March 19, 1995

AVOIDING DISASTER

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish (Luke 13:2-3).

We interrupt this program for the latest on two major stories:  a worship service becomes a bloodbath, and the death toll in a collapsed building reaches eighteen. (Insight theme?)

A number of people who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s temple mount from their home district of Galilee are now dead.  Many details are still unclear, but what we know so far is this:  government troops stormed the temple area, killing a number of the pilgrims right while they were worshipping.  We still don’t know what sparked the massacre.  Some observers speculate that the worshipers were part of a political conspiracy, but others blame the government, which has a disturbing history of strong-arm tactics.  It could be that the Galileans were the victims of a hideous mistake, and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the government decided to flex its muscles.  So we’re still not clear about the cause of the massacre;  and we still don’t know the exact number of dead.  In fact, it looks like we may never know.  Security remains very tight, and government spokesmen aren’t answering any questions.

In other news, eighteen people are confirmed dead following the collapse of a large building in a neighborhood in the southeast section of Jerusalem.  Rescue personnel have been working around the clock for the past few days, sorting through the rubble of a fallen building known as the Siloam Tower.  A number of survivors have been found, with some amazing stories to tell, but others weren’t so fortunate.  Rescue efforts are now complete, and the final death count has been fixed at eighteen.

In the wake of these two tragedies, a lot of people are asking “Why?”  Some who were at the temple mount an hour before the massacre shake their heads when they think of what might have happened if they had been there just an hour later, when the soldiers struck.  And shaken survivors of the building collapse can’t help wondering why they’re still alive when so many others perished.  As news of all this spreads, even those who weren’t directly affected are looking for answers.  And that’s the news.  Now, back to our regular programming. (Insight theme)

The news report you’ve just heard is about events that happened almost 2,000 years ago.  But it’s not much different from today’s news, is it?  We hear about brutal massacres, we hear about various disasters and tragedies, and we still find ourselves asking hard questions.  If you believe in God, you wonder:  Why is it that God spares one person and destroys another?  Do these disasters “just happen”?  Were the victims under a special curse because of something they did, so that God singled them out for death?  Or is there some other explanation?

Why have so many people been massacred in Bosnia or Chechnya, in Somalia or Rwanda?  Why do so many people get killed in certain areas of our cities?  Is it because these people are so much worse and less civilized than we are?  Or are they just in the wrong place at the wrong time?  And what about those who are dying of AIDS?  Are they being struck down by a special judgment from God?  Is God singling them out because he finds them more disgusting than the rest of us?  Or does it have nothing to do with God?  Are they just innocent victims who need more sympathy from us and more money from the government?

I’d like to suggest that before we decide how to respond to the tragedies of today, we first look at how Jesus responded to the tragedies of his day.  The Bible tells how Jesus was speaking about how to live and be ready to face God’s judgment, when some people in the crowd brought the latest news to his attention, wanting him to comment.  Pontius Pilate, the governor, had sent soldiers into the temple area and killed some Galileans, mixing their blood with blood from the animals they were sacrificing.  Apparently, the people who told Jesus were convinced that God was judging these Galileans.  They had to be pretty bad people–didn’t they?–if God let them get slaughtered, and especially if it happened right in the temple in such a horrible way.

How did Jesus respond?  He answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

As I hear those words from Luke 13, I can almost hear Jesus saying to us:  “Do you think the victims of war and gang violence are worse than other sinners?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those who are dying of AIDS–do you think they are more guilty than everybody else?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

When something awful happens to somebody else, we tend to  handle it in one of two ways.  We either think of them as innocent victims of a random, senseless tragedy, or we think of them as especially evil or foolish people whose conduct made them especially ripe for disaster.  We either lament how unfair and senseless the world can be, or we think it’s absolutely fair that we survive while others perish, because they’re morally inferior.

Jesus takes neither approach.  He makes no effort to show that the victims of tragedy didn’t deserve to die and that their deaths were just senseless accidents.  But at the same time, he insists that their tragic end doesn’t prove that they were worse people than those who are still alive and healthy.

Jesus doesn’t say the massacred Galileans weren’t sinners.  He just says they weren’t any more sinful than anybody else.  Jesus doesn’t say the people crushed in the fallen tower weren’t guilty of anything.  He just says they weren’t any more guilty than anyone else.  He doesn’t say none of these people deserved to die.  He just says they didn’t deserve death any more than the rest of us.  To put it another way, we all live under the sentence of death, because we’re all under the curse of sin.  So any time we hear that tragedy and death have struck others, it’s a reminder that we need to repent before it’s too late.

In the season of Lent, and every other time, you and I need to hear Jesus’ call to repent.  We need to know how serious our sin is, and how it angers God.  In the Bible, the Lord commands us to repent with the fearsome warning, “The Lord will judge his people.  It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:30-31).  But the Lord doesn’t just give us a fierce command to repent because of his wrath.  He gives us a tender invitation to repent because of his love.  The hands of an angry God can crush us at any moment, but those very same hands have been pierced with nails to rescue us from his wrath and open the way to repentance and new life.  Singer Steve Camp puts it this way:

God looks at your heart, that dark and weary place

The times you’ve mocked His mercy and trampled on his grace.

So should you be surprised or should you find it odd

To see yourselves as sinners in the hands of an angry God?

You’ve built rotten bridges of man-made righteousness

Suspended over flames of hell, an endless second death.

You think that you are safe, the truth is you are not.

Now you face your doom in the hands of an angry God.

But the hands of an angry God were pierced and bleeding

As he embraced all heaven’s wrath upon the cross.

And the hands of an angry God still reach out pleading

For he came to seek and save that which was lost.

Jesus calls us to repent or perish.  I know this sounds harsh to some of you, but it’s not nearly as harsh as it could be.  If Jesus really wanted to be harsh, he wouldn’t say “Repent or perish.”  He’d just say, “Perish.”  The Lord could reject every one of us sinners without a moment’s notice, but instead he suffered rejection on our behalf.  Instead of just telling us to go to hell he suffered hell for us when he hung on the cross.  So when Jesus says “Repent or perish,” he’s not being harsh with us.  He’s being harsh with himself.  The only reason he’s able to call us to repent and start over, is that he decided to pay the price of sin for us.  Without that, we wouldn’t even have a chance to repent.  If we still insist on rejecting him, if we despise his pierced and bleeding hands–only then will we be crushed by the fierce power of those hands.

So let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ striking reaction when he heard news of the latest tragedies.  He said, “Do you think these people were worse sinners than all the others because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

I don’t suppose that answer made anybody very happy.  If the people in that crowd were anything like us, some of them wanted to chalk these disasters up to bad luck and the unfairness of death, while others wanted to blame the victims.  But Jesus took an entirely different approach.  He forced people to think about their own sin and their own impending death.  And if there are two things we’d rather not think about, it’s our own sin and our own death.  If we must think about them, we’d rather not think there’s a connection between them.

There’s a bit of comfort in thinking that death is unfair and random and that nobody’s really to blame.  That way, if we are forced to think about our own death, we can comfort ourselves that even if we have to die, we don’t really deserve it.  There’s also a strange comfort in taking the opposite approach, and saying that the victims of tragedy are being singled out by God.  That way, we can tell ourselves that the fact that they’re dead while we’re still alive is proof of our moral superiority and favor with God.

Think again of AIDS.  Some people are quick to say that this is God’s specially targeted judgment on gays.  And it’s an undeniable fact that gay sex has been the biggest factor in the spread of AIDS in Canada and the United States.  But look at it another way.  What about those who got AIDS through tainted blood transfusions?  Are they proof that Jehovah’s Witnesses are right in saying that blood transfusions are sinful?

For those of us who aren’t gay, it’s convenient to act like homosexuality is worse than all other sins.  After all, only 2 or 3 percent of the population are gay.  Most of us feel very little temptation to engage in that particular kind of sin, and that gives us an excuse to congratulate ourselves on being better.

Think of the uproar in America over gays in the military.  I believe on the basis of the Bible that gay behavior is sinful, and I can see from a practical point of view that self-proclaimed gays in a military unit could lead to problems and a lack of cohesiveness in that unit.  But during the controversy over gays in the military, a great many people talked like gay people should be banned because they’re so much more immoral than other soldiers.  But if the other soldiers are all so moral, then why has the military passed out so many condoms and given so much advice on safe sex for so many decades?  And why are prostitutes found wherever a military unit is found?

From a strictly moral point of view, adulterers and fornicators in the military are no better than gays.  In fact, if we want to start ranking what sins are the most serious, we’ll find that heterosexual sin causes more problems in our society than homosexual sin.  Where do unwanted, mistreated children come from?  Not from gay sex, but from adultery and fornication.  And then there’s the whole problem of divorce, which shatters families and hurts children.

So if gays in the military are such a threat to a nation’s moral fiber, why don’t we seem very concerned about all the divorced people and adulterers who hold positions of great power? For example, America’s new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, is on his second marriage.  America’s most powerful pundit of traditional values, Rush Limbaugh, is on his third marriage.  But that’s fine with a lot of people, as long as we don’t let those dirty, rotten gays ruin our wonderful country!

Now, again, I think homosexuality is wrong, I think having self-professed gays in the military isn’t a good idea, and I don’t want to run down Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich–they have some significant ideas that need to be taken seriously.  Also, I’m not saying divorced people are more corrupt than other sinners.  All I’m saying is that our moral crusades aren’t very consistent, and that we don’t have much right to feel smug about gays who come down with AIDS.

A lot of us who aren’t gay may have had sex outside marriage or have been divorced or else had family members who are divorced.  We may not be very proud of all this, but at the same time, we’d like to think that things could be worse.  At least we’re not gay!  It’s comforting to think that it is they, and not we, who are are ruining the nation.  It’s comforting to think that it’s they, and not we, who deserve to be excluded from important positions.  It’s comforting to think that it is they, and not we, who deserve to die of AIDS.

At this point, I suspect that a lot of you, maybe even most of you, are upset with me.  Some of you don’t like hearing me say that gay behavior is sinful, and you figure I’m a right-wing homophobe.  Others are upset for the opposite reason:  you don’t like hearing that your political heroes and you yourself are just as sinful as the sinners you despise, and you figure I must be a left-wing bleeding heart.

Well, let’s forget the political labels, and let me just say that whatever your reason for being upset with me, you’re at least beginning to get a sense of how Jesus’ hearers must have felt when he said, “Do you think these people were worse sinners than all the others because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Jesus refuses to say that death has nothing to do with sin, and at the same time he refuses to say that those who are already dead are any more deserving of his curse than those who are still living.

If we could get AIDS for divorce, or gossip, or lying, or swearing, or greed, or drunkenness, or cheating, or losing our temper, how many of us would still be alive?  Nobody.  But take it a step further.  Even if we aren’t dying of AIDS, the time is coming when we are going to die, and it won’t be just because the world is unfair or death is so cruel.  It will be because you and I are sinners, and the wages of sin is death–for us just as it is for everybody else.

So it won’t do to point fingers at gays or divorced people or others who happen to sin in ways that we haven’t, or to insist that they deserve suffering or death more than we do.  We all have our own particular sins and hangups.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

When Jesus spoke about the highly publicized tragedies of his time, and when we apply his words to the public tragedies of our own time, he doesn’t let the victims off the hook so much as he puts us on the hook.  We tend to ask, “Why did these people have to die?” when we should be asking, “What gives me the right to go on living?”  If you’re still alive it’s not because your death has been cancelled.  It’s only been postponed to a later date.  It’s often impossible to trace a particular tragedy to a particular sin, but it remains true that we are under the curse of death because we’re sinners.  We’re not just victims of the sin and brokenness.  We’re participants.

When tragedy strikes someone else, we should feel sympathy for them as fellow sinners and fellow sufferers.  And if we start looking for an object lesson in their tragedy, Jesus insists that we apply the lesson to ourselves rather than others.  Don’t think they’re worse sinners than you are.  Just repent before you face your own death.  Repent before you yourself perish forever.

Jesus drove this message home to his hearers with a story.  He told them this parable:  “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any.  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any.  Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine!  If not, then cut it down.'”

That’s where Jesus stops the story.  He doesn’t say whether the tree turned over a new leaf and started bearing fruit, or whether it ended up being cut down and destroyed.  Jesus doesn’t tell the end of the story.  He wants you to ask yourself how you want the story to end.  Are you going to bear the fruit of repentance that God is looking for?  Or are you going to just keep taking up space until God casts you away forever?  Those are the two possibilities.  How is your story going to end?

“Repent or perish” is not the taunt of a cruel and vicious God.  It is the call of a patient and loving God who isn’t eager to see anyone perish.  His perfect holiness gives him every right to destroy sinners without another moment’s delay, but his love says, “Just one more year.  Just a little more time.  This worthless tree may yet become something good.”

What are you going to do with the extra time God is giving you?  How are you responding to Jesus’ call?  Every tragedy in the news, every name in the obituaries, is one more reminder that God’s clock is ticking for all of us.  Jesus hasn’t yet returned, and death hasn’t yet ended your life.  That means God is still giving you time to repent.  “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).

We all have a date with death, but thanks to Jesus, our date with death doesn’t have to be a date with destruction.  If you repent of your sins and believe that Jesus paid for your sins with his blood, your guilt will be cancelled.   If you give up your old ways, and give in to God’s new way in Jesus Christ, you will live forever, even if you have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death.  The way to forgiveness and new life is open, if only you repent.  So turn from your sin and entrust your life to Jesus.

There are going to be horrifying headlines and tragedies in the news until the end of time.  So weep with those who weep, and then let the death of others alert you to the urgency of your own state of affair.  Instead of complaining that death is so unfair, or passing judgment on those who are cut down by death, make sure you let the reality of death sink in, and let Jesus apply the lesson to you personally.  Don’t think that these people were more guilty than anyone else, including you.  Unless you repent, you will perish in your sins.

It’s a tough message to hear.  But if by God’s grace you hear it and heed it, you will know the peace of forgiveness and the joy of living a new life of service to God.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, thank you for calling us to repentance.  You could have simply let us perish in our sin.  But instead you became one of us to bear the curse of our sin for us.  And you continue to call us, urgently and patiently, to repent and find life in you.  Thank you for your amazing grace.

And now, dear God, send your Holy Spirit to shatter our complacency, our self-righteousness, and every other attitude that hardens us against your call.  Show us our sin, and then draw us into the wonder of your salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.