Today’s blog is actually the sermon I delivered today, March 3, 2013, at Wallace UMC. Enjoy!
13At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then 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. 7So 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?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
The news is a terrifying thing about 100% of the time. I can’t think of a single time I’ve watched the news that I’ve felt better for it, or happier for it, or like a better person for it. Oh, yes, I may be better informed, and I may know more about the world around me, or the issues that face me, or my community, or my country, or this world, but being better informed does not make me inherently a better person, nor does it ever really make me any happier. Especially since the news that I find myself watching always seems to be bad news.
The local news is the worst though. I swear, almost every time I watch it, there’s one of maybe 3 things that leads the newscast: someone’s house burned down, someone or several people have been murdered, or there was a horrible car accident that injured or killed several people. Every. Single. Night. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t stand to watch it at all anymore. It’s not because I don’t care about our community. I do. That’s precisely the point. I care a great deal about our community, and the cities that surround us, and the people that live here… I can’t handle watching the news about it at all. It’s too heartbreaking. It’s too painful for me to endure a constant barrage of sadness, despair, pain and death right before I head to bed every night.
They say that there is a media bias, and I would agree, but not the way most people would think. It’s not a political bias, despite popular belief. It’s a bias towards sensationalism. The old saying is as true as ever: If it bleeds, it leads. What I just described to you about what I see every night I would watch the news is just the purest example of it. Then again, you could say that about almost everything that happens in the news, violent or not. The more sensational, the more controversial, the more outraging, the more chance it has of being on the news. However, that’s entirely the point. The more sensational it is, the more chance it has of getting people to watch it, and therefore the more chance it has of getting people hooked on the story to find out more and more about it. Thus, a conversation is born, and as the conversation gets more and more heated (and more repetitive, as I’ve discovered), the more people get sucked into the fear vortex that ensnares us.
But there’s a funny thing about fear. Fear leads to all kinds of different reactions, doesn’t it? Fear leads to hate, and anger; sadness, and paralysis; frustration, and panic. It seems though that it’s the things that make us afraid that make us even more want to find something to blame. We want to blame things on somebody, and in the absence of any visible or tangible thing to blame it on, we want to blame God. Thus, we fall into the worst theological trap, the never-ending atheist-making game show that I like to call, “Where is God?”
Where was God during the Holocaust? Where was God in Vietnam? Where was God in Afghanistan or Iraq? Where was God in Columbine High School, or Sandy Hook? Where was God during Hurricane Katrina? Where was God when the towers fell? Where was God? These are just the public versions of the game. There’s also a home version, that’s far more terrifying. Where was God when my Mother died? Where was God when my child died? Where was God when I got that illness that made it impossible for me to have children? Where was God when I lost my job, my house, my car, my pension fund? Where was God when I was raped? Where was God when I or my loved one was assaulted, or murdered? Where was God when my husband left me? Where is God when my children won’t speak to me?
Where was God when I lost my hope?
We ask these questions because we crave an answer for them. We crave certainty, security, and a black and white answer to the questions that make life miserable. There is so much wrong in this world that we want nothing more than for something to blame, for someone to be mad at, for something to do about all the horrible things in the world. The truth is, this is something that we’ve always wanted. We’ve always wanted these answers. But these are not the answers that we are given.
This passage from Luke is an especially troubling one—which is strange. Luke is, without a doubt, probably one of the least troubling of the four gospels. Where in Mark we see a strange and terrifying God man, and in Matthew we see Jesus giving us warnings of doom and judgment, and in John we see a repeated insistence on the truth of Jesus as God, in Luke we don’t often get that. Luke is a far more uplifting gospel. It’s filled with feasts, Jesus healing others, teaching us to love one another, inviting us all to come to the table of the Lord, and ultimately hope, this passage sticks out like a sore thumb.
This passage, where the people come to him asking hard questions about current events, demanding answers for the state of the world, does not come across like a lot of the other passages in Luke. This one is a far more stark answer, on the surface. Far grittier. Far more real. But though on the surface there may not be a great deal of uplifting hope, the truth of that hope shines through, for those who choose to see it.
You see, the people are asking about a certain event that had happened recently. When they talk about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, they are talking about something that had recently happened in the Jewish community. Apparently, there was a group of Galilean pilgrims who had come to worship at the temple. At some point there was some kind of incident where Romans had killed the Galileans on pilgrimage. Thus, they blamed Pilate, and said that he mingled the Galilean blood with the blood of the animals they were sacrificing at the temple.
This is, as you could probably guess, a major controversy at their time. It would be equivalent to someone setting off a bomb in a church, shooting up a school, or something like that. Something that they thought was sacred or bulletproof—in this case the temple—was proven not to be so.
So the people were upset, and frightened, and angry. They came to Jesus to see what he had to say about the problem—he’s a religious man, he might have some good insight as to the problem. So they would come up to him, like any reporter, and say “Jesus! Jesus! Would you care to comment on the recent events where Roman governor Pontius Pilate massacred the Galilean pilgrims at the temple? Do you think this is entirely Rome’s fault? Did the Galileans have some kind of guilt in this event? Can you comment?”
Jesus then, put on the spot, as he usually is, responds with a similarly pointed question, with an even more pointed purpose. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Whoa. Ok, Jesus. Where did that come from? Seems a bit harsh, eh? Why are you pointing at me? But that’s not all. Before he lets them get a word in, he rips out another headline and throws it at them with the same point, just to drive it home. “4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
You see, in these responses, the rips open the blindfold of our own thinking for us all to see. Our tendency, our blindfold, makes us want to put blame on something. We want to heap our anger on someone, make a scapegoat, and in the case that none of those are available, our next jump is to blame God. God made it happen. And that’s a just bad theology.
While God’s ways are not ours, not everything bad that happens in this world is God’s fault because “that’s just God’s plan.” God has plans, this is true—but tragedy is never God’s plan for us. God wants us to have life. God wants us to be God’s children. But God’s will is not always done. That’s why we pray for God’s will to be done in the Lord’s prayer. God has plans. Tragedy isn’t one of them.
Instead of us focusing on who to blame though, Jesus turns the question on to us, and reveals a hard truth for us. The truth is, everyone dies. It may very well have been that we would be one of those that died at the temple, or died in the tower of Siloam—and there really isn’t anything that we could do about it. Bad things happen. Not everything has an answer. Job didn’t get an answer for why all the bad things happened to him, and neither do we. Every life has an end, and that’s simply the way life works. Each of us gets to live for only a season. What Jesus is getting to in this passage is that what’s important is what we do with the time that is given to us.
To illustrate, he gives us this little parable of a fig tree that won’t make fruit, and an owner that is angry at it. The owner, as any good gardener, is thinking practically. The tree won’t produce, and hasn’t produced for three years. Therefore the tree is taking up space. Why not cut it down, and plant a new one. Meanwhile the gardener intervenes and says “Wait just a moment. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. This tree may not have produced anything yet, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t ever produce anything. In any case, if you cut it down, you’ll have to wait even longer for a new tree to produce anything. Let’s give this tree one more chance. It might do better with some fresh soil, some good care, and a little more time. If it still doesn’t produce anything, then yeah, let’s cut it down. But let’s give it a chance.”
Why does Jesus tell us this after telling us to repent? Because he wants to illustrate a pivotal piece of information about the character of God. God is merciful. In this scenario, God is the gardener. God knows us better than we do, and while we may not have produced fruit all the time—or ever—that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. God has hope in us. God loves us and knows that we have the capacity to change. Therefore, God has given us time to repent. God has given us all a season—that’s the season of Lent—to repent, to turn back towards God. Not only that, we’ve also gotten more time to bear fruit, fruit worthy of our repentance.
That’s the point of all of this. Jesus is telling us that we still have time. We still have a season to repent. Is it tragic that these people died? Of course it is. But we shouldn’t be so quick search for a scapegoat, or someone to blame, or even to point the finger at God for allowing them to happen. God didn’t go anywhere. If you think that God has left us because bad things happen, you have it all backwards. Because bad things happen, God won’t abandon us. However, because bad things happen, God gives us opportunities to repent, and to make the world a better place.
Because people suffer, we can be the people suffering people turn to for comfort. When Jesus gave the beatitudes, he had us in mind. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be given mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be the children of God. God has given us a season to be these people. WE can be the comforters. WE can be the merciful. WE can be the peacemakers. When someone is suffering, we can be present to them. When someone is in the midst of tragedy, we can be the ones they turn to.
We have been given hope so that we might give hope to others. In the midst of tragedy, God can shine through. God has not abandoned us, as long as we can be the children of God for others. The point of the fig tree story is to say that we have a season now to do these things. That said, we don’t have infinite time. There is a time limit. Don’t wait for next season to bear fruit. Don’t be caught off guard. We have had warning! But just because we have had warning does not mean we should fear. We have nothing to fear. God is with us, and God will see us through this season, and every season. God is faithful. Let us, in turn, have faith in God. Amen.