemingly innocent are the ones killed and maimednous scoundrels of the world, like Pontius Pilate and some of the most notorious dictators, often seem to escape such misery. If God were vindictive in His wrath, wouldn't it make sense that such openly evil people would be the first to get theirs under God's righteous judgment?
To challenge this faulty line of reasoning, Jesus placed before his questioners another contemporary tragedy. This one also occurred in Jerusalem. But this incident had no political, religious, or diabolical overtones. A tower on the wall surrounding Jerusalem, known as the Tower of Siloam, suddenly came crashing down, killing 18 people.
Call it what you will—a natural disaster or a tragic accident—Jesus placed it on par with Pilate's murder of the Galilean worshipers. And in so doing, Jesus brought the whole matter closer to home for His audience. Since this falling tower happened in Jerusalem, it could be safely assumed that a few victims were Judeans. Those in his audience would naturally be more sympathetic toward people like themselves, perhaps even some of their relatives or friends. Besides, you can bet that the majority opinion was that Galileans were less faithful than Judeans. Some might have even assumed that the Galileans were worthy of their fate. But by tying both the Galileans' and the Judeans' fates, Jesus was saying that tragic accidents or events can strike anyone, anywhere, and that no one, not even God's people (faithful or unfaithful), is exempt. (A. Just, p. 531). We should not see such events as God's punishments for specific sins.
At the same time, the second lesson we are to learn is that Jesus does not say that any victim of the tragedy is not worthy of such a fate. Jesus did not say that the victims of Pilate's soldiers or those buried beneath the tower's rubble were innocent and did not deserve such suffering. The victims of any disaster are no more ignorant than you and me. We are all conceived and born in sin. Each one of us sins daily against God and one another. We are all under the same condemnation of God's wrath for our sins. As Scripture spells out, "The wages of sin is death." As we rightly confess in our liturgy, we all "deserve nothing but God's present and eternal punishment." God has pronounced the same verdict upon us: "There is none righteous, not one!" "The one who sins shall die!"
Therefore, to say that those upon whom tragedy befalls are more wicked is human arrogance, false pride, and sinful self-righteousness. To think or say such things makes us no better than the Pharisee who stood forward in the synagogue and boldly thanked God that he was not like other sinful men!
The minute we imagine that we deserve good treatment or a good life, we have just demonstrated such pharisaical self-righteousness and declared God to be unjust should He bring any evil upon us.
As sinners, we all deserve even worse than to be killed by an egotistical madman. Any good that happens to us—any sparing of strife—is much more than we deserve. It has all come to us purely by the grace of God.
Yet, even we Christians can live in denial. "Denial" is not a river in Egypt but like living in a cloud. The cloud has a new contemporary significance for our Facebook and Twitter generation. Everyone who uses the internet in any way is part of this cloud of information storage and application in cyberspace. In fact, for many, it truly is where we live and move and have our being. For better or worse, the cloud is our world of information, education, and social interaction. In the cloud, however, one is given the illusion that he can say and do almost anything for free without accountability. Someone who lives in this cloud can, and often does, develop a false and distorted view of reality. In the real world, words have consequences. People genuinely get hurt. And, yes, people can die from what I say or do in or out of the cloud!
In our epistle reading from Corinthians, Paul speaks about the children of Israel being in the cloud. And indeed, they were. It was the holy cloud of God's incarnational presence. Paul writes: "I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink." "They drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ" (10:1-4).
Unfortunately, the darkness of their hearts caused them to become blind to the reality of being in this cloud. They wrongly imagined that it made them impervious to God's judgment, and they became secure in their sins.
But Paul continues: "Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness" (10:5). Even though they had experienced God's holy presence in the cloud as it led them by day through the wilderness... and even though they had been baptized into Moses through the mist of the Red Sea, by which God saved them, still many lost their way, continuing in their idolatries, adulteries, and sinful practices. Consequently, they died under the wrath of God for their failure to live in repentance and faith.
So, if we believe Jesus' "No," that the tragedy-stricken are not worse sinners and that we deserve the same fate, where does this leave us? What are the purposes of such tragedies?
We are now ready to comprehend lesson three: Tragedies are God's appointed calls for us all to repent. Twice Jesus says, "But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." Think of it this way: every tragedy that befalls humanity is a precursor of God's ultimate wrath against sin. Each tragedy is a miniature manifestation of God's wrath, which we all deserve. Some are more spectacular and destructive than others, but all are kept short of what they could be so that we might all take notice and repent of our sinful ways. Each tragedy is God's call to the sinner: "Is this the fate you, O sinner, desire?" If not, repent. Turn away from your sin! You see, God has revealed His will concerning sinners. He has stated, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked man turns from his wicked way and lives" (Ezek. 33:11).
But what does it mean to repent? Much of what is taught and practiced today is not repentance. It is simply a feeling of sorrow over getting caught. Even where an apology comes forth from the mouth of the sinner, its form or shape is more often than not that of a defense of one's bad behavior than it is of any sincere confession of wrong or evil.
Real repentance. On the other hand, Biblical repentance is a genuine, deep-seated repudiation of one's fundamental nature as evil and that one's every thought, word, and deed is evil. Repentance is a humble acceptance that I deserve God's severe punishment for who I am, a sinner, and for all my wrongdoings. I completely agree with God's evaluation that my every wrong thought, word, and deed is not merely an indiscretion or a bad thing but an offense against the holy God! Accordingly, repentance is also a heartfelt longing for only the pure mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
The fourth and final lesson we are made to learn from tragedy is that such horrible things can come with a genuine silver lining. That silver lining is this: Those tragedies often come from God's hand of grace, not His wrath!
To emphasize this point, Jesus tells a parable about a man who plants a fig tree in his vineyard. Then, after the tree had matured enough to bear fruit, the man went to find fruit on it, but to no avail. He did this for three years, but the tree was always fruitless. Finally, in frustration, the man finally asked his vineyard keeper to cut the tree down so that it would no longer take up valuable space in his vineyard. However, the vineyard keeper implored his boss to give the tree a chance. He said, "Let me do a little digging around the tree to aerate the soil and apply some manure for fertilizer, then if it does bear fruit this next year, then all is well and good, but if it doesn't, you may cut it down."
That is more than a mere story to teach a point. It is the very history of God's dealings with sinful human beings. God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel is the fig tree, and God's planting in His kingdom is the vineyard. God often came to Israel to look for the fruit of repentance. The three years of coming might allude to Jesus' three years of earthly ministry as he continually came to Jerusalem looking for Israel to bear fruit. He interceded for Israel, as well as for all of us, by cutting Himself down to atone for our sins. But when Israel rejected Jesus' atoning sacrifice for her in impenitence and unbelief, she left God no alternative but to cut His fruitless fig tree out of His kingdom.
Thank the Lord God that in His grace and through the ministry of His Holy Gospel and Holy Baptism, He has grafted us Gentiles into His vine, Jesus Christ, where His first covenant people once were. God the Father visits us daily in search of the fruit of repentance. Jesus has also interceded for us and atoned for our sins. He comes to us daily in His Word and Sacrament to fertilize us with God's mercy in the forgiveness of sins. But if such compassion cannot produce repentance and faith, that is, real fruit, in us, then what good are we? We are merely dead branches taking up precious space!
God can, then, in His grace, use every tragic occurrence around us to remind us that He has spared us what we deserve. Each disaster serves as another of His calls to cling to His mercy and to repent so that we might be saved from the eternal wrath to come. Every tragedy reminds us that God is being gracious to give us one more chance before the great day of His wrath to get right with Him—to put our spiritual house in order—to turn from serving ourselves to serving God—to turn from seeking our comfort and peace in the kingdom of this world to seeking it in Him. Every disaster is also a reminder that the day of grace will one day be over, giving us another opportunity to ask ourselves, "Am I ready to meet the Lord, my Eternal Judge?"
Accordingly, now is the time of grace to look at the world's greatest tragedy, Jesus' cross, and to repent. There we see our redemption from sin, death, and all evil, as well as our judgment having already been meted out on Him for us. Now is also a time of grace to look to Jesus' open tomb and find solace in the fact that the Risen One is alive and present in His Word and Sacrament to bring us forgiveness in the face of God's righteous judgment and the eternal life laid up for us in Jesus Christ; a life that is ours even in the midst of all the death we see around us. Thanks to God for these moments of grace! Amen.