One of you remarked to me last Sunday that Lent is hard. That is true. The season of Lent confronts us with hard facts. And we don’t always find it very comforting to be in conversation with those hard facts. We tend to avoid it.
Nevertheless, last time we talked about our resistance to the good. We human beings don’t choose what is good for us, but actively resist it. What we need most, we reject. Jesus anticipated his arrival at the holy city Jerusalem, where he was going to assume the throne of his father David. But the city was later to reject him, not realizing that she was thereby resisting her own good.
This time we have to confront another one of those hard facts, probably the hardest one when it comes to our relationship with God. That fact can be expressed in the form of a question: Why do bad things happen to those who seem to be least deserving?
Last Tuesday night there was a van outside of Midland, Texas, transporting members of a golf team. They were students at the University of the South West, a small private Christian college in New Mexico. The coach was bringing the students back after a meet at Midland College. Then, without warning a pickup truck veered across the center line and collided with the van head on. Both vehicles caught fire and burned. The two people in the pickup were killed. In the van, six students and their coach were also killed. Most of the students were underclassman, between 18 and 21 years old, experiencing life away from home for the first time at college. They had their whole lives ahead of them. In an instant, all their hopes and dreams were extinguished. It is a very distressing thing to us.
In our gospel lesson for today, there are people around Jesus. They too are distressed by an event that has happened and they are troubled by unspoken questions about God to which such an event gives rise. They tell him about some Galileans who were standing at the altar, worshipping in God’s presence, when some godless Roman soldiers fell upon them and turned the worshippers themselves into hideous sacrifices.
In many other places in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches about the confidence we may and should have in God’s care and provision, in spite of all our anxiety and mistrust. But here people are telling Jesus about an event that seemingly contradicts this teaching. How can the God about whom Jesus teaches, whom he calls us to love and trust, permit such things?
We cannot bear the senseless for very long. Our minds cannot rest with it. We have this inborn need to make sense of things. We are compelled to ask the “why?” question.
Jesus’ response to those distressed by this horrific event implies how the people tried to answer it. Their thought process runs something like this: God is just. God must have his reasons for allowing this tragedy to happen to those worshippers. He knows the secret faults hidden deep in our hearts. He must have seen those faults in the hearts of those worshippers and punished them accordingly.
This conclusion answers the “why?” question, but at what cost?
Author Eugen Drewermann points out that Jesus rightly sees how inhumane such a response would be. He writes: “It balances accounts between God and human beings at the expense of mercy. And in the end what happens is that the misfortunate have the shame of moral judgment added to whatever else they have suffered senselessly.”
Author Alain de Botton, founder of the School of Life, remarks that one of the fastest ways to turn into a monster is to believe that the world might be fair.
“If it’s fair, then there’s no need to think [sympathetically] about [those who suffer]. They entirely deserve their fate and damnation. Nor is there any need to be skeptical about what the moral authorities say. The established value system is obviously right—and need only to be followed without question.”
Botton continues: “But the moment … that the world [appears], in fact, hideously random and unfair, that judgments can be [wrong], that rewards don’t [necessarily go to those who deserve them], then everything becomes more complicated—and kinder too. Suddenly, the [sufferer] deserves your sympathy and the [moral] authorities might deserve your skepticism. Good people can end up in trouble. Sinners can be worthy of another chance. The [humane person] is ready to extend mercy, because they know the absurdity and cruelty of the conditions to which anyone of us at any time might be subject.”
Jesus is on the side of mercy. He refuses to answer the “why?” question in the terms suggested to him. In fact, he further complicates the issue by reminding them of another tragedy. There was a tower at Siloam that collapsed and killed eighteen people. The implied explanation is the same: somehow these people were more guilty than others.
But it’s impossible to make this judgment. And we certainly cannot make it on the basis of the distinction between those who fall victim to tragic events and those who escape them. It’s just not that simple.
But where does that leave us? How does Jesus want us to live before the face of God in a world like ours?
The great psychoanalyst Bernard Brandschaft writes about one of his patients named William. In the course of their sessions together, William told Brandschaft about his fears at night, his lifelong insomnia, and the tormenting dread that preoccupies him as he lies in his bed, trembling in the dark.
Whenever Williams hears the sound of thunder, he immediately jumps out of his bed and goes to the couch in the center of his living room, the most inaccessible place for lightning to strike. Thunder, he learned, travels at the rate of 1000 feet per second, whereas light travels almost instantaneously. So if there is lightning, followed by thunder, the number of seconds of the interval will tell him how far or near the danger lurks.
It’s the crescendo of the thunder as it rolls to its final crash that frightens him and then the anticipation of the next bolt of lightning—the one that is waiting to strike him dead.
William became an expert meteorologist and analyst of cloud formations. Whenever he is outside, he’s endlessly scanning the skies for a sign of a developing cloud formation. He even moved to a cloudless state in the desert Southwest, where he determined there’s the least likelihood of a lightning storm.
William lives his life in a constant state of fear. Or rather, it’s probably more right to say that his constant state of fear does not permit him to live his life. He lacks the confidence, the courage and the freedom to choose a course for his own life.
That is not how God wants us to live. We may be entirely sympathetic with William’s behavior in a world like ours. Indeed, our own behavior, if not to such an exaggerated degree, may have been like his, at one time or another. But God does not want us to live in fear. And because of Jesus, we no longer have to live in fear. He shared in our humanity so that by his death he might…free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb. 2:14,15). That is ultimately why Jesus can appeal to our agency. To paraphrase him: “The only conclusion that you can draw from those tragedies is that your life has an expiration date. You don’t know when that will be. But you do have the present moment, in which you can act. So act!”
So Jesus does not answer the “why?” question. Bible student Chelsea Harmon tells us that the Bible seldom, if ever, does. Instead, in God’s wisdom, it instructs us to turn our eyes and our hearts elsewhere.
Sometimes, as in Job or in Lamentations, it instructs us to turn our eyes upwards, towards God. Sometimes, as in the case of Jonah, God turns our eyes outwards, towards others. And at still other times, like in our Gospel lesson today, it has us turn our attention inward, upon ourselves.
The word that Jesus uses for this turn inward is “repent.” In the original language, it’s an interesting word that means literally “to change one’s mind.” That suggests that the first step in repentance is self-reflection.
We all need to do this from time to time. (Indeed, Lent is an opportune time to do so, since self-reflection is one of the spiritual disciplines emphasized during this season.) In any event, we all need to pause occasionally and ask ourselves about the direction in which our lives are going. Are the choices we are making leading us farther from God or closer to God?
Evidently, it’s easy for us to be led astray: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 16:12). “Small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few find it” (Matt. 7:14).
Our first lesson is really one extended call to repent. “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts” (Isa. 55:7).
Again, repenting involves the mind first, as we have already pointed out. The Apostle Paul calls the Christians in Rome to repent in these words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2). When we repent, we get a whole new perspective. We can see where we need to go. We can make a course correction and begin moving in the right direction.
God’s desire is that we move in the direction towards him for life. “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, and you will live,” God calls through the prophet (Isa. 55:3-7). We don’t have words to describe life with God directly. We have to use images. The Bible often pictures life with the God under the image of feasting, of eating and drinking. Again, through the mouth of the prophet God calls: “Let everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. And you who have no money, come buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1).
The deepest desire of the human heart is expressed as a thirst that yearns to be quenched. “My soul thirsts for you, as in a dry and weary land, where there is no water,” as we heard in our call to worship this morning. Indeed, author and theologian Liam Bergin reminds us that so many facets of human blessedness or happiness, are portrayed under the image of water: peace is like a river; contentment a stream; tranquility a pond; wisdom a wellspring; longing a thirst; beauty is like a fountain; mystery a deep pool. No wonder that the poet Philip Larkin remarked “If I were called on to invent a religion, I should make use of water.”
But the feast doesn’t end with water. Life with God is like a table laden with the choicest foods and the finest wines. The feast is an image of abundance. It impresses on us that this is God’s desire for his people. Jesus announces in the Gospel of John that he came to give them life more abundantly (John 10:10).
There is an urgency in this call to move in the direction towards God for life. The prophet urges: “Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call upon him while he is near” (Isa. 55:6). And yet God is patient.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable. It is about a fig tree that is not producing figs. Put otherwise, it is not manifesting that abundance. Its owner wants to cut it down. But the gardener intervenes. He pleads on behalf of the tree. He will fertilize it in the hope that it will produce figs the following year. If it does not, then the owner can cut it down.
Lent invites us into conversation with hard facts, as we have seen. To be more exact, Lent focuses our attention on sin and death. But neither belongs in God’s good creation. The good news of the gospel is that in Jesus Christ God grants us the privilege of repentance. His desire is that we turn away from those things that displease him and do harm to us and turn towards him for life.
Let us not take this privilege in vain. Let us not test God’s patience by continuing in those things that displease him and harm us. But rather let us continue to live in communion with him, that we may have life and have it more abundantly. Amen.