Sermon Lent 3
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus talks about an age-old question today. It is an important question because people are still asking it. Do bad things happen to people because they are bad? Do bad things happen to us because of something bad we did?
In our story, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He is teaching the disciples and the crowds as he goes. They ask if he has heard the latest news. It seems Pontius Pilate has killed some Galileans and mingled their blood with their sacrifices. It was a horrible, evil, insulting, thing to do. He killed them and desecrated their bodies.
Jesus hears the story and he knows what they are going to ask him. “Were those people worse sinners than other people because they died such a horrible death?”
We may think we are more enlightened than the disciples and the crowd. We would never ask that question. Yet, we also, try to make sense of the world. We want to believe that justice prevails. We want to believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
If we believe that, it gives us a sense that we have some control over our lives. We want to have control. We want logical outcomes. We teach our children that certain behaviors lead to certain outcomes. Good behavior is rewarded. Bad behavior is punished. We want to be able to say, “What goes around, comes around.”
Many of us have sat with someone who was seriously ill and listened to that person wonder what they did to deserve cancer, or heart disease, or whatever they had. I know when I worked in the hospital, it was easier for the staff if we could explain the cause of someone’s illness or injury. Maybe they took drugs. Maybe they smoked for 50 years. Maybe they were drinking and driving. At least, we could understand it better.
Life isn’t that simple though. As Isaiah tells us, the Lord says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Life is complicated. There is no perfect correlation between what you do and what happens to you. Christians don’t believe in karma.
Here is how Jesus answers the question, “Do bad things happen to people because they are bad.”:
Tragedy is the result of sin. Sin causes tragedy.
But tragedy is not the punishment for sin.
Hear that again: Sin causes tragedy, but tragedy is not the punishment for sin.
Tragedy is the result of sin. What if the tower of Siloam fell because the contractor did a shoddy job? I am sure there could have been contractors in the first century who tried to maximize their profits by using cheaper products and cutting corners.
There are many kinds of bad behaviors that contribute to the tragedies in this world. But not every tragedy that befalls someone is the direct result of something they did.
The twin towers fell in New York City as a result of sin. People deliberately flew planes into them. Did the people who perished in that tragedy die because they were being punished for their sin? Jesus says no.
This also means that hurricanes and floods and droughts are not God’s punishment on America because of abortions and gay marriage. Children are not gunned down because we don’t have prayer in schools.
Global climate change is the result of sin. The people of this world have not been good stewards of the planet and its resources for many years. We have contributed to the problems we are having. Is God using the drought to punish us? Jesus says no.
Sin is the cause of mass shootings. There is no other word for mass murders. They are evil. Were those children in Sandy Hook or Columbine more naughty than the children in St. Paul? Of course not. God was not punishing them for anything they may have done by letting a murderer come into their school.
Were the people in the Aurora, CO theatre being punished by God? Or the Christmas shoppers in Westroads mall? Or every victim of a traffic accident? Of course not.
The shooters are not the only sinners though. We all need to look at the easy availability of guns, especially assault weapons, in our society. We need to look at ways we can help those with mental illness.
Jesus says that those who are struck with tragedy are no greater sinners than we are. That can be reassuring. We don’t want to blame the victims. But then, Jesus immediately tells us we all need to repent.
We think of repentance as saying we are sorry for something bad we did. But in this story, Jesus says that repentance is turning your life around and bearing fruit. It is an ongoing attitude, not an occasional event.
The fig tree in the vineyard was three years old. The man who planted it was getting impatient because the tree had no fruit. As it turns out, the man was being pretty hard on it. Fig trees don’t bear fruit until the third year and the tree was only three years old.
It wasn’t like it should have born fruit the year he planted it. It should have born fruit this year, though. We are like that man and like that tree. We can get impatient with ourselves and each other, too. We like to see immediate results when we start a project.
Jesus, the gardener, wants to give the tree more time. He wants to dig around it so it can use the water better. He want to give it some fertilizer. Jesus loves the garden. He doesn’t expect the tree to bear fruit all on its own. He will be there and help it and care for it.
It turns out that bearing fruit is harder than we thought. We don’t always like our roots disturbed and we sure don’t like it when someone dumps a pile of fertilizer on us.
It is hard to see that sometimes being disturbed and feeling dumped on can be an act of God’s grace. It is not a tragedy and it is not punishment for sin. Sometimes it is exactly what we need to bear the fruits of faith, mercy, and compassion.
Jesus says tragedy is the result of sin. But tragedy is not the punishment for sin. The loss of God’s love is not a consequence for sin. The gardener gives the fig tree love and attention and care to help it bear fruit.
Jesus himself is the proof that people do not always deserve what they get. He is on the road to Jerusalem when he tells us this story. He is the one who does not need to repent, and yet tragedy awaits him in Jerusalem.
That tragedy of the cross reminds us that God’s love is greater than any tragedy that befalls us. It reminds us that God turns the greatest evil into the greatest good, the salvation of the world. Amen.